Friday, April 1, 2011

Pee in the Garden

My crusty old uncle Jay told me one of his characteristically amusing yarns once while we were puttering around his garden.  He looked kinda like Colonel Sanders, but much leaner, and he spoke with a lovely Louisiana drawl.  (He was an uncle by marriage.) His story was about a writer who composed a lengthy poem dedicated to his beloved, who liked to garden.  He entitled it, She Sits Among the Lettuces and Peas.  His editor liked the theme, but suggested he come up with a more tactful title.  The poet considered this advice and then submitted the revised manuscript under a new name, She Sits Among the Cabbages and Leeks.  I can hear Jay's gasping sort of laughter now. 

Nope.  This is not an April Fool's post.  I decided that this would be the year we start using pee in the garden in some sort of systematic way.  Human urine contains abundant nitrogen, a key nutrient for plants and soil microorganisms.  My husband has used the compost pile for the odd leak now and then with my encouragement, but we've never approached the use of urine with any organized intent.

I'd heard of the value of urine in the garden from various sources.  After all, garden centers sell urea (which is actually fake urine) as fertilizer, and I know that some compost enthusiasts use pee as a compost activator.  Sharon Astyk has written in her inimitable comically informative way about the renewable and cheap nature of human pee.  I attended a session on humanure systems at the PASA conference last year, and was sold on the concept even though we don't have access to a good supply of cover material to make it work.  I read Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, which further extolled the virtues of urine.  And it's not just crackpot greenies talking about this.  Heck, even the Washington Post reported on the concept.  Researchers at the University of Kuopio's Department of Environmental Sciences in Finland...

...concluded that urine produced by one person over a year would be enough to grow 160 cabbages -- that's 64 kilograms (141 pounds) more cabbage than could be grown in a similar plot fertilized with commercial fertilizer. They recommend collecting urine from eco-type toilets, storing it, then scattering it on the soil around the plants rather than directly on them. 

After being bombarded from so many directions, the idea finally worked its way up my priority list.  While we may not be able to employ a full humanure system, we can at least divert the less problematic of human wastes into useful channels.  Several million pounds of nitrogen are flushed "away" in the US every single day.  Homesteading is a process of learning to use what you've got, and learning to find value in what society so often treats as garbage.  This is one more resource available to us that we will no longer squander, one more dependency we can rid ourselves of.

Okay, a few technical details.  Urine should be diluted 1:7 with water if you keep yourself well hydrated, or 1:10 if you don't typically drink enough water.  Too high a concentration of the nitrogen in urine will chemically "burn" plants.  Of course, I like to streamline functions around the homestead, since convenience means my good intentions are more likely to result in good practice.  So I came up with a simple bucket hack.  All that's involved is marking the inside of the bucket to indicate the fill levels that represent the correct proportion of water to pee.  There are two ways to go about this, depending on how quickly you anticipate "contributions" being made.

The first approach is to work out the volume of just the first pee of the day per household.  Carol Deppe wrote that she uses only her first pee of the morning, since that is typically the most concentrated specimen of the day.  I've been doing this off and on for a while now, so I know generally what volume is typical for me.  From there one can multiply by 7 or 10 to get the volume of water, measure that quantity of water into a bucket, and mark the surface line with a permanent marker.  You may need to empty the bucket and dry the inside very well to mark it.  With this method you don't really need a second line indicating the additional volume of urine if your estimate is reasonably accurate.  But if you want to put a second mark as a check, go ahead and add your estimated volume of pee to the water and make a second line above the first.  Check your accuracy over a few days and adjust as needed.

The other approach is to start with how much liquid you want to carry in the bucket, which should take into account the distance you'll need to carry it, how you will be emptying the bucket (lifting?), and your physical strength.  So let's say you're comfortable carrying the bucket half full, or a third full, or whatever.  Put your first mark inside the bucket at that level.  Then fill to that line using a measuring cup to determine how much liquid it takes to fill to that level.  From that measurement, do your calculations - either multiply by 6/7 or 9/10, depending on hydration habits.  That will give you the amount of water needed for correct dilution rates.  Then empty the bucket and measure in the amount of water indicated from your calculations.  Make your second mark at that line inside the bucket, which should be below the first line you marked.  When you're ready to start, fill the bucket to the lower line with water, and when enough pee has been collected to reach the top line, it's time to empty the bucket.  Rinse, fill, collect, empty, repeat.  Free, renewable fertilizer.

There's also the direct method with no need to muck about with dilution or measuring.  Over the winter months I've just been adding my morning collection directly to the compost pile.  A well established and active compost pile should be able to sort out a concentrated dose of nitrogen and "digest" it, so to speak, before it is applied to the garden.  This approach feeds the soil microbes directly, which then later indirectly feed the plants where you apply the compost.  If you want to use this method, it's better to not let the collected pee sit around very long, especially at indoor temperatures.  The nitrogen in pee is such a valuable commodity that airborne bacteria will colonize the pee almost immediately and begin exploiting it.  The faster you get it into a compost pile, the more use it will be to soil microorganisms.

Now for the tedious caveats and common sense warnings, lest I fall foul of the hygiene police and the white knuckled.  Human urine is very nearly sterile when it exits the body, unless you happen to be carrying one of a very few nasty diseases.  Theoretically, hepatitis B, CMV (cytomegalovirus), and HIV (possibly others) are transmissible via direct contact with urine.  There's no data I know of on disease transmission through consuming food from soil fertilized with urine.  I regard healthy soil as a universal cleanser of toxins and pathogens of all stripes anyway.  Further, it's impossible to infect oneself with any disease.  Either you've got it, or you don't.  You don't pick something up from yourself.  If you're using your own urine in your garden, you have nothing to worry about if you're the only one consuming that food.  If you're super cautious, go ahead and test any member of your household for disease who might contribute urine to the cause.  Make sure none of you have any disease that could theoretically be passed on to another.  As indicated above, apply diluted urine around crops, not directly on them.  Finally, you probably want to steer clear of this technique if you sell to the market.  The last thing you need is a frivolous lawsuit.  To be on the safe side, use it on your fruit trees, berry bushes, corn (maize), ornamentals, or your asparagus crop after this year's harvest is finished.

So what are your thoughts?  Is pee in the garden just beyond the pale?  Do you already use urine (human or otherwise) as fertilizer?  If not, would you consider it?


Anonymous said...

My rhubarb has been a benefactor of this practice for years. I'll add it to the compost, now that you mention it!

Christine said...

My husband urged me into this a few years back after we noticed what a puddle of goat pee had done to a patch of grass. Imagine concentric circles of dead in the center, green in the middle and then underfed grass all around. It was easy enough for him, but I needed a collection system that was more hygenic than peeing into a stinky glass jar. It may br time to invest in a dedicated funnel.

Jennie said...

:-) I've used pee in the fall after adding tons of leaves to the compost pile.
I've got plans to implement some more pee capturing, but our bathroom is a little crowded until the 2 year old potty trains fully.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think it's nature's way, though not a very popular one to be talking about around the luncheon table at the Sr. Citizen's Club! Heh.

I admire your courage in blogging about it. I know people who secretly do it and I've been thinking about starting it as well. I don't take prescription meds so I'm a good candidate. That's one thing that I didn't see in the article is a caveat about the pee of anyone taking prescriptions that can leach out into their urine.

Anisa said...

I've thought about it but I don't think I can sell the husband on it. We do have two little boys who I know would be all to willing to contribute to the cause, however we've been working on "keeping your pants pulled up when you're outside" so I think this might get a bit confusing for my four year old - lol.
My other concern is we add chicken manure to the compost, which I believe is also very nitrogen rich, and I'm afraid of going overboard and burning all my plants with super hot compost. Thoughts???

Great blog post, by the way. I might have to run this idea by my readers too and get their opinions on the hot compost issue. ;)

ccm989 said...

Interesting post if you can ignore the Yuck factor. What about people who consume alcohol and eat meat? Does that make a difference? I read that I am not supposed to put meat/fat/oil into the compost heap (because it would attract rodents?). Would urine discourage ground hogs? Also what about the smell? Compost usually doesn't smell bad after it cooks for a year or so despite having chicken poop, coffee grinds, egg shells and a host of vegetable peelings in it.

Anonymous said...

This is awesome - and those nitrogen stats are startling! - but I'm on birth control and I don't want to poison anything. Maybe I can try it on some houseplants and see if they turn into mutants?

Homemade Alaska said...

I was just reading about this in Mother Earth News and have been seriously thinking about it, but have never tried it yet. I think we may give it a try this year. I didn't think about the prescription drug angle, good point.

ccm989, fats & oils aren't excreted through the kidneys, so I wouldn't think that would be an issue.

Hi, I'm Mary... said...

It's a perfectly natural, cool idea! Especially if you're living remotely enough. :)


Anonymous said...

I do this too, but need to be careful to not overdo the nitrogen. Leaf and stem growth love it, so I supplement with diluted urine at that time. When plants start setting fruit I back off. I have found this method works very well for container plants - since they need more nutrients due to leaching (watered more often than plants in the ground.) I should just switch to adding urine to compost pile later in season then - thanks for the idea!

Delores said...

I like it, especially the ease of adding to the compost pile.

I'm wondering, do you just pee in the bucket? That seems a bit awkward. I mean, I've used a coffee can when camping but in general peeing into small things is just not that comfortable. And I wouldn't want a bucket big enough to put a toilet seat on as it would be too heavy to lift when full. ????

hubbydogood said...

Wow, I'll try anything that means I don't have to haul home great big bags of composted manure! I've heard about it before, but I've been cautious as I've never seen such a thorough "how to" guide before. Thanks for the detail on a subject that isn't really "out there".

meemsnyc said...

Honestly, I'm not interested in using pee in my garden. To be honest, it grosses me out.

Kate said...

Anon, good to hear from someone who can attest to the benefits.

Christine, I've had a funnel for years for use on long car trips and camping trips. Now it lives with the garden tools. It's the Freshette, which I call the pee-nice. See my comment to XXXX below for another collection option.

Jennie, we've done some of that with leaf piles too, mostly thanks to my husband. Maybe potty training is just another collection method!

Ilene, I agree. It is obviously nature's way. Good point about the prescription meds. I tend to feel that (with a few possible exceptions - chemo) if your meds are too dangerous to recycle through the soil you grow your food on, then they're probably too dangerous to be taking in a straight dose. And besides, is the alternative better? Flushing them into a municipal water supply? There's more chance for remediation, and at basically no cost, in a good compost pile.

Anisa, it would depend, I suppose, on the size and activity of your compost pile and how well you're able to balance the N. If you have access to plenty of fallen leaves you should be fine. A small pile can obviously only absorb so much. If you cycle a lot of material actively through your pile with a lot of turning, I'd bet it would be fine. You could also just use the kids, who won't pee there all the time, and won't contribute as much as an adult. Let me know if you do a reader poll, please.

ccm989, homesteading has definitely reconfigured my Yuck reflex by a few orders of magnitude. I can't answer all your questions without googling, which I'm sure you could do just as well yourself. But I do now that the feces of meat eaters is significantly higher in nutrients than that from vegetarians. The Chinese collectors of "nightsoil" paid a premium for the waste collected from the German enclaves over a hundred years ago. They ate so much meat that the difference was obvious to the farmers who used the material. How's that for a yuck factor? It's possible a diet heavy in meat could make a difference in the urine as well. Alcohol, probably not very much unless we're talking staggering drunk every day. That's just a guess though.

Anon2, see my comments above on prescription meds. And yes, if you're in doubt go ahead and try it on something you don't plan to eat. Though if it were me, I'd go the compost pile route.

Homemade Alaska, See? Everyone is writing about it!

Hey there! Agreed.

Anon3, good details to know. Thanks for adding that.

Delores, one could probably jury-rig a reasonably comfortable system with just a bucket and a lid. But I use an empty plastic quart-sized yogurt container - clearly marked, of course - for my morning collection. Remember though, if you play around with a toilet seat on a bucket, that doesn't mean you have to wait until the bucket is full. Make your marks and empty when it's still comfortable to carry.

princessscarecrow, you're welcome, and happy composting.

meemsnyc, honestly, that's just fine!

Kate said...

Whoops! My placeholder writing trick is revealed. Christine, I meant to plug in Delores' name when I worked my way down the comments.

Melynda@Scratch Made Food! said...

I think any garden in a household of little boys (and possibly little girls) has had pee in the garden and no one knew! Funny when we talk about the very natural cycle of life and the waste that is produced we become in touch with our ick factor. The very nature of composting will make this a usable product (already paid for by the way)and I love the bucket tip. thanks.

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - I will admit here and now that we pee in the garden, not so much from a conservation point but because we're too lazy to take our wellies off to walk through the house to the loo.

Now I combine it with an organic approach. The man who has more..aim...can pee directly onto the compost heap. That's a common technique, and easy to train your husband to do. I've also read about peeing into a bale of hay or straw, later to be used as a mulch, or as a long manure to open heavy soils (dug in or no-dig, whatever your system).

I does seem a shame to waste it, and the potential for disease is slim.

I laughed out loud when I read the title '..among the lettuces and peas'. I must have the same purile sense of humour!

Kate said...

Jennifer, thanks for your honesty. If I may ask, how do you manage peeing in the garden, with female equipment and all? Glad you appreciate my Uncle Jay's sense of humor.

Jennifer Montero said...

Well, we're pretty screened off from our neighbors so it's not difficult to do what you'd normally do, there's just no toilet under you.

We recently devised two old tires from the ATV which make a perfect seat. You can place it on top of the hay or compost heap, depending on its construction. Then you too could be sitting amongst the lettuces and peas!

Meg said...

I am so doing this. We used to fertilize our yard and compost pile all the time when we lived in Downingtown, but there we had all of the privacy that comes with 3+ acres. I don't think that would fly in town—the people across the alley might object, at least. Your bucket system sounds like a good compromise.

Kate said...

Melynda, didn't mean to forget you! The post by Sharon Astyk (mother of four boys) touches on that very fact. I agree with you that as a society we've become rather prissy about dealing with the realities of "waste." It's good to remember that in nature there is no such thing as waste. It's all material for the next part of the cycle.

Jennifer, I like the tire and haybale idea. Good suggestion!

Meg, go for it! You've even got that rainwater catchment system, so you've got free, pure water on tap too. That's got to be ideal.

Hazel said...

I do this sporadically, but could do with setting up a system that means we are more consistent.

Our garden is small and overlooked, so even DH couldn't wee on the compost directly without upsetting the neighbours. They're easily offended and this would send them into free fall!

I use a small bucket and if I'm outside I can hide between the fence and the shed, and have total privacy. I either dilute it from the water butt straightaway or pour it onto the compost heap.

Anisa- we have quite a lot of chicken manure on our compost too, but I haven't noticed a problem with it being too high in nitrogen. My own feeling is that much of it runs off anyway (grow comfrey or borage nearby?) and our own chicken manure is pretty high in straw and shredded paper, so it all balances out in the end.

Carl said...

No-one seems to have mentioned the second usage of urine in the garden, although Kate alluded to it in the original post: herbicide. Pour it undiluted over your weeds for several days, and they will die. If you have the capacity to store it, then the potency (ammonia content) will increase over time.

Not as useful as making fertiliser, but doesn't require the calculations or equipment to dilute it. Just something to keep in mind.

GardenNUT said...

I have started to add my urine (diluted) to both flower and vegetable beds this year and have been amazed---have more flower blooms than ever--have even had some perrenial flowers bloom that have not bloomed in the past--I am sold on this simple free fertilizer!

Anonymous said...

I use the direct method, at night, because in the day, you can see my garden from the busy road. So at night, instead of wasting gallons of water with each flush, I just stroll outside for a quick drain. LoL. I live in Florida, so it's always warm and rains often enough to keep the smell of urine non-existent.

Alan said...

I've been doing this for almost 20 years. Over 16 years I had wonderful rich compost at my last home and, 16 weeks into the new place with more land to use, I pee directly in my compost bins regularly, day or night.

I've also tried peeing directly on brambles to see what it would do to them, they are now dying. So a benefit each way to peeing outdoors :-)

Alan, Wales

Anonymous said...

We have a spare toilet where we shut off the water and sealed off the outlet - keep a container in it to collect urine year round. Empty once a day onto the compost pile. Simple.