Grit Blogs > City Life, Country Garden

Gardening with Gray Water

A photo of Renea WinchesterWith summer showers missing my garden more often than not, I’m watching helplessly as the sun beats down on my vegetables with a vengeance. I have shredded newspapers and added them as a weed barrier, and applied mulch around acid-loving tomatoes to retain moisture. Despite everything I’ve done to keep plants happy and healthy, nothing can thrive consecutive days of above 90 degrees without rain.

And no matter how much technology advances, we still can’t manufacture rain.

When weather conditions turn dusty, farmers and gardeners look for creative ways to conserve and recycle water. Billy has perfected the art of capturing water by using every “vessel” in his possession. Oil drums and empty trashcans sit beneath every downspout, mouth-open eagerly waiting to collect each drop that falls. A peek inside his kitchen will reveal a large bowl on each side. One for washing, the other rinsing; water collected from each are dumped into the garden daily.

Copying Billy’s methodology, I located a company who sold plastic barrels then converted the containers into fifty-five gallon mosquito-free holding tanks. I snaked a gravity hose into the lower garden and waited for the rain. Unfortunately, no rain came. I now had two choices, accept the death of my garden or do what I could to save my investment.

Water barrel 

A quick survey of my home found many places where I could save water. I live in an older home, which means we do not have low-flow toilets. Since I can’t afford to replace the toilets, I placed a quart jar in the back of all my toilets. This added volume to the tank and resulted in each flush using less water. A brick also works.

Kitchens practically hemorrhage water. We’re rinsing, washing, drinking, cooking, and constantly using water with little regard of how much flows down the drain. One particularly parched day I placed a large bowl in the sink and caught what would normally slide down the drain. I washed my hands over the bowl then poured what I caught into a bucket that I had placed beside the sink. I continued this process while preparing dinner and during cleaning up. I basically tried to collect everything that would go into the septic tank. At the end of the day, I was shocked to discover that I had collected over ten gallons of water that I lugged to the garden.

This water is accurately called “gray water.”

My tomatoes were thrilled. To a thirsty plant, it doesn’t matter if the water is pea green, purple or gray. As long as I don’t water the foliage, they don’t care. During periods of dry weather water should not come in contact with leaves. Water will reflect the sun’s-rays, which in turn burns delicate leaves and underdeveloped fruit.

I returned to the bathroom for what may seem like an extreme attempt to save water. I’m not talking about turning off the water while you brush your teeth. I’m speaking about how much water we use keeping ourselves clean. I am blessed with a teenage daughter who loves baths. She sings while she lathers, and spends an enormous amount of time in the tub. I convinced her to leave the water after she was finished then we carried–yes manually carried–twelve to fifteen gallons of water every day to appreciative vegetables.

Water which drains from the heat-pump can also be used in the garden. I have attached a garden hose to the drain pipe and snaked it to the garden. It isn't the prettiest way to water, but the beans that were once wilting are now blooming.

I realize my water-conserving methods are a bit unusual. Adding rain barrels was a start. When that happened I focused on what I could do to conserve and reuse. Today, the rains are still sporadic, but gray water keeps my garden happy and green. While I’m no master recycler like Billy, I have made efforts to change the way I see and use our most precious resource.

As always, happy gardening and remember to keep those hands dirty.

linda dicks
7/27/2014 3:05:05 PM

I live in Texas and water is short supply. we use gray water (from laundry) and rain water for trees. the gray water system we devised (we live in the country) was to re-route the washer water to a 55 gal barrel which has a hose connection. It can reach out about 100 ft via gravity and keeps the close by yard nice and green, the shrubs and trees well and blooming. I have a "train" of water barrels connected plus several others in different locations. I use all these around our acre and also to put out for the free range chickens to cool off in.

cindy murphy
9/2/2010 8:48:42 PM

Great suggestions, Renea. I wish I had the forethought to connect more than one rain barrel as you did. I made my rain barrel this spring out of a 55 gallon food grade barrel, and naively dreamed it'd catch enough rain to water my garden, and then some. I was amazed how quickly it fills up! A half inch of rain, and the barrel is overflowing! I could have five barrels hooked together and still not catch all the rain coming off the one roof (we have several rooflines on this old house). Next year, I plan on adding more barrels. But even the one barrel has definitely helped. It's very sandy here on the shores of the Lake, and though we've had more rain this summer than in those past, the periods between rains are incredibly dry because the water runs right through the sand. A friend of mine does a similar thing as you do with your daughter's bath water. He takes showers...with buckets in the stall. The buckets catch the water that would normally run down the drain. He says a 15 minute shower usually fills one to two buckets, which he uses to water his plants. Robyn - I have a friend in Arizona who was looking to have a grey water system installed in her house. I don't know much about the system, except that your state offers tax breaks for the cost of materials and installation. Might be something to check into sometime. Thanks for the informative post, Renea. Enjoy your weekend.

chuck mallory
8/30/2010 9:06:19 PM

You are ahead of your time! This is how we will ALL have to live in the futre.

robyn dolan
8/30/2010 10:14:01 AM

Renee, Well, we live in Arizona, and even up here in the north, recycling water is just a basic fact of life. We use all the rain and gray water techniques you describe. We also use the laundry water. We are out here in the country, so because the bucket method is so labor intensive, we have finally procured a large stock tank to catch the gray water, and a hose to hook up to it to divert it to the garden. Now we just have to do the plumbing to get the appropriate gray water to the tank. Studying solar stills as well - maybe a future project...

nebraska dave
8/28/2010 7:31:03 PM

@Renea, Hmmm, I’ve heard about grey water but never really thought about it much. Water is in abundance here and doesn’t cost much to water from the house spigot. However after reading your post, just because it’s cheap doesn’t make it right. I will have to give this new twist to watering some thought. I know that another Grit blogger built a solar shower this summer that drains into one of his gardens. The only bath taker in the house here is my six year old grandson who usually doesn’t have that much in the tub and splashes around until the water has slowly leaked down the drain. That’s how we know the bath time is done. That takes about 20 minutes. I really don’t think Nebraska people think much about grey water capture and reuse. I’m going to file that away for some possible future project. Have a great conserving water day.

8/28/2010 5:11:22 AM

Renee, Good ideas for capturing grey water. We have had a very dry summer also and I wish I had a rain barrel. Your right though if it doesn't rain -it won't help. I have waited for my canning water to cool down then lugged the pot to the garden but of course I still need a lot more water so I'll try some of your techniques today. vickie