Monday, May 30, 2011

This is not drinking water - but it's great for the plants

The farm in Western Wisconsin where I grew up on was on a high, dry ridge somewhere around 1,000 feet above sea level, and no natural water features to speak of. Our water well was several hundred feet deep, and when I was growing up, we drew water out of the ground with a pump jack that was originally powered by a windmill, and later replaced with a simple electric motor. The pump Jack lifted water about two cups at a time every four seconds. I mention all this to suggest why water preoccupied much of my childhood gardening experience.

When we first arrived at our farm, the land around the buildings was rocky and sloped with no obvious place to put a garden. My mother, insisting that much of our food came from what we could grow, experimented with gardens in several places around the small collection of buildings we called home.

I remember one spot in particular was flat, fertile, and far away from any water source. We spent the summer carrying half-full five-gallon buckets of water to thirsty plants during particularly dry weeks. A gallon of water weighs 8.5 pounds, each bucket was half-full to prevent spillage, and I carried two buckets to keep me balanced. Do the math and you can see I was carrying about 42 pounds of water, and at 10 years old, that's about how much I weighed. So it should come as no surprise to you that moving without carrying it is a fairly big deal for me.

Over time, two things happened that made gardening easier. My dad installed underground piping to various parts of the farm to make moving water (for gardens and animals) easier, and we moved the garden closer to the house and a source of water was just a hose distance away.

In the city, I of course have ready access to unlimited amounts of water from a spigot sticking out the side of my house. We do ultimately pay for water (not enough if you ask me), and a lot of work has gone into sourcing, purifying and transporting the water to my house, so I think I should drink it and not put it on my plants. For several years I have admired the concept of rain barrels for the obvious reasons. It's free water (after buying and installing the barrels), and keeps that much water out of our storm sewer system which dumps into one of our lakes, carrying anything it collected along with it. We have a significant lake algae problem here in Madison, so rain barrels save water use and help keep our lakes healthy.

During a visit to my friend Erin and Jeff's house, I noticed they had a rain barrel disconnected from their downspout. They admitted that after having gutters installed, they didn't have the heart to cut into the new downspout to install the rain barrel. When I went pie-eyed, they offered it to me -- I eagerly accepted.

Future home of the barrel from Erin and Jeff. This will water the herb garden at left; the nearest water spigot is on the other side of the driveway.

I also decided to buy two more rain barrels from the city of Madison during their annual sale. At $55 each, they city was giving a great deal compared to buying them commercially. Getting the barrels was a bit of an adventure. I knew the sale started at nine, and people advised me to get there early to be sure to get a barrel before they ran out. The city was selling barrels in two locations and we went to the closer of the two. The best laid plans... we got there at 10 to find they only had compost bins left. We drove across town to the other location, only to discover that they had barrels lined up for sale, and a line much longer than that of people waiting to buy one. We chatted with people at the back of the line, who informed us that someone from the city had announced that they would run out of rain barrels by the time we got to the front.

Furious with myself for not following my original plan, we walked out and past the well-marked vehicle that belonged to one of Jay's cousins. We call her, and she told us her husband was standing in line somewhere in front of us. We called him and he flagged us down -- and he informed us that he was also behind the point at which they said there would be no rain barrels. He was still going to wait for a compost bin and we left.
Future home of two rain barrels, back of house; this will water bed at side of garage.
Not to be deterred, we decided we go to Johannsens’s greenhouse, support a local business and buy two barrels anyway. Their barrels were cheaper than from the city, but after adding all the equipment that was required they ended up twice as much as to what two barrels from the city would have been. We decided to buy them anyway, and while we were in the checkout line, at the very moment that I signed the credit card receipt, Jay's cousin called to say he had secured two rain barrels for us. I was simultaneously delighted with the news and mortified that I was going to have to return these barrels to the greenhouse. Kudos to the greenhouse, they immediately return them for me and we walked out with two plants instead of two rain barrels. We retrieve the barrels from Jay's cousin, and I'll write and show pictures in another post of how I installed them.


  1. It was a funny moment when the woman returned after Josh signed the slip and he announced he needed to return the barrels. The look of perplexity on her face was priceless. ;)

  2. so at what point will you legally change your name to "Rain Man" Fedgar??

  3. Interesting read! Exploring alternative watering solutions benefits both plants and environment.