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Diggin' It

Gray water in the garden: Economical and ecofriendly

Using gray water in the garden is ecofriendly and economical, more gardeners are learning.

By Mary-Kate Mackey / February 23, 2010

Gray water – recycled wash water from indoors – saves money in the garden and helps the environment.



I first used gray water in the 1960s before I even had a term for it. (Even now we seem to be divided on spelling — gray vs. the English grey.) Back then it was whatever had little soap and could be collected in buckets and hauled to the sprawling vegetable garden I helped create in the northern California countryside.

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During those dry summer months, our two families’ potable water needs were met with the contents of an 18-foot-tall redwood water tank, replenished each winter from a seasonal spring. We had no water to spare for laundry — we toted that to the nearest town — or even toilets. In the dry months, we used an outhouse. Of course, there was nothing for our burgeoning veggies, except what we recycled and hauled to the crops.

The dry days

Two weeks ago I was reminded of those summers when I met up with Paul Morgan at the Southeastern Flower Show in Atlanta. I had been invited to speak at the show, and on the last day I cruised the floor for any displays and booths I might have missed earlier.

Along the back wall, Paul featured the newest innovations for handling gray water. His company, Rainharvest, has responded to the growing consumer awareness of just how finite our freshwater resources are.

The recent flooding notwithstanding, Georgia’s seven drought years left a lasting impression on residents. I had missed Paul’s booth earlier because showgoers were often three deep there, checking out the plastic tank, about the size of a large water heater, with a filtration device fitted to the top. This was a small version of what could be installed for a whole home.

By gathering gray water and sending it to holding tanks where it is filtered and then piped into drips systems in the garden, recycled water can be part of every gardener’s picture. I liked the idea that tanks like this could be buried under driveways and parking pads, thus not disturbing the roots of established plantings.

And if the pads are made of a permeable paving — see my last post — rainwater can be collected, too.

Free water research

Hauling our gray water back in the day, we didn’t know about the worries of phosphates and stray bacteria, or how the water should be handled by piping it underground only — all things that have since been legislated into the use of gray water around the United States. Most municipalities have a myriad and byzantine set of regulations.

For instance, according to the Colorado State Extension website, rainwater collection in Colorado is preferable to gray-water collection, and everything must be installed by licensed plumbers. So, can you use gray water there or not?

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