My wife and I have a small water feature in our backyard. When we refill it in the spring, the garden hose gets the job done quickly, and then we give the water plenty of time to release gas before we add plants and animals. As the weather warms, however, evaporation requires that water be added from time to time. I do not use tap water, because its chlorine content could harm the resident fish, tadpoles, and other creatures. Although tap water can be made safe for aquatic organisms, I have taken a different approach.
I disliked the way that the original downspout on our garage directed rainwater from the roof directly into the alley and then into the nearest storm sewer (and from there straight into the nearest river, lake, or wetland with its accumulated burden of motor oil, grass clippings, sediment, and other urban detritus). It bothered me that rainwater was being treated as a waste rather than a resource. My solution to this problem and to the problem of refilling my pond was installing a rain barrel. Rain barrels now are available from many “green” garden merchandisers, but I decided to make my own.
Potatoes in a Barrel
From Resist Zine
I got my hands on four plastic 50-gallon barrels. I drilled drain holes in them, set them up on blocks and planted spuds in them. Here’s how:
Cut up potatoes that have started to sprout, leaving an eye or more on each piece. Dry these out for two days in a cool, dry room. Then plant them in a shallow layer of soil and compost in the bottom of the barrel. As the potatoes grow up, add more soil and compost. After they reach the top of the barrel, I plant a couple of bush beans in each barrel. The beans protect the potatoes against the Colorado potato beetle, and the potatoes protect the beans against the Mexican bean beetle. As soon as the potatoes flower, you can find little spuds in the soil. Then the whole plant dies back. Kick over the barrel for a bountiful harvest. I have two barrels of red potatoes, one of white russet, and one of Yukon gold.
I bought a 55-gallon plastic barrel from a business that handles used barrels (there are several in the Twin Cities area.) These barrels are used to store a wide variety of liquids from apple juice concentrate to laundry detergent and worse. I selected a food-grade barrel. Many barrels still have packing labels attached to them, which aids in determining the original contents. I also chose a barrel without a lid so that I could fashion my own cover.
The cover is a window screen held in place with a couple of bungee cords linked together. The cords fit tightly around the lip of the barrel. Once they were in place, I neatly trimmed the window screen with a pair of scissors. The cover is essential. It keeps debris and mosquitoes out. Mosquitoes will breed in the rain barrel if you do not install some kind of screen over the opening. After a rain, the screen typically displays a variety of materials washed off of the roof. Once the screen dries, the debris can simply be brushed off with a broom or one’s hands.
For dispensing water, I purchased an outdoor faucet and various fittings from a hardware store. Then, I made a hole in the barrel with an electric drill and gradually enlarged it using an exacto knife. I widened the opening just to the point where the threaded end of the faucet could be twisted through the hole. The faucet is sealed with a couple of rubber O-rings, one on the outside and one on the inside. The inside O-ring is pushed up tight against the interior of the barrel with the use of an electrical nut. It has not been necessary to caulk or otherwise seal the hole that the faucet fits through. The faucet is near the bottom of the barrel to maximize the amount of water that can be utilized, but the low clearance prohibits setting a watering can directly underneath it. To solve that problem, have a small length of garden hose that fits on the faucet. I use this hose to fill a watering can, which I then use to replenish our pond or to water our alley garden.
The barrel sits atop two circular concrete stepping stones 18 inches in diameter. The stones, in turn, rest on four inches of packed sand. The barrel sits almost flush with the ground, so it has low water pressure. Raising the elevation of the barrel would have increased the head, but I chose not to do so for two reasons. First, that would have increased the complexity of the project. Second, I wanted keep the barrel discretely tucked behind our fence. The original downspout that led from the garage roof to the alley was aluminum. I tried to reuse it, but I found it difficult to easily and neatly cut, refit, and redirect the aluminum downspout. I eventually purchased a plastic downspout, which I found very easy to cut and piece together. Altogether, I spent about $50 on the entire rain barrel project.
I encourage others to experiment with ways in which we can reduce the burden that stormwater runoff places on our urban lakes, rivers, and wetlands while simultaneously helping to make rainwater into the amenity it ought to be in our cityscapes. For more detailed information, I can be reached at email@example.com.