Beautiful doesn’t have to mean high maintenance.

Think of the number one goal you have for your outdoor living space. I’m willing to bet at least one of the top 5 is low maintenance. If you’re like me, you just don’t have the time to do everything on your ‘to do’ list. Sometimes necessary things like keeping your landscape alive don’t even make it on the list until it’s too late.

I get it. You’re busy. You could think of 10 better things to do than standing in your yard with a garden hose watering your pansies.

But what about a sprinkler, on a timer or a full-on irrigation system? May be a good call, as long as you’re not on watering restrictions when you need it most, and as long as the water going through it is not hurting your plants.

“I love tap water,” said no plant ever. 

True. Hard or chlorinated water is better than none at all, but if given a choice most plants will choose rainwater every time, even if it’s not falling from the sky. Why?

  1. It’s naturally soft. Some minerals are good, but too much can really hurt your plants. Water softeners actually add salt, which is notsogood either..
  2. It’s slightly acidic. This means it helps keep the soil at the optimum pH so nutrients are available to plants, at least according to Leonard Perry, Extension Professor at University of Vermont…

“Soil pH is important because it influences several soil factors affecting plant growth, such as (1) soil bacteria, (2) nutrient leaching, (3) nutrient availability, (4) toxic elements, and (5) soil structure. Bacterial activity that releases nitrogen from organic matter and certain fertilizers is particularly affected by soil pH, because bacteria operate best in the pH range of 5.5 to 7.0. Plant nutrients leach out of soils with a pH below 5.0 much more rapidly than from soils with values between 5.0 and 7.5. Plant nutrients are generally most available to plants in the pH range 5.5 to 6.5. Aluminum may become toxic to plant growth in certain soils with a pH below 5.0. The structure of the soil, especially of clay, is affected by pH. In the optimum pH range (5.5 to 7.0) clay soils are granular and are easily worked, whereas if the soil pH is either extremely acid or extremely alkaline, clays tend to become sticky and hard to cultivate.” – University of Vermont Extension – Dept. of Plant and Soil Science (http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/oh34.htm)

So if you live where there are never droughts or heavy rains, you’re all good. Stop reading now.

Everyone else, read on.

Saving rainwater is not just for dry climates, but it can really save money when you add the cost of plants that otherwise cannot be watered due to watering bans. Restrictions don’t apply to harvested rainwater, so the more you can catch and store, the more you can protect yourself and your gardens. It’s worth a mention of the underlying reason for all this “low maintenance” buzz. We are strapped for either time or money, or both. Let’s be honest. If you really have more money than you need, you can just pay others to do the maintenance.

that’s a big hole in the ground

And if you can reduce your taxes that pay for massive infrastructure projects, by avoiding the need for as many in the future, you can gain a little more time and money by not being surprised by “necessary” tax hikes. If you live in a high-rainfall area, you also benefit from slowing down some of the massive amounts of runoff from all the developed, solid surfaces. Huge municipal projects to handle this include the 1.4 billion dollar “Big Pipe” in Portland and the billion dollar “Deep Tunnel” in Milwaukee. These engineering wonders, while effective at what they do, need to be paid for by higher rates and may eventually reach maximum capacity, requiring even more massive projects and water rate hikes.

Really Big Band-Aids

“Echo!.. echo… echo…”

let’s dig a little deeper, boys!

And what are these big engineering solutions really doing? Getting water away from the “problem areas” to prevent flooding, right? Oh sure, but not necessarily back into the ground, where it should be going in order to replenish the supply drawn out from wells. These solutions are handling the effect of the problem like some drugs only help cope with the symptoms, but what is the cause, and is there even a cure? Can we do anything to filter this water and reuse it, without being washed away by the flood? Wastewater treatment facilities like Milwaukee’s and L.A.’s have come a long way in treating and filtering sewer water to the point of drinkability, but what about stormwater? Currently when it falls, it cleans up the streets nicely but picks up all those pollutants along the way and dumps them directly into our lakes and streams. This not only causes water pollution and excessive algae blooms, it does nothing to replenish the supply.

What Does This Have to do With Your Low Maintenance Landscape?

Directly: Nothing. Indirectly: Everything. Catching rain not only reduces your own water bill and helps your plants. When a bunch of people do it, the effects really add up. Cities that are dependent on aquifers and groundwater will see more of an impact, although lower groundwater actually lowers water levels in lakes and streams, too. Even though they sit right next to the Great Lakes, Milwaukee and Chicago currently have groundwater drawdowns of about 500’ to 1000’ below original pre-European settlement levels, respectively.

You, to the Rescue!

Smaller scale individual solutions, when added up, can help to avoid more water hikes, offset the effects of drought and heavy rains and also reverse or lessen the groundwater drawdown that is reaching critical levels.

Aside from all this “greater good” stuff, what’s really in it for you?

Sometimes it’s hard to do something for the environment or the future if it costs you more right now. In your day-to-day life, the bottom line boils down to your payback, your return on investment. How immediately can you expect to see a benefit from your own personal investment in a rain collection system?

The Benefit