Among the shovels, sprinklers and potting soil needed to make your beautiful garden, consider another piece of equipment to be just as essential. Adding a rain barrel to your yard can capture rain streaming off the roof from the gutter that would otherwise go straight down the storm drain. Don't let this valuable source of water get away! A rain barrel is the best way to get a safe, free source of extra water for your flowers.

Why do I want a rain barrel?

Collecting water in a rain barrel means you don't have to pay for water for your garden. And if you live under water restrictions, it means you can continue watering your outdoor plants. You can use the collected water to feed your flowers rather than using a hose or watering can filled from the house. Turning on the hose for a few minutes a day may not seem like much, but homeowners may save 1,300 gallons over the course of the growing season by using a rain barrel instead.

Another benefit is reducing the runoff from your yard. That water flowing from your roof and landscape can contain chemical contaminants from roofing material and the treated lawn. It can also contain bacteria that could affect water quality and the wildlife feeding from that water, such as in a lake or river.

What can I do with the water?

Water your plants! Depending on what's in your tap water, it might be healthier for your plants to drink the rainwater instead. The water pressure from a rain barrel won't be strong enough to hook up to a hose for watering the lawn, but you can find or make specialty soaker hoses that can keep a garden watered.

You can also use the water to wash patio furniture or other outdoor features. Even use it to have fun with, such as filling balloons. But don't drink the water – any contaminants from the roof would not be healthy. Also, don't wash the dog or the car – again, contaminants or debris could irritate skin or paint.

What do I look for in a good rain barrel?

A typical rain barrel is about 55 gallons, so make sure you have a large enough space for it. Get a sturdy barrel made of a strong plastic with UV resistance so it will hold up well to the weather. Look for a tight screen over the opening where the water comes in to keep out mosquitoes and debris. You also want a spout that's high enough to easily fill a watering can, but low enough that you can get out the last remaining water. A spout with a thread makes it easy to attach a hose.

In addition to gardening and home stores, your municipality might sell rain barrels at a reduced price to encourage water conservation.

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