Gardening with Gray Water

10 Aug

Gardening With Gray Water

By Renea Winchester

With 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.

Catching every drop from the roof !

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.

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. While this method decreases the amount of water we consume, my garden wasn’t all that impressed with my conservation methods.

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 had collected over ten gallons of water, which I promptly 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.

I realize my water-conserving methods are a bit unusual. Adding rain barrels was only the beginning. Afterward,  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.

Renea Winchester is an award winning author who work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Georgia Backroads, Smoky Mountain Living as well as Georgia Public Radio 90.1 FM. Little Creek Books will release In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love, and Tomatoes October 2010. She also blogs at and may be reached at


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3 responses to “Gardening with Gray Water

  1. annebabson

    August 23, 2010 at 3:11 am

    How very, very green of you, and how practical! I am not so skilled. Once a plant is harvested, I can slice it and dice it in a thousand ways, but to actually make it thrive — and this using a green methodology — this is impressive.

  2. Jane K. Smith

    September 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    We reclaim water off the heat pump by running a pipe from the drain line into a heavy duty plastic garbage can weighted down with a concrete block. You will be amazed at the water that is collected every day. More than enough to keep a small garden happy, and this method requires no effort after the initial set-up. Just put the top on the garbage can to keep critters from drowning.

  3. blogthefarm

    September 1, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Thank you, Jane for the comment. This year my garden would have been in trouble without the heat pump water. As an added bonus I think diverting this water away from the house keeps the mosquito population low as the “run off” tends to pool and provide the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. I still have a few plants with green tomatoes. Can you imagine that?


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