Rainwater Collection

In an ideal world or on a bigger lot, I’d have a huge rain barrel system to collect rainwater from a variety of sources. Since that’s not possible on my tiny lot, we’ve done what we could by diverting the water from the downspouts to various places in the yard.

We’ve done this by utilizing perforated pipe hooked to the existing downspout. The concept is simple, a chunk of non-perforated flexible pipe is hooked to the downspout (so that water isn’t seeping close to the foundation of the house) then the perforated pipe is hooked to that and snaked farther into the yard, away from the house.

In the backyard there are three downspouts. Two of them edge the back patio with about 20′ of perforated pipe which end at the Japanese Maple tree which is very happy for the extra water. Another, on the far side of the back yard, edges the path and spreads water for about 10 feet of perforated pipe.

In the front yard we did something different. We piped from the downspouts, under the courtyard patio and feed both downspouts to the dry creekbed which, in the rainy season, isn’t so dry. In this way much of the water that flows off the roof actually stays on site and benefits the garden.

One additional thing we have done is to replace the solid cement driveway with pavers. The pavers are not sealed so rainwater is allowed to soak down in-between the pavers and stay on site rather than having it all run down to the street gutters.

Third Water Feature

By the time we got to these last water features I had a much better idea of what I wanted of water in the garden. I wanted to hear the water. I wanted a place for perching birds as well as waders. And I wanted it to look more natural.

The biggest lesson learned from the previous water features is that you need a water basin larger than the rock to allow for the splash that happens as the water comes off the rock. If the rock just barely covers the grate, you have no leeway for heavy burbling. I did a lot of reading about pondless water features. Go ahead and Google the term. You’ll see a lot of neat looking rocks with water bubbling out of the top and disappearing into the pile of rocks. No standing water. Sometimes they are set up as bubbling urns. Same idea. Water trickles down the sides and disappears under the rocks.

The reasoning behind a pondless is that with no standing water you don’t have to worry about mosquitoes or algae bloom. But there’s not much room for birds to take a bath. I started wondering if there was a way I could utilize the technology but make it work for me. What they do with any “pondless” feature is dig a big hole with a huge water basin that is strong enough to hold not only the burbler, but all the rocks to hide the basin and I that some of the water basins had a nice lip on the edge. My idea was to not fill them to the top with rocks but to get some thin flat rocks to cover the surface and leave an inch or two of water for the birds. It was an idea that worked perfectly!

The basin I used was the Aquascape  small aquabasin which is about 30x30x10. If I had been doing this from back before we ever planted anything, and had the room, I would have used the larger one just because I want the best for my birds, but the small works just fine. They don’t come cheap but they are durable and have a lifetime warranty. One thing that’s great is that they have a little grate that comes out easily for taking care of the pump so, if you need to get to the pump you don’t have to dismantle the entire water feature, just the part that is covering the grate.

I went to the rock yard and bought a bunch of flat rocks to help cover the edges and to go on most of the bottom. I added rocks of various sizes around and in the basin and the results have been pretty spectacular. I have birds visiting the bubbling rocks through-out the day.

We replaced the two previous water features in the backyard with this new one and added a third water feature of the same type in the front yard at the top of the dry creek bed. The hardest part about this is just adjusting the flow of the pump so you get the burble you want without splashing too much outside of the basin. We ran a drip line on a timer to all the water features.

I’m sharing a lot of photos because, if you’re anything like me, when I’m doing something like this I want to see as many views as possible so I can really understand the process. I think the key to this set up is 1) cover most of the bottom of the basin with flat rocks. This gives an inch or so of water for the bathing part. 2) have a few rocks that come up out of the water so the birds can wade in cautiously 3) adjust the flow so that a lot of the rock is covered in water. Some birds perch on the side but a lot of them like to stand in the water basin and stare at their reflections in the rock.

Sheet Mulching

After we ripped out the lawn and before we began to plant, I started gathering cardboard boxes and stacks of newspaper so we could do sheet mulching at the same time we planted.

You can Google “sheet mulching” or “lasagna gardening” and get tons of links about the process but at its most basic level it means covering the dirt with a layer of cardboard or several layers or newspapers so as to create a weed barrier. You dig through the cardboard/newspaper layers to plant, put your mulch on top of the cardboard/newspapers and then let the worms and time break down the layers while keeping the weeds at bay.

Very simple and it works.

Some things we learned in the process, do small areas at time. Wet the ground, then lay out the cardboard/newspaper layers. Wet them too. Then plant and mulch and water again.

Here are a few links that explain it in more detail if you want.

Second Water Feature

We learned a lot from the first water feature.  Although we really liked the idea of a solar powered pump we couldn’t get the panel into the sun enough for it to run very long so the birds didn’t get a lot of enjoyment from it. They’d come by when the rock wasn’t bubbling. So we knew we would use an electrical pump for the next one.

I did some poking around online and found a place that offered a bubbling rock kit, basically they sent you a rock in a bucket with a pump and a grate. All you did was dig the hole. So we decided to give that a try.

The rock really did come in the bucket. The top of the bucket had holes in it. The idea was the same as it was with the first water feature, you dig a hole, put the bucket in the hole, put the pump in the bucket, put the lid on the bucket, add water and run the pump to the electrical outlet. This kit came with some heavy black plastic to go under the rock edges to help the water stay where it was supposed to stay.

It was a good idea, in theory. Alas for us it never worked. The rock was just as big as the top it was sitting on and it was hard to get the water pumping out just right so that it went back into the bucket and didn’t dry out the pump. As you can see from the photos, we made a few alterations and eventually, the plastic garbage can lid worked best. It looked ugly but the birds didn’t seem to care.

I had something a little different in mind which eventually led to the current water features.

Dry Creek Bed

From a design standpoint, I wanted a dry creek bed in the front yard. From a conservation standpoint, I wanted it to do double-duty so we decided to set it up in such a way as to not only collect rain in the creek bed but to also feed the water runoff from the downspouts. (Read more about how we collect roof runoff.)

Before digging I used garden hoses to lay out an approximate design. My fearless husband dug for several days to give us a creek bed approximately 15 feet long and with a depth that ranges from six inches to about 2 and 1/2 feet. All the dirt removed was used to make berms throughout the rest of the front yard.

Both downspouts from the front of the house feed into the top of the creek bed from 4inch flexible pipe with a grate on the end. Before the rainy season we make sure the grate is free of leaves. I confess the first year we had it we ran outside once it had been raining for a while to watch the creek fill up with water. Now that it has been in for a few years the water doesn’t often come up above the rocks but when it does, it soaks back down fairly quickly.

As you look through the photos you’ll notice (perhaps) that the first version of the creek bed didn’t look very realistic. I just didn’t quite grasp the concept and as a result, we filled it up with rocks of all one size and it just looked like a big flat ribbon of rock or maybe a drainage ditch but nothing like the creek bed in my head. We took out a bunch of the rocks, added boulders and, as you can see, the final result is much more realistic. At the very top of the creek bed is a pondless water feature, otherwise known as an in-the-ground swimming pool for the birds. As always, click on any photo to see it larger.

First Water Feature

When I decided I wanted to upgrade the water feature in my yard from a bird bath to running water, I really wanted a pond. I didn’t care so much about fish but I wanted the sound of bubbling water and a place where the birds and other critters could refresh themselves. I read about bubbling rocks and decided that was what I needed and convinced my husband to put it together for me.

Supplies, according to what I read online, were simple. Get a container for the water, a pump, a rock with a hole in the top and something to hold the rock on top of the container. I found a feed bucket made of extra heavy duty plastic, a BBQ grate that would cover the bucket but allow the water to go back down the sides of the rock, and I ordered a little solar pump from some place online. We went to the rockyard and picked up a small rock that was already drilled and ready for us.

My husband dug the hole and got the entire thing set up which worked out pretty much the way we read it would. He added a float valve which was a good idea in theory but didn’t work for very long. (We didn’t bother with that in future water features.)

We only had a couple of issues with this water feature. One, we couldn’t keep the solar panel in sun all day so unless I wanted to go outside and keep moving it around (I didn’t) it only ran for about an hour a day. Two, the size of the rock was too close to the size of the opening of the bucket which meant that with splashing, not all the water returned, as it should, to the bucket. This was a lesson we would learn a couple more times before solving it.

But it DID work and the birds did find it. I decided I wanted a second water feature on the other side of the yard.

Basic Water Feature

You don’t need any fancy water feature to attract the birds to your yard. A simple bird bath is a great draw. We have a drip that goes on automatically each day. There is also a ground level saucer for birds like mourning doves who prefer to drink at that level.

And just never know who might come by for a drink.

Dirt bath

When we started pulling out plants and ripping up the lawn we got a lot of birds coming to peck at the bugs and worms that were suddenly a little more available to them. We also had what we thought was an odd occurrence. I’d look outside, expecting to see the flat expanse of dirt and instead, there were a bunch of little indentations in the ground, like someone had come along and scooped out some of the dirt and left little empty puddle holes behind. This went on for several weeks before I finally witnessed what was going on, the birds, so happy to have that bare dirt, were plopping themselves down and squirming around, giving themselves little dirt baths. They seemed to be having as much fun bathing in the dirt as they did in the water.

As we started planted there was less and less dirt for the birds. I didn’t think too much of it at the time until I noticed they were using one of my small clay flower pots that had dirt but no plant as a substitute. Since we’d already planted the yard there wasn’t much of a space for me to leave them a strip of dirt so I gave them a bigger pot to use. They line up on the arbor and hop into the pot. Every so often I top it off with fine dirt.

So if you don’t have the space for a bird bath or don’t want to hassle with one, leave some bare loose dirt for the birds on the ground or in a pot, and they’ll be happy.

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