While it may seem strange to think about, you could learn a lot from your septic tank when it comes to maintaining a healthy, environmentally safe lawn. The septic drain-field area of your yard has more access to water (from the drainage pipes) and more nutrients (from, yes, your septic system) both of which promote healthy plant growth. In times when your plants and lawn are experiencing stress from heat and drought, you will notice the grass really will be greener over the septic tank and drain field. This is not the only thing a septic system can teach us, though; let’s look at a few other lessons we can learn.
Balancing the Systems
A lawn and a traditional septic system both use natural ecological cycles. Pushed out of balance those natural systems break down, and this can cause system failures. Proper maintenance of any system is necessary for the health of that system. Your septic tank is home to bacteria and yeasts that function to break down solids and, over time, release processed (cleaner) waste into the soil to complete the filtering process. Similarly, the root-soil-web hosts a diversity of microbial partners that break down detritus and enrich the soil by making nutrients available to plants. Maintaining the health of both systems relies on keeping the microbes functioning efficiently.
The Complex Question of Water
Everyone knows water is a precious resource and we need to be careful about our water usage. In areas prone to drought, you often hear about bans on watering lawns. This is because most lawns use Kentucky bluegrass, which requires a lot of water to stay green. The comparatively broad leaves of bluegrass varieties (as compared to more drought-tolerant grasses, like the fescue grasses used in an eco-lawn) lose water faster through respiration, requiring that the lawn be watered regularly to prevent turning brown. On the other hand, you don’t want to over-water and drown the roots of your plants. We see this same issue—too little or too much water—with septic systems. In a septic tank, too much water creates problems because solid matter does not have time to settle out, while too little water (too much non-decomposing trash in the tank) is also a problem, because it can cause back-ups. Unbalanced water usage in either case is not good for the environment. It’s often a good idea to have a mound that can dispose of water, as seen in systems like the Econocycle.
Destructive Dependence on Chemicals
Harsh chemicals rip through your plumbing clogs but destroy the microbial balance of the septic tank. In the same way, Using pesticides or weed killers may appear to solve your problem, but the disruption to the natural balance is harmful and destroys the system. For septic tanks the answer is easy: Get the system pumped out and then use boiling water or a plumbing snake to unclog future stopped drains and blocked pipes. Your yard will require more time and effort, the best solution is not using chemical insecticides and herbicides in the first place. Even some of the “organic” options can create imbalances. Instead of killing things you don’t want, look for ways to encourage beneficial insects and promote the health of the plants you do want (or want the plants you have).
Don’t Trash the System
Properly disposing of non-organic waste is important. A septic system works best when there is not a lot of grease and oil scum floating in it, and only easily-soluble, compostable matter (not condoms, cotton swabs, and diapers) getting flushed into it. It is important for your lawn also, to not have too much man-made product messing with the natural systems. Cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, and chipped rubber mulches (not to mention trash from littering) are not healthy for your yard or your septic tank. Even the use of chemical fertilizers can be harmful. If you are over-nourishing your plants, that supposedly helpful inorganic stuff becomes unhealthy instead, a toxic excess damaging the natural balance.
In the same way that your septic system is a small part of your yard, your yard is a small part of your region’s ecosystem and the environment of the world. There is an old Dutch proverb that says if everyone sweeps their own doorstep the world will be clean. Taking care of the little bits in your care are the first step in making sure the earth is protected. The environmental impact of one lawn might not seem like a lot but this is another lesson your septic tank can teach. Septic tank failure can damage your lawn by releasing unprocessed matter and contaminated water into the drain field. If you don’t get your tank pumped out regularly and maintain the health of the system you will eventually notice the damage you have done to that system affecting the health (and smell) of your yard. It is not a stretch to say that if each person does not also strive to maintain the health of their lawn and gardens in an environmentally-sound way, we will begin to notice the effect on the rest of the world. Indeed, we already are.
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