Historically, harvested rainwater provided water for drinking, watering landscapes and for agricultural purposes.
Unwittingly, as I do most things in gardening, I came to realize that I have been a harvester of rainwater most of my life and didn’t know it. When I was growing up in the bootheel of Missouri, we collected rainwater to wash our hair. This summer I accidentally left a five gallon bucket under the eve of the house. We got one of our little showers and, low and behold, that bucket was full! I got the idea that I could put many buckets, waste baskets, garbage cans, etc under the eve and have water to water the garden. It works. In Arizona, where they have a drought all the time, rainwater harvesting is taken seriously. They have systems for purifying harvested rainwater for all uses. This summer has felt like an Arizona summer and if people there can thrive without rain, so can we. Historically, harvested rainwater provided water for drinking, watering landscapes and for agricultural purposes. Since the development of the centralized water supply systems, there has been no need to harvest water. However, the drought conditions we have experienced make water harvesting a practical solution. Many are now becoming reacquainted with water harvesting, using it to provide water for gardens and landscapes. It is an effective water conservation tool. A friend informed me that there was an article in the Mother Earth News about rainwater harvesting. I read it and thought many people in our area might be interested in collecting rain for watering gardens and lawns. According to Mother Earth News, collecting rainwater runoff can save thousands of gallons of tap water each year. A typical 40-by- 40-foot roof is capable of collecting 1,000 gallons of water from only one inch of rain. Even using buckets and garbage cans you can collect enough to water a garden. This is a real plus when we experience a drought like the one this year. True, it seldom rains, but when it does, even a little, you can collect a lot of water. Plants love the natural goodness that is provided by rainwater. Collecting rainwater has many advantages; one of which is a savings on your water bill. It is good for the environment and saves the energy used in the purification of the public water supply. Sprinkling your lawn and garden can consume most of your household water use when we have a summer like the one just past. A couple of fellow gardeners have rain barrels in which they harvest rainwater. The advantage of them over buckets is that they have a spout and a hose that you can take to the garden and you don’t have to haul the water. There are instructions online for making your own rain barrel. Practically any large waterproof container can be used to collect water. One easily obtained candidate is a trashcan, preferably plastic, with a snap-on lid. A standard 32-gallon will work for a rain barrel, but if you can find a 44-gallon can choose it instead. Wooden barrels are sometimes available but whatever the material, you use make sure it did not contain any chemical or compound that could be harmful to plants, animals, or humans. If you don’t know what was in it, don’t use it. Choose a container made out of opaque material that lets as little light through as possible, reducing the risk of algae growth. A large container of water is an appealing breeding ground for mosquitoes and a perfect incubator for algae. Filters and screens over the opening should prevent insect infestation, but for added protection against mosquitoes add one tablespoon of vegetable oil to the water in the barrel. This coats the top surface of the stored water and deprives the larvae of oxygen. Rain barrels tend to be expensive but if you are creative, and can follow directions, you can build your own rain barrel for a fraction of the cost of buying one. The Mother Earth News has specific instructions for building a rain barrel. I am sure you can find many variations by typing “How to build a rain barrel” into a Google or Yahoo search engine. We are in the heart of this year’s drought and it may go on a while. We have had 20 plus days of 100 degrees but in 1980 we had more than 40 days of 100 or more. In these cases we can meet the challenge of water shortage and needing to water gardens and lawns by harvesting water. With some heavy mulch with leaves and straw, it is possible to have vegetables from the garden. Why not try it. It is free and just requires a little work and willingness. (Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, taught home economics, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, has taught numerous health and nutrition classes, and wrote a weekly newspaper column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)