The Q&A Archives: Conserving Water

Question: I'm writing from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia which I consider to be a gardener's paradise with fairly hot summers and sufficient rain but...for the second summer in a row we have been suffering from severe drought conditions. An avid gardener I work with said that she used her rinse water from doing the dishes and even her bath water in extreme conditions in order to keep her gardens from wilting without draining her well. I'm experimenting with some expendable plants but I probably won't see whether these measures are detrimental for a week or so and my vegetables can't wait that long. Will the soap in this water hurt most vegetables--namely tomatoes, corn, lima beans, lettuce and cucumbers? I hate to see everything I planted scorch in the summer sun while water I could use just washes down the drain.

Answer: Waste water may be the simplest way to stretch your water budget during the hot summer months. Gray water, which is recycled shower, bath and laundry water, can be used to keep thirsty plants alive, but some precautions should be followed. Because gray water has not been disinfected, it could be contaminated. A careful, commonsense approach to the use of gray water, however, can virtually eliminate any potential hazard.

The following precautions are recommended:

Never use gray water for direct consumption.
Gray water should not be used directly on anything that may be eaten.
Gray water should not be sprayed, allowed to puddle, or run off property.
Use only water from clothes washing, bathing or the bathroom sink. Do not use water that has come in contact with soiled diapers, meat or poultry, or anyone with an infectious disease.

Plant specialists warn that gray water should not be used on vegetables, seedlings, container plants or acid-loving plants such as azaleas, begonias, camellias and citrus trees. Gray water should be rotated with fresh water to leach out any harmful build-up. Chlorine bleach may damage plants, especially if it touches the foliage. Biodegradable soaps appear to have the least harmful effects.

For further information regarding the safe use of gray water, contact our commercial office or your local health agency.

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