Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rain Garden, Rain Barrel, and Softening Our Footprint

Many of us who were green when green wasn’t cool are surprised and delighted to experience the sea change in society’s attitude toward conservation. Some of the ideas seem misguided but it's a start. Even TV and radio commercials for businesses like Home Depot mention taking care of the planet. Meijer has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to avoid selling invasives in the garden center, and energy-efficient lighting is becoming the norm. The list goes on. We now have electric cars and hybrids that are stylish! Recycling is no longer nerdy, and people who drive electric cars look pretty darn cool. Those who still use 6000 horsepower racing engines to get groceries look… not so cool.

Little things that we do to soften our footprint on the earth can have a significant effect if we sustain them over the years, teach them to our children and others, and if more and more people make the effort. Here are some things my wife and I do at our house to go easy on Earth, our favorite planet.

Rain Garden: Water from the roof goes to a rain garden in the back yard instead of a storm drain, where it can gradually seep into the soil. Wetland plants take up water and hopefully break down pollutants. In autumn, some of the detritus from herbaceous plants is mulched into the vegetable garden.

Brick Runnel: Made from scavenged street paving bricks, this porous paving system carries rain water from downspouts to the rain garden. It works beautifully and is fun to watch from a nearby window during a hard rain!

Rain Barrel: We catch rain water for use throughout the yard. The used plastic barrel was purchased for six bucks and I installed a valve near the base where a garden hose can be connected. The valve is a few inches above the base to avoid sediment. At the top we have a circular frame made from reclaimed wood to which is attached hardware cloth (wire mesh) to keep out detritus and window screen to prevent mosquito breeding. The downspout runs behind and underneath the barrel (see photo), and a wooden “diverter” allows water to be diverted into the barrel when necessary. When the diverter is placed in the ‘up’ position, water bypasses the barrel, goes onto the brick runnel and into the rain garden. If the diverter is down and the barrel gets full, an overflow hose (made from an old shopvac hose) sends the water down to the runnel. Scavenged concrete blocks elevate the barrel and allow the downspout to run underneath it. The barrel isn’t too attractive looking, so this year I plan to build a wooden latticework of reclaimed wood and allow a native vine (perhaps Clematis virginiana, Virgin’s Bower) to climb on it. In addition to concealing the barrel, it will provide shade to keep the water cool.

In winter, the diverter is removed and the hole in the downspout is covered with a split piece of downspout held in place with two zip ties. No big deal. The barrel is stored in the garage.

Food: This is what our meals look like. Mixed fresh and frozen vegetables (sodium and fat free) are cooked in a pressure cooker with a variety of sodium-free seasonings. After the pot comes up to pressure in about 5 minutes, it only has to cook another 5 minutes. We use a collapsible metal thing with holes in it to keep the veggies up out of the water at the bottom, and by filling the pot full there are enough veggies to last all week as side dishes. Very little energy is used for this. The fish and chicken that we eat cooks quickly too, but it is cooked fresh every time.

Compost: We have a large vegetable garden which has not seen fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide in the 17 years we’ve lived here. Instead of a compost heap, we bury kitchen midden and assorted yard detritus right in the ground, all year. Corn cobs are buried very deep to prevent squirrels digging them up. We produce a bucket full of rich organic kitchen midden every week (apple cores, carrot shavings, potato peels, banana peels, orange and grapefruit peels and other assorted food scrap), and burying this in mid winter can be a challenge. So in late fall we dig a series of bucket-sized holes in the garden and pile up the soil right next to them. No matter how frozen the ground, we can dump the bucket and almost always bust loose a large clod of soil to put on top. When that doesn’t work, a bunch of snow will cover it until the next thaw. The sun’s warmth in March and April gets the soil biota going, and by the time we’re ready to turn the soil, it’s just that, soil, with no trace of food scraps, with the exception of the most recent few batches. We have enough sand in our soil that it doesn’t turn to a sticky gumbo – most garden plants like well drained soil. If you have clay this method of composting might not be suitable for garden plants.

Tilling the Garden: After a long winter of reading, writing, and grading papers I tend to be severely out of shape, and meaningful exercise is needed and wanted. I till the garden with a shovel, one spadeful at a time. Turn it over, chop it up, and when a large area is done, rake it out with a garden rake. The workout is strenuous and thorough over the course of a week or two; no fossil fuels are consumed, and the only carbon pumped into the atmosphere is from my own respiration etc., not counting the bare soil carbon loss. It’s a good feeling.

Landscaping: Our landscaping is mostly North American native plants and scavenged materials. The plants are grown from seed and cuttings, and rescued from sites about to be destroyed. We absolutely NEVER use treated lumber for anything. It is shocking to see a children’s jungle gym playground made from that stuff. It’s poisonous and carcinogenic. And unlike a lot of people, we do not mow the grass three times a week. We mow when it needs mowing, and since we don’t fertilize, it doesn’t need mowing very often. By increasing the size of native plant areas, the lawn has been reduced by 30 or 40 percent in the last ten years, and this trend will gradually continue.

Dicentra spectabilis, Bleeding Heart (Fumariaceae), very easy to spread by root division.

Resource Recycling… is exactly what nature does so well. Curbside pickup makes it easy for us to recycle a lot of household waste, and reclaimed materials are used whenever possible. We have an area along the edge of the yard beneath spruce trees where raked leaves, limbs and branches go to rot. When rich soil is needed, we get it there, not from the store.

We are fortunate to live in a town where limbs and branches are collected and ground up for mulch, which is given away free to town residents. They also compost grass clippings and leaves, so rich soil is always available in large amounts. You just have to pick out the occasional radiator hose or milk carton.

Reclaimed Materials: I have built all of the furniture and cabinetry in our house from reclaimed lumber. An example is shown here. The table legs are made from oak 4x4 industrial blocking that washed up on the beach at Lake Michigan during a storm.

In addition, we replaced our old, inefficient windows with good ones from Crestline (made in Wisconsin, ordered through Menards) and my son and I did the work ourselves. Nice, wide window sills were made from reclaimed red oak - good stuff. Two of the windows had sliders that were slightly warped and the company sent new ones right away, free of charge, and didn't want the others returned. I used them to make cold frames for the garden with scavenged rigid foam insulation. They work very well and protect seedlings through many sub-freezing nights in spring. They almost always have to be propped open during the day or the plants will overheat.
Laundry: We do a lot of laundry, and all but the filthiest is washed in cold water. This saves natural gas, puts less carbon into the atmosphere, and saves money. And we only take cold showers…...ok, that might be an exaggeration.

Solar and Wind Powered Clothes Dryer: Finally, after teaching industrial design and drafting for years, I have brought together all of my experience to develop an invention that could save large amounts of electricity, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. I am introducing the KB2010 Solar and Wind Powered Clothes Dryer, guaranteed to work on sunny days, and I plan to sell it for the amazing low price of just 75 dollars plus shipping and handling. See illustration below of this amazing invention in action, and let me know right away if you would like to purchase one.

On a more serious note, can you believe that hanging laundry on a clothesline is against the law in thousands of “communities” in the US? Incredible. These are the same places where it’s against the law to raise the hood of your car. It would be difficult to live and flourish in such a place.


comfrey cottages said...

wonderfully inspiring post brian!i love the way so much is reused and repurposed! i am so hoping to make a rain barrel or two this year. beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and i think they are beautiful in the spirit of how much they prove you love our mother earth:)

comfrey cottages said...

i meant keith! sorry:) too early in the morning...

Mary said...

Great post. I was so happy to see you using some of the same methods we do here in Panama - bucket composting turned directly into the ground (no worry about frozen ground here!), clotheslines, and putting yard waste in the "jungle" to enrich the soil there.

So far we had not come up with a good plan for rain runoff, though, and I really like your idea of a rain garden. I think I know the perfect area for such a thing, so a great big thanks for the idea!

Richelle Loughney said...

Wow! This is certainly an efficient scheme, Keith! I guess this plan all summons up into preserving the environment while having a wonderful garden. The idea of using a rain barrel will greatly help in saving water and money too. Anyway, how’s this going now? =)

Anonymous said...

Very late reply to an old post. How did you create the brick runnel? Lawn fabric sand and brick or cement and mortar. How is it holding up?

Keith Board said...

To make the brick runnel, I cut away the sod in a V-shape (slightly lower in the middle) and set the bricks end to end. The first 8 or 10 feet have reinforced plastic underneath. This helps make sure the water is carried away from the house in heavy rains. The rest of the runnel is just sitting on the soil, in the manner of porous paving. In light rain the water seeps through but in heavy rains it runs easily to the end of the runnel (right into the rain garden). I put sand on top and swept it into the cracks, and after it compacted and eroded I swept dry mortar mix into the cracks, then soaked it with the garden hose. I have two runnels that have been in place for about 15 years and they are stable. At the beginning I thought freezing and thawing would push the bricks all over, but that has not happened. Thanks for asking!

Anonymous said...

I am Australian, and I am shocked to hear that clothesline drying is illegal in some places. Energy zapping dryers should be illegal in my opinion.