The Art of Managing Summer Rain
Connecticut’s climate could hardly be described as arid. In fact, historical rainfall averages 45 to 50 inches each year.
But for anyone who’s ever grown a tomato or squash plant, averages are meaningless when your plants are going brown, and there’s no rain in the forecast. Historical records show our summers are often dry and sometimes for many weeks.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Lockwood Farm in Hamden has kept weather data for more than a century. Consider 1993, for instance, when only 5.5 inches of rain fell from May to August. The summers of 1995, 1999, and 2005 all had less than 10 inches. The summers of 2015, 2016, and 2022 were only somewhat wetter. Gardeners and farmers are likely to agree, this is not enough water.
We’ve also had some very wet summers; it is also true. The summers of 2000, 2006, 2003, and 2009 each saw more than 20 inches of rain. None of them beats the summer of 2011, however, with more than 30 inches from May to August.
Even in these very wet years, however, there were dry spells. On average, July is the driest month, according to CAES data going back a century. May and November follow.
The bottom line: Our growing landscapes often call for supplemental water. Hoses, sprinklers, and irrigation systems are widely used, but in today’s world, many would say that drinking-quality water doesn’t belong in landscape use. Water purification takes a lot of energy-intensive treatment and transportation before it reaches homes and businesses. In some dry years, the reservoir water supply is sparse. If your entire water supply comes from a well, landscape applications may not be an option.
Enter the rain barrel.
A Strategic Water Supply
I’ve relied on these simple devices to address plants’ water demands for more than 25 years. You might say I’m a believer. Yet, I’ve also come to see that people who haven’t tried a rain barrel may find it difficult to envision the benefits.
After all, it’s easy to see that a single 60-gallon barrel won’t solve all watering problems. Rain barrels aren’t a solution for midsummer’s brown lawns. Some people feel that hoses and sprinklers are easier, even though sprinklers result in a great deal of water evaporation. Others object to the appearance of barrels and downspout diverters around the house.
In my experience, though, rain barrels excel at putting water supplies in strategic locations and at strategic times.
For close-to-the-house foundation plantings and nearby planting beds, it’s a cinch to put one or more barrels under a downspout and run a hose from the barrel to thirsty plants. Even a small roof can fill a 60-gallon barrel quickly. Linked barrels can double or triple the catch or more.
While most barrels are fed directly from downspouts, there are other ways to top them off. For instance, you can put standalone barrels near new plantings. Fill the standalone barrel from an uphill barrel, for example. If there’s no other way, fill it from a hose. In my own case, I fill some barrels from our supplemental well when rain is abundant and use the water later in the summer.
The bottom line: A full rain barrel is ready when you are.
I also keep a barrel outside the kitchen door. It catches water from our solar panels, and I fill it with clean water leftover from kitchen tasks.
Rain barrels and cisterns can also play a valuable role for places like community gardens where there is no water supply. Joy VanderLek, director Sustainable Chester, says the Chester Pollinator Pathway began their first garden in an area with no water source.
“Volunteers lugged milk jugs filled with water to the site daily for almost a year. Then, a patron donated funds to buy a cistern,” she says. The gravity-fed 350-gallon tank sits atop a slope. “The town’s fire department fills it when needed....But now that the plants are established, we do not water much, even during the 2022 drought.”
She says, “the cistern has been a blessing.”
More Water Strategies
Rain barrels are only part of the water solution for large gardens, especially when droughts are serious and prolonged. A 10 x 10 veggie bed theoretically needs 744 gallons over 12 weeks midsummer. If rain barrels are your only defense in a 12-week drought, you’d need thirteen 60-gallon containers.
As a defensive strategy, we also need to prevent water loss. Cover soil with straw or cover crops. Make sure soil has about five percent organic matter, a number best determined by a soil test. Water plants in the morning or late afternoon to minimize evaporation. Consider drip hoses if using irrigation. Select drought-tolerant plant varieties when you can.
Also, consider some of the larger vessels available today. These are usually called cisterns, and they come in a variety of sizes and designs. Rain barrels, with their 50 to 60-gallon capacity, are essentially small cisterns.
Maggie Redfern of New London installed two large tanks and adapted them to collect rain from a garage roof. “Each IBC (intermediate bulk container) holds 275 gallons. It’s fed by rainfall on the back half of our two-car garage roof, approximately 12’ x 30’.” She says an inch of rain almost fills one container.
Try it; you’ll like it.
Several rain barrel sales are underway right now. Deadlines range from April 9 to May 7, with pickup dates also in April in May. Prices range from $75 to $110. Two programs also offer accessories. One program continues all summer and features at-home delivery. Here are a few options. Be sure to visit the individual websites to find out specifics on pricing, pickup, and shipping.
- Aquarion: Visit aquarionwater.com/conservation/rain-barrels. Sixty gallon barrels are available, with a May 1 deadline for purchasing. They can be picked up May 20 in Stonington.
- Regional Water Authority: rainwatersolutions.com/products/rwater. Fifty gallon barrels are available with a deadline of April 9 for purchasing. They can be picked up April 22 in New Haven.
- CT Water Company: upcycle-products.com/ct/cwc. Fifty to fifty give gallon barrels available. There is no deadline for ordering and they can be delivered to your home. Downspout adapters in two style are available.
Rainwater collection is a time-tested idea that fits today’s environmental needs. And don’t forget that rainwater is the preferred beverage of plants everywhere!
For more weather data you can visit ct.gov/CAES and search for “weather data.” For more information on soil tests, visit soiltesting.cahnr.uconn.edu.
To learn more about how to select and operate a rain barrel, please listen to this podcast: https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcasts/rain-barrel-gardening.
Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscape design, horticulture, and ecology from Old Saybrook. Email: Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Wednesday, April 5 to clarify rain barrel amounts and to correctly identify Joy VanderLek as the director of Sustainable Cheshire.