Water, Water Everywhere

By Margo D. Beller


005One inch of rain pouring off the average suburban house roof --  800 square feet -- means approximately 600 gallons of water, according to a fact sheet from the Rutgers University NJ Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick. That's enough water for your garden and your lawn twice over.

Wasting water leads to drought restrictions, usually during the hottest part of summer. So this year, instead of over-using the sprinkler or hose, why not consider a way of collecting at least some of that runoff each time it rains -- a rain barrel.

New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary held its third annual program on how to build your own rain barrel, and it is easy to see why this is a popular program.

Not only did those attending learn something about making their gardens more sustainable while saving water, but they were able to use shop skills many might not have realized they had to create a 55-gallon blue plastic rain barrel (donated by Ocean Spray) at a fraction of the cost of what you'll find at your local Do-It-Yourself store..

Alexandra Cavagrotti, Americorp Watershed Ambassador for the region encompassing the Passaic, Rockaway and Whippany rivers in northern New Jersey, said most homes shed water through gutters and leaders down nonporous surfaces such as driveways, where the water picks up lawn chemicals, car substances and other pollutants and runs into street drains and thus down to streams, rivers and, ultimately, the ocean.


Rain barrels are a good way of cutting down on some that polluted, wasted water, said Cavagrotti (seen at right).

Sherman Hoffman program director Stephanie Punnett said the sanctuary has two rain barrels.. "When you have 275 acres, water is problematic," she said. The rain barrels "have been a great help with our native planting" program, that includes removal of invasive, non-native plants throughout the sanctuary.

Plus, rain barrels are fun to make.

Certainly the people making their own were enthusiastically having fun using a drill to create a hole for a faucet and one for draining overflow, then caulking the faucet and putting mesh over the donated screen to keep mosquitoes out (standing water is prime mosquito breeding territory in summer).

One woman, who happened to be Cavagrotti's mother, was wielding the drill like a pro, with the barrel steadied by her husband (as you can see here).


"I've built whole houses," she told me when I asked if this was her first rain barrel. I can believe it.

"You get such a feeling of satisfaction" from wielding a drill, said another woman. (Having used a drill I know the feeling.)

For those not power tool-inclined, Cavagrotti and several other Ambassadors helped drill the holes. Americorp is a public service program supported by the U.S. federal government, foundations, corporations and other donors. These Ambassadors teach the importance of water to schools and at programs such as Scherman Hoffman's.

When they finished, everyone put their barrels into their pickups, SUVs or sedans (with a little shifting around of seating), to take them home and position them under a downspout (or not -- Scherman Hoffman's barrels are not connected to the roof, said Punnett, because all of the Hoffman Center’s downspouts are connected directly to a groundwater recharge system. The rain barrels are connected to two other buildings on the property.). The more creative can even decorate their barrels for use this summer.

And that's one thing to keep in mind if you want to buy or build your own rain barrel.

Once it's November, no matter how unusually mild the weather, unhook your rain barrel, use up the remaining water, clean the barrel out and store it inside. You don't want a barrel full of ice that might expand and damage your handiwork. According to Cavagrotti, it's best to use your rain barrel from April through October.

016Also, while rain water off a roof is all-natural it may not be all-edible. Some roofs are treated with chemicals to keep mold and moss off. Birds and squirrels have been known to leave their mess on roofs.

So while the water flowing from roof to rain barrel may be fine for your lawn or your flowers or even washing your car, don't put it on your vegetable garden or in your pet's water dish or into a bird bath.

You can get more information on rain barrels and wise water use from a number of online sources including the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program at www.water.rutgers.edu.  

If you don't want to buy or build a rain barrel, there are other ways of using water wisely in your garden this summer.

Use soaker hoses (available at most garden supply stores) that provide an even, small drip to the roots of plants. Install native plants that are accustomed to your area and can survive dry conditions. (Every year, in early June, Scherman Hoffman has a native plant sale.) Plant more trees -- they will not only provide shade from summer heat but they will suck up rain water that would otherwise go down the sewer drain.

Or create a "rain garden," using trees and native plants, that features a depression in the ground for pooling water. There are many websites on how to design a rain garden including that of the Rain Garden Alliance at http://raingardenalliance.org/planting.