Free Nitrogen! Comes with Handy Dispensor!

Sharon May 25th, 2009

Note - Another rerun here, this one was written several years ago. Isaiah has gotten over his obsession with peeing outside (well, it has gotten less intense, anyway), but now Asher is at the same stage of toilet training.  The first time he peed out on a tree, I told him I’d get Simon or Isaiah to demonstrate for him, and he asked me “Why can’t you show me, Mommy?”  I noted that I couldn’t model, since I didn’t have a penis.  With great seriousness, Asher said “Oh, Mommy, I’m sorry.” ;-) .  I wasn’t, but I love that potty training gives me an excuse to draw attention to this subject, which is terrifically important - we are going to have to figure out how to maintain fertility, and human outputs are going to be an important tool.   

Sometimes I think that having grown up in a mostly female home,  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 their genitals in said girls’ faces. Mostly.

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 (1-7 if you keep hydrated normally) 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 the 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 ;-) .

21 Responses to “Free Nitrogen! Comes with Handy Dispensor!”

  1. bureinato says:

    I used to be in a hiking group, and when we’d have to stop for a tree break we’d always send the guys up ahead because men always underestimate the amount of time it takes women to pee. We’d finish and go up the trial, and invariably the guys would be standing next to the tallest tree around.

  2. Greenpa says:

    Lots of fun there, Sharon.

    I have a new disaster to mention regarding anhydrous ammonia.

    One of my friends is a rabid amateur herpetologist; highly knowledgeable. For several years now, he’s had a request in from me to snatch a hatching of baby bullsnakes.

    I need bullsnakes here; and they’ve been eradicated- partly because they look like a rattler to the uninformed; and they have a bad habit of mimicking a rattlesnakes rattle; by buzzing their tail in dry leaves or grass. That gets them stomped, too.

    My friend initially told me it would be just no problem at all; he saw newly hatched batches of bullsnakes all the time, in several of the places he haunted for turtles.

    But- for 4 years now- he hasn’t seen one. Just a couple days ago, he asked me “you know, when I stopped seeing them- it occurs to me that they started growing corn on the big field that had always been unplowed. Could they be doing anything that would kill all the snakes?”

    And the answer is- yes; anhydrous ammonia will kill anything in a burrow that’s connected to the field.

  3. Brad K. says:


    I had one neighbor that refused to put anhydrous ammonia on his fields - because it killed the earthworms. The elderly gentleman, now deceased, felt that the worms were important for long term fertility of the soil.

    I don’t like snakes - they are predators. But I like having them around, preying on mice and roaches and beetles. The big, six footer - maybe a bull snake, with its rattling-rustling sound? - in the garage certainly had my attention. It took the hint, though, and made use of the open door. Must have been at least 1 1/4 inches in the middle. Grow fat, Mr. Snake!

    My favorite predator, though, is a green tree frog - that hangs out under my porch light. I don’t know if the tiny thing is the same from year to year, but it looks the same . . . .

  4. Marcus says:

    I’m glad that you call a penis a penis and don’t beat around the bush. I always thought it unnecessary to use words like “weewee” with children.

  5. Isis says:

    Wouldn’t medication that people take still be a problem? I don’t have a garden (alas!), but if I had one, I wouldn’t particularly want to eat Prozac with my carrots…

  6. Anna says:

    Isis, didn’t they already find prozac in the public water supplies in the UK from so many people taking the medication? It is a scary thought isn’t it (although it should make the population calmer whether they know about it or not LOL) - here is some more information:

    When reading that, I’m glad we’re on rainwater and it’s the nicest water I’ve tasted in my life.

    So far we’ve only peed on our lemon trees, I wasn’t aware that we could use it on the rest of the garden too. Worth a try!

  7. EJ says:

    Sorry to burst your bubble but having lived in Stockholm and surrounding towns for over 20 years I have to tell you that “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.” this may be true of some newer homes it certainly isn’t universal. Some urine separating toilets in place but they are only used to save water when flushing.

  8. Bryan says:

    I think that there are some days when I would very much like my carrots to be infused with prozac!

    I was in the yard today with 3 yr old Tom, who discovered yet another place to down-trouser and pee freely.

    I looked over and heard him saying to himself: “wwwwweeeeeeeeeeeee - doing my piddles in lots of places is so much fun”

    Thanks for the re-run.

  9. Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife says:

    Yes, thanks for the rerun.

    I had my husband occasionally peeing on our leaf pile from late fall to early spring to help balance the carbon. Now the leaves are spread around the garden and he has no pile to pee on anymore. The big trees are now all out front (after we cut a few to make room for cherries and pears) where his modesty may become an issue. So I’ll have to either get a bucket system going, or tell him to randomize his application.

  10. safira says:

    Human urine also keeps certain critters away, I believe, the kind you don’t want to harm, but don’t necessarily want frolicking in your garden. (A friend had her ex-husband pee the perimeter to keep coyotes out of their yard. It repelled the coyotes and amused the husband, thus proving guys don’t change that much as they get older.)

    Unfortunately, I think our suburban neighbors would call the cops, so we’d have to use the bucket method. Not as innately satisfying to the inner child, but more discreet when the neighbors can see your every outdoor move.

  11. Kerr says:

    I noted that I couldn’t model, since I didn’t have a penis. With great seriousness, Asher said “Oh, Mommy, I’m sorry.” ;-) . I wasn’t, but I love that potty training gives me an excuse to draw attention to this subject, which is terrifically important - we are going to have to figure out how to maintain fertility, and human outputs are going to be an important tool.

    Ah… I read this… all wrong, the first time through. Never mind. It’s probably only me.

  12. Greenpa says:

    Kerr- nope, not only you. I did a bit of a double take there.

    I also did one when I read Marcus: “I’m glad that you call a penis a penis and don’t beat around the bush.”

    um. what?

  13. Teartaye says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the UTI’s.

    I missed this one the first time around (boo!) and I’ve always wondered if you could use your urine in compost/on food plants while you had a UTI. I get frequent UTI’s (it’s actually why I don’t use cloth TP) and I’ve kinda held off entirely because of that. Good to know!

  14. Claire says:

    Mind if I clarify a bit on natural gas use to make fertilizer? As a trained chemist, I think this needs to be made as precise as possible.

    Living in the Midwest for the last 30 years, I’m very used to seeing huge tanks of anhydrous ammonia on the megafarms that are common here. Chemically, anhydrous ammonia is NH3. The 3 should be typed as a subscript, but I’m not sure it will come out that way by the time the electrons propagate out to your computers. Do me a favor and mentally subscript the 3, OK?

    The N in the formula is nitrogen; the H is hydrogen. The nitrogen comes from air, which is about 78% nitrogen, in the form of N2, with the 2 as a subscript. We don’t ever have to worry about running out of N2. The problem with it is the bond between the two nitrogen atoms is what chemists call a triple bond, and it is exceedingly strong. You need to break that bond in order to react hydrogen with the N2 to make your NH3.

    You’re wondering, where does the natural gas come in? It turns out that natural gas is the source of the H (hydrogen) in ammonia. Natural gas is CH4, and yes, the 4 is a subscript too. It’s relatively easy, energetically speaking, to separate the hydrogen from the carbon (C) in natural gas. There is only a very small amount of hydrogen gas (H2, the 2 is a subscript) in air, and up to now there has been plenty of natural gas to serve as a ready source of hydrogen and plenty of energy to split the C from the H in natural gas and then to combine the H2 made from natural gas and the N2 from air to create NH3, ammonia. The latter process, called the Haber process, is very energy-intensive because it involves breaking a triple bond, as I noted above. My general chemistry text says it takes high temperatures and pressures to do the reaction, but that text is 35 years old. Maybe there’s a way to run the reaction that is a little more efficient now.

    OK, end of chemistry lesson and on to lunch ;)

  15. Uncle Yarra says:

    Stale urine is a good liquid to use instead of water when mixing blackpowder
    (what? you don’t make home-made fireworks, too?)

  16. PB says:

    Sorry to burst your bubble but having lived in Stockholm and surrounding towns for over 20 years I have to tell you that “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.” this may be true of some newer homes it certainly isn’t universal. Some urine separating toilets in place but they are only used to save water when flushing.

  17. Janet Jinkner says:

    Thanks to the new plastic containers that motor oil comes in, we women don’t have to be tied to the indoor facilities anymore. If you cut the the platic bottle that the oil comes in just right, you’ll find that it makes a perfect funnel. It doesn’t take too long to figure out how to use it, either. My DH is always amused when I stand out there beside him to water the tree.

    I like the idea of peeing on a bale of straw to use as mulch. Since I already use the hay bedding from the goat barn for the same purpose, it seems a natural to use old hay that the rest of us have peed on. I call it ‘enhanced mulch’. I also have a composter in the greenhouse… and a funnel. The greenhouse gives me just enough privacy outside to do my thing, and it saves a lot of time that would otherwise just be spent walking back and forth. (From the garden - to the bathroom - to the garden - to the bathroom - to the garden….)

    So, yes. We do make use of the free nitrogen. We make use of the rest of it too. We compost the rest of it for 6 months to a year and throw it on the garden just before we till for the first time of the year. We also carefully place where we use it and don’t grow root vegetables there that year. *grin*

  18. Christina says:

    Is the diluted urine comparable to high-nitrogen fertilizers, to be used occasionally, or is it more like compost/vermicompost tea, to be used as a regular mild nitrogen source?

  19. TheOrganicSister says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for the info on the dilution rates. I wonder, like Christina, how great it is to use regularly rather than using a slow-release form like bloodmeal or planting nitrogen fixers and accumulators. But until we can do all that it will certainly help our immediate problem of growing food in what use to be a grassy (and nutrient depleted) lawn. :)


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