A black and white illustration by Rachel Speck. It's got a trippy vibe, two psychedelic clouds raining what look like blood because its dark water. There are stars around them that look like asterisks. In the top left corner is a crescent moon.


Dear Ian,

I write with a question for Dirt Nerd. The question is rain barrels. They seem like a good idea insofar as we have tons of roof runoff, and since I have a container garden that we water daily April to August. But also it seems to me that year-round we get way more rain than we’d need for the garden, so wouldn’t the water just build up and get gross? I am from Colorado where water is so scarce that rain barrels were illegal till 2016 so it is still a seasonal surprise to have much more water to manage. Also we live right by Green Light New Orleans and their rain barrels are so pretty. Really my question would be: rain barrels in New Orleans, please discuss.

Why Rain Barrels?

It’s true that we get a lot of rain, but also we get a lot of heat—a whole lot of heat. And save for a very specific part of the year, we don’t get a lot of rain all of the time. We get a lot of rain some of the time and then we don’t get any rain for days and days.

So, the short answer is yes—especially if you have a container garden which you are watering every day (and which you should water every day; good for you; everybody should do that and nobody does that). In terms of most basic practicality, there is no good reason not to have a rain barrel with which to collect rain with which to water your plants. Because even if you don’t use that luscious natural water all the time, you will definitely have opportunities to use it most of the time. A rain barrel, for the uninitiated, is a covered container placed strategically to collect rainwater, usually from a residence’s downspout or some other water catchment system.

It gets better though. This is America, and America runs on money. Specifically, America runs on every American’s inherent fear that they do not have enough money to keep up with their bills, whether they be as simple and essential as paying rent, or as complex and superfluous as diversifying your cryptocurrency portfolio and keeping your skincare routine up to snuff. The fear never leaves, but rain barrels can help. On the spectrum, watering your plants generally is not a huge expense, unless “your plants” include a well-manicured lawn that needs chronic irrigation. But saving water from the sky really can make a small dent in your bills. More importantly though, it helps to beat the fear because it is a tangible and reasonably inexpensive move you can make to place your life outside of a money economy, if only in your mind and in your garden. And from there, you can go anywhere. Also, if you’re able to think beyond the urgency of your water bill, rain barrels have other economic benefits as well, in a big picture way, in a what’s-good-for-my-neighbor-is-good-for-me way, in a you-are-not-a-thing-apart-from-the-things-you-are-a-part-of way.

You can save New Orleans with your rain barrel. This is not hyperbolic. The power is yours. And if America’s debt fear magic has got you so twisted you can’t get it in your head that this matters in your here and now, we can make it about you and your bottom line, no problem. Saving rain water in containers stops it from saturating the ground during the evermore frequent heavy rains that cause flash flooding in our fair city. Really and truly, if rain barrels were bountiful across the parish, we would probably not have to worry about floods by way of heavy rainwater. Seriously. Meantime, every gallon saved makes a difference: less water that our ever-breaking water pumps have to pump out means less water pumps breaking down, which means less flooding happening, which means a less horrifically incompetent Water Board sinking ever more deeply into debt, which means they might actually end up with a little surplus income to fix their deep-seated (not seeded, no space for relevant puns here) infrastructural and economic issues, and thusly stop raising your water bill to fix their mistakes. Also on top of that, our streets will get destroyed by water inundation with less frequency and that means less of your tax dollars will go towards fixing the streets, and who knows where that money will go instead? Maybe, just maybe, it goes somewhere else that benefits your life by making New Orleans just a little more OK.

Rainwater is better for your plants. It just is. Having been rigorously cleansed by the earth by way of travelling the skies, it is, first and foremost, clean. It gets better. Our soils lean alkaline in New Orleans, making many minerals in the soil not particularly bioavailable to vegetables and other plants. Rainwater, however, is a little bit acidic and helps to acidify soils just by existing. Do you want more? Well, rain is basically fertilizer. It collects nitrates when in the air and delivers them to the soil. Nitrates are the form of nitrogen that is readily available for plants to use (nitrogen being the key nutrient essential to plant growth). Manufacturing nitrates is pretty much only evil, so using rainwater as a natural delivery system of nitrates to your garden is incredible and not to be ignored. Also, rainwater tends to be oxygenated, and thus can literally help your soil and plants breathe better. Tap water is none of these things and also tends to have salt and plenty of chemical residue in it that, over time, degrades the quality of your soil, inevitably and without question.

If you are collecting rainwater, you may still have to water with the tap sometimes, but you’ll never have to do it all the time.

How Rain Barrels?

Green Light New Orleans is the premier proselytizer of rain barrel promulgation in the city. They have a hefty waitlist these days, but the nonprofit is dedicated to delivering and setting up artfully crafted and painted rain barrels across the land. They have a pay-what-you-can system in place to mitigate costs and expand possibilities across the board.

If you’d rather not wait, prefabricated rain barrels are available for sale regularly on Craigslist and other online marketplaces. I saw some for sale out front of Whole Foods the other day for $99 a pop. And honestly, that’s not unreasonable. You should expect to pay at least $70 for a barrel that is ready to go, new or used. If you find one cheaper, great job.

You can find food grade 55 gallon barrels and DIY them into rain barrels fairly easily, though the barrels themselves tend to cost $50 at best, used (in my experience). So you’re not going to save a ton of money this way. There are thousands of videos on YouTube on how to construct rain barrels (one I like: “Building a Rain Barrel – Easy as 1, 2, 3” by Okanagan WaterWise), so I’m going to let you watch some hands in action rather than use my words to describe what your hands should do. I will say that you absolutely must not skip the mesh netting lid portion of your buildout though, unless you want to exponentially increase the magnitude of what will already inevitably be a mosquito-inundated summer in your backyard.

Most rain barrels are 55 gallons and will fill up fast in any rain storm if you are collecting with a gutter. It is relatively easy to install a multiple rain barrel system if you’re feeling handy. Again, I recommend YouTube (“Link multiple 55 gallon closed top barrels to collect rain water” by  Xueming Yu). Even better, if you’re willing to throw down a few extra dollars and have the means of transportation, skip the barrel part altogether and invest in an IBC (Intermediate bulk container) tote tank. They are opaque white plastic cubes with metal bars around them (you know the one). They also come readily equipped with a hole on top for collecting and a spout on the bottom for pouring, and their standard size is 275 gallons. That’s five rain barrels, already ready to party. They’re not as cute, but beauty is a social construct anyhow, so there.

Manage water. Save your plants. Save the city. Save money. Save yourself from the unabating fear that you will never have enough. Look upon your rain barrel and see the truth, that your cup runneth over.

If you’ve got questions for the Dirt Nerd, feel free to email ian@hotplantsnursery.com or visit @hotplantsnursery.

illustrations Rachel Speck

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