By Wendy Kilmer
When the weather warms in West Texas, as sure as the onset of late evening sunsets, Little League baseball and long days at the swimming pool, Abilenians can count on water rationing. Fortunately, Abilene’s tendency toward summer drought doesn’t have to mean lackluster lawns and landscapes. In addition to wise planting choices, some basic equipment for putting rain to good use can lead to healthy flowers, vegetables and turf despite the climate challenges.
Rain barrels and rain chains are growing in popularity as a way to catch and use the rain Abilene does receive, thus saving the city-treated water for other uses. Jo Rake, vice president and rainwater harvesting specialist for the Big Country Master Gardener’s Association, said she became interested in the topic because of it’s ease and applicability for this area.
“It’s such a need in this area where we experience drought,” Rake said. “This is an easy, simple way to use resources, so why not? It’s so simple. It’s something everybody can do.”
Not only simple, also free. The City of Abilene provides 55-gallon rain barrels and kits (allowing you to add a faucet to the barrel) at no cost through the storm water services division, thanks to a partnership with Coca Cola. The barrels and kits can be picked up during normal business hours from the Environmental Recycling Center at 2209 Oak St. while supplies last.
Various sizes, styles and types of rain barrels and other collection containers can be bought at local nurseries and home improvement stores and from the Big Country Master Gardener’s Association. Many multi-purpose large containers can be put to use collecting water with a few modifications as well, Rake says.
“You want something that hasn’t had chemicals in it, and it’s better for it to be dark than white to prevent algae from growing in it. You can always paint it a darker color. You’ll need to cut out part of it to attach some kind of faucet, and you’ll want the top open for rain to flow into it. You can create a filter with a plant container that has holes in the bottom and add a layer of netting,” Rake suggests.
The collected rain is most often used for watering flower beds, gardens and lawns, depending on the amount collected. And the benefit of using rain water rather than water from the city isn’t just related to conservation; rain water is actually better for your plants, Rake said. Pure rainwater is high in nitrogen, which your plants need, and doesn’t have the added chemicals that your plants don’t need.
“When rainwater runs off into the street, it picks up debris and oils, so at the lake, it requires more treatment with chemicals,” Rake said. “By collecting rainwater directly, you’ve saved water from having to go through that process. Depending on how much you harvest, it’s not always a huge difference in your water bill, but it will help with less chemicals going into the water that you use on your plants.”
Rain chains offer a more decorative element to help collect and direct rain water. The metal (often copper) chains hang from the roof and direct water runoff much like a gutter. They offer a soothing running water noise and can be connected to a container to harvest the water, or can simply direct the water to your yard rather than your house foundation.
Although these types of rain water collection may seem unfamiliar, the underlying principle is a longstanding one.
“When you talk to older people, they point out that it’s the same principle as a cistern,” Rake said. “It’s just something we’ve been forced to realize again: we have to do better with resources that we have.”
Another important way to use Abilene’s rainfall efficiently is in your choice of plants when designing your yard, flower beds and gardens. Xeriscape – landscaping designed for water conservation – principles provide guidelines to preparing your soil and choosing your plants for the arid Abilene climate.
“Xeriscape plants are important, and xeriscaping is not just rocks and cactus,” Rake says. “You do want to make sure what you buy is heat tolerant. Many plants are very good in this climate. Crepe myrtles do well, and there are both bush and tree varieties. They don’t require a lot of water. There are some very pretty succulents. Roses do well in this area, as well as day lilies and salvias and sages, just to name a few.”
Lists of recommended, climate-friendly plants are available at the County Extension office at 1982 Lytle Way as well as online at keepabilenebeautiful.org. Keep Abilene Beautiful’s website also offers details on the seven principles of xeriscaping. The Big Country Master Gardener’s Association has a spring and fall plant sale where all plants available are appropriate for the Abilene area.