Reed bed's are natures sewage and purification system, Phragmites australis, septic tank, sewage, slurry, waste water, foul, contaminated land runoff, effluent, DIY

Diagrams showing how a basic reed bed sewage system works, with either vertical or horizontal beds

Unfortunately we still have those with powerful vested interests who seek to protect their profits rather then consider alternative money making possibilities. Their main objection is that reed beds use too much land and take more time to return clean water, compared with present de facto standard systems.

This excuse is partially true, but the land usage and process time issues are spurious because design has leapt forward in leaps and bounds superceding these arguments.

However, we must not forget the negative influences of politics, job creation schemes, and tax revenues.

Back garden

Reed bed design has moved on and it is now quite conceivable to build a grey/waste water treatment system for reuse in the back garden of an average sized three or four bedroom house. A detached house with a large garden can now be considered for an integrated reed bed sewage treatment system, and return water for reuse and compost for the garden, without smell and risk of infection. Reed beds are no longer dependant upon large flat areas- they can be built horizontally or in channels, for example.

Diagram of a mini domestic reed system

So, after all the ballyhoo about whether reed beds work we are left with a situation where individuals must make up their own minds. However, you may not have to go it alone. There are some Government agencies and local authorities who are mindful of water conservation and possible future problems. They are getting their act together and actively helping people realize their ambitions.

You do not have to be held to ransom over whether your plot meets certain criteria, making it viable or not. The bureaucracy of forms and regulations are the result of many years of monopolies and protectionism.

Now we know a little about the history of reed bed politics in the UK let's look at the positive side of the argument, and the ease with which we can incorporate a reed bed into your design. We all have our own ideas as to why we want a reed bed, and the most common question is can we have one? In many cases the answer is yes, but you must ask the right people, for advice.

Cheap alternative

Essentially reed beds are a great alternative when considering building on virgin ground, very old land with specific historic features, or brown land. The main advantage is financial, because it can be as much as 30% cheaper to incorporate a reed system than a present day underground system. Reed beds also blend in naturally without disturbing the surroundings.

Animal waste can also be treated very effectively without huge setup costs, whether the animals are pets or commercial. Reed beds are also cheap to run and maintain compared with established sewage systems, and more importantly are under your control

The simplicity of reed beds belies their effectiveness, and specialist contractors are not always required if the design is sound and followed to the letter

Much has been written about reed beds by academics around the world and rather than make things more easily understood they have greatly confused and complicated issues.

The simplicity of the workings of reed beds often seems to defeat the brains of the best, because they are looking for more than there is. The reed bed is a home for colonies of bacteria that breakdown the nutrients from the inflow, whatever it may be, and leave the outflow as cleaner water. These bacteria have been on our planet for millions of years doing their job - we don't need to know all their secrets, we just need to know how to harness them to work for us.

In many cases a reed bed, or reeds, can be incorporated into another more conventional system. I believe that no septic tank or underground sewage treatment system is complete without a reed bed incorporated into the landscaping plan.

Why? Well basically because accidents happen and overflows occur and floods change dynamics. It is not always possible to detect overflow or leachate problems from such systems unless it is constantly monitored. A reed bed will prevent contaminated water entering a water course, or worse, souring the land.

Most people with general gardening knowledge, or interest can run and maintain a reed bed with a little help, and adding bacteria supplements is totally safe. Sampling is also very easy to do and again very safe.

The simplicity of reed beds belies their effectiveness, and specialist contractors are not always required if the design is sound and followed to the letter. Many problems with reed beds arise from cutting corners and deviating from the design on the pretext that we have not got the time now and we will sort it out later. Of course later never comes.


· DON'T - try to do it on your own just because it looks simple, get a proper design for your specific development, there is usually not a one size fits all solution without compromise.

· DON’T cut corners.

· DON’T allow anyone else to have more knowledge about your system than you have.

· DON'T be put off by bar room pundits - they usually don't know what they're talking about.

· DON’T talk down to local authority officers or planners, educate them onto your side.

· DO incorporate the bed into the landscape either as a feature or background.

· DO consult the EA or their publications.

· DO plan for expansion

· DO be aware of the terrain around your site.

· DO believe a reed bed is an affordable solution.


Andrew Seall is an independent designer who has many years experience of practical solutions for industrial and domestic situations.

Pillerton Designs

01933 278 122


Blowing in the Wind
From Self Build & Design    Oct 2004

Access to a sewage system can sometimes be a deciding factor when buying a plot. Andrew Seall suggests that a reed bed could be a practical and viable solution
Andrew Seall

I just love the sound of a reed bed, a cross between the ocean waves and a mountaintop breeze. Legend has it that that the Greek god of the fields, Pan, loved Syrinx a beautiful nymph, who turned into a reed bed, and when the breeze blows through the reeds you can hear her haunting melodies. They can be stunning, visually, or can be blended into the landscape almost invisibly. And all this while working for you to make clean water and land.

African legend has it that the human race came from a reed, the most beautiful image on the planet. In Australia the Aboriginal tribes gave thanks to the reeds for saving animals in a great drought.

So why aren’t they more common? Well there are more than you might expect out there, because many are hidden. But we must go back a few years to understand the thinking today.

Reeds have played an important part in our evolution, and since man settled into farming, reeds have fed us, protected us, and kept us dry and warm. Many wealthy landowners built reed beds throughout the centuries, and the Victorians were great advocates until the grand building and chemical revolution got underway. Reed beds were a prime target for ‘updating’ our ablution facilities, because their replacements gave rise to greater profit opportunities.

It was to take years for the pendulum to swing the other way and for people to start looking for cheaper, and dare I say it, more environmentally-friendly alternatives for water and sewage treatment especially.

All the while, the UK began to lag behind the rest of the world who had, in many cases, taken on board the commercial and political benefits of reed beds.

Today reed beds are used in reasonable numbers, but only as a token, to polish the final outflow from sewage treatment, with some areas more committed than others.