GAINESVILLE—In case of snow, the Georgia custom is to shut things down. Schools close. Meetings are postponed.
Fat flakes were flying sideways on March 8, yet everyone showed up at the Cedar Hill Enrichment Center. They wanted to learn how to make rain barrels in a class taught by a Master Gardener.
The southeastern United States has been suffering from a severe drought for more than a year. Last summer, state and local governments imposed stricter and stricter water restrictions. By August, outdoor watering was banned in Atlanta. Food gardens were exempt. Gardeners saved their shower water to try to keep plants alive. Atlanta-based Pike Nurseries went bankrupt.
If people save the water that runs off their roofs into rain barrels, they can rescue their gardens without violating any watering bans. Georgia's average rainfall is 50 inches a year, and even during this severe drought, there is still more rain than in arid parts of the country. According to the teacher, people who attended the first class took their fifty-five gallon rain barrels home, had rain the next day, and filled the barrels.
Kat Stratton, Master Gardener, Wildlife Habitat Steward, and Director of Cedar Hill Enrichment Center, taught the class, in partnership with North Georgia College and State University. The center is a retreat place, educational center, and model of sustainable living founded by two nuns who had worked in North Georgia for more than 30 years.
"We are trying to be self sustaining," said Stratton. "As stewards of the land, it is our responsibility to conserve, to save what we have and be mindful of it." The Cedar Hill staff try to grow their own food, which means they have to water things. Last year they had trouble watering. "You can tell who wants to live," said Stratton. The native plants are tolerating the drought, for droughts are common in the southeast. She fears some trees will die in the coming summer.
Flower House Dug Into a Hill
Even native plants need some water. Keeping barrels to catch runoff from roofs is an old fashioned way to conserve water. Stratton invited class members to say what they remembered of their parents or grandparent's ways of handling water. One Dawson County native man's aunt, a teacher, had a "flower house dug into the side of a hill," with a roof slanted to a rain barrel from which she watered the flowers. Without the barrel she would have had to draw water from a well and carry buckets to her flower house.
One man's grandfather rearranged his house plumbing so that water drained from sinks and tubs flushed the toilets. "There was a lot of wisdom in those old ways," said Stratton.
Make Sure You Get Food Grade
Stratton had everything ready so the students could take home finished barrels. She had gathered fifty-five gallon plastic drums, smelling not too faintly of root beer. "Make sure you get food grade," said she. If giant containers of soda syrup are not accessible remember that a sturdy trash can makes a fine rain barrel.
Here is exactly how to do it:
1. A barrel with a top.
3. Four inch drains
4. Rubber Cement
6. A drill to make a four inch and 5/16 inch hole
7. Or a jigsaw, which would be much harder—use the drill!
8. A 5/16 diameter faucet
9. A 5/16 threaded pipe for overflow
10. There is a little gadget that can make threads in the holes you drill. Not required, but nice.
Drill two four-inch holes in the top. It must have a top so that children, squirrels, chickens, leaves and mosquitoes cannot get in. Cut a four inch circle of screen and glue it on top of the drains with rubber cement. Drill a 5/16 hole about 8-10 inches from the bottom, and another one near the top. Coat the stem of the faucet with rubber cement and twist it into the hole. Coat the pipe with rubber cement and twist it into the upper hole. The two screen coated drains sit in the top holes.
The barrel should sit on a sturdy, flat base. A fifty-five gallon barrel can weigh 400 pounds when full. Stacked cinderblocks are one good base. If the house has gutters, it is possible to route the water into the barrel with a flexible tube attached to the bottom of the downspout. One may also cut a downspout with tin snips or a hacksaw and position the barrel under it.
Do not feed the downspout all the way into the barrel. Heavy flow of water into the barrel can back up and burst the downspout pipes. Leave a gap between downspout and barrel. "Don't leave the overflow pipe open," cautioned Stratton, "mosquitoes can get in it." The teacher's nephew contributed a useful tip: one drop of oil in the water will prevent mosquitoes from hatching.
The intrepid, snow-defying students assembled their old fashioned conservation technology in an hour or less. They took their barrels home on roads clear of snow. They may have happier gardens this summer, and they may have done something to respect and conserve water.