Grab a barrel and harvest rain

By Sandra Mason

Any of us of a certain age know how old things are new again. Some things are resurrected with new names. Pedal pushers are now capris. Some things should stay as old things — leisure suits, pet rocks and streaking, to name a few.

One old thing is making a well-deserved comeback. The idea of harvesting the rain has been around for centuries; however, with the advent of indoor plumbing, rain barrel usage declined. High water bills and drought periods have encouraged more people to use rain barrels as a simple way to capture the rain that flows off the roof.

You may be surprised at how much water is running off your roof. An inch of rain over 1,000 square feet yields 623 gallons. Rainfall at the rate of 1 inch per hour will yield about 10 gallons per minute per 1,000 square feet. It doesn't take long to fill a few barrels of free unsoftened water containing none of the chlorine or fluoride commonly found in city water. The kind of water plants love.

Also, diverting water from storm sewers helps to keep pollutants out of our streams, rivers and lakes. Much of our urban environment is covered in impervious roofs, parking lots and streets, so water rushes into storm sewers, carrying any pollutants such as trash or oil with it. Many storm sewers run directly into rivers or streams.

Rain barrels are generally 25- to 55-gallon plastic barrels to collect water from downspouts. They can be different sizes, shapes and designs. Rain barrels can be purchased or homemade from recycled food-grade plastic barrels or plastic barrels sold at farm stores. Heavy-duty garbage containers could also be used. Spray-paint them green so they aren't as noticeable or have the kids paint flowers on them.

Rain barrels require little maintenance. The biggest concern is mosquitoes that can breed in any water standing for more than a couple days. Cover the rain barrel with a very fine screen and use the water on a regular basis. For uncovered rain barrels, mosquito dunks containing the bacterial agent Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) can be floated in the water to kill the young larvae.

How you plan to use all this free water is an important consideration. Rain barrel water is fabulous for watering nonedible plants in gardens and containers such as flowers, shrubs, trees or lawns. Rain barrel water usage in vegetable gardens requires special techniques. Water from rain barrels should not be used for drinking water or to wash vegetables. Remember, the water is coming off a roof used by birds and other animals; therefore, the water can contain bacteria and other disease-causing organisms from animal waste.

Rain barrel water can be used in the vegetable garden, but only in the same way that other nondrinkable water is used. Water the soil next to the plant and not the plants. Avoid using overhead irrigation. It is best to use this water for drip or trickle irrigation, which prevents contamination of edible above-ground parts such as leafy greens.

Rain barrel water should not be used on vegetables close to harvest time. Remember, before eating vegetables, they should always be thoroughly washed using drinkable water.

Join us from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 25 in Urbana for the sale of compost bins and rain barrels. The city of Urbana, in partnership with the city of Champaign and the University of Illinois Extension, will hold the sale on the corner of South Vine and East Green streets (parking lot north of the city building, across from Lincoln Square Village). Compost bins are $45, and rain barrels are $55. Preordering also is available with pickup on sale date. For more information, visit http://enviroworld.net/urbana.

Sandra Mason is unit educator, horticulture and environment, for the UI Extension, Champaign County. Contact her with questions or comments at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, Champaign, IL 61821, call 333-7672, email slmason@illinois.edu or fax 333-7683.

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