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The septic leach field is out there, somewhere, and I want to plant edibles so I have questions  RSS feed

 
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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Newbie to the site and newbie to growing edibles (other than herbs.)

Our new property is about 1/2 an acre on two levels. The house is up top with not much land to garden in the front yard and the bulk of the yard is lower, bookended with a few Coast Live Oak trees and not much of anything else except for privets. The front yard is designated for the pollinator garden with some veggies but not all (it's a small area). In the back, lower yard, I am starting to work to bring the soil back to life. The only good soil is under the oak trees where the leaves have been left to sit for years - yay! I am trying to plan my food forest and veggie garden but I am stumped by the fact that there is a leach field for the septic tank out there, somewhere, but no one knows where. (The septic tank itself is original to the house from 1964 and hadn't been pumped in 20 years.) Considering the condition of the house and property when we bought a year ago, the leach field could be anywhere and everywhere. Back then they didn't have to mark them. We do have the ability to hook up to sewer, and we will, just have to save up all the $$$ to do so.

So my questions are about planting edibles in an area where that might or might not be the septic leach field.

1. Is it okay to plant anything there or just not root vegetables?

2. If not okay to plant root vegetables, what suggestions do you have for me to be able to plant root vegetables safely?

3. When we eventually abandon the septic tank (hopefully next year) is there a time limit when the ground might be safe for all types of planting again?

Thanks in advance for any help.

Susan Taylor Brown

 
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No veggies of any kind root or leaf is safe to eat.
If the edible portion of the plant is over 6ft I would eat it, in theory fruit and nut trees are okay to eat from.
HOWEVER, given the fact that the system hasn't been pumped in 20yrs and hasn't been maintained do you really want to risk, a root clogging something and you have sewer backing up in your house and all over the yard. I would either build a new leach-field, so that you know exactly where it is or wait until 'next year' when you switch over to the city system.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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Thank you. That was kinda my thought - why take chances and since they can't tell us for sure where it is, I am pretty much going to have to treat all the lower yard as no go for edibles except maybe the slope. Sigh.

So what about when we abandon the septic? Is there a time, like after a few years, that it might be okay to plant or just consider it off limits?
 
S Bengi
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Once you switch over, you can start going non-root vegetables (30+ days to harvest) and shrubs/trees immediately. For root vegetables I would wait at a season to give the microbes some time to fully breakdown/outcompete anything in the soil.

If possible it would be nice if you could still divert your kitchen, laundry and shower water to the backyard. Pretty much everything but the tiolet. That way you wouldn't have to worry about watering too much.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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Oh that is good news indeed, thank you. We have a lot of work to do around the property so that will work fine for us.

We are doing a grey water system. We just replumbed the house and put in the grey water pipes. Made sense to do it now when we gutted the master suite. Need to hook up a few final things when our plumber is back in town. We are also diverting all the rainwater down to the garden. Previous owners had cut off the downspouts under the deck so the water was all going under the house. Sigh.

Thanks again.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Oh I should add that as soon as we bought the place, We made sure to have the tank pumped.
 
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Coming from 25 years experience working around humanure both in Asia and America, I have to disagree with some of what's been posted above. Microbial pathogens do not translocate in and through the vascular system of plants. If the septic leachate is not exposed at the surface, above ground crops should be safe, especially if the ground is kept mulched. The danger is from soil splash in a heavy rain getting onto foliage or fruit which would then be eaten raw. Depending on how deep the leach field is there might be a minor danger of earthworms or other soil life bringing contaminated soil to the surface. So things up off the ground out of the reach of splashing mud will be safe. The other safety factor is cooking, which destroys pathogens. Thus, I will grow potatoes with humanure, but not carrots. So my personal take on it would be hold off the salads and raw-use root crops and grow whatever else you want.
Another caveat is whether chemicals have been put down the toilet. Hopefully you know better than this. Chemicals, unlike bacteria, can and do enter and move through the plants....
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thank you, Alder, for weighing in on this.

What are your thoughts about planting root crops, like carrots, after the septic has been abandoned?
 
Alder Burns
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I would plan on cooking roots for a few years afterward. Worm eggs and bacteria can persist for quite a while.....
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thanks again. I'm thinking now is the time to start making some hugelkultur on top of all this. Build up as much new soil as I can for the future plantings. We just have so little "safe" space in which to plant I need to figure something out for the long term plan.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
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Egads, I have officially freaked myself out about ever planting edibles on the level of the yard that has the leach field out there somewhere. When I look at the only part of the yard that stays damp and grows weeds, it is slightly uphill from the septic tank, which makes no sense.

I am also concerned now about the greywater irrigation field - I had planned to put my fruit trees on the greywater irrigation plan (hopefully with small guilds) but after walking back and forth across the yard a gazillion times today I think I am going to call some of the septic guys and see if someone can help us find the leach field. Fingers crossed.
 
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If the wet spot is only slightly up hill it could be where the leach field is so long as it isn't also upstream in the sewer system from the tank. I think if you just hold off on watering for a month or so this summer the leach field will show itself as the only green spot down there. It might look ugly for a while, but it's quite a bit cheaper than getting the septic guys out there. Personally I would keep the septic system and not tie into the city/county sewer, but that's just me...
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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We have never watered the lower yard in the year that we have had the house.

The septic is located where those three blue tubs are and shoots back toward the slope. Plus a long view of the space. Previous owners had a batting cage in the middle of the yard.


yard1.jpg
[Thumbnail for yard1.jpg]
yard2.jpg
[Thumbnail for yard2.jpg]
 
Susan Taylor Brown
Posts: 151
Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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Okay, one picture to test if I understand how to post photos from a link.

This is from before we bought the place, standing on the deck looking down to the lower yard.
Insert image:


Nope, insert image from a link doesn't work for me but maybe it doesn't like Flickr.
 
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What about herb boxes lined with landscape cloth on top of very sandy,  well - maintained septic system?
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thanks, Andrea.

Basically we have gone with native grasses in the leach field. Herbs and other edibles will be in raised beds further up from the leach field.
 
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Susan, if your county keeps good records, the permit dept. should still have the original permit forms for the construction of your leach field and can give you the info.  However, there always exists the small chance that a different location was decided upon on the day construction began and the county the was not informed.  Unusual, but it happens.  
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thanks, Jane. Permits were the first thing we checked. This was very rural area when the house was built in 1964 so we got the location of the tank from the county but that was about it. We had a plumber come out and use his tracker device to locate the single pipe that pumps stuff out so we not have a pretty good idea. The tank and the pipe are the original from 1964. When we bought the house the tank hadn't even been pumped in 20 years...so it was pretty gross.
 
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Great topic!  I have been wondering the something similar myself as we have an old leach field that is one of the few flat areas of our lawn!  I assume it got replaced with the newer mound system though I believe that too is nearing the end of its expected life.  It seems to be a favorite location for ants and mushrooms!
 
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hau Susan,

It is simple to fix your worries, first off, Alder is correct saying that leachate will not transfer to your vegetables, things like beets, carrots, radishes will all be fine once cooked.
To insure that you don't have to worry about pathogens, start using a product called RIDEX monthly, adding this bacterial booster to your septic system will get rid of those pathogens and keep everything working as it should.

If you have any concerns, just build raised beds, that way there will be enough soil between the leach field and your garden vegetables.

Too many people think there are issues with septic tanks that are based on fear instead of knowledge, these well meaning folks spread their fear with tales of horror that are simply urban legend stuff, not scientific fact or findings.
Do not get suckered in to wrong thinking and fear mongering by ignorant people's shouting their misinformation.
addendum:
Every time you hear about "contamination" it has been traced back to top of soil application of liquid pig pooh or cow manure from some feed lot's stock pile of waste. This stuff needs to be regulated out of existence in my opinion.
China, and most other far eastern countries have a long, long history of composting human manure as well as all other animal dungs, they have not had the problems the US and Canada have experienced.
Since they compost the manures, all is well. It is only when the manure is not "conditioned" by composting and spread directly on the surface of the soil that problems arise. end addendum

Soil bacteria do a wonderful job of destroying pathogens, they simply eat them. The deeper your soil, the more good soil bacteria you will have, thus the better the protection from any supposed pathogen transference.
You can also inoculate with more bacteria (EM) and you can also inoculate with fungi (oyster spawn is super for this and you will end up with some super tasty mushrooms as a bonus.)

If you have other questions about this subject just pm me and I'll give you solid data or advice, which ever you need.

Redhawk

I added an addendum to this post
 
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Location: Raleigh, NC (zone 7b)
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things like beets, carrots, radishes will all be fine once cooked.



How long would I have to wait after abandoning a septic field before I could eat raw things out of it again?

To insure that you don't have to worry about pathogens, start using a product called RIDEX monthly, adding this bacterial booster to your septic system will get rid of those pathogens and keep everything working as it should.



I don't know much about RIDEX. Is it a chemical thing? Or is it just more bacteria?

If you have any concerns, just build raised beds, that way there will be enough soil between the leach field and your garden vegetables.



How deep does the soil on top of the field need to be before it's safe?  Does it need to be the same depth if I'm growing greens as I would root vegetables? Also, do you think I could get it deep enough for it to be safe to put berry bushes there as well without the risk of the roots ruining the pipes? I live in Raleigh, N.C., so we get really consistent rain (average 4" every month year round)

You can also inoculate with more bacteria (EM) and you can also inoculate with fungi (oyster spawn is super for this and you will end up with some super tasty mushrooms as a bonus.)



How would I inoculate the space with that? Put it alongside the vegetables? In the raised beds? Around them? Wolult i put the spores for mushrooms or bacteria down the drain or in the tank? Would the mushrooms be safe to eat? Are there other good mushrooms for this? What's EM bacteria and how would I go about finding and inoculating that?

Thanks for the help! We are going out to look at a property tomorrow that is really amazing opportunity for us just outside city limits, but I'm concerned about the septic taking up most of my growable space.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Chelsea I am happy to answer your questions.

If you simply abandon a septic field you need to give it two years before eating raw root veg., greens, peppers, beans, peas, squash will be fine to eat raw the first year as long as you have kept a decent (2") mulch layer between the plant tops and the soil.

Ridex is a microbial product, it contains bacteria not chemicals, You can buy it in single sized or double sized containers, I personally use the double size as a single charge (down the toilet and into the septic tank) every other month, the single charge box goes in monthly.

I like to have 2 feet of soil above actual ground level, in raised beds that have been microbe charged through aerated compost teas, I use the same set up for root vegetables as I do for above soil level vegetables. (if you like, just add another foot for root vegetables)

Any bush or tree is going to send roots to the most consistent moisture (field lines are one of these consistent sources), this means that planting over a field line is not a good idea, I would plant at least 2 feet from any known field line.
If you do need to plant over a field line, you need to know that it (the pipe) has a water permeable, root impermeable membrane cover in place. (mine have two layers of such a membrane).

Mushroom spores go in the soil covering the field lines not in the tank, bacteria can go both places (in the tank first then on the field line soil cover second).

When I lived in Up State New York I could only garden over the septic field lines, I added raised bed boxes and filled them with 2 feet of soil from the forest behind the house, to this soil I added compost that I made from the empty house sites around my house.
I made sure I had plenty of bacteria in the septic tank every month and I used mushroom slurries and compost teas on the whole garden area and beyond.

EM stands for effective microbes these are usually grown in large containers (jugs or jars or tubs) while good the same organisms can be grown in a compost heap with out any extra trouble or work.
for maximum bacteria species numbers and growth rates a good layered compost heap that heats from the inside will provide a wider variety of bacteria species than any EM concoction can provide.
Once you have some good compost heaps going, then some additional bacteria via an EM grow can be helpful.

Redhawk
 
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