Fertility Harvesting and Cycling


sun does give the added advantage of being able to grow in the piles themselves, utilizing the nutrients just sitting there in half-finished piles. Instead of sun/shade criteria, however, we locate the piles for complete ease of access and for consideration of what we want to fertilize downhill from the pile, as runoff is unavoidable unless you compost inside a shed or similar location.

Human urine is a near-perfect plant food, and a hydrated, healthy human being urinates a half dozen times a day or more. That’s hundreds of easy opportunities each season to feed back into the system that feeds you. Using urine as fertilizer on the homestead can only seem strange in a relationship between people and plants with incomplete cycles and distance, rather than connection. Raising plants without offering them back your excess nutrients is like being given a gift by someone repeatedly without returning the favor. Because of failing septic systems and especially urban waste treatment systems, industrial humans are literally “pissing on” fish in the rivers downstream from their sewage treatment plants and the creatures of the sea into which that river flows. This is not proper nutrient cycling—animals don’t benefit from human urine, plants do. Concentrating human feces and urine into massive centralized systems not only deprives the land of the fertility from which these nutrients were derived, it loads the oceans with excess nutrients and toxins. This lineal flow is the opposite of the arrangement between land and sea that living communities rely on. Fortunately, if you live in a rural area, placing yourself in beneficial relationship with the living world around you is as easy as growing food plants, composting, and walking around the site to simultaneously water and feed the plants most in need of nutrients. It is said that each human being excretes enough plant nutrients to grow enough plants to sustain himor herself. This cyclic concept should not be surprising, as humans and plants have evolved with relationships between each other for millennia. Think of the synergy:

What if it so happened that urine was toxic to plants, or that it simply didn’t contain nutrients plants need? Of course, just the opposite is true; all our excess bodily nitrogen goes into our urine—the same nitrogen that is often the limiting factor to plant growth. Coincidence? Doubtfully, but either way, the imperative is simple: Cycle value in the system—transform a waste from one element into food for another, always. Urine is one of the most valuable resources generated on the homestead, and no human habitat firing on all of his cylinders would waste much of it. We have found it relatively easy to use urine during the growing season but hard to make optimal use of it during the long dormant season. When plants are growing—generally from about April to October—I urinate either directly on the base or near the base of trees and shrubs that need more fertility. I look out for the plants that are growing the slowest and fertilize those as a priority. I aim to grow twelve to twenty-four inches of new shoot per year on most fruit trees, a lot less on new nut trees, slightly more on older nut trees, and maybe six to twelve inches on most shrubs, aside from elderberry, which is super vigorous and can grow two feet per year easily for the first few years. Not surprisingly, these are found more often the farther I walk from my zone 1 (kitchen, office, workshop, bedroom). When you find a plant in need of nitrogen, urinate at the base of it—the younger the plant, the closer to the base the better, because of its limited root development. As plants get older I like to fertilize them farther out from the base. Avoid depositing urine in the same spot over and over again or repeating use on the same plant. When you do fertilize with urine, get the liquid gold in deep, where the plant roots can access it. During or before a real rainstorm, you can spread more broadly on the surface. Using human urine on plants entails walking around the landscape to a larger extent than we might otherwise. And while it’s easy to cycle your fertility back into the landscape during the growing season, the dormant season presents another challenge entirely. In my cold climate, for six to seven months of the year, storing urine presents several challenges. First, although sterile when it leaves your body, urine becomes highly active


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and odoriferous quickly—read, overnight. Odor is a challenge, if you’re storing in buckets or jars. Second, urine tends to lose its nitrogen quickly into the air. So come spring the amount of nitrogen actually available for plants would be questionable. I have come to the following approach as my best current method for solving the winter fertilityextension challenge. First, I urinate outside at the base of wood-chipped plants when possible in the winter months. I do not know for sure how much of the nutrients will be available for the plant come spring, but it seems to do some good and is a nonpolluting way of releasing the nutrients. Another great use of winter urine is inoculating biochar, which is made in my woodstove. This is one way of achieving the necessary step of activating and “charging” the biochar and serves an equally important function of nutrient storage. It seems, from what little research on the subject I’ve done, that some of the nitrogen will vaporize by spring, but some will remain locked up by the potent nitrogen-absorbing biochar (pure carbon). Then come spring the biochar is mixed into garden soil, where the winter’s fertility can be extended across the growing season. I have enough mixed results with biochar to feel as though I am still a number of growing seasons away from feeling confident in the above strategy of urineinoculated char as a soil amendment in beds directly. I would think this material as a compost amendment would be very good but have reservations about directbed additions, as I’ve seen biochar do weird things to vegetables in garden beds—mainly in the form of slowing plant growth immensely in the early stages of transplanting and growing from seed. Another more recent experiment we are doing with urine on-site is to fertilize our just-built Jean Pain wood chip water-heating mound. The Pain mound offers a fantastic opportunity to deposit high-nitrogen urine in a location that can actually absorb it for the long winter and utilize it, since these mounds are an enormous carbon-rich store of material: They need nitrogen to fully compost in short order. While the goal of the Pain mound is not compost primarily (it is heat)—though it’s certainly a secondary goal—the mound offers an

opportunity, like a “bedded pack” becoming popular with innovative graziers in recent years. For more information, see the “Compost Hot Water Heating System” sidebar in chapter six on page 219. A bedded pack is simply a thick, high-carbon layer of organic matter—whether it be brown hay, wood chips, sawdust, shavings, or the like. Such a carbon diaper is more able to absorb a massive influx of nitrogen than anything else. And like the Jean Pain mound, the bedded pack heats up because of the microbial composting action, offering animals (typically cows in this application) a warm spot to rest in the winter. For us fertilizing the Pain mound is about as simple as it gets: Deposit urine in a small container if it’s too cold to go outside in the middle of the night, and pour it into the mound during the day. You can also urinate directly on the mound itself. We put the nitrogen-rich duck water from the barn into the mound as well. We’ll know a lot more about how this approach works in the coming year, but for now we can say that it’s probably going to work very well at least for a composting and nutrient-capture approach. Signs that the nitrogen is helping the heat production process are good—the mound is only three weeks old, and already it’s at about 140°F.

We started cycling solid human effluent only a year ago here because of reliance on an already in-place septic system for such. (This is one reason to build your homestead from scratch, rather than having to retrofit and, in the meantime, be forced to incorporate a senseless system.). Our humanure system in its early stages consists of a composting toilet (an old Clivus), which is large enough to collect a year or more of manure. The human feces and sawdust/planer shavings migrate and are pulled downhill with a wooden raker, so we can keep them from getting freshened by new material. The breakdown of the material continues in this bottom area before that material is scooped out of the hatch to be composted further, for at least another year, mixed with grass clippings, leaves, comfrey, and the like, in the outdoor pallet or metal mesh piles I described above. I add biochar to the bottom of the compost toilet

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