Monthly Archives: October 2010

Slide Down My Rain Barrel

Tomorrow, October 22, is the Southern Urban Homestead’s first blogiversary. Thank you, gentle readers, for a fun and inspiring year!


After months of relentless rain and even some snow, last spring dried up, and once again we have endured a long bout of drought. These periods seem to be coming more frequently in the past few years, along with increasing public awareness for the need to conserve water (and, rightfully, bans and crackdowns on outdoor watering). Even though it’s mostly still permissible to water a food garden from a faucet, rainwater recapture just makes more sense, environmentally and economically. So a few years ago I started accumulating rain barrels.

My first one — purchased during one of those desperate dry periods maybe six years back — had had a previous life as a shipping container for olives, and it arrived actually smelling like olive oil (yum). I set it up to catch flow from my garden shed downspout and waited. When it finally did rain, the 55-gallon barrel filled up quickly, so I bought another one and set it up to catch the overflow from the first one. And then a friend gave me a third one, which I added to the chain. And then last year, another friend gave me a fourth one (that last one is my favorite — it was actually painted by a local artist and auctioned off as a fundraiser for a community nonprofit, which is how I ended up with it.)

They got it going on in Sri Lanka

A rain barrel is a nifty thing. You fill them up by draining water off of a roof when it rains. A screen covers the barrel top to keep debris and leaves from getting inside and hatched mosquito larvae from getting out. Then you draw the water from a tap toward the base. I recently visited the water exhibit at Fernbank Museum and took this photo of a rainwater jar from Sri Lanka. It holds several thousand liters. A girl can dream, right?


My poorly installed rain barrel system


Obviously this rain barrel needed a little TLC.

I originally installed  all of mine myself, up on stacks of bricks and cinderblocks with downspout extensions feeding into them. But I didn’t do a very good job. I had put all of them back next to my small garden shed because that’s the highest place on my lot, which I’d hoped would help generate enough pressure for my harvested rainwater to flow out of hoses. But sometimes they would topple over, too heavy for their supports. My rickety perches weren’t high enough, either, so that when I tried to run a hose from a barrel to a nearby bed that happened to be slightly up slope, gravity was not working in my favor.

Then I found Ben. As in Barrels By Ben. Ben reclaims used barrels (whiskey barrels from Tennessee, recycled food-grade barrels, and recycled 275-gallon totes) and installs them in commercial and residential rainwater harvesting systems. I called him up, and together we put together a new and improved plan for my four barrels.

I have what is most practically described as a moat around the back of my house. It’s a small drainage ditch that is level with the top of the house’s foundation, so that the house sits slightly nestled into the grade of the surprisingly steep hill of my property. The problem is that the earth next to my house, because it is held up by a wall of stacked bricks and not much else, isn’t firm enough to support the weight of 165 gallons of water in three barrels — another reason I installed my barrels on the shed downspouts. The rainwater off my roof was a wasted precious resource.

Reinstalled: three on a deck over the moat next to the house, one next to the shed in the back.

Ben’s solution was to build a little deck of sweet-smelling, durable cedar off the back of my house next to a valley in my roof that would redistribute the weight of the barrels so that the ground wouldn’t collapse beneath them. And so that’s what we did. See how they are nice and high? I’ll get enough pressure going to run soaker hoses into the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent and water all day long. He also re-installed one on the garden shed downspout on a very high, very stable perch.

Now. If only some rain would slide down my rain barrel . . .

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As Southern as Sweet Tea (Olive)

The Southern Urban Homestead is a feast for the senses — a sweet, ripe strawberry on the tongue, the chickens cooing and cackling from the backyard, the warm crumble of finished compost and red wrigglers spilling through fingers, the visual banquet of abundance. And aroma.

For the past week and a half, the tea olives have been in bloom. I wish there were some way to capture the intoxicating fragrance coming in through my kitchen windows and post it to this blog. The tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is an exclusively Southern (though originally Chinese, I think) evergreen shrub with dark, waxy leaves. The blossoms are tiny and light yellow, and they grow in dense bunches nestled behind the foliage. They bloom in the fall but also sometimes in the winter if the weather is mild for a stretch.

And oh, those blooms. Have you ever tasted real Tupelo honey? Start there. Add a hint of orange blossom (not orange flavor, but the scent of the bloom). Then add a forkful of buttercream icing as the aroma hits the back of your throat from a piece of homemade three-layer vanilla cake made just that morning. Close your eyes and think words like “apricot” and “succulent.” And maybe you’ll begin to imagine the scent of the tea olive.

Over this past weekend my friend Beth, who grew up in Chicago and now lives near Boston, came to visit. Beth had never met the tea olive. She was recovering from a cold and couldn’t smell it in the kitchen like I could. So we went outside, and I pointed to the tea olive and said, “Go over there and inhale.” After that, every few hours she would go and stand next to the tea olive and breathe. Finally I brought a few branches inside and put them in a jar on the table next to her. We were pretty much delirious with tea olive. In fact, so is my whole neighborhood. Folks would stand still in a state of euphoria whenever the breeze stirred the scent into their paths.

Beth took a sprig home with her Monday morning (I’m sure that was interesting to the TSA people). I like to think of her wafting the fragrance of tea olive all around Wellesley for the past two days.

I have read that it is possible to make an actual tea from the tea olive blossoms, but I have never tried this nor have I tasted tea olive tea. Any reports, dear readers? I’d love to have this aroma steaming from a teapot.

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