Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener

3 new rain barrels near the vegetable garden..  Photo by Stibolt

Three new rain barrels on a deck near the veggies.

Three more rain barrels
by Ginny Stibolt

We've used four rain barrels for several years, which I wrote about in these two articles: Climb up my rain barrels and Rain barrels revisited. We've been happy with them and have used the saved rainwater in many ways, but as we expanded the vegetable gardens, we wanted an easier way to provide the extra water they need without slogging the watering cans around the garage.   

Our first step was to pick up three barrels at a local bottling plant. These barrels had contained syrup for an energy drink. It's important to use food grade barrels, not ones that have contained petroleum products or poisons.

Using Gravity

Each of the original three barrels on the other side of the garage sits on four cinder blocks piled two-high, so when I attached a hose to one of the barrels, I had to keep it low or there would be no flow. For this new set of barrels Dean, my husband, built a four-foot high deck to elevate the new barrels so the force of gravity provides some water pressure. The three new barrels would be tied together with a series of pipes through bottom fittings so that all the barrels fill up and drain together. (Unlike our other series of three barrels where the first barrel fills and its overflow runs into the second barrel and when the second barrel fills it overflows into the third barrel.) This new arrangement means that we use the one spigot and do not have to keep track of which barrels are empty or full. Using a hose attached to the spigot to water the vegetable beds requires no bending over, no waiting for watering cans to fill, and no hauling. Yippee!

The garage has metal gutters installed on the front and on the side closest to the house. The new barrels collect rainwater from the side near the house, while the other three collect rainwater from the front gutter. Once we installed the barrels, we decided to install a stand-alone ten-foot plastic gutter right over these barrels to collect more water.  To estimate how much water you can expect to collect, calculate the area of the roof, no matter what its slope, and multiply by 0.6. This is the number of gallons you can expect for every inch of rain. For this example: 15' x 10' = 150square feet/2 (Divide by 2 because it's a hip roof and is a triangle.) = 75 square feet. 75 x 0.6 = 45 gallons per inch of rainfall.  So that extra ten feet of gutter will almost fill an extra barrel for every inch of rain.

Each of the barrels has its own overflow pipe. The three overflow pipes are connected to another pipe that takes the excess water away from the platform during heavy storms. This will help prevent undermining the footings of the platform when the rain barrel water is not used as fast as the rainfall.  In preparation for a tropical storm, we will hook up a temporary hose that will carry excess water out to a wooded are to prevent too much water from overflowing in that one place.

The dry season

We put the rain barrel system in place during the dry season. This allowed us to test for leaks without being surprised by too much rainfall. My husband purchased a pump to transfer rainwater from the old barrels and back again.  

Instead of spending about $80 for a pump with its own motor, he spent $7 for a drill pump that uses the motor of an electric hand drill to power the pump. To create the hookup to the barrel to be emptied, Dean custom-made a short hose with female connectors on each end. Soon all the water from the old barrels, which were relatively full from a half inch of rain the previous week, was pumped into the new barrels.  

A drill pump transferred water between the old barrels and the new barrels.  
		  Using the motor of an old drill saves money. Photo by Stibolt << To test the new barrels, the drill pump moved water from the old rain barrels to the new ones. He used an old " electric drill, which will now be a dedicated pump motor.

Removing all the water from the original barrels also provided a good opportunity to rinse them out, clean out behind the cinder blocks, and move them a little closer to the front of the garage to make more space in the potting bench area on that wall.  

The new barrel system works well and the veggies are now much easier to water. For more information and photos of the construction and hook up see: Three rain barrels: Construction overview.

A sinking rain barrel

Ginny's stand-alone rain barrel was sinking into the sand because of red imported fire ants. 
		Photo by StiboltOur stand-alone barrel also needed attention. Four years ago when we placed the four cinder blocks on the soil next to the house, it didn't occur to us that red fire ants could cause a rain barrel to sink. Not long ago, we noticed an ant mound developing adjacent to the cinder block base. Within a few weeks after we noticed the ants, the bottom cinder blocks holding the barrel were more than half buried. It wasn't that the mound was getting higher, but rather that the blocks were sinking into the ground. Since a full rain barrel weighs more than 400 lbs, you need a  stable, solid base. The ants had undermined the soil with their tunnels, and the barrel began to sink. 

We used the water from this barrel exclusively for a few days, including a good soaking of shrubs that I've planted within the last year.  When the barrel was empty, Dean dismantled the diverter (See Rain Barrels Revisited for details.) and removed the barrel and cinder blocks.

Filling with rocks and cement chunks provides a solid footing for the rainbarrel.  
		Photo by Stibolt.To establish a new base, first we used fire ant poison to kill the colony. Then we dug down a good two feet and filled the hole with leftover cement chunks and leftover lava rocks.  This rocky substrate serves two purposes: 1) It discourages ants because they prefer to colonize soil of finer consistency, and 2) It forms a deeper, more solid base for our cinder block platform.

We placed the cinderblocks on the rocks and made sure that they were solidly in place and level in all directions. Since this barrel is next to the house even a couple of degrees from level would look sloppy.

While the barrel was empty, Dean cleaned out the algae before he reassembled the parts. Now it's contributing to our rainwater supply again.

Seven barrels!

When I tell people I have seven rain barrels, they can't believe it. But over the years we've come to depend on this supply of soft, chemical-free water for our inside plants, porch plants, and outside plants when general irrigation is not on or not adequate for certain plants, such as seedlings, transplants, and the vegetable gardens.  In the winter when the lawn is dormant, we only turn on the irrigation system, which pumps water from the lake, once a month for only a few minutes to exercise all the parts. The rain barrel water is most important during this period.  

In addition to using water for plants, we use the rain barrel water for:
pre-rinsing veggies. 
pre-rinsing hands, feet, and maybe even dirty gardening socks.  
rinsing gardening gloves and muddy tools.
wetting the compost piles.
cleaning out pots and planters.
washing our vinyl rail fence annually.
and much more.

I hope you consider installing some rain barrels on your property.  As the cost of city and county water rises, rain barrels provide "Savings for a Sunny Day!"

(Update: The oldest barrel that we'd brought from Maryland cracked, so now we have six barrels, which usually supplies us with enough water for our needs--even during the winter dry season, which is when we grow the most vegetable crops.)

Ginny Stibolt is a life-long gardener, a botanist, a naturalist, and a garden writer. You may contact her or read more of her articles posted on her website:

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Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener