I grew up in Queens, New York in the 1970’s. The quintessential NYC suburburban-like borough attracted large amounts of middle class immigrant populations changing the standard white landscape into a myriad of colors. My friends were either Greek, Italian, Korean, Chinese, or Indian. Today, much of Queens has become neighborhoods of small ethnic enclaves where one can find a vast culinary palette and as authentic as the real travel to those countries. But back then, the ease of finding certain ingredients for cooking your particular ethnic food would be more than a short walk to Key Foods, our neighborhood market. Bok choy, a common vegetable now even at large chain grocery stores, were far from readily available, so growing your own unusual foods became a routine event every spring at my home and on the smallest patch of land. As I try and think of utilizing the comparatively larger space I now have to grow food, my Chinese grandmother had already figured out how to trellis all sort of heavy Chinese melons, grow the requisite tomato -- for Tomato Beef of course, not marinara, and yard long asparagus beans for wok-charred beans. All in a 2 1/2’x5’ plot and enough to supplement feeding a family of five. And she never spent a penny on buying a trellis. It was constructed from saved bakery string, bamboo sticks reused from year to year and branches and twigs which she’d collect. We lived in a development at the time, a step up from Jackson Heights, where one could have a small patch of grass and look out onto virtually treeless lawnscapes and poorly placed rock formations desperately trying to look like they were there forever. There were no forests or lush landscapes where one can pick up twigs or branches so grandma was always on the lookout for these things wherever she walked. And she always saved seed so I suppose I was always eating heirloom varieties as a child.
My grandmother raised her family in a small village near Canton, China and had a few acres of rice fields. I recently spoke to my father about his recollection of how food was grown in his village. He said, in a cautious voice, “Well, it was very disgusting.” “What do you mean?” I asked knowing full well this would entail something unsanitary and shocking. “People used poop, like cow, pig and...” “Human manure?!” I interjected. Apparently, pigs and cows had a presence on the farm but it was not enough to fertilize all of the rice fields and human waste products made up for the rest. “We all went to the toilet at the edge of the town.” This immediately conjured up the outhouse scene from Slumdog Millionaire and my stomach started to churn. But our modern-day revulsion aside, the use of human manure for fertilizer has been a centuries old tradition in many countries and this practice of using both human manure and urine continues in poor developing world cities. But as far fetched as this may sound, right here in the US, Milwaukee has been using “night soil,” the euphemism for treated human feces, as dried and bagged fertilizer for more than 60 years and Duluth, Minnesota had also caught on to the free crop boosting from sludge aka human poop, in 2003. (Incidentally Duluth is 60 miles south of where my grandma emigrated to from China and where my Dad went to college). Aside from the usual worries of bacterial, protozoal and viral pathogens, I’d worry about all the potential medication residue from our pharmaceutical excesses.
So naturally, I wondered whether or not any of these practices made it back to Queens, New York. “So Dad, Grandma didn’t use any chemicals right?” After all grandma started sounding like an eco-conscious, seed-saving organic farmer before it was all popular. “Urine” was my Dad’s reply. “Huh?” I said. “Bernie’s baby urine” he uttered, hoping not disgust me by making the unpalatable more palatable by making it come from a baby. I fully knew that Bernie, my brother, was no baby when I was started to become aware of grandma gardening. And as it turned out, the two males in the family, my brother and my dad were the ones that could easily contribute from time to time. Now, as I realize I am starting to sound like I come from one seriously backwards (or at least backwoods) family, I want to point out that urine is a great source of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and some other trace minerals. Researchers in Finland reported the use of human urine as fertilizer in a 2007 study showing that cabbage showed better growth and biomass when grown with urine compared to conventional fertilizers and without any nutritional compromise. And keep in mind that urine is sterile, in fact, it was used during war to help wash off wounds when there was no available water source. It has become a topic of eco-conscious gardeners who truly want to reduce, reuse and recycle! And, as long as my dog takes a short piss on the lawn, it'll make the grass grow beautifully in that one spot; too much of it, like any other fertilizer, will kill the grass. I asked my dogs if they’d consider drinking more water to dilute their urine and perhaps making a conscious effort to spread the love over the entire lawn, but to no avail.
After consideration of my family farming methods, as an organic homesteader, I am taking a different direction and turning to compost (sans animal or human waste, mind you) as the main method of supplying soil fertility. And like grandma, I will seed save and use my creative imagination to put together what I already have lying around (not in the toilet!) to continue to keep up the farm.
Farmer Pam, MD