Sunday, June 17, 2007

Free Nitrogen! Comes with a Handy Dispenser!

Sometimes I think that having grown up with a lesbian Mom and step-Mom and two younger sisters, I was inadequately prepared for life with a husband and four sons. Now don't get me wrong - it isn't as though I didn't know anything about males. I have a father, and male friends, uncles and during college and graduate school, I lived with more men than women. But by 18 or so, and certainly by graduate school, the men in question had learned that getting girls required a bit more grace than waving your genitals in their faces. Mostly.

But my background makes me much better qualified to answer questions about first periods, whether boys will really die from blue balls and when a bra is officially required for gym class than Isaiah's recent query about whether when he grew up he could pee all the way up to the sky or not. Thank G-d for Daddy.

After a long and tedious toilet training process, my son Isaiah finally clicked into big-boyhood last week, when he discovered peeing on trees outside. He was *so* excited and pleased with himself - now he and big brother Simon can try and hit a spider on a leaf from 5 paces (sorry, spider!), and discuss who went further at considerable length, to Mommy's utter bemusement. Some days it seems like they spend more time with their pants down than up, but who am I to ruin their fun?

We do have some firm rules. No peeing in the container plants (I couldn't figure out what was wrong with my poor impatiens). No peeing off the porch when Mommy is sitting and reading just below it (hmmm...rain...that's funny.. not a cloud...ick!!!). And strong encouragement to pee in the nice bucket that we keep. Because while Mommy may not fully grasp just how cool it is to play "shoot the grasshopper," Mommy is a major fan of free nitrogen.

You see, we all of us, during garden season, fertilize our garden with our urine. I use a commode we inherited from Eric's grandparents, and the rest of them use a bucket outside, and the commode in. Human urine is powerful fertilizer - every day people in the US discard 7 million pounds of nitrogen and trace minerals in the form of human urine. In fact, if you go to the farm store, you can buy artificial pee, called "urea" - except that that stuff is made with natural gas and lots of fossil fuels, whereas the other stuff comes out whether you like it or not.

The thing is, one of the scariest elements of the forthcoming energy peak is that we are terrifically dependent on anhydrous ammonia and other artificial nitrogen sources, mostly derived from natural gas, to feed ourselves. If we are to keep eating, we need to find another source of nitrogen. Conveniently, the artificial nitrogens that have been supporting the human populace (in our food) gets recycled through our bodies and comes back out in highly usable form. You just have to dilute it 1-10 to keep it from burning your plants.

And natural nitrogen, rather than the artificial stuff, is much gentler, and somewhat less likely to float downstream destroying the oxygen in the oceans. We apply way more artificial nitrogen than soils can absorb, and it is creating the famous dead zone in the gulf of Mexico - fish can't live there because a vast excess of nitrogen has destroyed the capacity of the sea to carry oxygen.

While feces can contain all sorts of bacteria, urine is generally sterile, and there's virtually no health risks to putting urine on your garden. Even if you have a UTI or salmonella (one of the few things that can be excreted in your urine), exposure to air means that pathogens die pretty fast afterwards. The most conservative estimates are that you shouldn't use urine directly on plants a month or less before harvest. Since we tend to pour it on teh ground around them, that's not a problem, and for our personal use, we don't worry much about the urine (if you live in a place where tropical diseases like leptopirosis and schistosoma are endemic, you probably want to have your household tested before you use your urine and not take anyone else's free pee - these could be passed on if you had them, which is pretty unlikely). We don't use it on sale crops, however.

In Sweden, however, farmers often use urine from city toilets (urine diversion systems are in place, and the urine is held in tanks until it is collected) on the farms that feed Stockholm. Swedish studies have found urine to be similar in composition to fish emulsion, which is great because the little fish like menhaden and others that are used to make fish emulsion are important to ocean ecosystems and feed larger fish. Those little fish are being depleted for organic agriculture, and aren't a great alternative in the long term (there are some sustainably harvested fish emulsions).

You can also compost urine, or put it in a big barrel (six months in a barrel in your garage and it will stink to high heaven, but be pathogen free). You can pee on a few straw bales, leave them for a rain and then mulch your garden with them. You can use it to water your houseplants. Ideally, just don't dump it in drinking water and flush it away!

Now us girls can collect our pee easily enough, but boys really have a natural advantage in this regard, plus my three year old regards it as a potential hobby, the kind of thing you really devote a lot of time and energy to. And I'm very grateful, even if I don't quite understand the appeal. Plants fertilized with urine really grow beautifully. Peter Bane of _Permaculture Activist_ says that a person's yearly urine output can provide all the high nitrogen fertilizer a half acre needs.

So I spend a lot of my time smiling at the "Mom, look, I peed on a *big* tree this time." I just nod and tell Isaiah how proud I am of him. And I am. I did laugh, however, the other week when he was in the bath, flipped over onto his stomach and complained to Daddy, "Daddy, my penis gets in the way." Daddy's reply? "Get used to it, sweetie." There are times when I *know* I'm just not up to a task. Thank G-d for Daddy, because that just wasn't in my manual ;-).

Happy Father's Day!

Sharon

108 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good to know!

But I'm curious (apologies if this is TMI), what do you do with the related toilet paper? compost it? What about blood getting intermingled from periods? Is this safe and harmless? What about (unbleached organic) tampons for that matter (for those who haven't made it yet to the Diva Cup)? flush 'em down?

And while we're on the subject, what about indoor cat and dogs' waste? dump it in the trash to be enshrined in a landfill? I heard it can be full of pathogens.

Sincerely,
Composting novice

jewishfarmer said...

Ok. Not TMI, just a bunch of questions.

Related TP - we're now mostly using cloth for peeing (or rather I am - boys seem to use the shaking method ;-), but we also have a composting toilet set up upstairs, and are about to have one downstairs, so the tp can get composted with the rest of the bodily fluids.

I put menstrual blood and pee with menstrual blood on my private garden, but would not use it anywhere near food I share with others, just for paranoia's sake. It also gets diluted 10-1. I honestly don't know about unbleached tampons - I would assume you could compost them for your own garden, but if you sell your produce, I wouldn't. I've never flushed a tampon - I'm told it is an extremely bad idea.

Indoor cat/dog waste can be composted - although the compost can't be used on anything useful, because it is pathogenic. But you can make a spot on the edge of your property and use a biodegradable thing like the cat litter made of wheat (can't remember what it is called) and compost it there, which at least keeps it out of the landfill. Maybe grow ornamentals around it to make use of the fertility? I'd think a nice hedge of something pretty might be a way to mark the spot, conceal the pile and get some flowers off of it. Does that make sense?

Other people may know more about the rest than I. Anyone know more about pet litter and tampons?

Sharon

shanalulu said...

Yup, pet waste can be composted, but used on non-food plants only. And tampons are fine to compost - I compost the odd Natracare pantiliner and have never had a problem.

If you're worried about anybody getting into your pet waste, you can also make a Doggie Dooley-type thing - dig a hole, add a layer of gravel, cut holes in the bottom and sides of a trash can, put the trash can in (flush with the ground), and add digesting powder. Am plotting this for my yard.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

P.S. The litter's called Swheat Scoop.

-A now more informed composter/ future humanurer

Susan Och said...

Many years ago I read that too much urine would accumulate sodium chloride in your soil, so you would need to add lime to couteract it. Have you ever heard this?

Anonymous said...

I've been saving my pee and (surreptitiously) adding it to our community compost pile for a few years now. Diluting my full day's production 1:10 with water would mean a full 5 gallons of the blend at least -- I'm working on figuring out how to work that into our community irrigation scheme.

And I haven't *quite* built up the gumption to tell my neighbor of a possible reason why the sunflowers growing on my deck look so robust compared to hers. :)

Anonymous said...

I was giggling at the vision of the boys 'helping'(remembering mine 20 years ago) and the thought came to me that my husband is even now in the process of saving a yew that had to be severely pruned to stay off the shop wall. I really thought it was a goner, but it's gorgeous! I just have to pretend I don't see him lingering there occassionally. Urea to the rescue!

Anonymous said...

My older daughter (mild CP) finally trained at 3 and half. When her friend Ben found out (he was the youngest of 4 boys, and I think honestly didn't realized that there were females, as he used only "he" etc., and told everyone Elizabeth was his brother) he was thrilled as they could now "cross-streams." Sadly for him...it just didn't work out.

MEA

jewishfarmer said...

Susan, that's a good point - urine is quite acidic, and you'd need to add lime or wood ash to your garden soil to counteract it after a while. We have acid soil anyhow, and wood ash anyway, so I do that automatically, but if you don't, then you'll need to factor that in! Thanks for pointing that out.

Sharon

Cat from Scaling Back said...

I LOVE this post. Thank you.

Oceana said...

You mentioned indoor pet waste is pathogenic, but are you talking about urine or both urine and poo? I've always been afraid to harvest stuff growing wild in our yard because we have male dogs that pee on everything. But is that overly paranoid so long as they have not pooed on it?

Anonymous said...

Urine from a normal person is not acidic, it is neutral. It should have a pH of 7, which is neutral. I don't know if it changes after it ripens though.

Mary

jlpicard2 said...

Sodium chloride would be salt accumulation. I don't know what to do about salinization of soil.

According to Wikipedia:
When it leaves the body, urine is usually around pH 6, though it may be as low as 4.5 or as high as 8.2. As urea--the compound which accounts for 75-90% of the nitrogen in urine--begins to decay, hydroxide ions form, raising the pH as high as 9-9.3.

Graham said...

Just as an aside to the issue of fertility in pee:
Simon de Beauvoir had the theory that the differing pee-ing methods of boys and girls played a significant role in the diifernent psycho-sexual development: boys' fascination with "peeing the highest" etc is because they have much easier direction control than girls- this leads to them being defined more by "agency" -the ability and desire to act on the world, make their mark, which is ultimately translated into achievement orientation, while girls become more attuned to "communion" ie relating to the world rather than shaping it.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, your post has me wondering about something I've never asked a woman.
As a man, I always pee more than I poop, but whenever I poop I always pee. Is it the same for women?
The reason for the odd query is that if one imagines oneself in a world 10,000 years ago (as I suppose it shall be 10,000 years hence) a person of each sex when pooping would yield different localized results. That is, a squatting man would have feces and urine spaced at a distance and a squatting woman would have both waste streams together. I wonder, is there a biochemical interaction for this behavior, or is it more that close enough is good enough?

Anonymous Blushing

Stephen said...

For over a decade I've been using my urine, diluted about 50%, to help compost my raked leaves in the fall. Actually, the whole compost cycle for the leaves takes about 9 months, but then it is black gold ... or at least it feels wonderful and smells wonderful. I do think one should stay aware of the pH issue, and do soil testing, since all my proportions are very unmeasured.

In an earlier life on a commune, we collected lots of urine, and would let it "ripen", then dilute it a lot, and use it on the garden, but esp. on the heavy nitrogen feeders, like corn.

Of course, people in Asian countries have been using their own urine and feces on their gardens for centuries.

In 1974 I talked with Scott Nearing who had recently returned from a trip to China, and he told of huge collections of human waste from the cities being composted, and turned with bulldozers.

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