Irrigating from the sky: The wonders of a rain barrel

By Jayson Jacoby May 18, 2012 01:50 pm

I didn’t realize how much water there is in one brief rain shower until I started harvesting it.

Or collecting, or whatever the proper verb is to describe diverting rain into temporary storage.

This all started because our house came without gutters.

Whether this omission was by design, or the result of a construction oversight, I can’t say.

But considering the aridity of our climate — we’ve a lot more in common, precipitation-wise, with Phoenix than with Portland — I’ve never felt any great pressure to put things straight.

(Or more likely crooked; I couldn’t hang anything level if you gave me a plumb bob and one of those cunning tools that projects a laser beam on the wall.)

Besides which, based on the TV commercials that are broadcast relentlessly on Saturday mornings, it seems that gutters are quite the nuisance, frequently getting clogged with leaves and pine needles that are the very devil to pry loose.

The lone pine on our property is a stripling that barely comes up to my sternum, so the only way its needles could get into a gutter (if we had any) is if something (a bird, for instance) carried them up there.

Still and all, I’ve got enough trouble as it is keeping up the place without adding gutters to the burden.

Also, the eaves extend far enough that rain and snowmelt don’t puddle next to the foundation.

With one exception.

At the southwest corner of the house, the angles of the roof channel all the rainwater into a shallow defile that empties, rather like the outlet stream from a glacial hanging valley, directly onto the ground just a couple feet from the foundation.

The result is a muddy patch about the dimensions of a garbage can lid.

There’s nothing overtly malevolent about this, yet it vexes me just the same. I have an innate (and probably irrational) fear that these dousings, however infrequent, are sowing the seeds, as it were, for a sinkhole that one day will swallow half the house, in the general manner of an ant lion’s trap.

My wife, fortunately, is rather more rational, and practical, than I am.

She mentioned the situation to her dad, and soon after he delivered a rust-red plastic barrel which, I am told, formerly contained peppers.

(I presume the original buyer of the barrel was a restaurant. Anyway I can’t imagine what sort of household would have the appetite, not to mention the colons, necessary to get through 50 gallons of peppers before they had spoiled.)

The barrel is intended to first catch rainwater, then release it by way of a brass spigot installed, conveniently, near the barrel’s base.

After its dry run, so to speak, during a relatively gentle rain in early May, I went outside expecting the barrel would be at best half full.

Its source, after all, is less than half the roof’s square footage.

But when I stepped onto the back porch I saw that the barrel was full to its brim, water sluicing down its sides.

We had of course no need for the water at the moment, as everything not under shelter was soaked.

But I foresaw how a summer cloudburst would easily fill the barrel, and allow us to dole out the contents to shrubs, flowers and trees without spraying a single molecule of city water.

This savings is of no great consequence, to be sure.

Baker City’s water supply is ample. And the cost per gallon, compared with pretty much any other Oregon city, is small.

Still and all, I like the notion of gleaning something more from a cloudburst than the brief, but refreshing, relief from the heat of a July afternoon.

. . .

One thing a rain barrel can’t do is replicate the pleasant task of puttering about in the yard when every patch of ground is soft and moist.

I much prefer this to the dusty desiccation that sets in, generally, around Independence Day.

During spring the soil has the yielding consistency that makes it almost a pleasure to pull weeds. Never is it easier to achieve the great satisfaction of twisting a dandelion and yanking free the whole of the taproot, a unique triumph in the eternal battle against undesirable foliage.

By August you’d need a jackhammer to beat the dandelion. Ground ivy (also known as dollar weed) is more stubborn still.

The grass is never so green as in the midst of a damp stretch in May.

It’s a carefree time to stroll around, knowing the plants, at least until the rains cease, can thrive without any help.

I tend to look with a wider eye, as it were, than later in the year, when I focus on the brown patches and the husks of once-glorious blooms.

I noticed, for instance, during an early-season pass with the lawnmower how my elder willow, which I planted 17 years ago, has a trunk of respectable girth.

And its roots have pushed up the ground so that an area once flat now slopes, rather like a miniature shield volcano, with the trunk where the crater would be.

This is a subtle change, in the way of trees, which frequently frustrate me with their sluggishness. But it’s also a significant change for me, who has cropped the grass around this willow’s base several hundred times since I buried its roots in the soil.

Anyway it seemed to me a fine way to be reminded of the inexorable march of time, to feel under my feet how roots, both the real ones of a willow and the figurative ones of my own, have made a place theirs.

 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.