rain barrels

Winter Rain

Summer rain is a blessing here on the west coast of Canada, but from November through January rain is something else. That’s when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall, and it’s the reason many people refer to this fortunate part of the world as the “wet coast.”  The average rainfall in each of those 3 months is about 100 mm. (4 in.), but I have recorded amounts as high as 246 mm. (nearly 10 in.), in November 1998 and 297 mm. (about 11.5 in.), in November 2006.

Aside from problems such as flooded basements, this rain is annoying because it comes at the low point of the garden year, when not much is growing and watering is definitely not an issue. Rain barrels are kind of a joke here. In winter I don’t bother to collect water in mine; I move the drain hoses to the bottom tap and let the water run through, draining into the pond. In summer the barrels would be empty much of the time if I didn’t fill them with the hose, for hand-watering purposes. Winter rain is, in a sense, wasted.

The best solution would be to capture and store it somehow, for use in summer. I have visions of a huge storage tank somewhere near the garden shed, or a cistern under the house. The houses used by lighthouse keepers here on the coast (yes, we still have staffed light stations, despite sporadic initiatives on the part of the federal government to close them down), are equipped with cisterns. Water from the roof drains into the cistern and is used for household purposes. It works. So why aren’t cisterns standard in all houses built in summer-dry places such as ours?

In a way, my region does have a huge communal cistern, in the Sooke Hills to the west of the city. It’s the reservoir from which we draw our drinking water (and washing water, and swimming pool water, and garden-watering water).  Several years ago it was enlarged, a matter of controversy at the time. Usually it takes a couple of months to fill up once the rains start in fall, after which any surplus drains away. From May 1 to September 30, which is when rainfall becomes slight or nonexistent, the region is under watering restrictions. Because of this and other water-conserving measures, our total consumption has remained constant for the past decade or so, despite an increase in population. So I suppose that works too.

In the meantime, we are expecting a “pineapple express” here in the next couple of days, a period of heavy rain and warm temperatures from a monster weather system stretching from Haida Gwaii to Hawaii, tapped into tropical air and moisture. Floods may occur — it’s time to prime our sump pumps and get out that wet-dry vacuum! We don’t need to worry about our rain barrels; our lawns are green and lush, and are likely to remain that way through Christmas.

Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are fashionable these days. If you want credibility as an environmentally responsible gardener, you install a rain barrel or two. For about $100 you can get a purpose-made model (plastic, of course) with various nifty features. Or you can make your own.  I have three home-made barrels — two used to be plastic garbage containers and the third is actually a genuine wooden barrel — very picturesque.

Funky Wooden Barrel

Former Garbage Can

There’s only one problem — it doesn’t rain here in the summer. In April and May my barrels actually fill up with rainwater, and I use it for the small amount of watering I do at the time — newly planted things or pots.

In June, rain becomes scarce and by July nonexistent. My rain barrels would be empty until late August or September if I didn’t fill them with the hose. How ironic is that?

Filling up with the hose does make sense. I do that only to the two plastic former garbage cans, which are open at the top. The funky wooden barrel stays mostly full of rainwater, because I draw from it very sparingly. Empty, it would dry out and crack. But the two plastic barrels are handy water reservoirs for filling my watering can, which gets daily use through the summer. It’s much faster to fill by dipping into the barrel than starting up the hose every time. I get through an entire hand-watering session (a zillion pots plus half a dozen especially water-needy plants in the ground) on one barrel fill-up.

In summer I think I should have been born under the sign of Aquarius.