The Ecological Home Water Cycle

How to collect, store, and recycle water in your home and garden.

“Water—the ace of elements. Water dives from the clouds without parachute, wings, or safety net. Water runs over the steepest precipice and blinks not a lash. Water is buried and rises again; water walks on fire and fire gets the blisters. Stylishly composed in any situation—solid, gas, or liquid—speaking in penetrating dialects understood by all things—animal, vegetable, or mineral—water travels intrepidly through four dimensions. . .  Always in motion, ever-flowing (whether at steam rate or glacier speed), rhythmic, dynamic, ubiquitous, changing and working its changes, a mathematics turned wrong side out, a philosophy in reverse, the ongoing odyssey of water is virtually irresistible.” 
—Tom Robbins(1)

flowform rain catchment pond at occidental arts and ecology center
A tiny self-circulating water system.

A Finite Supply

We know that 70 percent of Earth’s surface is water. We also know that our own bodies have a similar composition, varying from 70 to 90 percent water, depending on age and body type. I don’t need to convince you that water is perhaps the single most essential element to life. It’s obvious, right? Three days with no water, we die. Just a few hours without it and we start to experience headaches, muscle pain, and irritability.

Plants, which are also 70 percent water, provide the other human essential: food. The second step to building a paradise garden is to establish a holistic on-site water cycle. As you establish and improve your garden, you will need to plenty of fresh water to get the compost steaming, the seeds sprouting, and the fruits ripening.

Watering can be as simple as turning on an automatic sprinkler system and forgetting about it, but water usage should not be an arbitrary choice. Even in wet regions it is vital to conserve water in the home landscape and beyond. Huge portions of the world’s population live without access to clean water, and even in the wealthy United States most of us filter our drinking water. Fish and aquatic plants are dying, underground aquifers are drying out, and though water is as finite on this planet as oil, human water needs increase with every newborn child. We use and abuse the global supply as if there were no tomorrow. If we do not shift from mindless consumption to mindful conservation, today, there may indeed be no tomorrow, for our species or any other.

Because water is so crucial to any garden, and in such short supply, I recommend designing the rest of the garden around a water system that makes sense for the ecology in which you are working. Many gardeners instead try to adapt their water system to their landscape and lose money and ecological integrity in the process. But a paradise garden requires an integrated home water cycle that reflects and cooperates with nature.

This book is about solutions, not problems, but because the global water situation is so tenuous I feel it is worth devoting a few pages to exploring the very real, and in some cases truly sinister, reasons why. Sadly, not enough people are taking the issue of water conservation seriously, and unless we educate ourselves, quickly, we may find ourselves up a dry creek without a clue.

Fortunately there are solutions to these issues on all scales, from recycling in the home and garden to organizing watershed stewardship coalitions. The second half of this chapter is devoted to these solutions and includes an assortment of ideas for making your home water cycle conservative, yet beautiful and abundant.

global water cycle infographic
This is the water cycle. It may seem like the Earth has plenty of water, but a limited supply is available for human use.

Why We Should Worry

It may seem ridiculous to be worried about water when there is so much of it around, but only about 0.05 percent of the water on Earth is fresh water that is accessible and available for human use.(2) More than 97 percent of Earth’s water is salt water, and another 2 percent is ice. Groundwater, freshwater lakes, and streams represent less than 1 percent, and the rest is in the soil and atmosphere. All statistics aside, the point is: Even though it seems like there is water everywhere, the finite supply available to humans is simply running out.

Irresponsible use, pollution, and climate change have caused the depletion of giant underground reservoirs, such as the Ogalalla Aquifer under the midwestern United States.

Some of these once vast reserves have been building up since the Pleistocene epoch, more than two million years ago,(3) and we cannot hope to replace them in the foreseeable future. The proverbial glass is now far closer to empty than full, and if we are to survive we must learn to live with less and change our attitude toward water from one of casual consumption to one of reverent conservation. 

Primitive people used about a gallon of water a day for drinking, cooking, and washing. Today in the United States the average person uses, per capita, twelve hundred gallons each day for basic needs such as food, washing, and drinking. This does not include the hidden water uses in energy, material goods like clothes and cars, and industry, such as the sixty-five thousand gallons it takes to make a single ton of steel.(4) 

Only a tenth of the water used in the developed world goes to municipal and residential situations, but the consumer choices made by that minority tenth are reflected by larger industrial and agricultural impacts. The negative impacts of consumer culture on global water supplies include scarcity, pollution and environmental degradation, and oppression through corporate control.

The worst culprits are the pulp and paper industry and the food and beverage industry, followed closely by chemical, pharmaceutical, and textile companies. This translates to newspapers, wafer board, conventional agriculture, beer, sugar, coffee, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, drugs, cotton, and polyester—all bought and paid for by consumers like you and me.

Once water is used for industry and conventional agriculture, it becomes polluted and salinated (salted), and hence unavailable for human use. But it does not go away. Think of what happens when you put a tiny bit of soap into a fountain. It quickly spreads through the water, which soon bubbles over the edges. You have to turn off the fountain and drain it to clean out the soap. But we cannot turn off the global water cycle. Toxic waste spreads easily through world waterways, polluting all the varied ecologies it meets. And because we dump it all the time, every day of the year, the damaged ecologies never get a chance to recover from the overload of poison.

As a result, more than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and whole ecosystems are going extinct. If we substitute the word safe for clean, the number jumps closer to three billion, or nearly half the global population.

Diarhhea caused by drinking unclean water kills more than two million people—mostly small children—every year. Other grim conditions include intestinal worms and trachoma, which causes blindness.

And don’t forget the two hundred million people with schistosomiasis, which causes liver damage, seizures, and paralysis, all from having a dirty water supply and no way to clean it. It is possible to repair damaged waterways and build natural filtration systems, and I’ll get more into these solutions later, but often these options are not available to the economically disadvantaged communities I’m talking about here. 

Throughout history whole societies have committed ecological suicide using the very same tactics we employ today: namely, a highly productive agriculture based on short-term profits, a dependence on hierarchical systems for essential resources, and an arrogant disregard for environmental stewardship. The current trends of depleted ground water, climate change, and destruction of the aquatic environment (so necessary to renew the water cycle) tell us that we too travel down the very same road of ancient civilizations before us, toward extinction. But first—and soon—will come the day when clean water is still available, though only to the elite few who can pay the price.

Access to good water should be the right of all living things and was guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Yet that isn’t stopping corporations from privatizing and profiting from public water supplies around the world. International players are calling water the “last infrastructure frontier for private investors.”(5) The race is on to garner a controlling interest in water and, thus, the world economy.

how many gallons of water
The average American’s lifestyle consumes or pollutes about 1,200 gallons of water every day.

In much of the world already, pure drinking water is available only to those who can afford it. This means that about 12 percent of the global population—the economically privileged—uses more than 85 percent of the water, and, to add insult to injury, trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO make it virtually impossible for local communities to prevent the export and exploitation of their community water supply.(6) 

Today one out of twenty people relies on privately owned water for life, and billions more depend on government controlled, municipal sources.(7) Our vulnerability in this position is beyond just having to keep a job to pay the water bill. Ask yourself, Who controls my water supply? Who makes and sells my filters? Who owns the source? If I have the money, what will I drink? If I can’t pay, how will I live? Start asking these questions now, and don’t let the wild water near you fall into the wrong hands. 

Even in the United States, where we currently enjoy relative eco- nomic privilege, millions of people filter their drinking water, and most of us don’t even know what toxins we’re filtering out, let alone whose responsibility they are. Frankly, even if we choose to ignore the death, disease, and destruction caused to other places by our lifestyle here, if we do not clean up our act, quickly and globally, even the United States will suffer dearly for a lack of clean water.

The Monsanto Company views the global water crisis as a multibillion  dollar business opportunity. We see big problems—it sees big money. Monsanto’s Robert Farley admits, “Population growth and economic development will apply increasing pressure on the natural resource markets. . . . These are the markets that are most relevant to us as a life sciences company . . . in which there are predictable sustainability challenges and therefore opportunities to create business value.”(8) Monsanto foresees profits of sixty-three million dollars by 2008 for water ventures in India and Mexico, and other companies are riding the dusty bandwagon to the tune of more than three hundred million a year in these two countries alone.(9) 

While companies such as Monsanto pursue global domination under the guise of sustainable development (an oxymoron?) and global security, the hard truth is that monopolizing the water supply is a recipe for social and ecological devastation. Privatization may seem to provide opportunities for project funding, system improvement, and increased distribution, but real world examples show that political corruption, economic exclusion, and environmental degradation are the more likely outcomes.(10) 

We should address the problems of scarcity and pollution as crucial points of action rather than opportunities for profit and exploitation, and protect and conserve our regional water supplies as if our lives depended on it, which they do. We must not allow the greed of the corporate regime to usurp our lifeblood in the name of free enterprise and property rights.

Beyond human consumption, we must also consider the water supplies that nourish the plants, animals, fish, and connected ecosystems on which we depend. Ultimately we must put the power back in the bioregional communities to which it belongs and develop a whole system ecological approach to watershed stewardship. 

Options for Survival

There is a wide range of things that we can do to conserve and protect our water supplies, from organizing community coalitions to implementing ecologically sound practices at home. Many local communities are beginning to take action, but no current system in the world provides a model for perpetual water security. We must make these models for ourselves and develop bioregionally based, long term plans that use a variety of strategies to ensure a wet and fertile future for humans and other living things.

Just as we must create and act upon our own individual and community visions for peace, we must also design and develop localized, closed loop systems for water. Ecology teaches us that everything is connected, and the water cycle provides ample proof of this.Everything we do has a ripple effect on everything else. If we work to conserve and protect our local and regional water sources, we will influence the whole and contribute to healing the larger cycle.

Here are ten top strategies for saving our water and ourselves. They are in no particular order of importance—we must do them all, and more, if we are to reverse the tide of scarcity, pollution, and corporate control that threatens us today. Each of these could constitute a whole book in itself, but I will just touch on them here.

Ten Things We Can Do to Save Water

1. Eat Organic Food and Support Local Organic Agriculture. Organic methods don’t use harsh toxins that pollute the water. Organic farms and gardens emphasize mulch and other soil stewardship practices, which means less erosion and/or salination of the soil, and less runoff and damage to waterways. Local food means shorter distance from farm to table, which translates to less pollution from fossil fuels. If it is difficult to find local organic food, there’s another good reason to grow a garden. Also, see chapter 10 for ways to find like minded people near you.

2. Reject Corporate Globalization and Control Industrial Water Use. Don’t buy corporate water, and fight the corporate takeover of your local waterways. If they’ve already moved in, kick them out by organizing local coalitions and fighting for local control. We can promote corporate accountability by monitoring industrial pollution levels, interacting with business leaders, and refusing to support wasteful and polluting companies. On a political level constitutional amendments establishing water as a basic human right and endangered natural resource can protect supplies and ban corporate control. Also, think of the nonhuman species and their needs, and fight companies that threaten nature. If we pay attention and share information, we can create an atmosphere of collective concern and mindful stewardship—a necessary tool in the face of blind and powerful corporate greed.

3. Regenerate Native Habitats. Healthy riparian zones are essential to long term water supplies. With our help damaged systems can regenerate themselves exponentially faster than if left on their own. Volunteer with a local restoration project to stabilize banks, clean up pollution, and replant native plants. Ask around through local environmental groups, or start a new one in an endangered area near you.

4. Develop Watershed Stewardship Coalitions. Work together for change. Local watershed management coalitions, made up of scientists, environmentalists, farmers, and other local citizens, can develop long term, ecological strategies that include restoration, conservation, and harsh penalties for wasting and polluting water supplies. These coalitions can also work on related issues such as energy, overpopulation, and climate change and can establish bioregional networks to find and implement solutions. See chapters 9 through 11 for more on community organizing.

5. Use Renewable Energy. Ride a bike instead of driving to work. Invest in solar or passive solar electricity, heat, and water heating. Reject dam based hydroelectric energy, which steals water from connected ecosystems and destroys essential fish habitat.

6. Eschew Packaging. Processed industrial foods take too much water to produce, package, and distribute. The biggest culprits are sugar, soy, and all types of meat, but anything packaged in paper or plastic caused major water damage before it got to you. Choose local produce and unpackaged bulk foods, and store them in reusable bins in your kitchen or pantry. Beware of “bulk” items that came to the store in a plastic package that the merchant threw away before selling you the bulk product. This is just another marketing scheme and generates almost as much waste as individually packaged items.

7. Buy Less of Everything, and Reuse What You Can. Beyond policy changes and community collaboration, personal choices are the key element to ecological living. The embedded water costs associated with each of our consumer choices (food, transportation, clothing, building materials, et cetera) amount to more than four hundred billion gallons each year in the United States alone. This is an unfathomable waste. Our culture teaches us to ask, What can I buy? Instead we should ask, What can I avoid buying? When you must buy something, choose recycled and secondhand materials. You will save water as well as money while rescuing useful items from the waste stream.

8. Use Water Efficient Appliances or Get Rid of Them Altogether. Choose options such as front loading washing machines and water efficient toilets and shower heads. Fix leaks and drips. Evaluate your electric and water usage and eliminate or downsize any appliances you don’t really need. For example, use a clothesline instead of a dryer, or build a draft box and get rid of your fridge.

9. Save and Recycle Paper, Glass, and Metals. The pulp and paper industry is the number one polluter of world water ways. Limit your contribution to the oceans of filth it creates by insisting on recycled paper and conserving as much as you can. Glass and metal recycling also saves water, but it is best to limit your consumption first. Plastic recycling is a hoax—don’t buy it. All phases of plastic processing cause water pollution, ozone depletion, and cancer. Avoid it.

10. Establish an Ecological Home Water Cycle. The best way to contribute as much as we can to global water solutions is to design and implement a holistic personalized water system, at home and in our communities, that includes graywater usage, rain catchment, and water efficient agriculture and land use. By emphasizing sincere stewardship and prudent conservation of this most precious resource, we teach by example and gain greater control over our personal supply.

Not only will all these actions save huge amounts of water, but they will also contribute to an overall improvement in the ecological integrity of your life and community. Consumer choices—what you buy—are by far the most important aspect of water conservation, and your choices are woven through every aspect of your home water cycle. Try not to get overwhelmed—just do what you can and share what you learn with your community.

We will examine lifestyle and consumer choices more in chapter 8. For now let’s focus on the last item on the list: “Establish an ecological home water cycle.” The home is the place over which we have the most control, and recycling water there will help ensure personal supply and send a ripple effect through the global situation.

The Home Water Cycle

A typical home water cycle goes something like this: Water comes in, from a well or municipal pump system, and is piped to the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, and several places in the yard. We use it once, then send it to the sewer. Rainwater from the roof runs down the drainpipe and then into either the sewer or the storm drain. Except for drinking water, water quality rarely matches usage, meaning we use clean water when we don’t need it, and household graywater (once used water tainted only with soap and food residues) goes straight to the sewer, with our poop, to become pollution.

An ecological home water cycle looks quite different: Rainwater is directed from the roof into barrels and/or cisterns and from there into the house, where it is filtered for drinking and washing and then drained into a living filter, or “slime monster,” which cleans out soap, germs, and other residue. The cleaned graywater then runs into a pond, where it mixes with surplus rainwater that ran off when the household storages were full. 

When the pond overflows, it irrigates the garden via an intricate system of ponds, dams, and swales and eventually percolates into the soil, where it is available for deep roots and soil communities. (Even the toilet water can be recycled, through a blackwater system, but because that takes so much more energy than recycling graywater, I don’t recommend doing blackwater at home. Instead try eliminating toilet water altogether by composting human waste.)

Within each stage of any cycle, there are opportunities to influence the cycle. If we see that a cycle is out of harmony with nature, then we can make subtle changes to shift it toward the right direction. Conversely, other changes may disrupt the natural flow and throw the whole cycle out of balance.

We should make the smallest changes we can to achieve the greatest benefit to the whole, and we should always watch for opportunities to achieve better balance with nature. As we ponder this concept of whole cycle design, we can look to the way water flows through our home and garden as an example of how everything is (or should be) connected. 

An ecological home water cycle saves money, reduces waste and pollution, and increases the fertility of the garden. Keeping rainwater and graywater on-site adds a dynamic, visually spectacular element to your space and invites a new diversity of life to reside there. You will need to invest some time and money to get it flowing, but I can think of few worthier investments than personal water security.

In the next few pages we will explore the elements of an ecological home water cycle. These include water wise gardening, graywater usage, rain catchment, and combining them all to recycle, cleanse, and conserve water as much as possible. With the information here you can experiment with just a few strategies—or revamp your whole system. Whatever you choose, you will be that much closer to doing your part to conserve the world’s water. Let’s start with the garden . . .

Permaculture Water System
An ecological home water cycle saves money and promotes a healthy planet.

Water-Wise Gardening

Just a few simple strategies will make a big difference in how efficiently your garden uses water. These include deep mulching, appropriate irrigation, using microclimates, and contouring, which includes building swales and ponds along and around garden beds to catch and store water.

Mulching. Water wisdom in the garden goes right back to the soil stewardship discussed in the preceding chapter. The greater the water holding capacity of our soil, the less we will need to irrigate. All kinds of mulch and compost increase the soil’s ability to catch and hold water, as do cover crops, compost teas, and other soil building strategies. Mulch keeps the surface of the soil from drying out and insulates plant roots and fragile soil communities. Deep trench mulches create underground reservoirs that provide surplus water for deep roots. Mulches also help prevent erosion because they act as a sponge to catch water and filter it into the soil.

Irrigation. Many gardeners advocate drip irrigation or soaker hoses, which squirt water low into the garden beds via networks of plastic tubes. Such irrigation systems use less water than overhead sprinklers, but I don’t recommend them. The plastic is ugly to look at, is toxic to produce, photodegrades in the sun, and becomes a pile of useless plastic waste within just a few years. In addition, the long, stiff tubing doesn’t lend well to the organic, nonlinear shapes of a paradise garden, and the water doesn’t get to all the plants.

On the other hand, recycled garden hose, found easily at any thrift store, is flexible, not stiff like drip tape, and can be perforated with a nail and snaked around the garden to provide conservative and attractive irrigation exactly where you need it. Still, ground watering like this will often exclude plants on the periphery, and sometimes hoses seem to interfere with, rather than enhance, the beauty and efficiency of the garden.

I prefer and recommend overhead watering, but this doesn’t mean running a sprinkler in the middle of the day in full sun. This is the worst way to water the garden, because most of the water evaporates before it ever hits the plants, and the drops that make it onto a leaf then magnify the sun and burn the plant. Instead, water in the morning or early evening, when the sun is low in the sky, and direct the water at the soil and plant roots, rather than the leaves. Water deeply and less often, rather than shallowly and frequently, and double-check any odd corners of the garden to make sure marginal plants are not being excluded. 

Microclimates. Some areas will need much more water than others, as will some plants. Identify the varied microclimates on your site and choose plants that will do well in those conditions. In a wet spot group together the plants that need more water, and grow those that love dry soil somewhere else. Make use of tree drip lines and moist, shady spots that allow you to grow shade lovers in sunny, dry zones. Look for drought-tolerant varieties and grow them in dry beds to strengthen the trait, then save their seeds and grow them again.

Remember that changing the water cycle will change the adjacent microclimates, so consider this when developing your system. Use the placement and flow of water to help you create the environments you want, where you want them. 

Contouring. Build a network of ponds, swales, berms, and contoured beds to cycle water through the garden and keep it on-site as long as possible. Without these soil catchments surplus water will run right down any slope available and off into the gutter before you have a chance to use it. Contours catch that water and keep it, and they add depth and dimension to the landscape.

Contours create edges that are unique microclimates, where you can grow a whole new range of plants. Contouring also helps prevent erosion. In a 1969 Ohio survey of soil loss under various treatments, corn grown in plowed, sloping rows lost between seven and twenty-two tons per acre of topsoil, while corn grown in plowed, contoured rows lost only two to three tons per acre. Corn grown in unplowed, heavily mulched, contoured rows lost none.(11) 

Contoured gardens usually include swales, which are shallow ditches in contour that catch water and filter it into the soil. To build a swale, dig a trench one to three feet deep and one to five feet wide, on contour—not on a slope—so the water does not run down the swale but sits in the swale and percolates into the soil. Direct water to the swale via drainpipes, downspouts, dams, and ditches. Build garden beds above and below the swale—and also on contour. The bed below the swale will require much less watering than the bed above it, because of the water percolating into the soil, so plant accordingly. 

Most swales have a berm on the downhill side, built from the dirt dug out of the swale. You can also build up the berm with tree prunings, cardboard, leaves, scrap wood, or any other organic matter.Alternatively, you can build just the berm on slope or on contour, without the swale, to slow runoff velocity and/or direct the flow of water and thus encourage soil infiltration.

Berms also slow and direct other flows, such as wind. Windbreaks like this decrease evaporation and, therefore, the need for water. In addition to berms, other types of windbreaks include fences, trellises, buildings, and hedgerows, all of which should be included and carefully placed in a whole system design.

​Swales, berms, and contoured beds become even more useful when connected to one or more garden ponds. Depending on your scale and design goals, these ponds can be as small and simple as a few washtubs placed strategically around the garden, or as elaborate as a large scale swimming pond, stocked with fish and edible water plants. We’ll come back to ponds in a minute. 

Cyclic Opportunity

Natural cycles, such as planetary orbits, seasonal changes, and women’s menses, are all around us. Most are predictable, and we can learn them through observation and pattern recognition.

Because cyclic patterns are everywhere and inevitable, it is crucial that we include them in our garden plans. Just as you would plant according to the seasons, you should also make other decisions based on the cycles and patterns you observe around you.

Many cycles seem like loops, but most are actually spirals—never coming back to the exact same point, but overlapping into similar experiences. Though her orbit is mostly predictable, Earth never returns to exactly the same spot in space twice, and neither do any of her cycles.

In every step of a cycle there are opportunities to mimic, divert, or interact within that cycle. In ecological design we use this principle of cyclic opportunity to divert energy, initiate new cycles, and open niches in space and time. This results in higher yields, new opportunities, and a more ecological and efficient system overall.

In ecological paradise garden design we consider nine primary cycles, looking to them for opportunities and ripple effects. These are: Water, Soil, Seeds, Cosmos, Society, Wilderness, Self, Chaos, and Waste. I’ll come back to these again later. For now the point is that each of these cycles is rife with opportunities to improve the ecology and fruitful yield of our gardens and community projects.

Here are a few strategies to get you started.

Divert the flow. The first strategy of cycling is to divert the flow (of energy, materials, water, and so on) as many times as possible between the source and the sink. Look again to water: If the well is the source, and the sewer is the sink, then how many times can we use that water before it is unavailable for further use?

​We can drink the water and then recycle the pee onto our garden. This would be a relatively short cycle, but still better than just flushing the pee away. In addition, we can use the water to bathe or wash dishes and then run the resulting graywater through a living filter and into a pond. Then we can use the pond to grow water plants and fish and use the plants and fish to feed our ani- mals and ourselves.

We can use the fish and plant waste to fertilize our garden and use the pond water to flush an outdoor toilet. The toilet water can again be filtered through a living system and later used to irrigate fruit trees. Thus the same gallon of water can stay on a site for months or even years, with just a bit of protracted thought and ingenuity.We can also divert the flow of energy, materials, and information and use them to supplement our work.

For example, recycling and dumpster diving make use of materials that were headed to the “sink,” or landfill in this case. We can divert human energy away from idleness and toward our gardens by creating opportunities for participation.Remember that if you divert the flow from one point, you may change the cycle farther on. If you take water out of the stream, the person downstream may have less. That’s why it’s crucial to take as little as we can, reuse as much as possible, and give back what we take in another form, at another point in the cycle.

Encourage natural succession. For example, we can plant pioneer species, those that stabilize soil and provide habitat for successive species. By planting pioneer species in a barren location, we need care for the pioneers only for a short time, and then nature will take its course. The pioneers will shade the area, draw moisture and nutrients into the soil, and spur new cycles of life. Thus alders will give way to dogwoods and willows, birds will come and spread seeds of new plants, animal and soil communities will grow and change, and the whole system will perpetuate itself, while we are free to focus on other projects.

Community projects also spawn a form of natural succession. Each project may inspire dozens of others, which will inspire more, and so on. If we construct our efforts to allow others to expand upon them in their own way, we start new and self-perpetuating cycles of action and change.

Generate new flows. Your own energy is essential. We haven’t discovered the secret to perpetual motion yet, but we can keep pushing the carousel around with every new use of a resource.Keep on the lookout for wasted energy, and catch and recycle whatever you can. Every time we add a link to the cycle we create a yield, in the form of either material or energetic gain. By finding, creating, and using cyclic opportunities, in the garden and beyond, we turn waste into resources and save time, money, and energy. 

graywater bog plants
Use the diggings from the swale and additional organic debris to build a berm on the uphill side of the swale to create useful microclimates.


When we think of wasted water, we often think of drips, leaks, and spillage, but the real waste in our homes is the (average) 150 gallons per day of graywater (once used wash water) that drain to the sewer along with the toilet water.

We are, quite literally, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater every time we pull the plug in the tub and watch all of that almost clean water go down the drain. You can do the math yourself, but even if you limit your household consumption to only 100 gallons a day, that adds up to 36,500 gallons per year—enough to grow several hundred pounds of food and turn any yard into a lush paradise garden.

Twenty years ago it was the accepted norm to throw food scraps into the trash along with landfill waste, but now millions of people compost this rich and valuable resource. When I was a child we threw all our glass bottles in the trash, yet now recycling is common practice throughout most of the world.

Using graywater, while certainly not a new practice, will undoubtedly become much more popular in the years to come as water scarcity becomes more commonplace. And while it is still illegal in many cities due to health concerns, if properly processed, graywater adds an abundance of water and fertility to an otherwise much drier environment. The regular influx of living, moving water adds diversity, reflects light, creates edges and microclimates, and enhances the ecological integrity of your landscape.

My first graywater experiment entailed removing the trap from below the bathroom sink and putting a five gallon bucket under the drain. When we needed to flush we would just open the cabinet, grab the bucket, and dump the water into the toilet. The rush of water triggered the toilet’s flush system, and away it went to the sewer.

This system can be installed by anyone with a pipe wrench and a bucket and makes perfect sense: You use the toilet, wash your hands in the sink, then use the same water to flush the toilet. This uses far less water than a regular flush and adds a second round to the sink water, which is of course plenty clean enough to wash out the toilet bowl and carry the contents away. Just be sure not to leave the bucket full of graywater for more than two days; it will ferment and turn to black water, which is toxic.

The best way to avoid the health risks involved with graywater is to build a “living machine” to cleanse and neutralize it. This living machine—or slime monster, as some people fondly call it—will filter your graywater, direct it into the landscape, and use all those yummy germs from your body, laundry, and dishes to feed the hungry communities in your soil.

Designer John Todd builds living machines that recycle large quantities of graywater from cities like Burlington, Vermont, where he built a sewage treatment plant in a greenhouse near Lake Champlain. Living machines use sunlight for fuel and, like natural ecologies, have the ability to self-organize, self-design, self-repair, and self-replicate.

Todd views waste as “resources out of place” and sees excess sludge as a sign of an incomplete design. His project at Lake Champlain turns raw sewage into pure water in just over two days. Home to more than four hundred species of plants, the greenhouse looks more like a botanical garden than a treatment plant and combines waste treatment with fuel production, educational opportunities, and cash crops such as flowers and other beneficial plants.

This type of system, if implemented in cities worldwide, could quickly repair degraded environments and reduce the human damage to the planet by 90 percent. To do this will require a major political and economic transformation that may seem far-fetched but is not out of reach. We have the examples and information—we just need to put them into action.

On a home scale you can build a small slime monster that will filter and cleanse your household graywater. Here’s how:

Step One: Establish the Pond that your graywater bog will flow into. In general, your pond should be high on the site and designed so the overflow runs into your contoured garden bed/swale system. Vary depths and emphasize edges to create diverse microclimates, which will come in handy later. A pond provides rich sludge that is great for compost or mulch, so design yours so that you can scoop out the bottom when needed. There are many variables to building a pond—more than I can cover here. Refer to the resources section for some good references, and design a pond that fits well with your style and situation.

All ponds can and should host a diversity of plants and animals. Just like natural waterways, the water environments you create need biological balance to thrive. To achieve this balance, add plants and fish. Read up on local water ecologies and try to establish one that will thrive in your climate.

For fish, start with gambusia, koi, guppies, or common feeder goldfish. These will eat mosquito larvae and add life and movement to your pond. Larger ponds can be stocked with trout or catfish, which, given proper conditions, will reproduce and provide food for years to come. Refer to chapter 5 for some great water plants.

It is a common misconception that home ponds need an electric pump to circulate the air. What ponds in nature have such technology? A well designed ecology, with plants, fish, and plenty of edge, will circulate and balance itself. In addition, if your pond connects to a system that consistently adds graywater or rainwater, the frequent influx will keep things moving.

If you choose not to have a pond, then set up the graywater bog so that the overflow runs directly into your garden system. Personally, I prefer a pond. Ponds are beautiful and relatively easy to build, and they create valuable habitat. Even a small pond can hold hundreds of gallons. They are worth more than their volume in long term benefits to the garden.

Some graywater systems utilize a series of several ponds, connected through constructed swales, ditches, and waterfalls. As with every aspect of the garden, each design should be site-specific and well suited to your individual tastes, needs, and available space. If you don’t have the space or resources for a garden pond, try using a large barrel or bathtub for a container pond. I have several of these in my greenhouse, each thriving with its own little ecosystem.

Step Two: Build Your Slime Monster. You can use a bathtub, a wine barrel cut in half lengthwise, or just a shallow pit dug into the ground. Create a two inch opening two-thirds of the way down on the side of the container for an outlet and insert a tight fitting pipe, which will drain to the pond. Situate the monster near the place where your household water will exit, and make sure that your container is below that exit so the water can drain in easily. (Don’t worry about the plumbing yet— we’re almost there.)

Line the pit or container with plastic. Anything will do—an old tarp, recycled greenhouse plastic, trash bags, what have you. Put a two-inch 

layer of gravel and rocks in the bottom to hold down the liner and create air pockets.

​Now place baffles in the container, eight to twelve inches apart, to slow the water flow (see the illustration). Nestle the baffles in the gravel so they don’t fall over. Fill the gaps between the baffles with wood chips; on the top plant rushes, cattails, irises, horsetail, canna, comfrey, reeds, and other water loving, non-edible plants. 

how to make a graywater system
A slime monster is your best ally for cleansing and recycling water from your home into your landscape.

Step Three: Feed the Monster. Now that you have a way to receive the water, you are ready to open the floodgates. Because graywater is illegal in many cities, many people choose not to reroute the plumbing but to catch the water in buckets and pour it into the slime monster by hand. This works fine for the able-bodied, but it can become tiresome or impossible when dealing with bath and laundry water, which is easy to reroute from the sewer to the slime monster with a couple of Y-joints from the local hardware store.

Home plumbing is a field of its own, and I will leave the details to you. There are plenty of do-it-yourself plumbing manuals around if you get confused. In general, make sure to cap off any open pipes to prevent leaks, and unless you are ready for a blackwater system, keep the toilet water out of the graywater flow. Set up a small screen between the house outlet and the slime monster to filter out hair and debris. Clean the filter often and throw the sludge into the compost.

Again, graywater may be illegal in your neighborhood, so be discreet to avoid inspections and fines. Even just for aesthetic purposes, it is a good idea to hide the outlet behind an attractive shrub or garden sculpture. This will also prevent any nosy inspectors or neighbors from alerting the water cops.

Now that you have your very own slime monster, take good care of it. Like all pets, it needs love, attention, and plenty of water. Never let the monster dry out, and scoop out and replace the wood chips if they get really rotten—usually once every couple of years. The living community of plants, insects, and microorganisms will filter all the soap and pathogens out of your graywater before sending it into the garden, and the slime monster itself will provide a unique microclimate for unusual bog plants.


The other big waste of household water is the thousands of gallons that wash off the roof and into the street every time it rains. In many places rain catchments are the main source of residential water. Even in modern cities, much of the municipal water comes from rain, but why wait for the city to catch it and pipe it back to you when you can catch it yourself from your own roof, driveway, or other impervious surfaces?

It is easy and inexpensive to set up simple rain catchment devices all around your home and garden, and to link these with your home water cycle. This involves three steps: catching the water, storing it, and directing it into the landscape. Catching the water is easy. Find recycled gutters at construction sites where people are remodeling or reroofing their house, or make simple ones out of long wooden boards. Attach gutters to the edge of the roof and direct the downspouts into your swale or storage tanks.

​Be sure to keep your gutters clean of leaves and debris—scoop them out a few times a year, and use the contents for mulch. I have also seen a “gutter” made by attaching a taut cord or chain to the edge of the roof. The water runs down the chain in the direction of its slope. Check around your neighborhood and surf the Internet for more ideas about rain collection.

Storing the rainwater can present bigger challenges, but none you can’t solve with a little thought and flexibility. First, determine how much rainwater your roof can catch in a year using the following formula:

Let F represent the footprint of the roof, which is not the surface area but the area, in square feet, of ground that it covers.  Multiply F by the average rainfall (R), in inches per year, and divide the product by 12.

This formula gives you the number of cubic feet per year of water that your roof will catch. To convert cubic feet to gallons, multiply by 7.5. In other words, 7.5(FR/12)=gallons per year of rainwater will hit said roof. Thus, a thirty- by forty-foot house in an area with an average annual rainfall of fifty-five inches will catch about 41,250 gallons of water per year.(13) Wow! Where will you put it all?

The key to storing rainwater is in diversifying the directions you send the water as it runs off the roof, and storing it in varied catchments that suit its intended purpose. Drain one section into clean barrels near the kitchen to use for cooking; direct a second section into a tank near the bathing area; and drain another section directly into the garden, to be stored in ponds and swales. Set up small storage containers where they are needed, using the nearest surface to catch the water. For example, install a small gutter on the roof of a dog or chicken house to drain the rainwater into a trough for the dog/chickens to drink. 

rain catchment barrel
Build a basic rain catchment system using old honey barrels.

Unless you live in a desert region, where rain is very scarce, you do not need to store the entire annual rainfall. Your varied catchments need hold only enough water to last between rains. You may still want to build a small cistern for household water—an excellent investment for your home and not as expensive as you might think. Some friends built an eight-thousand-gallon cistern under their driveway and used a solar pump to bring the water into their home. This lasts them all summer, and the overflow goes to their pond and then filters out into the garden.

If you can’t build a cistern, no problem: Use food grade fifty-gallon plastic or steel barrels, which can be found for free or purchased cheap from food distribution warehouses. Look for those that used to contain honey or syrup, rather than fats or oils, and clean them well with soap and hot water before using them. Also, most old motor homes have large plastic water tanks that can be removed with just a few hand tools—check a local junkyard. These work especially well because they are rectangular and can be easily attached to the side of a building.

For increased storage link together multiple containers with hoses, and install a spigot at the end. Retrieve the water in buckets, or mount the whole system up high and use gravity to direct it straight into the household plumbing. Remember that water weighs about seven pounds per gallon, and even a small containment system can weigh hundreds of pounds, so be sure to build sturdy supports and anchor everything to the ground.

You can also use patios, sidewalks, and your driveway to catch water. The next time it rains, find the best place to tap the flow, and install a gutter or pipe to direct the water away from the storm drain and back onto your landscape. If you are building a patio or walkway, think ahead and angle it slightly so the water flows to where you want it.

While graywater tends to be very alkaline because of soaps and skin cells, rainwater is usually more acidic due to pollution and other factors. It is best to combine them by draining both into a central pond where you can achieve a more balanced mix before sending the overflow into the garden.

Again, I strongly recommend establishing swales, berms, and contoured garden beds before rerouting the household water onto the landscape. This will give the new influx of water somewhere to go and will fill your garden with life and diversity. Otherwise any pond overflow will just take the path of least resistance, which may work out fine, but could also cause serious erosion problems. Even a single swale, combined with plenty of thick mulch in the garden beds below it, will make a big difference in how well your garden holds water.


If you are not quite ready to establish such an extensive water system, or if you just don’t know what to do with a particular corner of the roof, try building a simple drywell under the downspout. Normally water gains momentum on the way off the roof, and by the time it hits the ground it is moving too fast to soak into the soil before running off.

Drywells use turbulence to dissipate energy in runoff water and therefore encourage deeper percolation into the soil. The average house needs only a nine-cubic-foot drywell at each downspout to prevent erosion and greatly increase soil percolation.(14) Here’s how to make one:

​Just below the downspout, dig out a hole three and a half feet deep and three and a half feet wide. At the bottom of the well, in the direction(s) you want the water to percolate, insert a two-inch perforated pipe a foot or two into the soil. Now line the sides with recycled brick or concrete blocks and drive a few pieces of rebar vertically into the bottom of the hole, to hold the walls in place. 

When you’ve finished the walls, fill the bottom two-thirds of the well with gravel and large rocks, being careful not to clog or disturb the pipe outlets. Place a grate across the top to filter out leaves and keep anyone from falling in.

ground well gabbion
A basic drywell is easy and inexpensive to build and recycles roof runoff back into your soil.

Whether you build a single drywell or implement a home wide ecological water system, you will be surprised at how quickly your landscape will respond. With careful planning and a focused effort, these strategies will turn even an arid landscape into a green oasis, will save you hundreds of dollars a year on your water bill, and will help steward your watershed resources.

Sharing Water

Nature shares water in many ways. From above and below, through our skin and our mouths, we drink, we pee, we swim, we bathe, we kiss, we make love. Water flows through, under, above, and around us. When we share water with one another, we deepen our connection with natural water cycles and strengthen our bond with the earth.

Here is a water sharing ritual that a friend showed me. He said, “When people share water in this way, they become ecstatic.” He was right!

I was a little scared at first to just let someone dump water on my head—the natural inclination is to duck or try to avoid getting wet. But it was a hot summer day at the Oregon Country Fair, so I figured what the heck. Here’s how it went:

First, I bowed my head and he poured water on my crown—just enough to dampen my hair and run down past my ears. Then he passed the water to me, bowed, and let me pour it on his head.

Next, I tilted my head back and opened my mouth while he poured in the water until it began to overflow. I gulped it down and, again, returned the favor. Then we kissed. Just a nice, trusting kiss between fellow earthlings: water kin, as it were. Simple and sweet—try it with a friend today! 

This acequia system has been irrigating farms in Andalucia for centuries.

Notes for Chapter 3

1. Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (New York: Bantam, 1976), 1–2.

2. Graham Bell, The Permaculture Way (London: Thorsons, 1992), 202.

3. Rosalyn Creasy, Complete Book of Edible Landscaping (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1982), 17.

4. Ken and Barbara Kern, The Owner-Built Homestead (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1974), 69. 

5. Vandana Shiva, “Now Monsanto Is after Our Water,” The Ecologist 29, no. 5 (August 1999).

6. Maude Barlow, “The Globalization of Water,” Hope Dance 5 (November–December 2000).

7. Bill Marsden, “Cholera and the Age of the Water Barons,” Center for Public Integrity,, 18 November 2005.

​8. Shiva, “Now Monsanto Is after Our Water.”

9. Ibid.

10. Chris Runyan, “Privatizing Water,” World Watch 16, no. 1 (January 2003), 36–38.

11. Kern, The Owner-Built Homestead, 91.

12. Peter Farb, Ecology (New York: Time, 1963), 12–13.

13. Roofwater formula from Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2002), 90.

14. Drywell design from Robert Kourik, Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape, Naturally (Santa Rosa, CA: Metamorphic Press, 1986), 79.