Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Piddling on the Vegetables

Well, not exactly, but something similar is happening in my garden here in Tokyo. I'm not installing a potty in the garden, but I'm planning to surreptitiously transport a bottle of fresh urine there once a week. There I'll mix it with water and pour it over my plants in an effort to offer them some needed nutrients and give the soil a boost. If I forget to take it (an event which has already occurred in my jet-lagged state) I'll simply pour the contents over the compost pile to add nutrients there and speed the breakdown process. (Check out this article at The Ecologist for a good summary of urine's benefits.)

Why am I doing this? Oh, heaps of reasons, but mostly it is because I have found organic urban gardening to be mildly confounding. My previous garden in Michigan in the country was an easy affair in comparison in terms of sourcing compost, manure, and straw. It was easy to build compost bins, potato towers, and lasagna beds. Unbeknownst to me, it was simple to build up my soil and grow great vegetables, flowers, and herbs, with extra material to spare for the pear and apple trees.

Here in Tokyo I don't have a lawn or neighbors with horses, sheep, or cows. There is a chicken coop  up the road, but I've not seen the owner yet. I don't have a wood stove from which to gather wood ash to sprinkle over the beds in fall, and there is no nearby source of straw. I can buy all of these things from local nurseries and home centers, but it's expensive and the sight of all those plastic bags in my garbage is an incredible downer. I do smuggle in the occasional bag of leaves that result from my neighbor's yard tidying days, but this last year the leaves have been suspect due to radioactive fallout from the March 11th earthquake.

So, I literally lie awake at night wondering what options exist so that my garden can thrive in this urban setting without the benefit of imported manures and plastic mulches. The tatami mats and lasagna beds help, but they aren't quite enough. More strategies need to be put in place so that the critters living in my soil and compost bins (other than the rat I spotted the other day - ugh), can happily feast and do the work they need to do so I can have a ripe tomato to much or a few string beans to make one of my all time favorite dishes.

Enter urine. Emma Cooper first exposed me to this idea in her book, and since then the idea re-emerges periodically on Twitter or other blogs I follow. There's no shortage of urine in our house (or anyone elses, I imagine) and we simply flush it away. We already practice the "If it's yellow, let it mellow." philosophy, but this morning at 3am I decided that I ought to take that a step further. (I have no good rhyme here, but perhaps I can work up a haiku later.) Japanese farmers have long taken advantage of this resource by collecting night soil, setting up toilets near their fields and along roadways to encourage travelers to relieve themselves, and even collecting it from public toilets at train stations and elsewhere. (See Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan by F. H. King for more dirty details.) I figure I'm just taking part in the spirit of mottainai.


Lisa Carter said...

Who knew?! But I can see what you mean, with urban gardening you're going to have to buy a lot more than you would out in the country. Not to mention the radiation fallout... Wow. The things that keep us up at night, huh? Look forward to hearing how your nightly collections improve your garden!

Jan said...

I loved this post. I read it outloud to my kids.

Anjuli said...

wow- I never had any idea this was a good thing for soil. You are right- there is always a great source of urine in any household. Are there any drawbacks to using human urine?

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

I know, Lisa, I feel mildly absurd lying awake thinking about my garden, but there you have it. The truth needed to be told. I'll also be adding a milk spray to my homebrews for the garden. More on that later, too!

Jan, what did they think?!? I'm so glad you liked it!

Anjuli, I had no idea myself. The only drawback might be letting it sit too long as it will turn into ammonia. Then, though, you just pour it over the compost bin, if you have one. I imagine that doing it once a week won't be any more detrimental to humans than the chemicals we all ingest knowingly and unknowingly; however, (stepping off my soapbox now!) washing your vegetables is always a good idea. ;)

Rhizowen said...

Urine is always on tap, is generally safe to use if diluted appropriately and makes a great compost activator. A society that wastes such a wonderful resource surely cannot survive long.

Martin J Frid said...

Good topic! There is a lot to learn. Ask the old people about night soil, I'm sure they have great stories to tell. Indeed it was a big part of the narrative until the 1960s.

Joan Lambert Bailey said...

Rhiz, Here, here. I gave it up to the compost bin and a diluted version to the beans and corn last night. I'm rather excited. I'm also wondering if the human urine smell will send that rat packing.

Martin, I have a personal theory that Japan is now so full of public toilets because in the past farmers wanted to take advantage of all that lovely fertilizer. How I would ask about this to a total stranger I'm not quite sure.