Thursday, November 27, 2014

Bringing Dirt to Life with Gray Water

Organic Vegetarian Vegan Food Collage Dark by KEKO64, Freedigitalphotos

I had always been dismayed by the performance of my potted plants. The tomatoes grew—barely— but never looked happy.

Then one day, my husband asked, "Given we're in a drought, why don't we collect the water from the kitchen sink?" Beaucoup marital points for that!

So we set a plastic pan on one side of the sink. We directed the really gunky stuff down the disposal—so the dogs wouldn't decide to supplement their diet by digging up the garden—and we rinse the dishes over the pan.

It's shocking how much water you use, just to rinse dishes! We empty it once or twice a day, even though seeing the quantity of water has made us much more sparing in its use.

Carrying a pan of soapy water has its challenges. So we decant it into a bucket with a plastic pitcher and toss in the coffee grounds and any left over coffee. This probably helps to maintain a reasonable pH.

We've been using that 'gray water' on the pots and also watering the entire backyard of landscaping. The irrigation has been turned off since early September when we started this practice.

Some research has found that if you water by hand, you use less water than drip irrigation. And this seems to be true. But the roses and photinia, not at all native to the area, all seem just as happy. And the potted plants perked up.

But what shocked me was when I lifted one of the pots to move it. Underneath, there was a convoy of red wigglers, likely the same guys I used to use in my worm bin. The sink water had turned the potting soil—basically dead dirt (even if you started with organisms in the potting soil, sitting in a plastic bag in the Home Depot parking lot during the sweltering summers would have cooked them)—into live soil.

I'm now mulching my pots with the leaves that clutter the patio, to give the critters something to eat during the winter. I hope I can ignore the guidance to throw out the potting soil and buy new next year. It's no longer potting soil; it's real soil.

I must mention that using gray water from the kitchen sink is not permitted by the State of Arizona, and gray water from other sources is not allowed for food except for fruit and nut trees. There is a concern that the food might be contaminated from the organisms. So keep that in mind when you wash your produce. But I've eaten root vegetables like carrots from the planter with no ill effects.

Image: Oberlin College
I am reminded of a visit I had to a Living Machine in Astoria, Oregon. These are artificial wetlands in a greenhouse designed to process sewage. The water goes through a couple tanks and then flows through a bed of tropical plants. At the time, this Living Machine didn't have enough sewage to run the whole system, so they had split it in two and one half was being fertilized with the equivalent of Miracle Grow.

The sewage side was lush, green, overwhelming it's area; workers beat it back with machetes.

The Miracle Grow side was peaked, yellow, alive sort of. Like my tomatoes in potting soil.

That's how I learned about the value of micronutrients. Plants need a lot more than NPK and nature can supply it if you just give it something to eat. Thanksgiving, indeed.