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  • Cary Baker

THE DIY HORTA-POTTY: A Gardener's Guide to Avoiding Public Restrooms in the Age of Coronavirus

Updated: May 8, 2020

A few weeks ago, as I began contemplating when and how to attempt rejoining the workforce in these mad and unsettling times, a number of obstacles presented themselves, foremost among them, the toilet. I considered my commute from the lower Hudson Valley to Manhattan and Brooklyn, where, as a gardener and garden designer I carry out site visits and shuttle materials and tools from one locale to another for my crew. There are the reliable pit-stops along the Palisades, then once on the job, I depend on the kindness of my client’s who permit us to use their personal privies. These are sometimes more spacious than my bedroom and almost always include bonuses like an aromatic candle or plush towelettes. When timing fails to align with these more desirable options, I resort to buying an overpriced unwanted granola bar or coffee in order to gain access to a public restroom. But in this new era of germaphobic hyper-vigilance, the prospect of entering even the most opulent of water closets seems like an exercise in reckless behavior, possibly even a life-threatening move…So what to do? I decided not to worry about it until I had to.

That moment arrived last week, when I was given clearance to take care of some basic maintenance and planting at one of our bigger job sites. Before committing to the visit, I did a mental walkthrough of how I would need to adjust our normal routine: we would now be wearing masks. Gloves are already part of our work uniform, so no change there. We would need to sanitize tools at more frequent intervals, purchase general supplies utilizing pre-orders and curbside pickups, keep our distance from all passersby, and maintain a wide berth between crew members, or better yet, work solo. There would be no more bodega runs or stop-offs at my favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop, instead I would need to stock my van with water and other beverages, pack lunch and plenty of snacks… It all seemed inconvenient and unfortunate but ultimately doable, until I remembered that one big barrier.

After a brief feeling of panic, a solution presented itself, triggered by the memory of a quagmire my husband Gamble and I encountered several years ago while living in and renovating a small cottage in the woods with antiquated plumbing. One winter the septic tank failed, and with the ground frozen solid and limited resources, we had no choice but to resort to a makeshift latrine behind our house. We cut a hole in an old wooden chair, stuck some TP in a plastic bag and looped it over a handy tree branch. I recall thinking it was surprisingly pleasant… the cool breeze down below, the sharp winter wind filling my lungs, the most authentic pine-scented air freshener one could ever hope for... maybe we could save a lot of money and skip the septic repair because clearly modern-day plumbing was overrated… But as the winter dragged on, our trips into the woods grew less charming, especially at the god-awful hour of say 2 or 4 am, and so we decided to move our outhouse inside. The chair with the hole in it was placed near our actual toilet and a 5-gallon bucket was tucked underneath. We obtained a small bale of pine shavings, (normally sold to local families with hamsters) from the mom and pop market up the road, and were thrilled to discover that the indoor outhouse worked brilliantly. Eventually the ground thawed and we upgraded our wastewater system but the experience was educational and as it turns out, seems to be one I’m destined to repeat.

The other day, in preparation for my first trip of the season into the city, I headed out to our garage and found a rectangular milk crate. I carried this, along with a 5-gallon bucket, and a couple of bricks back to my van; I dropped the bucket into one side of the crate and placed the bricks on the other end. They would serve the dual purpose of providing critical weight to prevent tipping, while offering a raised level surface on which to place a roll of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and perhaps the most essential item of all, a pail of pine shavings, this time nabbed from the supply we keep on hand for our chickens. It’s worth noting that last year, I graduated from a battered 20-year-old Ford cargo van to a snappy Sprinter that sports top-of-the-line privacy tinting over the rear two-thirds of the vehicle. For peace of mind, Gamble conducted an official visibility trial while I crawled around back there, and confirmed that it was virtually impossible to see any movement. But just to be safe, for an added measure of discretion I tested out an old rain poncho as a garment I might don while sitting atop my throne. It worked like a charm, covering all but my feet. In the unlikely event that someone might plaster their face against the back door, they would discover a stout figure in a blue plastic cape sitting among plants-not unlike a garden gnome or maybe a smurf. It might look a bit odd, but there would be nothing to suggest what was actually taking place.

My day in the city has come and gone and I’m delighted to report that my second go at the improvised chamber pot was as successful as the first. As a gardener and the daughter of a shameless punster, I’ve dubbed this one the Horta-Potty. I can confidently recommend it to anyone who may find themselves in a similar predicament, and have concluded that when this pandemic nightmare comes to an end, the Horta-Potty will remain on’s a game-changer, and I’m not going back!

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