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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Green & Growing: The Art of Managing Summer Rain

    Joy VanderLek, director of Sustainable Cheshire, waters from a gravity-fed 350-gallon tank sits atop a slope, which was donated by a patron. (Photo by Kathy Connolly)

    Connecticut’s climate could hardly be described as arid. In fact, historical rainfall averages 45 to 50 inches each year.

    But for anyone who’s ever grown a tomato or squash plant, averages are meaningless when your plants are going brown and there’s no rain in the forecast. Historical records show our summers are often dry, and sometimes for many weeks.

    The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Lockwood Farm, in Hamden, has kept weather data for more than a century. Consider 1993, for instance, when only 5.5 inches of rain fell from May to August. The summers of 1995, 1999 and 2005 all had fewer than 10 inches. The summers of 2015, 2016 and 2022 were only somewhat wetter. Gardeners and farmers are likely to agree: This is not enough water.

    It is also true that we’ve also had some very wet summers. The summers of 2000, 2006, 2003 and 2009 each saw more than 20 inches of rain. None of them beats the summer of 2011, however, which had more than 30 inches from May to August.

    Even in these very wet years, however, there were dry spells. On average, July is the driest month, according to CAES data going back a century; May and November follow.

    The bottom line: Our growing landscapes often call for supplemental water. Hoses, sprinklers and irrigation systems are widely used, but in today’s world, many would say that drinking-quality water doesn’t belong in landscape use. Water purification takes a lot of energy-intensive treatment and transportation before it reaches homes and businesses. In some dry years, the reservoir water supply is sparse. If your entire water supply comes from a well, landscape applications may not be an option.

    Enter the rain barrel. I’ve relied on these simple devices to address plants’ water demands for more than 25 years. You might say I’m a believer. Yet I’ve also come to see that people who haven’t tried a rain barrel may find it difficult to envision the benefits.

    After all, it’s easy to see that a single 60-gallon barrel won’t solve all watering problems. Rain barrels aren’t a solution for midsummer’s brown lawns. Some people feel that hoses and sprinklers are easier, even though sprinklers result in a great deal of water evaporation. Others object to the appearance of barrels and downspout diverters around the house.

    In my experience, though, rain barrels excel at putting water supplies in strategic locations and at strategic times.

    For close-to-the-house foundation plantings and nearby planting beds, it’s a cinch to put one or more barrels under a downspout and run a hose from the barrel to thirsty plants. Even a small roof can fill a 60-gallon barrel quickly. Linked barrels can double or triple the catch, or more.

    While most barrels are fed directly from downspouts, there are other ways to top them off. For instance, you can put standalone barrels near new plantings. Fill the standalone barrel from an uphill barrel, for example. If there’s no other way, fill it from a hose. In my own case, I fill some barrels from our supplemental well when rain is abundant and use the water later in the summer.

    I also keep a barrel outside the kitchen door. It catches water from our solar panels, and I fill it with clean water leftover from kitchen tasks.

    A full rain barrel is ready when you are.

    More watering strategies

    Rain barrels are only part of the water solution for large gardens, especially when droughts are serious and prolonged. A 10-by-10 veggie bed theoretically needs 744 gallons over 12 weeks in midsummer. If rain barrels are your only defense in a 12-week drought, you’d need thirteen 60-gallon containers.

    As a defensive strategy, we also need to prevent water loss. Cover soil with straw or cover crops. Make sure soil has about five percent organic matter, a number best determined by a soil test. Water plants in the morning or late afternoon to minimize evaporation. Consider drip hoses if using irrigation. Select drought-tolerant plant varieties when you can.

    Also, consider some of the larger vessels available today. These are usually called cisterns, and they come in a variety of sizes and designs. (Rain barrels, with their 50- to 60-gallon capacity, are small cisterns.)

    Maggie Redfern of New London installed two large tanks and adapted them to collect rain from a garage roof. Each intermediate bulk container “holds 275 gallons, fed by rainfall on the back half of our two-car garage roof, approximately 12 feet by 30 feet,” she says. And she adds that an inch of rain almost fills one container.

    Try it, you’ll like it.

    Four rain barrel sales are underway right now. Three water companies, as well as Groton’s municipal government, have a variety of styles on offer. Deadlines range from April 9 to May 7, with pickup dates also in April in May. Prices range from $75 to $110. Two programs also offer accessories. One program continues all summer and features at-home delivery. Visit the websites for pricing.

    Rainwater collection is a time-tested idea that fits today’s environmental needs. And don’t forget: Rainwater is the preferred beverage of plants everywhere!

    2023 rain barrel sales
    Websites for pricing, pickup, and shippingSize (gallons)Purchase DeadlinePickupOptional Accessories
    Aquarion(aquarionwater.com/conservation/rain-barrels)60May 1Stonington, May 20
    Regional Water Authority(rainwatersolutions.com/products/rwater)50April 9New Haven, April 22
    CT Water Company(upcycle-products.com/ct/cwc)50-55No deadlineDelivered to homeDownspout adapters (two styles)
    City & Town of Groton(greatamericanrainbarrel.com/community/groton)60May 7Groton, May 20Downspout adapter

    Kathy Connolly, from Old Saybrook, writes and speaks on landscape design, horticulture and ecology. Email her at Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com.

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