10 Yellow Terrors!: dissolving myths and fears about using urine as a fertilizer:
” Keep in mind that by simply saving your urine, you will divert the great majority of the plant nutrients leaving your body from entering the waste stream. That is probably the most important and relevant nugget of truth to remember and spread, because it allows people to take a step now, rather than waiting for some hypothetical future when they will build, manage and use a composting toilet.”
I’ve wanted to do a somewhat extensive post on using urine as a fertilizer, instead of just mentioning it all the time in other posts. The main problem in adopting it’s use seems to be a plethora of the fears and misconceptions surrounding the idea, so I figured that addressing those concerns would probably be the most useful approach. What follows are largely my opinions, though some facts may be sprinkled in for entertainment purposes ;) Don’t take my word for anything without thinking it out or doing research yourself to find your own comfort level. I’m just some guy out there that has access to the internet like everyone else, so why should you trust me? This information is based on a mix of practical experience and book learning, but the practical experience is the important part. I’m a keen observer and I like to push limits to see what happens. I used urine as my primary fertilizer in the home garden for many years. It’s awesome. The only reason I stopped is because I wanted to start doing market gardening and it seemed inappropriate, and no doubt illegal.
In reading forums and articles I have seen the same concerns and misinformation about using urine as a fertilizer expressed over and over again. Gardeners like to get all worked up over things that are supposed to be bad for soil or plants, and then pass that common knowledge on without actually ever really putting it to the test. The use of Urine seems to have many pieces of that kind of common knowledge attached. I too believed and no doubt propagated some of the following items. This is my small attempt to correct some misconceptions, quell some fears, and give people the confidence to move forward with using this awesome source of plant nutrition. I would really like as many gardeners as possible to read this, because using urine makes so much sense for most of us. Hopefully we can evolve out of the dark ages here and move into the golden age of illumination.
#1 Neeeooooooooo !!!!!!!! Fresh urine will burn plants, aged urine is better!: In my experience it is aged urine which is more likely to burn plants if anything. If you put too much fresh urine on one spot plants will be stunted, burned or die, but it takes quite a bit to tip the scale from beneficial to destructive. Peeing one whole bladder full on one little plant might negatively affect it, but in general fresh urine seems safer than aged, though that is just my general observation and the thing could stand to be tested in a way that would be definitive. See also below…
#2 OMFG!! !! !!!! Aged urine will burn plants, urine must be used fresh!: If I’m right, aged urine may indeed be more likely to burn plants, but it definitely can be used when diluted with water. I have no real substantive proof of this, but aged urine seems to contain “hotter” compounds than fresh urine. In particular, I suspect this is due to the break down of complex proteins into ammonia, which may increase the potential for leaf and root burning. I dilute aged urine at least 2 to 1 water to urine apply to wet soil followed by watering in. Using too much at once can still burn plants but that’s okay, because frequent small applications at intervals of 1 to 4 weeks is actually a better approach when using soluble fertilizers than putting it on all at once. I have used mostly aged urine because that’s just how it worked out. Even if plants are burned, it is not generally fatal. Most will recover and grow on to be reasonably healthy. Just flush them with a lot of water and don’t feed for a while. No reason to get your boxers all in a bunch.
(note: I actually did a test once upon a time, wherein I took two pints of pee, one aged and smelling of ammonia, and one fresh from the source, and dumped them each in one small area on some lentil plants. Neither suffered any visible damage, there was no noticeable difference between them. My main point, aside from acting like a dick and making fun of your unfounded fears, is that both fresh and aged urine can be used to good effect! :D)
#3 DIDN’T YOU KNOW?! EVERYBODY KNOWS!!!! Urine must be diluted at least 10 times with water in order to be safe for plants!!!! NEEOOOOO!, YOU’RE GOING TO KILL YOUR PLANTS!!!!!!!: Soluble fertilizers, including urine and more especially aged urine, are best applied to wet soils and then watered in. By doing so, you are essentially diluting the fertilizing solution a great deal, whatever it is. Dilution of 1:10 urine to water for actual application from a watering can is very inconvenient. With a 10:1 ratio I would have had to apply many more watering cans full compared to using the concentration of 1:2 which I customarily used! Screw that, it took long enough at 1:2! I sometimes even used a dilution of 1:1 especially with fresh urine, on plants that like lots of nitrogen just because its faster. I’ve even used it straight. It must be said though, that I’ve almost always “watered in” after application. Watering in not only further dilutes the urine, it spreads it out in the soil and washes it down to the plants’ roots. Of course all of this is dependent on the strength of the urine. I used to drink water like a fool and pee clear all day. Now I’ve learned better than to flush out all my electrolytes, and my pee is a lot stronger than it used to be. You can also put too much or too little on, whether it is diluted or not. Bottom line for me is, I would never dilute more than 1:3, and always water in immediately. Anything more seems like a waste of labor.
#4 No worries. Its all good. Urine is sterile bro!: Human urine can occasionally contain infectious organisms in spite of the oft stated “factoid” that “urine is sterile”. But ask a doctor or nurse if urine is safe, and they’ll often tell you that it’s sterile with little or no qualification. If it was always sterile, there would be no such thing as urinary tract infections! However, fresh urine is usually basically sterile, and safe enough for use. I think most people have more important things to worry about than the minimal risk posed by using urine in the garden. If final applications are kept away from edible parts for a at least a few weeks before use there seems little reason for concern when its “all in the family”. Ecosan recommends using urine fresh in family situations, claiming that other modes of transmission of disease are more likely to take place within the group than handling the urine during application, or when eating the food from the garden. I would however be hesitant to let dirty smelly hippies who have been traveling in the tropics pee on my garden. Rotting urine is probably somewhat more of a health risk than fresh actually, since it has bacteria growing away in there. According to one study, urine stored for months (how many is temperature dependent) basically sterilizes itself by the production of ammonia, so that is an option to look at if you’re concerned. I basically view this issue the same way I view animal manures. If I’m not afraid to shovel a bunch of homegrown chicken poo or other animal manure in various stages of yuckiness on my plants, then I’m not any more afraid to put on some rotten urine. Possibly less.
#5 Ahhhhhhhggggrrrgggaaahhhh!!!!!! The salts in urine will kill your garden!: I eat a lot of salt, no really. I used my urine in large amounts on my gardens for about 10 years and stuff grew pretty damn well! I can’t say that one would never see any negative effects of the build up of various mineral salts in the soil. Almost any garden can be bigger, better, more productive. However, my garden kicked major ass powered by pee. I must say though that I have free draining soil and a fairly high annual rainfall. I might be more concerned if I had very low annual rainfall or a non-draining hardpan layer beneath the top soil. In the case of the low rainfall, extra water can be channeled onto the garden to wash away excess salts during the rainy season, such as from the house gutters. Either way, I would still encourage a person to at least set aside one bed and see what happens if it is fertilized regularly through several years with urine. Try is first, and then panic if stuff starts dying or doing poorly. Whatever happens soil salting can be rectified by soil flushing if the experiment is on a small scale.
#6 eewwww gross! Urine will make my garden smell like a subway :( Welp, it won’t actually. if you pee on concrete it just sits there and supports a bunch of anaerobic bacteria that convert nutrients in the pee into nasty smelling compounds. If you pee on healthy soil there are gajillions of organisms just waiting to make use of those nutrients and break them down into useful fertilizing compounds. The clay in the soil will also hold and neutralize most of the smelly stuff. Peeing in hard lifeless environments like cities and bathrooms creates a problem that does not exist when peeing outside on the ground. As long as one doesn’t pee in the same spot over and over and over, there won’t be any appreciable smell. Urine collected in a bucket and then used in the garden can stink up the place pretty good, but that will dissipate quickly if the urine is watered in and shouldn’t last beyond half a day, if that. Using fresh urine and applying before it starts getting funky should create no appreciable smell.
#7 Urine has too many soluble chemical thingies and will kill the soil life! SOLUBLE FERTILIZER BAAAAAAHD, ORGANIC MATTER GOOOOOOOD: Maybe urine could kill a few good guys in the soil because it is too soluble and too hot, hell if I know, but consider the following. What are you killing, maiming or breaking to pieces when soil is dug to mix in manure or other fertilizers? Ultimately what benefits are you gaining by incurring heavy plant and root growth by using a kick ass soluble fertilizer? What benefits are all those trace minerals, vitamins and nutrients ultimately doing for the life systems of your soil? I really don’t know what urine does or doesn’t kill when applied to soil, if anything. Maybe it would be good to have some science on this, but I doubt its out there and I don’t feel like looking for it, and actually, it just doesn’t matter, because when you use pee on your garden it’s going to grow like darned heck! And what are the alternatives? Lets consider the non-chemical alternatives:
Make compost instead: (maybe even with the urine) Everyone with experience knows that producing tons of compost for a large garden is a big chore. The compost also has to be dug into the ground to be really effective as an actual main fertilizer, unless you can use tons of it.
Import animal manures: (Which are usually full of urine by the way.) Manure is often full of weed seeds including noxious weeds that you may not have yet. Requires transportation. Inelegant. Dependent. If you have manure from your own animals, hell yeah, way to go! You get a gold star baby!
Buy a non soluble nitrogen source and use that: (blood meal, “feather” meal, alfalfa etc…). Usually have to dig it in. Dependent again. Costs money.
#8 All the drugs and chemicals in my pee are going to kill the soil life! Jeeze, maybe, but then aren’t they also killing all your intestinal life too, and maybe you? I was on heavy continuous doses of antibiotics for two and a half years some time back. I did have some reservations about using that pee in the garden, but I did it anyway. I couldn’t tell that it hurt anything much. Dunno, try to take less stuff I guess.
#9 You HAVE to keep a lid on the pee or use it FRESH or ALL the nitrogen will evaporate and be WASTED! Geeeeezzz…. (eyeroll): Ok, its probably true that some of the nitrogen can evaporate if the lid is left off of aging urine. With a little mental gymnastics though, the loss can be seen as a benefit. Urine is not the most balanced fertilizer ever, being fairly top heavy on the nitrogen for some crops. I have never found that to be a major problem in practical application, in fact, not at all, but it would be a theoretically more “balanced” fertilizer if it was lower in nitrogen. I grow a large garden here and have never used even 1/3 of the pee generated. Most of it was wasted or directly “applied” to a tree or something. Unless you have big crops, lots of trees etc, you’re likely to have more than you need, so letting a bit of nitrogen evaporate is just not that relevant. you’ll want to keep a lid on it anyway, because it smells, but don’t lose any sleep over a little ammonia wafting away.
#10 If I pee on my plants my incipient ego force will wreak havoc on the living organism of my farm and turn my aura yellow! Screw that! As near as I can gather, around the neighborhood of the turn of the century, (the 19th/20th one) a mystic by the name of Rudolph Steiner, who claimed to have received, or perceived, intelligence from spiritual realms, gave a lecture or series of lectures on appropriate modes of agriculture that eventually became the bio-dynamic movement. Apparently, the use of human wastes directly on food crops is somehow discouraged or prohibited in this system. I’m not entirely clear on the reason, but you can try to interpret the quotes below. The stuff reads to me like the ramblings of a religious nutcase. Seriously, this stuff is really out there! I have no more reason to believe the ramblings of Rudolph Steiner than I do anyone else making random assertions based on exclusive intelligence received from invisible realms. Although I can’t find anything specific to the use of urine on crops and don’t want to waste any more of my precious hours here on earth looking for such a passage from Steiner (feel free to post in the comments if you know one, or want to attempt to enlighten us), there are some tasty quotes below which I hope will keep you from being discouraged by biodynamic religious dogma, because that’s all it is. Biodynamics is quickly gaining popularity supported by the general public who think it sounds great, but have no concept of its roots or the actual practice. It would totally suck if the spread of biodynamics keeps people from cycling human excrement back into food growing systems and puts us back at square one in regards to that practice, wherein we would be ruled by ignorance and superstition rather than benefiting from the kind of open inquiry and observation needed to solve the fertilizing problems we now face.
A position in opposition to biodynamics http://biodynamicshoax.wordpress.com/
Tasty Rudolph Steiner quotes:
“Here you encounter a relationship which you will think most paradoxical, even absurd at first sight, and yet you cannot overlook it if you wish to understand the animal organisation — and the human too, for that matter. What is this brainy mass? It is simply an intestinal mass, carried to the very end. The premature brain deposit passes out through the intestines. As to its processes, the content of the intestines is decidedly akin to the brain-content. To speak grotesquely, I would say: That which spreads out through the brain is a highly advanced heap of manure! Grotesque as it may be, objectively speaking this is the truth. It is none other than the dung, which is transmuted — through its peculiar organic process into the noble matter of the brain, there to become the basis for Ego-development. In man, as much as possible of the belly-manure is transformed into brain-manure, for man as you know carries his Ego down an to the Earth; in the animal, less. Therefore, in the animal, more remains behind in the belly-manure — and this is what we use for manuring. In animal manure, more Ego potentially remains. Just because the animal itself does not reach up to the Ego, more Ego remains there potentially. Hence, animal and human manure are altogether different things. Animal manure still contains the Ego-potentiality. Picture to yourselves how we manure the plant. We bring the manure from outside to the plant root. That is to say, we bring Ego to the root of the plant. Let us draw the plant in its entirety (Diagram 19). Down here you have the root; up there, the unfolding leaves and blossoms. There, through the intercourse with air, astrality unfolds —the astral principle is added — whereas down here, through intercourse with the manure, the Ego-potentiality of the plant develops.”
“Silica came from the Cosmos into the Earth with a consistency similar to that of wax, and then it hardened. I described yesterday how pictures of the Cosmos arise in clairvoyant contemplation of this hard, rocklike substance. These pictures represent a more spiritual aspect of the phenomenon that was once concretely perceptible as a kind of plant-form in the portions of this transparent, waxlike silica emerging from the Cosmos. Any observer of Nature will know that in the mineral kingdom today records of an earlier age are still to be found. When you look closely at certain stones you will see something like a plant-form within them. But in that distant past a quite unusual phenomenon was that pictures were projected from the Cosmos into the albuminous atmosphere within the waxlike substance, where the pictures were not only seen but were reproduced, photographed, as it were, within this substance. And then there was a noteworthy development: the fluid albumen filled these pictures and they became still denser and harder; and finally they were no longer merely pictures. The silicious element fell away from them, dispersed into the atmosphere, and in the earliest Lemurian age there appeared gigantic,floating plant-formations which remind one of the algae of today. They were not rooted in the soil – indeed there was as yet no soil in which they could have taken root; they floated in the fluid albumen, drawing their own substance from it, permeating themselves with it. And not only so – they lit up, glimmered and then faded out; reappeared and again vanished. Their mutability was so great that this was possible. Try to picture this vividly. It is a panorama very different from anything to be seen in our environment today. If a modern man could project himself into that far-off time, set up a little observation-hut and look out on that ancient world, the spectacle before him would be something like this: he would see a gigantic plant-formation somewhat like present-day algae or palms. It would not appear to grow out of the Earth in springtime and die away in the autumn, but would shoot up – in springtime, it is true, but the spring was then much shorter – and reach an enormous size; then it would vanish again in the fluid albuminous element. A clairvoyant observer would see the verdure appearing and then fading away. He would not speak of plants which cover the Earth but of plants appearing out of the Cosmos like airy clouds, condensing and then dissolving – it was a process of “greening”, taking place in the albuminous atmosphere. Of the period which would correspond more or less to our summer, an observer would say that it was the time when the environment of the Earth became “green”. But he would look upwards to the greening rather than downwards. In this way we can picture how the silicious element in the Earth’s atmosphere penetrates into the Earth and draws to itself the plant-force from the Cosmos, in other words, how the plant kingdom comes down to the Earth from the Cosmos. In the period of which l am speaking, however, we must say of the plant world: it is something that comes into being and passes away again in the atmosphere.”
“Man is in this way seized by the forces which, coming out of the earth, determine him; so that, if we picture these several points, we get a remarkable line. This line still holds good for our epoch. The spot in Africa corresponds to those forces of the earth which imprint upon man the characteristics of early childhood. The spot in Asia corresponds to those which give man the characteristics of youth, and the ripest characteristics are imprinted on man by the corresponding spot in Europe. This is simply a law. As all persons in their different incarnations pass through the various races, therefore, although it may be argued that the European has the advantage over the black and the yellow races, we should not be prejudiced thereby.”
No need to hold it against all those asians and blacks just because they are underdeveloped and have to be reincarnated more times to achieve the superiority that comes with whiteness. Eyeroll. I guess he didn’t notice that the Chinese invented like 90% of everything while his ancestors were probably still living in huts.
Whether I’m exactly right about all the details or not, the fact remains that my gardens have kicked some major butt fueled by pee. Fears abound, but the consequences of any complications that may arise are likely to be pretty minor rather than devastating. And not only is peeing on your garden not gross, it totally sexy. Just check out this gardening hottie at about 5 min 45 sec.
So, pee in a bucket for a while, and do a few test plots to see for yourself. For more reading on using urine as a fertilizer, see the literature made available by ecosan. They’re on a mission to stop the waste, grossness and disease caused by the viewing of human manures as a waste product, aiming to bring them into use in the areas which need them most, and which also have the worst sanitation issues. Ecosan rocks, and their urine diverting composting toilet system makes the popular humanure system look clunky, labor intensive and unsafe.
Keep in mind that by simply saving your urine, you will divert the great majority of the plant nutrients leaving your body from entering the waste stream. That is probably the most important and relevant nugget of truth to remember and spread, because it allows people to take a step now, rather than waiting for some hypothetical future when they will build, manage and use a composting toilet.
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