Field at sunset

Emergencies make for an interesting and surprising journey.

When I first heard that our town had declared a level 3 water emergency, meaning no outdoor watering at all, I went into my own emergency mode.

I put buckets in the tubs and showers and sinks, declaring that no flush should occur with fresh water. I used a compost toilet for the yellow stuff (just my own). I did laundry in the outdoor sink and saved the water in a bucket, using it to water plants, and when we did laundry indoors, we collected all the water by putting the water exit hose into a large bucket instead of the basement laundry sink. That water became toilet flushing water, rather than outdoor water, because it was just too heavy to haul up the stairs and out into the yard. We piled mulch wherever we could in the yard. At one point, an organic farmer friend gave me a big load of crappy, oversized cucumbers to use as mulch. After all, they are full of water! I piled them around roses and apple trees, and now they look pretty sad-  flat yellow blobs hug the dirt around the trees, but hopefully they helped. I also found some ceramic hollow spikes that can be plunged in the soil, and a wine bottle full of water is inverted and inserted into them. This keeps the water underneath the surface of the soil, where it doesn’t evaporate but spreads by osmosis through the ceramic; it’s very similar to an olla, but smaller, and I used them in the potted plants. They worked magnificently. And then it was time to harvest and process.

Basil plants in a garden

Mulched basil

Cucumber plant

Crappy cucumbers

A wine bottle olla in a planter

Wine bottle olla

This summer, in the spirit of reducing water use, I did less water bath canning, and more drying and fermenting.

Fermenting foods doesn’t require a lot of water, except to clean the produce, and that water goes right back into the soil. This year I fermented carrots with garlic and padron pepper powder, beets for borscht, sauerkraut (cabbage), and dilled beet and turnip sticks. If you’re trying not only to reduce water use, but also to cut down on energy use, fermentation is just the thing. The only energy used is your own (and the transport and harvesting of the salt, if you follow ALL the food miles), and the food is full of nutrients and healthy microorganisms. Drying food uses even less water, as you don’t even have a jar to wash out. I dried giant zucchini slices dredged in vinegar with salt and padron powder, some herbs, hawthorn berries, elderberries, and tomatoes dredged in olive oil with herbs. I’ve heard it said that on a summer day one can dry foods in the bed of a truck (with the top on), but I haven’t tried it yet. It makes sense, though, when you think of how hot it gets in a vehicle. I do plan on building a solar dryer next year. Truck drying aside, all of our water-saving actions reduced our use drastically, so much so that we barely had to use our rainwater collection tanks.

Hawthorns in a basket


Zucchini chips in a jar

Zucchini chips

Fermented turnips and beets

Fermented turnips and beets

We have three big tanks full of water, about 3300 gallons in total, but I was hoarding that.

There was a real threat of total lack of running water, if the rains didn’t come when they did (last week), and I wasn’t about to use up that precious water too soon. As it turned out, some smart and kind soul from Salem heard about our plight and brought a truckload of 275-gallon tanks for people to buy. These tanks are just small enough that people can truck them to a neighboring town and fill them with water. Two out of three of our neighbors took advantage of that opportunity. Our tanks, however, are just too gigantic to haul around. Instead, in the event of a water shutoff, we planned to shower and do laundry at friends’ houses, bringing seven or eight 5-gallon buckets to fill with drinking water. My philosophy became, “no drop of water gets used only once.” Even if you drink it, it comes back out into the compost toilet, to fertilize the soil. We did finally start drawing water from the tanks, though, in order to water fall seedlings. I just couldn’t put dirty water on our baby arugula and cilantro plants.

Compost toilet

Compost toilet

Outdoor sink

Outdoor sink

Many people have asked me about the wisdom of using soapy water on plants, and it’s important to point out that one should use only “clean” soaps, meaning soaps without petroleum-based perfumes and other mysterious chemicals, as these could harm plants, and they’ll certainly harm some of the vital microorganisms in the soil.

I don’t use any grey water that has strong detergents in it. I use Dr. Bronner’s soap – it’s quite concentrated and can be diluted to various degrees, depending on what it’s going to be used to do. There are a number of clean soaps on the market; Seventh Generation and Biokleen come to mind. I have a friend who washes her dishes with a mixture of water and white distilled vinegar. It’s a tad acidic, which brings me to the question of pH. Soapy water is somewhat alkaline, and pouring it over and over on plants could make the soil more alkaline, which the plants don’t necessarily like. To counteract that, I go to a local park in the autumn and bag up lots of fallen oak leaves. Then I smash them up a bit and add to the mulch. I also add a few pine needles. They are very acidic, indeed, but I apply a thin layer, so I’m not worried. It seems to balance out so far.


The creek which is our towns water supply

And now the rains have returned. It is amazing what a difference a quarter of an inch of rain made on the first day. Everything smelled so clean, the leaves of plants sparkled, leaves stopped drooping and perked up. It was such a joy to go outside and get rained on that I wanted to dance around and give thanks. Now we don’t have much that needs watering, though I still keep one bucket by the kitchen sink to catch water on dry days. Surely a tree will be happy to get it. We still do a lot of the things we were doing in August. Shouldn’t we ALWAYS use clean soaps to protect the creatures living in the soil? Shouldn’t we ALWAYS conserve toilet water and keep as much of our waste on the property as possible? Shouldn’t we always do what’s right for the planet? Why do we only do the right thing when there’s an emergency? I think we need to rethink how we live on earth. One thing we discovered this summer is how little water we actually need. The plants managed with much less water than usual. Maybe if we as individuals find creative ways to cut back on our use, there will be enough for everyone, including non-human life.



Drinking bowl outside

Pollinator friendly drinking bowl