San Benito Lifestyle

NATURALLY: It Always Rains on Laundry Day

Your washing machine can help sustain your garden

More than a few of us have noticed that it’s a little dry in California these days. In fact, a Field Poll released this week shows that almost nine in 10 Californians agree we’re experiencing a serious drought.

The disconnect appears right next to that first statistic in the poll results. Nearly half of those polled believe they just cannot cut back much at all. And seven in 10 Californians object to wallet-based conservation in the form of higher water rates.

While we ferry buckets of water from our kitchen and shower to the thirstiest looking corners of our garden, I have a suggestion for a pretty simple project that takes a waste product and turns it into a “free” irrigation source.

It’s sitting right in your laundry room. For the investment of a few hours and a few bucks, diverting water from your washing machine to your garden is a pretty accessible weekend project.

We recently attended a one-day class at Cabrillo College in Aptos that walked us through it, but all the information anyone needs is on the Web the Central Coast Graywater Alliance site.  Any Web search for “laundry to landscape” will also uncover a host of other resources.

Because our washing machine is both upstairs and near an exterior wall, our installation was pretty straightforward. We found just about all the bits and pieces we needed for the job locally at Brigantino Irrigation.

It’s important to use laundry detergent that is compatible with landscaping, but the right stuff can even supply a little phosphorous, which is an essential plant nutrient.

There are a few things to be aware of before determining if this bit of homeowner DIY is right for you. Wash water (“graywater” to the converted) has to remain on your property – no runoff. It has to be discharged at least two inches under ground.

The simple solution – and the one we used – is to dig small trenches here and there, installing a ball valve in each linked to a main line from the wash room. Then backfill the trenches with mulch. Wood chip or bark are fine. The valves give you the opportunity to control where water goes, and to fine tune things over the dry season.

After we completed our installation, we got busy emptying the laundry hamper, then went outside to watch the gush of water into the garden.  And we got … a trickle.

We have one of the “high efficiency” front-loading washing machines that have been available for a while now. And it is efficient, using just a few gallons for each wash.

Since there are just two of us in the house, we don’t generate enough laundry to keep the garden soggy, but it certainly makes a difference.

The average high efficiency machine uses 27 gallons of water per load. If your family runs five loads a week, that adds up to 4,400 gallons during a typical April-October dry season.

It’s recommended that homeowners install a valve in the laundry room, allowing water to go either to the garden or to the sewer system. That’s not only important during wet periods, but also when you use products like chlorine bleach that are harmful to plant life.

Part of the project, as detailed in the class we took, was to clean out the pump filter located deep inside of our washer.

A filter there just makes sense, but it never occurred to me that checking it periodically just makes sense.  Removing it revealed a chamber jammed mostly with small change and paper clips, a small unexpected bonus for our drought-driven efforts.

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Mark Paxton

I've been at this most of my life, and it still fascinates and challenges me. San Benito County can be a cruel mistress at times, but we can share in our love for her, even with all her quirks.