Saving the much-needed rain for later

Saving the much-needed rain for later

No till systems with cover crops, like this corn in barley, have the highest soil organic matter levels, which means significantly more rainwater is retained for a growing crop.


On the heels of 2.5 inches of rain on a soaking Sunday afternoon, I know I wasn’t alone when I thought, “At least now I won’t have to water the garden.”

We’ve had a great spring for those of us cultivating plants. Whether you’re concerned about your soybeans or limas, corn or sunflowers, we’ve had a pretty good balance of rain when we needed it and enough dry time in between to get things planted and keep the grass mowed (or get the hay off).

But the last few springs haven’t been this generous. And who knows what’s coming our way when summer cranks up the thermostat? If you’re like me and don’t enjoy watching your plants struggle through dry times, or biting your fingernails waiting for some rain in the forecast, or being tied to a watering can to ensure the survival of your crops, there are several ways we can be saving ourselves some money, effort and time andreduce the stormwater surge that hits after a big rainfall.

For those of us with limited yard and garden spaces, do yourself a favor and get a rain barrel (or multiple) to harvest the abundance of rainfall from spring to keep things green later on. A rain “barrel” can take many forms, ranging from multiple 5-gallon buckets under a dripping roof to the quintessential repurposed 55-gallon drums tied into your downspout.

However, there’s no reason to limit yourself. Artistic versions are plentiful with some incorporating flower pots into the catchment system or making an even bigger retention system by using stock tanks or upcycling 275-gallon plastic totes.

Two things to keep in mind: Do some research on what used to be in your container before applying it to your flowers or garden. The container doesn’t need to be food-grade to be suitable for plant water, but depending on who has access to it, it would be responsible to make sure it’s labeled “Non Potable” to prevent people (or covered to prevent animals) from drinking the contents directly. Also, mosquitoes are bound to find your reservoir, and you can avoid becoming a breeding ground for these by adding mosquito dunks to each tank.

The next level up in retaining the rain where you want it is “bioengineered” solutions, which is a fancy term for making some low spots on the landscape. Bioswales, rain gardens and retention ponds all have a similar objective: intercept the rainwater and allow it to be released into a nearby sewer or stream or absorbed by plants at a much slower rate. These are solutions that take a bit more space and planning but can again be implemented on a scale relative to your interests and abilities.

Rain gardens and bioswales are usually planted with a variety of native perennials, which are doubly rewarding for their aesthetic and habitat value for birds and pollinators.

However, the biggest impact we can make in keeping our water where we want it, when we want it, is to increase the organic matter levels across all types of land uses. We are accustomed to speaking to our farmers about the benefits of raising the percent of OM in their fields, but gardens, pastures and lawns would all benefit from getting those levels up as well.

But what does that mean? Organic matter is representative of carbon that is left in the soil when plant residues (old leaves and roots) are worked into the soil by worms, insects or “hoof action,” and then the microbial community breaks it down into even smaller bits.

When the soil is left undisturbed, then the carbon can build up, adding to the soil structure, which becomes more and more “spongelike.” As the organic matter levels increase, so does the soil’s ability to capture water without flooding or waterlogging the roots of the plants growing above. The more water held in the tiny pores between soil particles means more is available later on, between storms.

The ideal level of OM we’d like to see in the soils around here is about 5%. That might not seem like much, but in soil test after soil test, we see it normally in the range of 1.8%-2.5%. It might be a little higher in pasture fields, but the only soils that we see with close to 5% OM are gardens that get doses of compost or manure every year.

The good news is that even raising your OM levels a fraction of a percent can mean significant improvements in water-holding capacity, as every 1% increase can hold about 20,000 gallons per acre.

In Holmes County, with approximately 85,000 acres in corn, soybeans or hay, increasing our OM levels just 1% equals an additional 1.7 billion gallons available to those crops. And if an acre of corn needs 20-22 inches of water to produce the maximum yield, wouldn’t it make sense to hold on to as much of it as we can, rather than send it downstream?

If we add in the cumulative impact of increasing the OM levels in our yards and gardens too, we could worry less about watering and reduce the amount of time and money our community spends on stormwater infrastructure and management.

With the rain, like many things, we can only control our responses to it. But we also can try to be prepared, and thinking ahead will be the best bet for managing wet and dry times alike. If you’d like to talk to our office about ways to prepare for and manage the stormwater at home or at your business, or if you’d like to see a workshop on how to make rain barrels or build rain gardens, give us a call.

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