Monday, May 31, 2010

Water(less) World



(This one is for you, Almost Mrs Average!)

The heatwave has finally come and gone from Montreal! It's hard to believe it's still May, when the mercury is hitting 30 (86'F) daily, and there is nary a cloud in the sky. It was so hot and dry, that there is an on-going ban on open pit campfires in effect for all of Quebec; there are close to 60 fires raging across the territory, 15 of which are considered out of control; current water levels of lakes and river are where they usually are in August. Yet, we are still in May. 

If the weather stays this dry for much longer, it will spell disaster for farmers, forest rangers, and water tables. I was speaking with a vegetable producer at the market the other day,  and she mentioned that they've had to have water helicopter-ed in to water their fields: they rely on a well for themselves and their animals, so they cannot risk drying up their ground water for their fields.

Although the early and mild spring translated into advanced harvests for many crops, this heat wave might mean that those same produces will be cut short: asparagus, currently in full swing, are easy-going plants, but hot weather usually spells the end of the season; peas (my precious lovelies!) require cool, damp weather in order to thrive. While summer vegetables are definitely loving the early warmth, they too need regular sprinklings of rain. Wildlife is also suffering: birds are beheading whatever greenery is still standing in the hopes of getting some water. I've even found ladybugs in my bathroom, sipping at puddles in the sink!

While there isn't much we consumers can do about the drought, we can do our part to conserve water. We Canadians are extremely lucky to have (normally) abundant sources of water, and in most regions, our tap water is clean and cheap. However, not everyone has access to safe water (remember Walkerton?), a fact most urbanites forget. We often consider water as a free resource, since most Canadian cities have ridiculously low water taxes. Yet, it costs money to monitor the public water, and to manage the waste from the sanitization process.

So, when you think about it, it seems rather wasteful to use perfectly good drinking water to wash a car or water the lawn (reminds you  of a certain someone who requests cases of Evian for her bath, doesn't it?). While one can forgo washing the car and watering a silly lawn, one's garden is another kettle of fish entirely! If you plant it (for food, or free bouquets of flower), you want it to thrive; but you wouldn't go out and buy bottled water for your window boxes, so why would you use pristine tap water for them? Especially when you know that the chlorine and fluoride found in most city waters are not that great for your plants.

The best water for your garden is rain water. Unfortunately, the skies do not shower down on demand (they most certainly are not right now!), and even if you were experiencing a downpour at the moment, chances are some of your plants are sheltered from the rain. You need a rain barrel. If you own your dwelling, then you can install as many barrels as you have downspouts. The above video is one of many videos I found on youtube on how to build your own rain butt.

If you, like me, are a renter, you will need to ask your landlord for permission to usurp the downspout. If your dwelling has no gutter (and no possibility of ever having any eaves-troughs), yet you have access to the yard/open space, you can place an open barrel in the most exposed spot you have -as long as it isn't in anybody's way. You will need to place some form of netting on top of your barrel to keep mosquitoes and other critters out. You will not collect much rain water this way (but you will get some). However, this barrel's main purpose will be to collect your grey water. Any used, yet passably clean water can be considered grey water (waste water is said to be brown): dish washing water; vegetable washing water; water from your laundry's rinse cycle; bath water (seriously! When I lived in France, our apartment only had a bathtub, and I felt really bad about using so much water daily, so my boyfriend and I would collect all our bath water during the summer to use in the garden!); cooking water, as long as it is salt-free... Any water is fine as long as you use biodegradable soap and non-toxic cleansers; and try to avoid bits and pieces of foods in the water, since they can turn the water into smelly sludge (though it will still be quite fine for the garden, if a little gross).

There have been articles casting doubt on the safety of rooftop water for use on edible plants, however studies have shown that most fruiting vegetables grown in backyard gardens do not accumulate toxins within their cellular structure. If you have any doubt about the roofing material used on your house, grow only plants that produce edible fruits (tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers) and stems (rhubarb), and avoid leaf and root vegetables. There is also a long standing belief that garden soils rich in compost and organic matter produce healthier (i.e. pollutant-free) plants: the naturally high concentration of microbial life in organic soil apparently 'cleans' out pollutants, or at the very least, blocks them from being absorbed by the plants. Whether or not you adhere to such beliefs, should you worry about the safety of your soil or rainwater, you can always have it tested.

Just to put things in perspective: gardeners in the UK have used rain butts for decades, and no gardening club has ever cast a shadow over the use of rooftop water in the vegetable patch. Australia has had severe water restrictions for over a decade due to an ongoing drought: rain barrels and grey water collection are the only way one can garden -or even flush the toilet, in some states.

If you are already on the lookout for a rain barrel, you probably noticed how unbelievably expensive they are (upwards of 200$ in most big box store!!!). Ideally, you would build your own from re-purposed material: the plastic barrels seen in most how-to videos can be purchased from marine shops and some reno-centres (DIYers use them for building pontoons and other flotation devices). You can also try the recycling depot. Or you can recycle a discarded garbage bin: I had a useless wheelie bin hanging about, so it was transformed into a rain butt (and now it is no longer useless!)

If you really are not handy with the drill and a tube of epoxy glue, here is one of the better (read less expensive and made from recycled material!) options I saw: Mon Jardin Vert, made in Quebec from re-purposed, food-grade, plastic barrels. This little company is full of promises, and might eventually be available in Montreal's Eco-Quartiers. Lee Valley Tools also has a handy, collapsible barrel for a little over 100$ - but do try to remember the 4 Rs: Reduce (the use of new material); Re-use (anything still in good condition); Re-purpose (whatever not in good enough condition to use for its original intent); and Recycle (if it cannot be composted).

Happy gardening (and bon app'!)


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