Keeping up with the Joneses also typically means keeping up with the latest trends. It used to be that only folks who spent a lot of time digging in the dirt wore Crocs. Today, almost every major brand of footwear offers a version of the chunky rubber shoe, and almost every brand of human—from just-walking babies to third-shift nurses—wears them.
And now there’s another garden-born trend: rain barrels. While their size and cost should prevent them from turning into mere accessories, these containers come in an increasing variety of styles and prices, as my family learned recently.
A link at www.mtnharvest.com—the Web site of the Fairview-based Mountain Harvest Florist and Garden Center—brings up a YouTube video about making your own rain barrel out of scavenged materials. For the less industrious, Mountain Harvest also sells ready-made barrels, but store manager Rebecca Houser muses, “Doing it yourself might get you thinking more about the birds, butterflies and woodland animals that are part of your landscaping.” Getting a rain barrel, she says, isn’t “just about sustaining the ornamental aspect of your garden.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Linda J. Patterson’s fledgling company, Mountain Rainwater Systems (www.mountainrainwater.com). Folks with good intentions but no time pay Patterson to hook up their barrels; her compact but lush West Asheville bungalow showcases three types, gracefully insinuated into the architectural landscape. “You can do so much just in your own small space,” she observes.
Getting a barrel going can be tricky, though—especially in Western North Carolina, where lawns slope inconveniently and decks hover over air. “I just did a job in Mars Hill that was especially tough,” says Patterson, describing a MacGyver-worthy installation at a steeply graded mountain homesite. But whether customers want to rig up their own or have it done professionally, “I invite people to take a look at the different styles,” she explains.
A survey turned up some other options around town. In the River District, Quality Forward sells a black barrel—made by RainWater Solutions of Raleigh out of recycled materials—for $155. “They come with everything—faucets, hose, clamps, a fitted screen,” says Executive Director Susan Roderick. Shoddily assembled or underequipped barrels, she warns, can lead to mosquito bogs or contaminated rainwater that’s unsuitable for use on garden edibles.
Down the road at Earth Fare, $79 will buy a gray or rust-colored barrel that began its life as an olive, pepper or garlic container. Pressure-washed and retooled, the barrels come with most of what you need—though ours required an additional length of flex elbow pipe (purchased at Lowe’s) so we could fully affix it to our downspout.
Some short blocks west, the Haywood Road Market offers a $99 rain barrel. The hot-blue drums (which my secretly picky husband nixed solely on the basis of their color), “are definitely designed to be under a downspout,” Operations Manager Greg Mosser confirms.
On a larger scale, however, such details must give way to pure practicality. The WNC Nature Center, for example, plans to install two 200-gallon cisterns as part of an intensified focus on water issues. The system will supply the animal sanctuary’s 42 acres (including the new butterfly hoop garden and the center’s award-winning native-plant garden), staffer Dan Clere reports.
“They’re essentially just two above-ground containers, though the process of connecting them is more sophisticated” than with ordinary rain barrels, he explains. A grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina is funding both the cisterns and a traveling educational exhibit titled “Native Waters,” notes Clere.
Over at the center’s Poultry Palace, a functioning rain barrel doubles as an exhibit for visitors, who can buy one on site. The foundation grant will also enable the nonprofit to place 19 such barrels at local schools. “We have a lot of aspirations here to be more ecologically friendly,” says Clere.
Chris Hanson of AquaPro Solutions is pursuing the same mission on an even grander scale. The Leicester-based company sells water-conservation products—such as earth-friendly septic-tank treatments and waterless urinals—to a global market. AquaPro is involved with two major local projects. One entails monitoring a comprehensive set of cisterns that harvest rain from the roofs of Warren Wilson College buildings. The other is planning a graywater-reclamation system for the vast roof of Asheville’s Habitat for Humanity Home Store on Meadow Road.
“For every square foot of roof, you can get about a half-gallon of rainwater,” says Hanson. (Habitat will use the water for things like testing the condition of donated washing machines.) “Water efficiency and conservation have become very important,” he adds, “and the issue is about to get even more important.”
For her part, Houser—a UNCA art student majoring in ceramics—is all for blending eco-consciousness with aesthetics. “I enjoy encouraging others to be creative,” she says. “People look at rain barrels and say, ‘I don’t want it to look like a big trash can stuck to my house.’ But there are a number of things that can be made into cylindrical containers. Or you could paint or stucco your barrel, depending on what you made it out of. [And] you could make a barrel out of clay.”
Still, the bare-bones models serve most folks just fine. “Right now, in Asheville, it’s kind of a status symbol to have any rain barrel,” notes Roderick.
Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]