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Dickerson Teaches Gardeners to Harvest Rainfall

ALBUQUERQUE - Horticulture specialist George Dickerson practices what he preaches when it comes to water conservation.



George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, demonstrates how roof water flows to rain barrels below to catch runoff for irrigation. The factory-made orange barrel cost Dickerson $60, but the black barrel is a trash bin he converted to a rain barrel for less than $20. Dickerson will show how to make and use cheap rain barrels during a series of workshops this month on water harvesting. (08/12/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

In his home garden in Albuquerque's Southeast Heights, Dickerson has arranged his landscape entirely around the concept of harvesting rainwater for irrigation.

"Water is precious in New Mexico, so when it rains, we want to get as much use from it as possible," said Dickerson, a veteran horticulturist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "In my garden, I use about 90 percent of rainwater for irrigation through simple techniques that allow me to capture rain for future use or direct it to trees and shrubs in my landscape."

This month, Dickerson will share his personal and professional experience in water harvesting with gardeners during a series of free workshops in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Taos and Las Cruces. Dates and locations are listed below.

• Aug. 22 at 7 p.m., Santa Fe County Extension office, 3229 Rodeo Road, (505) 471-4711
• Aug. 23 at 7 p.m., Los Alamos County Extension office, 475 20th St., (505) 662-2665
• Aug. 25 at 6:30 p.m., Doña Ana County Extension office, 530 N. Church St. in Las Cruces, (505) 525-6649
• Aug. 27 at 11 a.m., Juan Tabo Library, 3404 Juan Tabo Blvd NE in Albuquerque, (505) 291-6260
• Aug. 30 at 9 a.m., Taos County Extension office, 202 Chamisa Road, (505) 758-3982

"Most rainfall is lost to runoff," Dickerson said. "But by harvesting rainwater, gardeners can reduce the amount of tap water needed to irrigate gardens and landscapes. It's also better for plant health because rainwater is salt-free. "

Dickerson's garden is an exemplary model of water-harvesting creativity.

The property slopes away from his house on all sides, allowing rainwater to drain toward trees and shrubs. Sloped brick walkways hug the home's perimeter, all of which are lined underneath with nonporous heavy plastic. That reduces evaporation, controls weeds and forces rainwater to flow toward the garden instead of seeping through cracks.

"The idea is to channel rainwater with slopes, canals and swales toward the vegetation," Dickerson said. "A tremendous amount of water rolls off roofs and down driveways and sidewalks when it rains, so the landscape design needs to capture and transport that water."

Dickerson grows water-thrifty plants like cactus and desert shrubs farthest from the house because less runoff reaches them. Thirstier trees like aspens are located closer to the home to catch more rainwater from the roof and walkways.

Dickerson lives on hilly land. To avoid soil erosion and trap more water, the steepest slopes are terraced with railroad ties. He also laid woven plastic mulch and compost around most trees and shrubs.

"The plastic is porous to allow water through while controlling weeds," Dickerson said. "The compost acts like a big sponge to grab and save water."

Dickerson uses rain barrels to capture water from his roof. Wooden canals and aluminum drainpipes channel water to barrels, which have plastic spouts near the bottom and top. The lower spigot is to irrigate the garden between storms, while the upper spout allows overflowing rainwater to drain from the barrel when it gets full. Canals and plastic tubing guide water from barrels to the garden.

Factory-made rain barrels are often expensive, so Dickerson converted cheap plastic garbage bins into rain barrels by cutting holes at the bottom and top and gluing plastic spouts to them. He cut holes in the lids and placed netting on top to capture roof runoff and filter debris from water.

"Rain barrels can cost $50 to $100 or more at stores, but I converted the plastic trash bins for less than $20 each," Dickerson said.

Dickerson's roof is flat. To drain puddles, he places barrels on the ground beneath problem areas, runs a plastic hose from the barrel to the roof and sucks the water at the bottom end to create capillary action.

Under ideal circumstances, Dickerson said an inch of rainfall could produce about 0.62 gallons of water per square foot of roof. "With a 1,500 square-foot roof, a homeowner could potentially collect 930 gallons for every inch of rainfall," he said.

For more information about workshops, or if you are an individual with a disability who is in need of an auxiliary aid or service to participate, call the Extension offices listed above, or call Dickerson at (505) 275-2576.