Ask the Ecologist:

by Belle Bergner

Q: I’ve heard that we’re going to have a very dry summer and I water my garden a lot, so to save me from breaking the bank with my water bill, I think it’s time I get a rain barrel to store water. Are there other gardening techniques that can save me from watering my garden so much?

A: While the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is not predicting that Wisconsin will have a dry summer just yet, we may have above average temperatures which will stress out plants just as a lack of rain will. So it is a good idea to get a rain barrel for this growing season if you have not already.

Our local sewerage folks, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), and one of our fine nonprofit environmental organizations, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, are the two local sources for rain barrels (contact information below). MMSD charges $23 whereas KGMB charges $35 for their barrels, but you get an overflow hose with KGMB’s barrel and you’ll need to go separately to a hardware store to purchase an overflow hose for your MMSD barrel.

I do have a few suggestions for water conservation techniques in your garden. For one, plant native Wisconsin vegetation and you theoretically shouldn’t need to water them at all once they are established with good mulch to keep in soil moisture. Native plants, especially prairie plants, have very deep roots that allow them to tap into deeper water than hybrid or non-native varieties. Native plants have adapted over thousands of years to be able to deal with periods of drought in this part of the world. Site selection is key – be sure you look at the label to see how much sun, shade, and soil moisture each variety needs.

For veggie or herb gardens, you might try an old technique called “buried clay pot” or “pitcher” gardening. You basically bury unglazed clay pots in the soil next to your plants, fill it with water once a week, and it slowly drains into the soil through the micropores of the clay as the adjacent plant draws out the water it needs.

Here’s what you do: buy one, 6 inch diameter, terra cotta pot, unglazed and without a drainage hole, and a bottom saucer for every individual plant you place in your garden. Bury the pot in the soil about 4 inches away from where you will plant an individual plant, and bury it so that the top of the pot comes just to the soil surface. Fill the pot with water and place the bottom saucer on the top of the pot at the soil surface. Depending on how hot and dry the weather is, it will take 6-10 days for the water to drain into the soil. Refill the pot when it is empty. You will notice your plants will last longer before they need to be watered again as compared to just watering plants from above ground.

On hot days, supplement with some watering from above. Finally, remember to water early in the morning or late at night when plants are best able to absorb it.

Here’s where to get your rain barrel: MMSD: KGMB: or call 414-272-5462

Editors’ Note: If you live in the Riverwest/Harambee neighborhoods – or in Walnut Way or Layton Boulevard – then this is your lucky summer. MMSD has selected those three areas for its annual grant program, which provides residents with free rain barrels and help with downspout disconnection. Email to sign up.

Send your ecological inquiries to our resident ecologist at

Riverwest Currents online edition – June, 2007