Are rain barrels really worth the fuss?

Published 6:48 pm Thursday, September 6, 2018

This is a great question ,but first we need to ask: What is a rain barrel? A rain barrel is typically a food grade 55–65 gallon plastic drum that is outfitted with a screened lid and a hose bib. The barrel is then placed under the eve or downspout of your home. These barrels can be DIY or purchased through different retailers or often times through fundraisers. We have DIY plans here at the Beaufort County Extension office.

Are rain barrels really worth the fuss? In Beaufort County, North Carolina, we average 54 inches of rain each year. Our plants need 1-inch of water per week to grow and stay healthy. We have 52 weeks in a year and 54 inches of rain water in a year so, why would we need a rain barrel?

The answer lies within how this rain water is distributed throughout the year. Often times we receive more precipitation in the winter and less in the summer months. Of course, one can’t judge this from the most recent years. We have been in a period where we have received above average rainfall for the past four years, and this year has been no exception! However there have been a few periods this year where we have seen a couple of weeks in a row without meaningful rainfall (0.1” or more). In a typical year, it is much drier towards the end of summer. It is during these periods that we must supplement rainfall by watering our plants to keep them happy and healthy. In the instance of vegetables and fruit, this can be a crucial time for producing a bountiful harvest!

This is where the rain barrels come into play. Let’s say for instance that you have a 10-foot by 10-foot vegetable garden. This would be a 100-square-foot area; in order to irrigate with 1 inch of water, you would need around 62 gallons of water. In the same manner, a 1-inch rain event on a 100-square-foot patch of roof would net 62 gallons of water for your rain barrel. Rain barrels can be linked together to provide more water storage or larger containers can be used. Cisterns are another option for water storage that can be above or below ground. Cisterns are much larger and often require a pump (hand pump or electrical pump) to retrieve the stored water. Rain barrels can be elevated on a sturdy base to provide higher water pressure. Pumps can also be used for higher pressure with a network of hoses or driplines going to the garden for ease of use. The water collected can also be used for washing cars, garden tools, lawn equipment, washing planting pots and so on.

There are advantages to using water from the sky. First and foremost, it is free after your initial investment! This water can be used to irrigate all of your plants. It is also free of chlorine or other additives that municipal water may have. Our water in Beaufort County (especially well water) ranges on the basic side and can be very high in total carbonates. This can raise the pH of your soil, cutting off the supply of crucial nutrients from the soil to the plant. Rainwater, on the other hand, is slightly acidic helping to keep soil pH in check.

Register for the “What You Need To Know So You Can Grow” educational series taught at the Beaufort Extension Center this October to learn more about Soil, Growing Vegetables, Growing Fruit, Turf Management and Ornamentals. This series will be taught on Thursdays beginning Oct. 4 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The cost is $10 per class; those attending all of the classes will earn the Blacklands Area Friends of Horticulture “HomeGrown” certification and a free gardening guide published by the Extension master gardener volunteers in Beaufort County. Register for all five classes in the series by Oct. 2 and get $10 off the total cost!

If you have a question to submit, please email to Gene Fox at If you’re having trouble with growing in your home landscape, call the Extension office and speak to an Extension master gardener volunteer Mondays and Wednesdays between 10 a.m. and noon at 252-946-0111. The master gardener volunteers will be at the Washington Farmers’ Market on Saturdays throughout September to answer questions and diagnose problems. Learn more on Facebook at the Blacklands Area Horticulture page or visit the Extension Office located at 155 Airport Road!

Gene Fox is the area agriculture and consumer horticulture agent for Beaufort, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties.