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Comfrey Powered Urine Nutrient Redeemer  RSS feed

 
Jason Ouellette
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Hi folks! I want to share a project I have been trying out to recycle urine with comfrey plants indoors in buckets, which may be useful here in Maine during winter when it's less fun going outside. I'll try to update with some pictures from my phone soon.

I have a lot of 5 gallon buckets. One restaurant nearby has stacks of them for sale for $2.50 each, and I hear that other restaurants in the area give them away for free.

I have made a couple prototype nutrient redeemers/recyclers so that I can use urine for plants without having to go outside, where I usually go when it's not winter time here in Maine.

The basic design is a bucket, with the bottom 1/3-1/2 full of a mixture of biochar and some absorbant carbon rich organic material. I used peat moss because I had it on hand, but really peat moss is usually un-sustainably harvested so if I didn't have it on hand that I was trying to use up, I'd probably get some choir or something similar.

On top of this layer is a thick layer of wood chips, within which I have planted three bocking 14 comfrey plants. The comfrey plants will, hopefully, grow their roots down into the spongy layer down below and bring those nutrients up into their leaves. Comfrey can handle urine, or at least 50/50 urine/water mixture, and seem to be able to handle being pretty wet so far.

I've also created a urinal out of an old plastic soda bottle with a whole cut into it, which I duct taped to a pipe. The pipe gets put into the middle of the bucket, such that the bottom of the pipe is about at the top of the absorbent layer, and below most of the wood chips. Whenever I urinate in it, I spray the inside of the bottle with a little water to flush it down and also dilute the urine somewhat.

I am experimenting with different plants, but I don't have any real data so far. I expect that salt will be an issue eventually, and so I've ordered some propagules from a plant which can both handle its roots being submerged and can handle lots of salt, and actually move the salt up through its bodies and out of the soil, and this plant is the red mangrove Rhizophora mangle. It's a tree, so it might be impractical in buckets but I was curious. Asparagus can also handle salty soil, and I would like to try that as well but my asparagus bed is frozen right now. I'm not sure if they move the salt up into the shoots, if so and if they grow well in this environment that could be very useful (perhaps some other herbs may also work, like mint?). I could also drill holes in the bottom of the buckets so that I could flush them out periodically with rain water, but I want to get some plugs or gaskets or something before I do that so that I can plug it up and not make a mess inside.

I now have two buckets and plan to make more. I'm guessing that 7 buckets may accommodate the urine from one person by moving the urinal to a new bucket each day. In the second prototype I added some azomite and wood ash, with the thought that these may provide some nutrients that are lacking. In future ones I want to try adding a layer of soil between the thick layer of wood chips and the absorbent layer, and perhaps some where the soil or sand and absorbent materials are mixed in a layer. I'm out of comfrey plants right now, so I need to work through that bottleneck If I were short on space, I might drill small holes near the top of the outside of the bucket, and plant the plants in there instead of on top, which would allow for the stacking of buckets, although it may increase the chance of a spill.

I propagate my comfrey plants in tubes, which I got when I ordered some chestnut and hazelnut seedlings. These allow even a very small comfrey plant to have really deep roots, without taking up a lot of space. I will definitely propagate them this way again (I took some tiny side-plants from my biggest comfrey plant and put them in the tubes in the green house, they've been growing steadily even in the cold and when I planted them, the roots were probably 7-8 inches long).

Between rehydrating the peat moss and over-zealously using my first two prototypes, they are more full than I meant to let them get. The liquid layer is maybe 3 inches from the top of the wood chips. The comfrey plants really don't seem to mind so far, but we'll see! I have put a small light on them to help them work through all that liquid.

Eventually I want to do humanure composting, but in the meantime this will hopefully help me create a nutrient cycle and save my pump and septic system some work. I think it could be useful for people in cities who can't compost humanure too.
 
William Bronson
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Curious about light in your set up.
Window? Grow lights? Other?
 
Jason Ouellette
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Hi William,

Right now I have them in a sunny window. Since we're so close to the winter solstice, and because there's some stuff blocking the light, I've been giving the two buckets I have some supplemental light from a regular CFL in the evenings. I think they'd survive being in a greenhouse even in the cold. Once it warms up outside, probably around sap season, I'll bring most of them out onto the sunny porch and just have one or two inside to use.

Since I had over-filled them, I poured a little out from each bucket onto a hazel shrub's roots outside. The comfrey didn't seem to mind the high liquid level, but it looked like it would take a long while for it to get through it all.  I expect their ability to go through liquid will grow as they do.
 
Jason Ouellette
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Here's a quick pic I took. The comfrey on one of the buckets may have a little leaf burn, but I also just took them in from the cold greenhouse and transplanted them. Anyway I have poured some of the liquid out and the plants all look fairly perky.
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Roberto pokachinni
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Good job, Jason!  keep us posted on your piss project!!  It's a good one!
 
Angelika Maier
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Will you tip the whole thing on a garden bed later or is it meant to stay in the buckets?
 
Jason Ouellette
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Thanks Roberto!
Angelika, I poured some out because I felt I'd over-filled for what the plants can handle, but I'm hoping it can mostly work without having to pour it out, by the comfrey moving the nutrients and water into their leaves, which can then be used in the garden (or dried and stored for later). It would be easy to add a spout to the bottom to drain it though, and pouring it wasn't hard. I just gently held the wood chips at the top and tipped.
I'm having buyer's remorse with the red mangrove, I'm sure there's something smaller and more suitable to my climate that can move salt up and out, or a periodic rinse and pour/drain could remove salt, but I'm going to give it a go anyway.
I'm thinking that well rotted wood could be used instead of peat moss. Everything is frozen and covered in snow here right now but when it warms up, I'm going out into the woods to get some and try.
 
Tracy Wandling
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Here are a couple of plants that claim to have a tolerance to salinity:

Blanket Flower - make your pee buckets purdy! Not sure how much organic mass it produces.

Rosemary - smells good!

Yarrow - this one will produce more mass than the above two obviously.

Pretty cool idea - I'm going to see about setting up a girl powered one.



 
Roberto pokachinni
pollinator
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The yarrow might be able to companion with the comfrey, as they have quite different root systems.  They are both used in biodynamic preps, and are said to have great properties for compost making without the extra charge so they should be awesome.
 
Jason Ouellette
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Starting to see new growth in the comfrey in bucket #1 since planting them. Some oat grass is sprouting as well, I planted them mostly to keep the comfrey company while they're young but the right grass might do well in a system like this. I planted some corn in the other bucket but that has not sprouted yet and I'm not sure how it'll fair growing in wood chips but that's what experiments are for.
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Linda Secker
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cool!!

I'm gonna try this at my allotment I usually just add my pee to the compost heap or the liquid fertiliser tub, but I love experimenting so this one's going on my list!!

Linda
 
Jason Ouellette
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Thanks for the plant ideas Tracy & Roberto!

I'm going to try yarrow, it'd be good to have that plant on hand, it's supposed to be great for stopping bleeding.

I'd love to have a nice bushy rosemary plant, but I keep killing them >_< They seem to like it pretty dry, but it's worth a shot.

Linda, let me know how it goes!! I love peeing outside most of the year, but this has been a fun experiment so far and tickles my gardening bone in the winter. Comfrey is one of my favorite plants, it's just so relentless in its growing and bounces right back whenever I cut it. I was missing it, and it's nice to see it growing again

Someday, I hope even cities will collect urine and pipe it to plants, instead of into rivers! I bet plants are as grateful for our leaks as we are for their oxygen and fruits. It's a fun and easy cycle to make.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I'm not sure how corn will do with damp feet.  Rice might be better.  Perhaps it might be worth your while in the spring to go to some feral meadow creeks in your area and find what grasses are growing right on the edge of the watercourse. These would be adapted to having damp feet, and might be a better choice.  Comfrey is a great choice, since it is a riparian (streamside) plant, that seems to do alright in very damp places.  I'm not sure how well it will do in a pool of piss over time, but I do think that a person can come up with a way to flush the system a bit so that it isn't too pissy.  
 
Jason Ouellette
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Rice is a really interesting idea. People are starting to grow rice in Maine, I'll try to get some locally adapted seeds. One local farm ships them in the spring but I'll keep looking. Exploring local wild areas is a great idea, I'll do that in the spring. There are lots of cattails around, I seem to remember reading about a permitted constructed wetland septic system at an eco school somewhere in the state, maybe they'll have pointers.

Bucket #1 is looking good. Comfrey is making new leaves, oats are coming up, strawberry is shiny and mangrove is grooving.

I made another bucket with a thicker absorbent layer when I found a couple more comfrey plants.
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Jason Ouellette
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Hi Permies, just wanted to give a brief update:

The comfrey is still growing in the three buckets. I've pulled one of them out, cut the roots and put the pieces in potting soil to propagate it so I can try more buckets. I would like to try one with clay below the wood chips, which I've read comfrey enjoys and I think would be good for soaking up liquid (I have mostly sandy soil here but local friends have offered me some of their clay). The red mangrove doesn't seem to like the conditions. The oats and corn are still alive, it's hard to say how they are doing because my cat really likes chewing on the oats (and trampling the comfrey). I'm also sprouting some rice which I'll try in a bucket once they're going. The strawberry plants look good so far. I don't think their roots go down into the pee layer, but borage I hear is a great companion to strawberries and comfrey is borage's cousin, so maybe they'll be buddies.

If I had them available, I'd start with larger crown cuttings instead of tiny plants from root cuttings. I think then it could process both more liquid and more nutrients. The plants are still small but light is short this time of year and they started pretty tiny.

As I may be selling my house sometime soon to downsize, I'm really treasuring these buckets. I feel like I can build and hold on to some fertility which I can bring with me wherever I'm going. The comfrey plants cheer me up with their relentless growth and perkiness. I'd like to get into composting humanure, but as I may be moving within a year it seems like it might not be a good idea to start a pile outside, I am working on trying a bucket with humanure, some layer(s) of odor-preventing material, and a comfrey plant atop the humanure. I'm in the bucket filling stage right now, using coco coir on top of deposits. When I move, I can cut the comfrey, put the covers on the buckets and stack them to bring them wherever my next place is.

I'm curious to try out willows. We had a severe drought this past year and I probably lost most of the willows I planted last spring (just couldn't keep up on watering), but I at least have some pussy willow I can try. Eventually a smaller, native willow adapted to re-sprouting after being cut that's useful for medicine and/or crafting would be wonderful.
 
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