Please Don't Eat the Shrubbery

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

Please Don't Eat the Shrubbery

In what amounts to the most revolutionary breakthrough in waste disposal since indoor plumbing, Americans in the dusty Southwest and elsewhere are flooding their backyards, stocking them with snails, hibiscuses, and bamboo, and letting these "wetlands" decompose waste au naturel. "It is a little out of place," admits Wendy Miller Hitt, the wife of Forest Guardians director Sam Hitt, of the cattails and reeds sprouting incongruously next to the desert sage in her Santa Fe backyard. In Hitt's system, like roughly 3,000 others nationwide, wastewater runs from a conventional septic tank to a lined bed layered with water, gravel, and vegetation. Plants absorb harmful nitrogen and phosphorous, and one week later Hitt's irrigation system douses her yard with clean, recycled water--no smell, no mess. If this sounds like something you'd want in your own backyard, the Sausalito, California-based Ecological Design Institute (415-332-5806) can provide advice and assistance. Says EDI founder Sim Van der Ryn, "We have to get beyond the flush-and-forget mentality."

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