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Creating simple systems on your backyard farm, such as a rainwater management system, is incredibly important to managing your homestead, decreasing costs, and maximizing your backyard farming resources. When we first started backyard farming, managing irrigation, creating a rainwater collection system, and landscaping our yard for water conservation were always on the to do list. Looking back, this is one thing I wish we had gotten right from the start.
Rain is a free resource that is a necessity for your garden, so it only makes sense to create a system to collect and use this resource. There are many ways to create a water catchment and irrigation system, but what matters most is what works for you on your property. For some people, this might mean a simple rain barrel and hose attachment, while for other this might be a complete rainwater catchment system with tanks and drip irrigation.
If you haven’t already gone through the process of setting goals for your backyard farm – check out the resources here to help you get started.
Why is Rainwater Management Important?
Water is a valuable resource. In many places water shortages are a real problem, and even those living in typically ‘wet’ places will experience drought at some point. Just last year we reached drought conditions in NH. This led to mandatory water restrictions and a real concern that our well would run dry. A rainwater management system on your property will help ensure that you are maximizing the use of the rain that falls, by collecting it, controlling it and use it directly in your garden.
There is another reason why collecting rainwater (or harvesting rainwater) is beneficial. During a hard rain, the water runs off the surface faster then the soil can absorb it. This runoff causes erosion that can degrade the soil in your garden, create problems in landscaping, and wash soil and chemicals into nearby water sources.
What is Rainwater Management?
Complete rainwater management on your property is creating a system (or series of systems) the takes three different elements into account. I will go into more detail about each of these 3 management strategies below.
1. Landscaping for water conservation on your property. There are many methods to managing your landscape to decrease runoff, collect water, and improve water conservation. This is the easiest method to use long term, since once your landscaping is in place, you won’t have to do much management. This strategy includes berms, water gardens, mulching and more. Decreasing water usage also falls into this category.
2. Water catchment to collect rainwater. Creating a reservoir system for collecting rainwater means that during times of dry conditions, you have a reservoir of rainwater for use on your property. You can collect rainwater in a rain barrel off your roof, in rainwater tanks, or even in a pond.
3. Garden irrigation system for water conservation. Once you’ve collected the rainwater, it’s important to set up an irrigation system for your garden. The exact system you use will be different depending on the size of your garden, your climate, and personal preference. Irrigation systems include: drip irrigation, soaker hoses, sprinklers and more. This final step is key to a good rainwater management system.
Landscaping for Water Conservation
There are many methods to creating a landscape that favors water conservation. Permaculture practices encourage many of these landscape techniques and start with the idea that storing water in the soil across your backyard farm is your biggest water resource. The overall idea is to decrease runoff and increase water absorption. You can do this by making the soil more permeable and by slowing down the speed of the water so it has time to absorb. Another strategy is to strategically plant things so that drought tolerant plants get less water and things (like Elderberry) that like their feet water are planted somewhere in your yard that collects more water.
The following suggestions all work to decrease runoff and promote filtration as part of a rainwater management system:
- Start with your soil. Healthy soil will more readily absorb water. If your soil is heavy clay soil, it will be difficult for water to penetrate. Our soil was so clay rich at our last house that we decided to build raised beds which improved our soil filtration. Adding mulch is also key in decreasing runoff.
- Reduce the size of your lawn. Especially if you live somewhere that requires daily watering to your lawn, decreasing or eliminating your lawn will cut down on your water usage.
- Bare soil is prime for erosion, especially on a slope. Plant something along the slope with strong roots that will help hold the slope and soil in place.
- Slow the water flow with berms. Berms are built along a slope (like a shelf) and stop the water from simply running down the slope. The water is forced to paused which increased filtration. You can also use a berm to direct water into a pond or other catchment area. The area between berms is called a swale and is where the water collects.
- Another similar method is to build terraces in the side of a hill (think vineyard or rice patties) This is a good method if you are planning to plant on the slope.
Putting it into practice. The next time it rains, take note of where the water is running off in your yard, or loos for areas of your yard where water can run directly downhill without any impediment. Are there parts of your yard or garden that are always dry? Decide what methods you can use to improve the landscaping for water conservation.
Water Catchment to Collect Rainwater
The part of our property that sees the most erosion and runoff is from our barn roof onto our driveway. Catching this rain not only helps decrease the runoff, but also creates a source of water we can use when it is dry and is a key part of our rainwater management system. Deciding what is the best water catchment system for you depends on several factors. Start by considering:
- How much water do you need to collect? Will this be for watering the garden, providing a water resource for your backyard farm animals, or just filling a watering can for your patio plants?
- What do you have available for collecting water? Do you have a large roof?
- How close is your water collecting area (roof) to what you need to water? If your garden is uphill and far away from your house, how will you get your water to it?
If possible, you should collect your water as close as you can to where you want to use your water and your water tank or rain barrel will be uphill of your garden. You do need some method for putting water into a tank or barrel, but even a small roof will rapidly fill a rain barrel. in an average rainfall, a 20×50 foot roof can collect over 500 gallons of water in one hour. We have a small rain barrel under our chicken coop roof that stays full in all but the driest periods.
Rain barrels are the most popular method for collecting rainwater on a small property. You can purchase rain barrel kits or buy a decorative rain barrel that blends in with your yard. To set up a rain barrel you’ve purchased, simply put it beneath a gutter under your roof. You can buy a downspout or rainwater diverter as well. You will want to raise the rain barrel up so you can use gravity to get the water out and get a bucket or watering can under the spigot. You should also consider what will happen when the barrel overflows, and make sure the water doesn’t just run down into your basement.
If you’re trying the rain barrel DIY method, you can also purchase barrels inexpensively and add on a spigot to the bottom and create a way for the water to get in the top. Having some sort of screen on top of your rain barrel helps keeps bugs out of your barrel. We’ve done both – purchased a rain barrel and created a rain barrel system on our own, and while you might save a small amount of money building your own rain barrel, we found the cost saving to be minimal. The best rain barrel for you will be the easiest one to use.
If you have a large roof, you can link several rain barrels together for a large collection system. You can see a good example here. This is a great method for a small farm rainwater management system as you can add and subtract barrels as needed.
Rainwater collection tanks (or cisterns) are an excellent way to store water if you have a large collection surface and a high need for water. Many places around the world use residential rainwater collection for their home water needs. This article focuses on water collection systems for your garden and homestead. Using harvested water on a larger scale is beneficial to you and the community. These tanks are usually metal or plastic.
Depending on the size of your tank, you can either direct water straight from you gutters, or if you need to position your tank away from you home, you can connect your tank to your gutters with underground pipes. You can also put your entire rainwater tank underground. If you are unable to locate your water tank uphill and use gravity, you may need to purchase a water pump to get your water where you want it to go.
Both rain barrels and rainwater tanks need special care in the winter when the water freezes. We usually empty out the water since we don’t need it in the winter.
Rainwater Storage Ponds
A final method to harvesting rainwater, is to store your water in a pond. This can be an already existing pond, or a man made pond for this purpose. When you need water from the pond, you would need to pump it out for use in the garden. To gather water in a pond, you can use pipes to direct water from a roof, or create landscaping that points water into this space. Your pond will not collect water if it isn’t below the water table level or doesn’t have a solid bottom (like a pool). If you are able, using an existing pond is the easiest way to set up this type of rainwater management system.
Garden Irrigation System for Water Conservation
A final component to a rainwater management system is to create a good system of irrigation for your garden. This is likely the most labor intensive part of your rainwater management system. You irrigation system can be as simple as hand watering, or as complicated as creating an automatic watering system on a timer that starts a sprinkler or drip irrigation at a certain time each day. Here are a few tips to maximize your water usage and eliminate waste:
- Water in early morning or in the evening after the sun goes down to decrease the amount of water lost due to evaporation
- Try to get your water as close to the roots as possible – drip irrigation works well for this.
- Avoid watering ware ground and paths – a sprinkler is great, but it is often hard to just water your plants – this also helps manage weeds
- Watch the weather and don’t water if it is going to rain or just rained (this is mostly if you’re using a timed system)
- Water deeply and less frequently – this encourages roots to grow deeper and means more water is going to the roots
- Know when to water your plants. Different plants have different needs that change during the growing season. It is important to keep the area moist when seeds are sprouting, however the same plants may need less water later in the season when they have a bigger root structure
- Keep an eye out for overwatering since this can lead to all types of problems with your plants
- If you are setting up an irrigation system from a rain barrel you may have issues with low pressure
This refers to using a sprinkler for watering your plants. This system works well if you have plenty of water since there is more waste. It is also easy to move around and you don’t need to worry about avoiding hoses when you are weeding or working in the garden.
This method allows you to direct water right to the root base. This system does take more time to set up initially, but once it’s in place you just need to turn on the water. We’ve used this in both our traditional garden bed and our raised beds.
Learn more about the best drip irrigation systems.
Soaker Hose Irrigation
This is a similar method to drip irrigation, but the hose leaks out into the ground. You do need level ground for this to work successfully, but you can run water right along the root base.
No matter what method you use, you will likely also be doing some hand watering. This means lugging buckets to fruit trees, using the watering can for potted plants or hard to reach areas, or using the hose with a sprayer to target certain areas. This is a great method for only watering what you want but is obviously labor intensive.
Garden Irrigation Systems
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