Water, water, everywhere

Rain barrels are must-have items for eco-friendly gardeners.

Richard McCarthy, Gavin MacArthur and Bonnie Goldblum are all fans of rain barrels.

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPHS

If you’re looking for the newest garden accessory, here’s a hint: It isn’t a gazing globe. It’s an oversize food-grade plastic container that’s been rigged with a spigot and mounted on a pedestal beneath a modified downspout.

“They’re like jewels,” says Richard McCarthy, beaming as he describes the new rain barrels he had placed at his home in April. The executive director of Market Umbrella, the parent organization of the Crescent City Farmers Market, McCarthy recently returned from Japan to discover that the blue barrels he and his wife, Bonnie Goldblum, commissioned had been installed in their absence. They came just in time to set off the nasturtiums blooming

in the yard. “We were looking for something to match our blue shutters,” McCarthy says, laughing.  “Now we have it!”

Laughing aside, rain barrels are the latest phase of sustainable chic to sweep New Orleans, a community understandably taken by alternative strategies as we continue to rebuild. And rebuild.

Gavin MacArthur and Allison Alsup of MacArthur Park LLC, who installed McCarthy and Goldblum’s barrels, have four rain-catching barrels (in deep red) at their own home in Carrollton. Demetria Christo and Travis Cleaver, co-owners of EcoUrban LLC Sustainable Landscape Design and Services, recently installed a two-barrel system at  The Porch Seventh Ward Cultural Center and an elevated four-barrel system at the Milne Boys Home in Gentilly.

Alsup turned to rain barrels two years ago, when she and MacArthur doubled the size of their garden by buying the lot next door. She immediately saw her monthly water bills drop by about $40 a month, she says. “When you do the math, that’s $500 a year –– and that’s real money,” Alsup says. When she and MacArthur relocated and acquired another side lot last year, 55- to 65-gallon water barrels were integral to the new garden’s design.
“So much of what we call ‘green’ is what people, until the second half of the 20th century, called ‘common sense,’” says Alsup. In a garden that encompasses eight 3-foot-by-8-foot raised vegetable beds, a large raised herb bed and a courtyard, she has used municipal water only twice this year. MacArthur, meanwhile, has added rain barrel installation to the services he offers as a renovation contractor.

The intent of the McCarthy-Goldblum barrels is to cut back on water bills, but it’s also to inspire the unconverted. The rain barrels go hand-in-hand with the compost bin they installed in the front yard — where, incidentally, they replaced the lawn with an edible garden. It’s their hope that passersby will be inspired to think about adopting similar practices.

Rainwater is free –– an appealing thing during a recession.  More important, from a plant’s point of view, is the fact that rainwater is free of chloramine, the combination of chlorine and ammonia that the Sewerage and Water Board uses to kill microorganisms. It’s also more acidic than tap water, which, in New Orleans as in most municipal systems, is kept alkaline precisely to preserve the chloramine that kills the bugs. Alkaline water prevents plants from taking in essential nutrients such as iron and boron, says EcoUrban’s Christo. Plants without iron suffer from chlorosis, which means their leaves turn yellow. Alkalinity also can thwart nitrogen uptake, effectively stopping plants from growing.

“Chloramine is a very good material for killing microorganisms, which is why we use it in our drinking water,” says J.O. Evans III, director of sustainable communities at FutureProof Sustainable Design Consultancy. “But it also kills all the organisms that are beneficial to plants, making them dependent on chemical fertilizers.” In effect, Evans says, city water turns healthy plants into addicts for additives.

Rainwater recycling is an important part of a larger conservation-minded approach, says Evans. Rainwater-capture systems help relieve stress on the city’s pumping system and alleviate street flooding, both important considerations as we enter hurricane system. They also cut down on the hidden costs of pumping municipal water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, running a faucet for five minutes uses about as much energy as burning a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours.

Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals  also gives its blessing to the use of rain barrels in gardens, with one important caveat: It’s essential to screen the top of a rain barrel to keep mosquitoes from breeding.

Unless you plan to add a pump, your rain barrel must also be elevated. Christo recommends placing barrels no lower than the height at which you would comfortably hold a hose when you water.

Color selection is limited, as are the accessories. For a quick green fix, though, a water barrel or three is hard to beat.

 

Where to find rain barrels

Food-grade barrels between 55 and 65 gallons capacity are the ideal containers for making your own rain barrels. We found them at White Elephant Trading Co. in Mandeville (985/624-5200) for about $15. A posting on craigslist.org in the New Orleans area also brought several offers from locals who were willing to sell vessels for $10 to $15 apiece. Nonprofit Groundwork New Orleans will connect callers with rain barrels and counsel them on other strategies for collecting rainwater; contact project manager Zach Youngerman at zach@groundworknola.org or by phone at 401/935-2113. If you don’t want to do it yourself, contact Gavin MacArthur of MacArthur Park Construction at 458-4524 or macarthurpark@cox.net or Demetria Christo at EcoUrban LLC at 274-8774.

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