A do-it-yourself success story: Passive rainwater harvesting

A do-it-yourself success story: Passive rainwater harvesting

by Deborah Tosline

This is a true story about a typical water-guzzling lawn carpet in the front yard of a Phoenix, Arizona, home that transitioned from grass to dirt to swales to cascading rocky pools surrounded by flowering lacey plants on little hillsides. All culminating into an enchanted native desert hummingbird/butterfly garden that will thrive on rainwater and provide shade, habitat, and an urban outdoor respite.

rainwater harvestThe front yard was dirt with patches of dry brown dead spikes of grass. Barren but clean, neat. Dead and gone the Bermuda grass, monster bougainvillea (planted too close to the house anyway), and foreign bushes. Rain runoff flow directions from the roof and through the yard were documented, the yard was measured for scaled drawings, designs were developed, and bluestake scheduled.

The yard was ready for installation of a passive rainwater harvesting landscape. Passive harvesting means that rainwater is captured in a depression, also called a swale, and allowed to soak into the ground. Active rainwater harvesting collects rain in tanks for storage and use at another time. The design included capturing rainwater flow from the roof conveying it to the top of the yard through two channels into six swales that subsequently filled before ultimately overflowing to the street, if needed. The rainwater, collected and held in a swale, soaks deeper into the ground for roots to utilize so that plants can survive and thrive.

Swales can be hand dug, but my favorite to date were the largest swales dug with a backhoe. I scheduled the backhoe and ordered yards of landscape fabric, plants, drip line, and appurtenant items. It was my fifth time operating heavy equipment, but it had been eight years. I was nervous when the tractor and the rock arrived.

I had the backhoe Saturday through Monday, not to exceed eight hours’ use. My plan was to dig the channels and swales before returning the backhoe. A week before the event, I added the supergoal of using the backhoe to set rock and ordered 17 tons of gravel and riprap.

The backhoe completes big, rough work. The finesse comes with a shovel and rake. I spent Saturday destroying my yard with the backhoe but finished the digging without hitting the house or utilities – success! Sunday morning I raked and shoveled the yard into submission, checked the system with a hose, and installed permeable landscape fabric. Sunday at dusk, I set the last load of rock. Supergoal!

This ended the first two days of the project. It took five more Saturdays, with help, to install a drip system, complete the rockwork, set a dozen native Sonoran desert plants, and lay a flagstone patio.

It was the first time I’d planted in the spring;  less risky to plant in the fall. The plants survived. The desert marigold and globemallow bloomed deliciously all blazing summer.

The yard was finished in early June. I entered my summer hibernation and waited for the monsoon rains to begin. Thunderhead clouds did not guarantee rain overhead, but on August 2, 2014, I was lucky to be home during a deluge and filmed the first rainwater collection event. A 1.25-inch rainstorm on a 1,000-square-foot roof can collect 748 gallons. See the video from the first rainwater collection event here. The water was cloudy, due to the new gravel dust.

Several rain events through the summer collected little pools of clear water that soaked into the ground within a couple of hours. The plants survived, thrived, and reinvented the yard.

Consider planting a passive rainwater harvesting landscape with desert flowers, bushes and trees to attract hummingbirds and butterflies and always milkweed for Monarchs. Save your water supplies for drinking, make your life easier and prettier, and increase the resale value of your home by creating a delightful native habitat.


Deborah Tosline is a hydrogeologist and a lifelong do-it-yourselfer with a penchant for Deborah Toslineresearch and health. This combination of attributes combined with three decades of self-prescribed skin care led Deborah to the underground world of do-it-yourself techniques that can remodel and transform your skin and help you maintain the best skin possible. Her first book, Skin Remodeling – An Introduction to the Underground World of Do-It-Yourself Skin Care and Techniques to Achieve Awesome Skin, will be released soon. At 55, Deborah has pursued a path of healthy living including 27 years walking 4 miles per day or equivalent 6 days a week; an 18 year yoga practice; vegetarian for 23 years, pescatarian for 14 years; all organic at home for 24 years; and more. Deborah loves to talk, research, write, live, and share all things health related.

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4 Responses to A do-it-yourself success story: Passive rainwater harvesting

  1. patriciaacox says:

    Great post, Deborah! Loved the video. I think this is your next book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. bethkoz says:

    What a delightful post! You make it sound easy!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bethkoz says:

    And I learned some new terms ‘riprap’ and ‘permeable landscape fabric’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Deborah Tosline says:

    Patricia and bethkoz, thank you! 🙂


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