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Let’s talk about water capture for your garden.
How can you do water capture for your garden? And how can you do it on your own? This is important because water and drought continues to be more relevant as climate change rages on. And, I can’t encourage you enough to to learn more about various ways you can capture and recycle water falling from the sky.
Capturing water isn’t the only way make a climate impact in your garden
Over the years, I’ve really noticed how the climate in the Pacific Northwest has changed every year since I moved here from Northern California. And, that observation has encouraged me to focus on growing water-wise plantings for my gardening area.
Plus, I’ve looked at ways to contribute to sequestering carbon. In fact, I even attended a lecture that suggested we consider cutting down forests to sink old trees in the ocean in order to down their carbon and ensure it wouldn’t burn into the atmosphere in a forest fire. But, really, water’s the topic here.
I’ve been conserving water for as long as I can remember.
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 her 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 client Paul really upped the water capturing game for his home & garden…
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 (now defunct) EarthSystemsNW.
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.”
I had asked Paul about the overflow diversion system…
That’s because 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.
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.
Other water catchment observations…
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. And those are being used as water capture for your garden.
In my own garden…
I have employed recycled olive barrels, from the City of Seattle distribution program. I use these 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. In fact water capture for your garden can be beautiful though. (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 rights laws on the books prohibiting catching and using rainwater.
There are laws around water catchment in many areas. 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.
Water capture for your garden 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.
So garden water capture may be critical for a number of reasons:
- 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.
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Great article, Robin. I want to pass this along to my son, Tom, a hydrologist in Asheville, N.C. Norie
Robin, thank you for this reminder that we all need to pitch in and that every little conservation effort counts!