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Blog Action Day 2010 – Water!

October 15, 2010
Fiskars Rainbarrel system

Fiskars Rainbarrel system

October 15, 2010 is Blog Action Day. This year’s topic is water. I considered writing any number of articles on life-giving water, but I decided last year’s article simply needed to be repeated. The 2009 Blog Action Day topic was Climate Change. For that subject, I covered the subject of capturing water in urban settings. Today the same idea is as relevant as ever. I encourage you to read on to learn more about various ways homeowners can capture and recycle water falling from the sky.

And before you dive in, consider checking out the Fiskars site to learn about their great rain barrel systems, plus visit their handy-dandy Rain Barrel Rebate Finder to see what kind of refunds and credits your community might offer for adding rain capturing to your garden!

Original Post from October 15, 2009:

When I signed up to write a blog post for the 2009 Blog Action Day Climate Change topic, I didn’t sign on with a pre-determined article focus in mind. As a gardener and garden coach, everything I do impacts and is impacted by the environment, and as our climate changes, so do my choices as a gardener and my recommendations as a gardening consultant.

Organically Grown Food from Our Garden - for Ourselves & the Local Foodbank

Organically Grown Food from Our Garden - for Ourselves & the Local Foodbank

Initially, I considered writing a post about my observations of how the climate in the Pacific Northwest has changed every year since I moved here from Northern California. Then, I thought about writing a post focused on water-wise plantings for my gardening area. I considered sharing details from a lecture I attended at the University of Washington a few years ago where I heard all sorts of proposals for sequestering carbon — even studies that suggested cutting down forests and sinking old trees in the ocean to lock down the carbon and ensure it wouldn’t burn into the atmosphere in a forest fire. I even toyed with the idea of writing about composting and soil building to lock carbon in the soil. I considered a longer diary write up on the benefits of growing your own food and eating locally and organically to reduce the fossil fuel requirements and emissions determined by diets that demand food from far-flung locations, animal feedlots and petroleum-based pesticides.  And, at one time I got myself so far off gardening topic that I started scribbling down notes on the benefits of antique furniture over modern productions to continue keeping any carbon already locked in them locked down longer — while not spending energy to produce new furniture. Yep, I was all over the map to start. Yet, every time I started mulling over an appropriate post, I kept coming back to water, vaguely realizing this would be my subject matter. However, it wasn’t until I visited my client Paul last week that I knew exactly what aspect of water made the most sense.

When I was a kid living on the outskirts of a small rodeo town in Northern California, our family faced the challenge of drought all too often. We had a large piece of land, a small orchard and a relatively large vegetable garden. In the summer, the fields turned golden and then that sickly shade of gray that happens to the golden state during the dry times. Our orchard fended for itself, often producing apples worthy only of the foraging squirrels in our surrounding forest. Yet, we struggled to keep the veggies producing all summer long. Sunlight and heat were never the challenge, but water was hard to come by. So, before rain barrels became trendy and available through community distribution programs, my folks connected up used vegetable oil barrels from our family bakery to collect rain water. We kept buckets in the bathroom to collect water as we heated our bath, using that to flush our toilets. And, yes, we followed the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” mantra of the day.  We wet our toothbrushes and turned off the faucet while we brushed. Despite my sister and my persistent groans, Mom refused to buy a dishwasher claiming, “I already have two, and that’s you.” She even had us dumping our used dish water on Mom’s potted ornamental flowers on the deck.

It wasn’t until I competed in a 4th grade school art competition focusing on “Beat the Drought” that I realized how progressive we really were. This was the 1970s, a time when microwave convenience was becoming the rage. The hurry-up, convenience foods of today were starting to invade kitchens and recycling wasn’t in vogue. Burning trash — all trash — was an everyday occurrence. Some friends had veggie gardens, but most of my friends were living in lawn-abundant developments starting to pop up all over California. The time for sustainability and recycling and thinking of the earth hadn’t really arrived in popular culture — or if it had arrived, it was being ignored by most of my community. The “Beat the Drought” contest was probably thought up by another hippie teacher hoping to raise awareness among a rag-tag assortment of kids made up of native Americans, cowboy-descendants, hippie settlers and Brady-bunch wanna-be’s.  All the kids participated — there was a cash prize after all. Taking the issue and the potential money seriously, I brainstormed every idea I could think of for saving water, and I illustrated my poster with a big, poorly drawn, dripping faucet surrounded by these ideas. I ended up coming in second to a good friend who had much better artistic talents than I did. But the point was then, as it is today, that being aware of our precious resources and using them wisely is critical. My client Paul is doing just this, but on a much larger and retro-groundbreaking scale. (And, because of their household conservation efforts I bet his kids’ “Beat the Drought” posters would easily beat mine and my friend’s — if they had a chance to go up against us.)

Paul and his wife Claire live in Seattle with their two children. Their old, wooden home (a carbon sequester in its own right)  is situated at the top of a steep slope filled with native Big Leaf Maples, sword ferns, and lots of not-native English Laurels. At the bottom of the slope are homes and a school. Run off and slope erosion is therefore a concern. This year Paul and Claire determined they needed to install new gutters to their home. They were also concerned about run-off on their slope. To help them with these issues, they turned to Nikola and Clay at EarthSystemsNW.

2500 gallon water tank hides under a deck

2000 gallon water tank hides under a deck

With Nikola and Clay’s help, Paul’s family realized that for around $15,000 they could install a complete water catchment system that would provide nearly all the water they need inside and out. They are flushing toilets, watering new shrubs, and even cooking dinner with this water. Paul said there are still challenges like how tannic the water becomes during autumn leaf fall, but for the most part they’re really happy with the results. A $15k price tag may seem excessive, but consider this: in my own household of two adults and a very thirsty but waterwise garden, we pay around$1500- $1800/year in water bills. I sincerely hope I’ll live at least another ten years during which time my savings in water bills would easily repay my investment in a cistern.

Nikola shared with me that, “(Paul’s) roof is hit with over 43,000 gallons of water per year.  This water was almost all going straight into the ground immediately surrounding their house which was creating a number of problems, especially as their house is on top of a slope.  We were able to reroute their gutters and downspouts so their water would come to one central location and feed into a 2000 gallon cistern (hidden under their back deck).  If that cistern completely fills, the overflow system takes the water away from the property and diffuses (it).  By using the rainwater for all their indoor (and outdoor) water needs, they are using their water as they’re collecting it.  This means very little water goes into the overflow.  What was a problem with too much water on their property is now an asset and is able to supply their water needs.”

Overflow Tubing Diverts Excess Water

Overflow Tubing Diverts Excess Water

I had asked Paul about the overflow diversion system that I noticed running off the tank and down the slope. It definitely stands out, but we easily determined that it could be beautifully hidden in the landscape with the additional planting of native sword ferns, which would happily naturalize and cover the white tubing. They’ll be monitoring the overflow, the slope and the big trees regularly now that the run-off has been changed.

As some of you may realize, Seattle has a natural drought cycle in mid-summer. Although Paul’s goal is to consume solely catchment water, they’re still fine-tuning the system to achieve this. During the summer drought, for instance, Paul did find that his family needed to draw some water from the city supply. Still, a family of four drawing water from the city only occasionally is quite impressive. Especially when you consider Nikola’s statistics: “If only 15% of Americans used rainwater to irrigate their gardens, we could conserve 1 billion gallons of water a day in the U.S.  We encourage people to go beyond installing rain barrels – which only hold 50 gallons and fill up and run out quickly – to upgrade to tanks with more capacity.  Cisterns come in all shapes and sizes and people would be amazed at what can be hidden out of view, including bladder tanks that fit under porches or in crawl spaces.” And, to be clear, Paul’s system is more complex than just a set of gutters pulling water into a tank that feeds into his house. This water must pass through a series of advanced filters to clarify it for potability. Too, his system must be connected to a back-flow preventer to ensure contaminated water does not make its way into his potable water ways. Further regulations for clean-water systems may apply in your area or be forthcoming.

A Rainbarrel Collects Rainwater & Diverts it from a Foundation

A Rainbarrel Collects Rainwater & Diverts it from a Foundation

In my own travels, I’ve visited locations such as the moon-like surface of Haleakala on Maui where water catchment tanks supply water to weary hikers staying in cabins (note the water must be treated by hikers before using). I’ve visited gardens in which above ground tanks have been dressed up to become features rather than simply utilities. In my own garden I employ recycled olive barrels, from the city of Seattle distribution program, to catch water off of two gutters, mostly using them as a way to divert water via hoses away from my foundation and onto water-guzzling plants. As a garden designer, I have employed large ceramic urns under decorative rain chains as seasonal water features, as ways to hide ugly front door drainage systems, and as ways to collect and distribute water. Just because tanks may not be pretty at first sight doesn’t mean they can’t become an additional piece of art in your garden. (I don’t use and don’t recommend using any unfiltered, potentially unclean or contaminated catchment water for drinking or for watering your edible plants.)

Water Catchment Potability Filtration System

Water Catchment Potability Filtration System

I concede that there are water rights laws on the books prohibiting catching and using rainwater. But, ask around, and you’ll probably hear that state, local and federal agencies are encouraging water catchment rather than enforcing old, outdated farm law. Heck, water catchment and diversion isn’t new or a bad thing. Just the opposite as Nikola points out:  “Similar to other green technologies, cisterns are enjoying a resurgence in popularity but the technology has been around for thousands of years.  With recent droughts and the desertification taking place around the world, cisterns are increasingly being turned to as a way to conserve water and recharge our water tables.  Benefits of cisterns (any vessel used to store water) include saving money, conserving water, reducing stormwater pollution, and helping with drainage issues.”

Water is a critical natural resource, and it is becoming more an more scarce. Droughts and wildfires are on the increase as our climate changes. Hurricanes, which some claim are on the increase as our climate changes,  may bring in large amounts of water to our landmasses, causing flooding, but they contaminate waterways and the groundwater at the same time causing further shortages. Despite our best efforts as gardeners to build better soil and work with plants that require less water, we simply cannot live without this natural resource. For those of us who live in areas that receive any amount of rainfall, even if it is only available seasonally, catchment provides a way we can reduce our demand on public systems, our demand on private wells, and our demand on natural underground aquifers. Whether you add a simple rain barrel to your garden, use a bucket to catch warming bath water and use that to flush a toilet, or go for the full rooftop catchment tank like Paul, your efforts at conservation will add a drop to the critical climate change bucket we all must seek to fill.

(note: Garden Mentors is a paid writer for Fiskars inc.)


  1. Norie Burnet says:

    Great article, Robin. I want to pass this along to my son, Tom, a hydrologist in Asheville, N.C. Norie

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  4. Robin, thank you for this reminder that we all need to pitch in and that every little conservation effort counts!

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