Thursday, April 14, 2011

rain barrels are useless? no.

no-mow fescue in my front yard, no irrigation

There was a great article posted this week at Owen Dell's landscaping blog- great at least for spreading half-accurate information on irrigation and pissing a lot of rain barrel users off.  This was also commented on at the Garden Professors' blog, and just as controversial there.

I have never met Owen Dell.  Apparently he is a landscape architect too, but in Southern California.  In his article he posits that the needs of the average LA lawn come to 140,000 gallons a year, and that it would require 2,333 rain barrels to provide that amount of water.

There's a couple of problems with that.  First, who the hell needs to put 140,000 gallons of water on their lawn?  Unless you're subsisting entirely on what you grow, and your diet consists mostly of grass, you don't need anywhere near that amount of water.  It's a want, not a need.  Nobody needs to keep their lawn green all year.  Nobody needs a lawn for that matter, we just all seem to have them whether we really want them or not. 

Additionally, nobody needs to keep their lawn green for the entire summer.  The cool season grasses that most of us in Minnesota, and most of the rest of the country, grow- grow best during the cooler months of spring and fall.  In mid-summer, they naturally go dormant, turning a sort of greenish-yellowish-brown.  That's perfectly normal.  What is abnormal is the bright green grass on a golf fairway in July.

The other problem is that Mr. Dell is assuming that the rain barrel will fill only once per year, therefore requiring 2,333 rain barrels. Maybe it only rains once a year in Los Angeles, but the Twin Cities are a different story.  We get about 30 inches of precipitation a year, to LA's 12.  And ours is spaced out into little showers and storms here and there, not a few gully-washers (but with some snow thrown in for good measure).

The whole article left a bad taste in my mouth.  He offers other, very good, methods of storing rain on your property, but the rant against rain barrels just doesn't seem deserved.  He suggests that the best thing for homeowners to do, from an environmental as well as a cost-saving perspective, is to cut back on your irrigation.

But not to get rid of it-- that's the problem.  Irrigation is not a necessity.  There are plenty of un-irrigated yards in St. Paul, and they look fine!  But irrigation has been so heavily sold (by experts from LA) and the green-all-year idea has been so ingrained that most homeowners think they have to have it in order to have any grass grow at all.

In the course of my work I do cost estimates for clients.  I see that the irrigation system they believe that they need will cost them almost $1.50 per square foot, while adding extra inches of good-quality topsoil will cost 25 or 50 cents per square foot.  When it's time to cut costs, often the topsoil will be cut from the budget, but the sprinklers will remain, even though they represent an ongoing cost in thousands of gallons of drinking water applied every year, and the topsoil represents a free storage reservoir that would store pure rainwater effortlessly, right where the grass can use it best.

And, not to mention that the irrigation system is using drinking water.  This is the largest use of our drinking water in the Twin Cities, apparently.  We've taken water from the Mississippi, and from local lakes, added chlorine and fluoride to kill bacteria and help our teeth stay white, then spray most of that water on plants which are killed or injured by large amounts of chlorine and fluoride.  

The stupidity of it is baffling.

That's why I'm all for rain barrels, and for not installing irrigation.  Maybe a rain barrel won't replace the volume of water that an irrigation system could provide, but you probably didn't need all of the water the irrigation system was providing in the first place.

Rain barrels make you take notice of the water the sky is providing, and of how much you are using.  That seems worthwhile all by itself.   So I'm getting my rain barrel in May.  My neighborhood is offering a make-your-own-rain-barrel workshop this spring, and one of the options is a wooden whiskey barrel (at a subsidized price), which I've wanted for years anyway.  So I'm going May 7th, and will post pictures afterward. If you live in Union Park (in St. Paul) click the link above for the registration form.

It think it'll be fun. Screw what the landscape architects in LA think. 


  1. Your yard looks very beautiful; i like the grass you planted. can u please share the name of grass you planted on your yard.

    Thanks for sharing your yard's picture.

  2. The grass mix is called "no-mow fescue mix" and it's sold by Prairie Nursery of Central Wisconsin. I believe it's in Westscott, or a town of a similar name. I had to mail order 5 pounds of seed, as that's the smallest package they ship.

    There are other similar mixes out there now, as it's starting to catch on. If you would like to plant something similar, make sure it's an all-fescue mix, and that none of the fescues are tall fescue. That way, it tends to stay short *therefore the no-mow designation*. It's also surprisingly drought and shade tolerant so it does well in dry shade, which is always a challenge.

    The downside is that it takes more care to establish in the first growing season- but after that it seems almost unstoppable.