A Solar Powered Water Purification System You Can Build at Home

That’s right folks! With very little skill you can build a system in your yard that will help purify streams and lakes. It will prevent many toxins from entering the waterways and improve water tables. But that’s not all! It will help freshen the air and provide shelter for some of God’s creatures. It can even help prevent some of your downhill or downstream neighbors from being flooded out! All this while adding beauty to your yard and reducing your mowing time! All this could be yours for the low, low price of  some rocks, some native plants and a couple of afternoons of sweat equity!

Adrianne L. Blank, RLA
Adrianne L. Blank, RLA, explaining rain gardens and swales

I’m talking about rain gardens and bioswales. Rain gardens and bioswales can be introduced into a landscape to help slow down the flow of water, allowing more of it to soak into the ground. This helps clean the water and alleviates flooding and improves ground water tables. A bioswale is basically a shallow ditch that slopes gradually down from the source of the water, whether that is a parking lot, a roof downspout, a roadway or a driveway. It can be lined with rocks or coarse gravel or eight to twelve inches of leaf compost and sand. It can include some native plants, but not solidly planted. It can be built up slightly on the low end to form a dam to allow two to four inches of water to remain in it and soak into the ground over the course of about two days after a rainstorm. This first level of filtering can remove most of any metals in the water and allows the water that doesn’t run over the low end to continue filtering through the ground.

The next stage of water purification and detention can be accomplished with a rain garden. For many years, building codes and zoning regulations have required detention basins for commercial developments and multiple unit housing developments. These help some, but not nearly as much as they could if they were planted and maintained as rain gardens. The average residential yard could help the water supply by using just 60 to 100 square feet for a rain garden (about the footprint of a mini-van). If commercial, church and development detention basins were to have their sod removed and replaced with a rain garden; it would go a long way to improving suburban and urban water tables and water quality.

A rain garden contains native flowers, bushes and sometimes, trees. 70% of water pollution comes from runoff. 80% of water that falls on a lawn runs off. The idea is to slow down the flow of the water to allow more of it to soak into the ground. Soil and plants filter out toxins to purify the water. Larger plants use more water. Local native plants help purify the air, moderate temperature and provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures.

To build a residential rain garden, first, choose a suitable location. It should be where water flows to naturally, or you can create a bioswale or extend a downspout drainpipe to it. The finished ground level of the rain garden should be eight to twelve inches below surrounding grade level, with gentle slopes into it all around, if possible. It needs to be graded in such a way that the water enters it gently and is evenly dispersed, so it doesn’t erode and the full area is utilized to treat the water. The area needs to be dug down at least a foot deeper than the desired finished grade in order to mix compost into the soil. Then the area is planted with native flowers, bushes and trees. It is important to choose plants which tolerate wet conditions, yet tolerate drought. Local natives work best for this. A few sedges or ornamental grasses may be included in this, but so much that the ground is covered. Remember to choose plants that are appropriate for your sun conditions.

If only local, native plants are used, the rain garden should be very low maintenance. It should not be mowed more than once a year, in the fall.

For photos and more information on rain gardens, visit the following links:
Passive Rainwater Harvesting
Landcare Research (New Zealand), then click on A home raingarden for more detailed instructions and do’s and don’t’s.

“Crazy is as crazy does.”

A painting from memory of Brad, acrylic on canvas 11"x14" by Cranford Coulter
A painting from memory of Brad, acrylic on canvas 11″x14″ by Cranford Coulter

After serving on the street tonight with The King’s Jubilee, I had occasion to recall a homeless man, Brad, whom I met almost twenty years ago on a similar late spring evening. He was under 25, white, of slight build, literate. He had just found himself homeless. His mom had moved in with her boyfriend and there was no room for him. His dad had disappeared several years before. Brad was afraid of what might happen to him on the streets. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this. He felt completely vulnerable.

The next week, Brad came to eat with us again. This time, he was all disheveled and he was talking to himself and arguing with himself the whole time he was in the line. I was able to speak with him privately after everyone had eaten and the crowd had dispersed. He told me that a couple of the old hands on the street told him that the number one rule of the street is that you never mess with a crazy person. So he decided to start acting crazy as a defense, so nobody would mess with him. He learned to survive and cope on the street. I tried to direct him to programs that might help him get off the street, but space was very limited, and he didn’t fit into any of the usual categories.

After a few months, Brad stopped coming by to eat with us. A few more months passed and he showed up again. He was acting like a full-blown, psychotic, paranoid schizophrenic or someone on a very bad trip. The problem was he wasn’t acting anymore. He had fully inhabited the role he had chosen and had forcibly driven himself crazy; like method acting gone terribly wrong. I still see him from time to time. Some nights he is better than others. Instead of the frightened young man, he is now a quite aggressive 40 something man and is quite direct in asking for or demanding what he wants. It reminds me of a program I heard on the radio about bullies. A psychologist described aggression as preemptive fear.

The irony with Brad is that his crazy behavior is not irrational. On one level, it has served him well. He is still alive after spending almost 20 years on the street, because no one messes with a crazy person.

Rain Barrel Workshop

Terry & Rain Barrel Kit
Terry & Rain Barrel Kit

Last Saturday  I went to a rain barrel workshop at Edge of the Woods Nursery put on by the Saucon Creek Watershed Committee. For $35, they provided the tools, the materials and help to build a 55 gallon rain barrel. Rain barrels help slow down the flow of water off of roofs. Suburban sprawl with its McMansions, additional roads, big box stores, big parking lots and lawns have caused many areas to become flood prone that never had this problem before. Rain showers now cause flooding, erosion and water pollution. 70% of water pollution in our lakes and streams comes from rainwater run-off. 80% of water falling on grass lawns runs off. Anything we can do to slow the flow and allow more of this water to filter through plants and soil will help to prevent flooding and pollution.

The simplest step that we can take to slow down the flow of water is to place rain barrels on our downspouts. This reduces the amount of rain flowing across the ground by catching the first 55 gallons in a rain event, saving it to be used on dry days. This reduces the amount of nonpoint source pollution. Rain barrels provide some additional benefits as well. 30% of our water is used for lawns and gardens, on average. If you use captured rainwater to water your garden and lawn you reduce your water and sewer bills and save drinking water resources. Rainwater is better for your plants than city water that has been chlorinated.

Mosquito screen
Mosquito screen attached to bottom of PVC toilet flange with duct ring

Now you can buy fancy, good-looking rain barrels from various gardening catalogs and some big box stores; or you can make them fairly inexpensively from a salvaged, food additive barrel and a few parts from the hardware store. The thread taps are pretty expensive, so try to borrow these from a plumber or join a gardening club or watershed association that can buy them corporately to sponsor events like the one I attended on Saturday.

Here’s the recipe:

1 food grade plastic 55 gallon drum. (SCWC gets theirs from a local recycling center.)
1 PVC toilet drain flange
2 sel-tapping 3/4″ hex-top, slot screws
1 dryer vent duct ring
about a square foot of nylon window screen
1 brass 1/2″ hose spigot
1 nylon 3/4″ thread, garden hose coupler
epoxy putty

Electric drill
handheld jigsaw
Adjustable wrench
4-5/8″ hole saw
3/4″ garden hose thread tap
13/16″ hole saw
7/16″ drill bit
thread tap for 1/2″ hose spigot
screwdriver or hex driver bit


Top of Rain Barrel Complete

Use 4-5/8″ hole saw to cut a hole in the top of the barrel, leaving enough flat surface around it to place the toilet flange. Attach screen to bottom of flange using the dryer duct ring.  (See photo above.) Trace and cut space on the side of the hole for the tightening screw to fit, so the flange lies flat, screen side down in the barrel.

Drill hole for spigot near the bottom of the side of the barrel using the drill bit. Consider carefully how you want to place this according to how the downspout will enter it, so you will have convenient access to use the water. Tap the threads and screw in spigot. Near the top of the barrel but still on the flat part of the side of the drum, cut the hole with the smaller hole saw for the overflow fitting. Use the larger tap to thread the opening, then screw in the hose coupler. Work the two parts of the epoxy putty together until it is a uniform color. Partially unscrew the spigot and the hose coupler. Work the putty into the threads and retighten, packing it all around to prevent leaks.

Your rain barrel is complete!

Tapping the barrel for the spigot
Threading the the hole for the spigot

Don’t drink the water from your barrel. If you have asbestos shingles (very old roof) or treated wood roof or a copper roof with a zinc anti-moss strip, do not use the water on edible plants. It is fine for flowers and lawns, though. Clean the bug screen periodically. In the winter, either take it in or leave the spigot open with no hose attached to avoid freezing and thawing from splitting your barrel.

Attach a hose to the overflow with the outlet somewhere like a soaker in a flower bed.
Spigot sealed with epoxy putty

Not Your Grandmother’s Split Pea & Ham Soup

Today, I made a split pea and ham soup to serve 80 men on the street. One of the guys told me that it is so good that the recipe is “internet ready.” That’s the first time I have heard that expression. They used to just tell me that the soup was “bumpin” when it was especially good; a much more graphic descriptor to be sure. In twenty years, even homeless people have become more technologically savvy. So here goes. I will attempt to publish the recipe as well as I can reconstruct it.

1 – 22 quart stainless steel stock pot with a glass lid
1 – much larger aluminum stockpot with no lid
1 – food processor with chopping blade
1 – long handled, heavy duty, industrial kitchen, stainless steel spoon
1 – expendable  dish rag

1/2 pound dried navy beans
1/2 pound dried pinto beans
1 pound pearled barley
1/2 pound dried kidney beans
3-1/2 pounds green split peas
1 pound yellow split peas
3 ham bones with a fair amount of meat on them
2 yellow onions
raw broccoli, cauliflower and carrots from 1-1/2 party trays
5 cloves garlic
4 Tablespoons salt
10 shakes of black pepper
3 Tablespoons Greek oregano
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 Tablespoons ground sage
3 Tablespoons finely chopped dried basil

Cut as much meat as possible off of ham bones and set aside. Put ham bones and dried beans, barley and peas in the 22 quart stock pot with the pot about half full with water. Place directly on stove on high heat. While that is heating up, puree the raw vegetables and onions in the food processor and add to the pot. This will take at least three processor batches. Press the garlic cloves into the pot; that is with a garlic press. Add enough water so that the pot is almost full; still allowing room to stir vigorously. Cover and bring it to a boil. Keep it boiling until all the beans, barley and peas are soft; stirring often with your industrial spoon that is long enough to reach the bottom without burning your fingers. Remove the bones and any strips of fat that are floating. Use a plate to scrape the peas, etc., and any remaining meat off the bones to return to the soup. Discard the bones. Cut up the meat that was set aside and add it to the soup. If there is still room, add water to restore it to the level before you removed the bones.

Put the dish rag in the middle of the bottom of the larger stock pot and add hot tap water. Place stainless stock pot into larger stock pot. The water should come about halfway up the sides of the outer pot; any more and it will bubble and perk out of the pot; any less and it will not transfer enough heat to the soup. This forms a giant double boiler, so you can leave the heat on half and simmer for hours, without worrying about scorching the soup (as long as you don’t let it boil dry and burn your rag – Believe me; it’s not a pleasant smell.).

Add the rest of the spices and stir them in. Leave it on the stove to heat for a few hours; stirring occasionally and making sure that the outer pot has enough water.

When you are ready to go to the street or whatever event you are going to; dump the soup (O, I meant to say pour) into a blue Igloo brand cube style cooler. Igloo is the only brand that doesn’t melt. (Melting cooler is not a flavor you want in your soup!) It will keep your soup piping hot for hours.

Bon Appetit!

Going Native

I made my first trip of the season to Edge of the Woods Native Plant Nursery in Orefield, PA, with my daughter, April, and her three boys. What a wonderful place! They have over 300 species of trees, bushes, plants, flowers and ground covers, all native to this area. Louise and Susan, who own and run the place, are so knowledgeable and helpful that it is well worth the miles out of the way to shop there. But I get ahead of myself.

Why go native? The answer to that is manifold.

The Audubon Society is reporting a rapid decline in bird populations in America, by as much as 80% of some of the most common backyard birds since 1967. Ornithologists attribute this to the disappearance of natural habitat with suburban sprawl with its eradication of the native plant species on which these birds depend for food and shelter. Another problem is the use of chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers that poison birds. So landscaping your yard with native plants and encouraging your neighbors to do the same can recreate attractive habitats for birds. There is no fauna without flora.

Native plants are well adapted to natural conditions, so do not require the artificial life support of chemical salt fertilizers or the ‘protection’ of weed killers or insecticides. This can save you money and make your habitat safer and less polluted. Choose your plants to match your conditions and you don’t need to water much, if at all. This saves water, which saves energy, which is better for the planet and your bank account.

It is easy to propagate most native plants, so, if you are willing to wait, you don’t have to buy so many. The Virginia Sweetspire that I planted last Fall has already put out rooted runners that I was able to transplant to a second location. These plants are not patented or copyrighted, so you can’t get into trouble for propagating them to plant, trade, give or sell.

If you have acreage, and you plan carefully, you can restore habitat to a wild enough state that it sustains itself with little care and provides habitat to native animals of all sorts. You cannot just stop mowing to let land return to the wild. In fact, mowing or plowing can permanently destroy some fragile natural ecosystems. In all of the Great Plains, some estimate that less than 2% are still virgin prairie. I recall as a child in Minnesota that they determined there was less than a quarter of an acre in the whole state that was still virgin prairie. Restoration can only go so far, but wouldn’t it be fun to closely restore a place to how it may have looked, felt and smelled like 400 years ago.

Going native will help you escape the cookie cutter, McMansion look. There are very interesting native plants in every region of the continent. As Europeans started to settle and explore the East coast of America, they were amazed with all the beautiful, native plants. In fact, one of the advantages of going native on the east coast of the US is that you can have a traditional, English, country garden! That’s right! The English were so taken with all the new, exotic plants from North America that they filled their gardens with them in a more naturalizing way than those stuffy, manicured French gardens. It’s a fascinating story. You can read about it in Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners.

We are using naturalizing, native ground covers, flowers and bushes to eliminate mowing in front of our house. We hope to be able to eat whatever blueberries the birds and the neighbors leave for us, as well.