Diggin' In: Rain barrels fill many needs for home, garden

Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)July 17, 2014 

Gardens are typically blessed with spring rains that bring summer flowers - and then the hot, dry months of July and August take their toll.

Often, thoughts turn to, "How do I water without running my water bill sky high?"

A rain barrel could be part of the solution.

It's hard to justify rain barrels for major landscapes, but they are quite practical for small vegetable and flower gardens, especially plants grown in containers, according to gardeners.

More importantly, rain barrels benefit the environment.

"Installing a rain barrel is one of the easiest things a homeowner can do to protect water resources," says Julia Hillegrass, team leader with askHRgreen.org, an environmental public awareness program for the 16 counties and cities in Hampton Roads, Va..

"Rain barrels pull double duty by providing a free source of water for outdoor uses while preventing water pollution. When you catch rainwater instead of sending it down the storm drain, it prevents pollutants like fertilizer, pet waste and roadway grime from dumping into local waterways.

"Plus with your free source of water, you'll be conserving water and the energy used to treat and deliver tap water to your home. It's an all-around great addition to any home.

"Watering plants, washing your car, even giving your dog a bath - all great ways to use the rainwater you collect."

While you can purchase a pricey rain barrel from a retail source, you can make your own for about $50, proof "going green" doesn't have to be expensive, adds Hillegrass.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, Williamsburg, Va., master gardener Dennis Wool says YouTube has the best how-to videos that show a variety of ways to make a barrel. He recommends using food-grade plastic barrels because some barrels can contain hazardous materials that should not be recycled.

"From very simple designs to elaborate combinations that link multiple barrels together, all can be found under the search 'rain barrels,'" says Wool, who leads rain barrel-making workshops for his master gardener unit: www.jccwmbg.org.

Many water conservationists also go a step further - decorating their rain barrels in fanciful or practical ways.

"One of our members painted her rain barrel to blend into the brickwork and siding of her home - pretty clever," says Wool.

If you want to paint your rain barrel, first prime it, use acrylic paint. Once your design is done and painting is finished, clear coat it to preserve its beauty.

"Paint first before installing hardware, so you don't have to paint around it," says Wendy Iles, founder of Hampton Grows, www.Hamptongrows.org , a nonprofit organization that helps establish community gardens in southeastern Virginia. The group recently sponsored a fund-raising, rain barrel-decorating contest.

"Incorporate the faucet in your design - and have fun with your painting!"

Some additional barrel-decorating tips from Newport News, Va., master gardeners, www.nnmastergardeners.org , include:

Use stencils for decorative designs.

Use branches, leaves or any materials or shapes to spray on silhouettes.

Paint your barrel the same color as your home.

Use it as a fun project for kids.

Installing it:

Rain barrels should be placed immediately adjacent to down spouts, according to Wool.

"Most designs work best when the barrel is raised by stacking several cinderblocks or making a stand/bench for it sit upon," he says.

Maintaining it:

If you use water in the rain barrel regularly, mosquito breeding is not a problem, according to Wool. Otherwise, cover your opening with window screening material to keep mosquitoes out.

"One creative person put gold fish in their barrel to take care of the bugs, and it was a real eye-catcher," he says.

(Kathy Van Mullekom is the garden/home columnist for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. Follow her on Facebook@Kathy Hogan Van Mullekom, on Twitter @diggindirt and at Pinterest@digginin. Her blog can be read at Diggin@RoomandYard.com. Email her at kvanmullekom@aol.com .)

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