Rain Barrel and Garden Conservation Methods

National Pollution Prevention Roundtable Tribal Workgroup Conference Call

Tuesday June 17, 2008 at 2 pm EDT, 1 pm CDT, Noon MDT, 11am PDT

Guest Speaker: Network Co-Chair Shannon Judd discussing her work at Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota promoting rain barrels and rain gardens (an information packet from Shannon’s Rain Barrel Workshop is available).

Shannon provided this link to a very useful and informative manual on rain gardens put together by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources:

Rain Barrels are set under the downspout coming off a roof to collect the rainwater rather than allowing it to run off to puddle near the foundation or run into storm drains or water bodies. The environmental benefits are large — for example, if a roof is 2000 sf, in an environment with 20 inches of rain in a year, there is the potential to collect 24,000 gallons of water in a year.

The barrel has to be food-grade (has held nothing toxic) because the intent is to use the water for gardens or other purposes like washing hair (rainwater is naturally soft with no minerals or chlorination) or washing cars. Barrels can sometimes be obtained for free from pop/soda bottling companies or other food re-packaging companies. The workshop packet includes instructions on how to construct the rain barrel, and has additional ideas of where to get one. Some hardware stores sell wooden barrels. One concern about rain barrels is mosquitoes breeding in standing water. It’s important to have a screen over the top of the barrel so mosquitoes can’t lay eggs in the water.

Shannon’s predecessor had constructed several rain barrels and sold them to community members. He found there was high demand. Shannon has found a lot of continued interest in her community. She decided to try to build capacity for individuals to construct their own rain barrels rather than provide them ready-made. She had collected 21 barrels and opened the workshop to 60 people, with up to 3 people constructing each rain barrel. Her intention was to then draw names from participants in the workshop to take one home. As it happened, only 21 people showed up for the workshop, but she’s received numerous calls for more information.

Shannon is working on getting a rain garden project going. She shared that she had the wrong idea at first about where to locate a rain garden, thinking it should be where rainwater tends to pool. In fact, that is not the appropriate place. A rain garden should be located where water infiltrate into the ground. If water is pooling, it shows a low infiltration rate. A better site is uphill of the pooling, to prevent water from running into the pooling area.

Many cities are putting rain gardens in medians and along curbs. They filter gas and pollutants in runoff, keep runoff out of storm drains and water bodies.

Shannon is hoping to set up rain barrels and design rain gardens at the school for the school garden, and also for garden at tribal resource management building. Rain garden construction can be inexpensive. For example, at the school she proposes to get the students to do the work. The school has a greenhouse — students can get rain garden plants started there. It is preferable to use native plants with longer root systems in a rain garden. It is hard to start plants from seed in rain garden — they tend to get taken over by weeds, and since there will be standing water some of the time, young plants can be drowned. It is best to plant plants with established root system.

In Minnesota, the State DENR offers small education grants that may be obtained to support rain garden construction. Students are a great help and enjoy the work. Since rain gardens tend to attract dragonflies, butterflies and birds, rain gardens offer an opportunity for education about them as well as native plants and water pollution prevention.


  • Other sources for barrels include a salad dressing maker, and juice bottler.
  • Some green buildings are cycling the rainwater back for toilet water.
  • Christian Hicks’ apartment building (in Washington, DC) has an underground catchment for water that is circulated to a green roof and then available for drinking water. Another filtration option to provide drinking water is a charcoal barrel through which the rainwater is filtered. For those with an asphalt roof, a filter barrel may be desirable even if the water is to be used only for gardening.
  • Tod LeGarde noted that they had used a contractor for rain garden construction, but now are learning how to do it themselves.