Vineyard experts speak on saving water for a not-so-rainy day


Rainwater harvesting, or rain catchment, has become increasingly popular in certain parts of the country experiencing drought conditions for the first time.

Although the Vineyard gets plenty of rainfall, Abigail Higgins, professional gardener and MV Times garden columnist, who calls herself “water aware” says, “Thinking in water conserving ways is good for anywhere on the earth.” She adds, “I don’t think anyone should be complacent. The climate’s changing everywhere.”

Ms. Higgins is able to provide all the water she needs for her home vegetable garden by collecting rainwater in two different rain collection units. The classic rain barrel on the market is designed to collect runoff water from the roof of a house from the downspout. Most designs have a spigot as well as a hose attachment. The barrels are covered to prevent mosquito infestation.

Ms. Higgins started harvesting rainwater when she was at the mercy of a less-than-adequate well on her property in West Tisbury. Now that she has replaced that well, she still continues the practice, partly because of the uncertainty of her water supply. “A well could be fed from adjacent land. Someone could disrupt the sources of our water,” she says.

“No one really knows the hydrology of their land in the morainal area. You don’t know what’s feeding your well. There’s no aquifer where I live and all along the North Shore. The geology itself is very jumbled from the glacier.”

Besides the unpredictable nature of well water, Ms. Higgins finds that using a rain barrel helps facilitate the method of watering that she prefers. She chooses to use a watering can rather than a hose for her home garden since she can better control where the water goes. “I use a watering can a lot even though it seems old fashioned. It’s good for seedlings or if you don’t want to water the whole area. There’s no sense in watering seeds of weed plants.”

Having a barrel of water at her disposal helps to facilitate the process. “If I can just fill it quickly that saves time,” she says. She stresses the importance of not overwatering. “Watering is going to keep those fine roots hanging around the surface rather than going down for greater drought resistance…I use water conscientiously. My intention is to not need to water once the garden is established.”

Having your garden be self-sufficient is the most desirable situation, according to Ms. Higgins. She says. “There really is nothing like natural rainfall. Irrigation can often create a build up of salts. Rainfall is superior,” she added.

Chris Wiley, co-owner of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury, explains the benefits of rainwater. “Rainwater is more nutritious. As it comes through the air it picks up nitrogen products, which are good for plants. The big percentage of the air we breathe is nitrogen.”

“We think of rainwater as fertilizer,” Ms. Wiley continues, explaining that nitrogen is a key component of fertilizer products. Vineyard Gardens sells a rain barrel that is ornamental as well as functional, with a lid that also serves as a planter.

SBS in Vineyard Haven also carries a heavy-duty plastic rain barrel with one side flattened to fit flush to an outside wall. Owner Liz Thompson explains another advantage to harvesting the water from your roof. “It’s a good way to control the flow from your gutters. If you have drainage issues, it’s a great way to keep it from going into your basement.” The collected water can also be used for washing cars, decks, and lawn furniture.

William Waterway, who has received worldwide recognition for his water research and writing, sees the Vineyard as a fairly drought resistant area. “We’re kind of spoiled here because of the amount of rainfall that we get,” he says. “As long as we take care of our aquifer. If we’re vigilant Martha’s Vineyard will never have to worry about having clean water.” However, he notes that Islanders have a number of reasons to practice conservation by recycling rainwater.

“Some people do it here because they’re very conscious of running their well. If you’re up Island in Chilmark or Aquinnah some are perched aquifers that have limited quantities of water. If you’re on town water, you save the expense of running up your water meter.”

And, of course, by collecting rainwater, you are helping to conserve one of the earth’s precious commodities. Says Mr. Waterway, “The success of failure of civilization at this time depends on water.”