Free Nitrogen! Comes with a Handy Dispenser!

Sharon June 17th, 2007

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

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