THIS TIME OF YEAR, moisture is a visible thing, on frosted
windows, in snowy fields, cloudy breath and icy ponds. During the summer
months, outdoor water might be invisible for weeks at a time. Now you see it,
now you don't. In order to collect as much as I can of this often-scarce
resource, I use water barrels. Now is a good time to go shopping for some, in
preparation for spring rains.
It's easy to obtain rain. One centimetre of rainfall on a
100-square-metre roof can yield 1,000 litres of runoff. Most water barrels hold
about 200 litres. After a short shower, the roof is wet enough to start
dripping, then pouring. Soon, the barrel overflows with water that is naturally
soft, chlorine-free, salt-free and the same temperature as the air. This is
perfect for plants, unlike tap water. Also unlike tap water, you'll never have
to pay a cent for it after you've bought your barrel.
Not so long ago, houses often had cisterns, big, in-ground
reservoirs that held rainwater from the roof for household use. Cisterns are
less common now, except where fresh water is truly scarce. My stepson relies on
one at his home on one of the Gulf islands. However, there has recently been new
interest in smaller-scale conservation. There are now barrels available
specially equipped for saving rainwater for the garden. They are of clean,
lightweight plastic, fitted with a tap, screened top and overflow pipe. The
ready-to-use barrel I bought from a hardware store once held imported olives.
In past houses, I've parked lots of recycled containers, including oil drums
and plastic garbage pails, under downspouts. But there is much to be said for
these custom-made water barrels. I'm tired of almost falling head over heels
scooping the last drops.
If you have a barrel and a bit of skill, you can buy your
own attachments. A piece of flexible tubing inserted near the top will direct
the overflow away from the house, perhaps into another barrel. My neighbours,
Carl and Lynda, have strung five barrels together this way. If each barrel has
its own tap, you can fill several watering cans simultaneously. Alternatively,
you can install soaker hoses, so the water goes directly from the barrel to the
plant roots. For some ideas, check out the Edmonton Rain Barrel Project at
The first time I installed a barrel, I was nervous about
shortening my metal downspout to position the barrel underneath. In truth, this
was easily done with a pair of wire cutters. Then I set the barrel on a couple
of bricks to keep it level and hold the spout high enough so I could fill a
watering can under it. In fall, I emptied the barrel and stored it on its side
to prevent freezing and cracking. I narrowed the opening of the downspout with
needle-nosed pliers so it would fit inside the lower part of the downspout,
which was then screwed in place with soffit screws.
Throughout the summer, I use rainwater from the barrels on
my houseplants, and I save several bottles in fall before it retires. Rainwater
is also excellent for pets and aquarium fish. It's the perfect drink for all
living things, outdoors and in.
Jennifer Bennett welcomes feedback at email@example.com or via