The Power of Natural Irrigation: How to Use Rainwater Irrigation for Your Eco-Friendly Garden
By Lena Milton
There’s no way around it: we’re running out of water. While many of us don’t regularly think about the water scarcity that’s increasingly impacting the globe (it’s just so easy to just turn on a faucet!), that doesn’t mean we can ignore water conservation. After all, water is a vital resource – the lack of which has toppled entire civilizations.
One of the places we use the most water is in our gardens. In the United States, the average household uses almost 100 gallons of water per day for landscape irrigation. Unfortunately, much of that water is wasted through inefficient irrigation methods that leave your water subject to evaporation, wind, or runoff.
The Practicality of Rainwater Irrigation
In places that get rainwater, one of the best things you can do to conserve water is to implement gardening methods that let you take advantage of what your mama gave you– Mother Earth, that is. Let’s review some of the most effective methods to utilize rainwater in your garden.
Here are 4 ways you can conserve water while keeping your garden happy. Not only will these methods help you conserve water, but they also help control stormwater runoff. Stormwater runoff is water that isn’t absorbed into the ground when it rains, and instead, washes into waterways. Stormwater often carries pollutants it picks up on its way into these waterways, creating water quality issues that harm human health and wildlife. By collecting excess water before it has a chance to run off, you help reduce the transfer of pollutants to our waterways – while also controlling flooding around your home.
Of course, these methods may not be enough to completely satisfy your garden’s thirst – we know that some areas get more rain than others. However, even supplementing your regular irrigation with rainwater can help conserve water in the long run. And better yet, these methods can help you keep the cost of irrigation lower!
Rain barrels are exactly what they sound like – a big barrel that collects and stores rainwater. Rain barrels collect rainwater from your roof and gutters that would otherwise become runoff. The EPA estimates that a rain barrel can save homeowners around 1,300 gallons of water during peak summer months!
So how does it work? Usually, a barrel is placed under a gutter with a downspout system. When it rains, the water flows from your roof, through a screen to catch debris, and into the barrel. The rain barrel can then be attached via a spigot (common on most commercial rain barrels) to a regular garden hose, allowing you to water your plants using the rainwater you’ve collected! You can also simply dip a watering can into the barrel.
The amount of rainfall you’ll capture (and thus the size of barrel you need) will depend on the amount of rainfall you get, and the slope and size of your roof. For example, a 1-inch rainfall on 100 square feet of roof can create about 60 gallons of water. You can use a rainfall calculator to estimate your rainfall harvest.
It’s important to note that rainwater on your roof can pick up bacteria from bird poop or other substances, so it may be best to test your rainwater before using it to water your plants, or to avoid using it to water your fruit and veggie garden. It’s also important to make sure that any overflow will drain away from your home’s foundation to avoid damage.
A rain garden is not simply a rain-fed garden, but rather, a specific type of landscape. A rain garden is simply a lower area in your yard that, because it’s lower than the rest of the ground, collects rainwater runoff. The area is usually planted with grass or flowers, making it a beautiful and practical addition to your garden.
Some rain gardens, known as “bioretention basins,” also incorporate a drainage system and soil that has been tailored to water retention and absorption (amended soil).
Rain gardens are very eco-friendly, as they not only help conserve water, but they help absorb water into the ground before it runs off. This absorption through the soil helps filter pollutants. The plants in a rain garden can also work to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies.
For practical guides to safely implementing a rain garden in your yard, check out the EPA’s list of resources.
Hardscaping is like landscaping – but it involves including any sort of hard structure in a landscape, from driveways and pathways to gazebos and benches. While these structures often have practical and decorative benefits, hardscapes can also cause water to runoff as stormwater, rather than being absorbed into the ground. Not only does this lack of absorption cause the water to transport pollutants, like oils from your driveway, to waterways, but it also removes a valuable water source for your garden.
Permeable hardscapes are hardscape structures that allow water to drain through them, reducing runoff and irrigating your garden. For example, a gravel path is a hardscape that still allows water to drain into surrounding soil.
Similarly, permeable pavers are a popular choice for driveways and pathways, as they act like concrete but allow for proper drainage. This is particularly important in areas that don’t get a lot of rain, as you need to make sure you’re taking advantage of what you get, rather than letting it run off.
In fact, a landscaping design firm in San Jose, California (a famously dry place!) points out that not only do permeable pavers help provide much-needed extra water to your garden and soil, but they are also more durable than concrete and more low maintenance.
Finally, reuse water from other household tasks whenever possible. For example, try placing a bucket in the shower while you wait for it to warm up, and then use that to water your plants. You can even take it farther by reusing your greywater, the water used in your house for anything not toilet related – your sinks, bathtubs, showers, dishwasher, and washing machine. One of the easiest ways to reuse greywater, for example, is to pump water from your washing machine directly outside or into a drum similar to a rain barrel that will store water. This is usually possible without any changes to your current household plumbing!
While yes, we know this method isn’t using rain water to keep your garden healthy, it’s a great option for reducing your water waste overall. Better yet, use all of the tips we discussed above to make a real impact in lowering your water consumption!
Ready to tackle more water conservation? Check out our article, 8 Practical Ways to Tackle Water Scarcity.