Water is a scarce and precious resource. It's also right up there with sunlight as one of the most important inputs that your garden plants need to thrive. With temperatures reaching unprecedented extremes this season and the heat spreading to regions that are not accustomed to these highs, having access to usable or potable water is a lifeline for greens, pets, and humans alike. Choosing and controlling your water source is crucial for long term garden health.
1. Not Bothering
Regardless of where you live, the size of your garden, or how difficult water is to come by rainwater is a one of a kind gift from the skies. In addition to the small ecological impact conserving tap water has, rainwater also has unique properties that make it specifically suited for plants and lawns in need. Different pH levels, high carbon content, and rainwater's status as a soft water without minerals or additives like chlorine or fluoride means that your plants will absorb a special cocktail of nutrients when you water from the sky and not the hose.
Note: This is not universally the case. In areas with high pollutants in the air, rainwater passing through and collecting those as it falls to the Earth can lead to excess carbon. Excess rain can also strip ground soil of fertility so assess your needs carefully.
Even for properties with small scale properties and areas that don't experience much rainfall, taking the time to properly collect as much as possible can be a game changer. Death Valley, California is one of the driest areas in the country experiencing an average annual rainfall of less than 3 inches in an entire year. However, using a nifty online calculator for rain catchment and factoring in the dimensions of a modest residential roof of 1,400 square feet, one finds that surprisingly even in one of the hottest places on Earth that roof will touch, redirect, and spill over 2,000 gallons across the year. Storing all, or even a fraction of that can prove a life or death resource for the family and plants. Couple that stored rainwater with a sensible drip irrigation system and plants adapted for the heat and even the desert can seem like an oasis.
2. Spending More for Less
Rainwater collection is probably one of the easiest, low tech garden techniques that a beginner gardener or expert grower can dip their toes into as nature and gravity do most of the work. All we have to do is make sure there's something there to catch the bounty.
Depending on the size of your yard, balcony, or whatever you're working with there's no need to break the bank on fancy filters, pumps, or tanks. But if you do go the DIY route and make your own rain barrels, don't be afraid to go bigger. Saving money on materials for your collection vessel means that you can potentially make that vessel larger. Depending on the frequency and intensity of a region's rainfall, the low cost trash barrel and house gutter setup can be just what you need or you might find yourself filling the barrels to capacity within the first 10 minutes of a drizzle.
Especially if the plan is to use harvested rain exclusively in the garden, as opposed to human consumption, large ponds, above ground pools, or even a derelict hot tub can prove ideal. These vessels are sometimes harder to cover or keep free from insects and other infestation, but plants aren't as picky as people so having the ability to catch and store grade A garden Gatorade in bigger quantities pays dividends.
Tip: Size your setup appropriately for the space you have and be aware that some municipalities in various states have specific rules in place for how one can legally keep rainwater at home as to avoid the spread of disease from unsafe methods.
Get a rain barrel mesh here to keep your water catchment system clean.
Chemical Contamination from Roof
Some roofing materials can contain toxic chemicals which can leach into any rain that's collected from a roof. In the case of a small scale collection setup like a small shed roof, aim to source cleaner materials, but if you're trying to use a whole home roof to catch rainwater, liners can work to divert water to barrels while also offering a physical barrier between the pristine rain droplets and any potentially harmful roofing slats.
3. Managing Pests and Algal Growth
Stagnant water is a magnet for bugs and wildlife both baneful and beneficial. For instance, helpful pollinators like butterflies or beetles making an appearance at the backyard watering hole can be a badge of honor and an indication you've created a truly inviting, diverse ecosystem with your landscaping. But short of an integrated pond, a more sterile setup like an open cistern, tub, or simple barrels are going to attract one giant menace in spades: mosquitoes.
Mosquito netting or covers are the easiest way to keep them from congregating in your stored water, but another problem with keeping stagnant water is algae growth. Black tarp or paint on rain barrels can help block the UV light algae needs to survive.
Find thick tarps specifically rated to block UV and stand up to outdoor conditions.
Mosquitoes Infesting Stored Drinking Water?
In the event that a mosquito scourge has swarmed your pond or barrel system, and the water is intended for human consumption there may still be hope. It's actually possible to kill off a backyard insect infestation in potable water.
Try a pest control option made from a natural bacterium which is harmful to mosquito larvae but otherwise safe for consumption in plants, pets, and people. These mosquito dunks are perfect for rain barrels but can also be added to any water feature like koi ponds, bird baths, or fountains.
4. Water Flow Comes Out Too Slow
Similar to many other garden gadgets, a horticulturists' hobbies can be fleeting, so it's important to make your rain barrels easy to access and use. If it's too much of a hassle to retrieve your stored water for use, most gardeners will opt for the path of least resistance and just use the hose which defeats the entire purpose of rainwater collecting.
One of the common mistakes with rain catchment is assuming your rainwater will flow from your DIY spigot just like tap water from the faucet. Without proper water pressure backing it up, you might have all the water in the world but if it's coming out at a trickle it won't be convenient to use.
Find a spigot that's sized for rain catchment here.
5. Not Ever Using Your Water In Storage
While it's true water is a precious resource, you can only save so much of it. At a certain point if new rainfall is to come and rain barrels are full the inability to catch new rain means you're wasting water.
Baths for pets, topping off a fountain, or an excuse to garden are all ways to put it to use. This gravity fed system can use your stored rain to give you 6-12 drinkable gallons a day.
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