We created this blog to promote sustainability in our home town of Tucson. We will be sharing our adventures in sustainable living and what we learn about water harvesting, heritage farming, native seeds, seed libraries, farmers markets, local produce, desert gardening. Our goal is to create awareness of the many ways to implement sustainability into our everyday life, and share the resources..
I wasn't sure how our moringa and edible forest would fair while we were away for a two week trip to Lebanon, Missouri. I had left directions on how to water the yard with my distracted son. Saturday night we came home to this... Our littlest moringa had doubled it's size! The ground was still wet from two days of lovely rain - the remnants of Hurricane Bud.
The next morning I surveyed our terrain. The little moringa seemed to grow overnight. The wonders of a good downpour!
I was delighted to find the "dead" moringa stump (I had given up on after loyally watering it everyday with the rest of the moringa) had finally sprouted a branch! The palo verde/moringa mulch was holding the water nicely. The mulch, along with the native grass in the basin, had also prevented erosion!
The tallest moringa had grown another foot! It towered over Dan's head. My reward for smuggling three dime bags of my moringa tea in my luggage for my mother? Now we have plenty!
I found out later that Josh hadn't watered them at all in the two weeks we were gone...
Oh, no! Déjà vécu! Closer inspection uncovered some dead branches. Our old friends the ants were back again wreaking havoc on one of our moringas.
But right next it, the morning sun shimmered on some budding blooms offering me a ray of hope.
The affects of Bob's downpour on our desert landscaping caused me a roller coaster of emotions!
While watering the young chiltepin, grape, and Tombstone Rose, I spotted a line of erosion from the rain dripping off the roof. Before monsoon season starts, Dan really needs to install gutters leading to water barrels to redirect and save that rainwater! Funny, I never noticed a line of erosion before Dan dug out the Burmuda grass. It seems that the elaborate root system of the die hard grass prevented erosion.
Click on the photo above to see how the little patch of mulch and weeds (native grass and purslane) interrupted the erosion seen on either side of grape plant. (Note: Dan advised that you wouldn't want a big mound of mulch retaining water right up to the foundation of the house.) For the first layer of mulch I used clippings from the native grass I found in the front yard. I didn't worry about the seeds because I knew that the roots from the grass would work with the mulch to create a sponge to retain the water like it did in our street-side catchment basin. I was happy to discover that the sponge also helped prevent erosion.
My daily watering was doing double duty by nourishing the edible purslane too. Actually, it's doing triple duty since I planted some cowpeas to add nitrogen to the soil.
I have gleaned from this little patch of purslane three times - leaving the roots and some branches so it can grow back. And it did! Think I'll grab me a little snack now! Yum! Refreshing citusy greens! (I wash it before I munch.. At least I know there's no herbicide on them in MY yard. Hear that city council!)
The nearby Tombstone rosebush is also doing well in it's bed of organic mulch, native grass and used coffee grounds. The cowpea seeds I planted to add nitrogen to the soil also help with erosion.
Now it's time to water the backyard edible forest with the rainwater collected in our blue rain barrels!
Unfortunately, the leaves of our loquat tree in our greywater basin got fried despite Josh washing some loads of laundry and dutifully hand watering it two times a day. Maybe I should have given the non-native waterhog more shade to survive the brutal June sun. Live and learn.
The walls of the basin also suffered some flood erosion near the loquat tree.
To be honest, there was was already some erosion from the rocks Dan put in the greywater basin to slow down the flow. So many lessons learned! We really need more mulch in the basin. But the winter wheat we planted to infiltrate the floor of the basin is helping to prevent erosion and breaking down into mulch.
The heritage fig trees and pomegranate are doing great thanks to Josh for watering them and the welcome remnants of Hurricane Bob. Oh, the agony and ecstasy!
Double check to make sure you turned it all the way off.
Water all the mulch in the kitchen garden by the blue water barrel.
One can in the morning and one after it cools off in the evening.
Go over the mulch between these two plants a 2nd time
because that's were the potatoes are planted.
See there's a new plant coming up on the left of the squash plant.
The squash plant has new flowers so it could grow some squash this year!
Don't kill it!
Water the two curry plants and the loquat tree. Saturate the mulch like a sponge.
Three cans split between the three trees in the morning and at night.
Be careful not to wash the mulch around the loquat tree into the greywater basin.
If you aren't washing a load a cloths that day, water the fig treesone can each
(alternating between them so the mulch won't wash away.)
Water the mulch around the two tomato trees to keep the soil alive.
They can share a can with the mint. Water all around the mint.
Water the garden behind the fence two times a day.
Use one can for the two rows of chard and another can at night.
Water all the mulch around the two new little plants but put more near the plants. It might need two cans to really saturate the mulch. Don't dump the water too fast. It will leave holes in the mulch. Also, don't pour the water directly on these delicate baby plants. Water it in the morning and evening.
Now the front of the house...
Use one can of water twice a day on the grape, rosebush and chiltapine on the corner of the house.
Don't trip over the cactus rib on the way to the baby moringa in the roadside basin.
Water the baby moringa one can of water at night. Water all the moringa at least once a week.
Don't forget to SLOWLY pour your dish water and rinse water on the hummingbird trumpets.
*Jordan, please, use one or two cans of water on each section of hummingbird trumps one time.
Pour your coffee water on the rosebush, the mulch around the tomato plants or in kitchen garden.
Make sure the animals have food and water.
Take Pooh out with you when you water the backyard.
It's no secret my fondness for edible weeds or my complete disdain for Round Up. I hung a sign in the alleyway, "No Poison, Please. Edible Weeds Grow Here." I've done my best to educate the poor, misguided landscapers and maintenance workers who spray Round Up on every little weed and even baby palm trees. (Won't kill 'em anyway...) Sometimes I'm more successful than others. At a recent city council meeting, a woman took advantage of the public hearing period to urge the council to stop weeds from coming up this monsoon season by spraying pre-emergent herbicide all over town. Right then and there I decided to use my time to speak up about it. But Mayor Rothschild, in his great wisdom, had me speak on my other issue instead. That was just the nudge I needed to share my concerns with him and all the city council members in great detail... including links. lol
Dear Mayor Jonathon Rothschild and City Council Members:
I've been meaning to speak up at a city council meeting about the transportation department's overuse of herbicides for some time. After my mom got a severe headache from breathing in the Round Up sprayed in a right of way on our street, I spoke to the landscaper about it. He replied, “The city sprays it everywhere, so can we.”
Following the city's example.
Since then I have been very aware of herbicides sprayed on city property. The other day I was stunned to see an entire lot covered with it. Recently I walked by the County Public Service Center building. In the catchment basins - that should be an example of the best water-harvesting practices - there were turquoise patches of weed killer. Right where the rainwater sinks in to restore our aquifer! I brought this up to the Pima Department of Environmental Quality just to be told that was the work of the city maintenance department.
I took this picture to show bad water-harvesting instalation - a native tree planted in the deepest part of basin. But my camera inadvertently caught the herbicide right by the drain.
I am writing today because I was disturbed by a comment I heard at last night’s meeting. A woman claiming to be from the “landscape advisory committee” suggested that monsoon season was upon us so the city should spray pre-emergent weed killer everywhere to keep the weeds from coming up.
I have several problems with that. First, it won’t keep the weeds from coming up. We have used so much that the weeds have grown resistant to it, so we need more and more to kill any. Weeds will come up after the monsoon rains anyway. By spraying them with herbicide before the monsoon rains, the poison will just run into our yards, playgrounds and those catchment basins (that are meant to sink the water into our ground water). Pre-emergent has now been proven to cause cancer: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer/. It was once thought that herbicides are filtered by dirt, but since then it has been found in our ground water: https://water.usgs.gov/edu/groundwater-contaminants.html
I have done my own monitoring on the effectiveness of herbicides on weeds. Every day, I walk by that house where the landscapers insist on spraying every little weed (and sometimes the whole yard) with industrial strength Round Up. I’ve observed that the herbicide works temporarily on the tiniest weeds, but even more weeds pop up by the next month – which get sprayed too. So it’s a never ending cycle of toxic weed killers in our neighborhood. Just wait a week or so for the weeds to die in the desert sun! Herbicides have no effect on Bermuda grass (which would take a bulldozer to get out the whole root system) or the bigger weeds.
We need to rethink what we consider acceptable desert landscaping. The plastic and gravel we use to keep weeds out of the yard also keeps rainwater from sinking in to restore our ground water. Many so-called weeds are planted in road side basins to help the water sink into the ground and prevent erosion. The native grass works with the mulch to create a sponge to soak in the monsoon rains.
We actually moved native grass into our catchment basin to help with erosion and sink in the rain.
We need to reconsider what we call “weeds.” Many Tucsonans glean amaranth and purslane (in Spanish, Verdolagas), my personal favorite. I’ve heard of preschool teachers taking their students on neighborhood walks and having them taste edible weeds. We certainly don’t want to poison children foraging at our neighborhood parks!
Purslane and amaranth I harvested from our alleyway buffet. Yum!
Please, look into the effect of herbicides on the public health and the cost of repeated use. Then ask the maintenance department to stop spraying that ineffective weed killer all over town. Thank you, Jana Segal Sustainable Tucson Core Team
It was a dark and stormy night...December 22, 2017.
With only a sheet tucked around their trunks for warmth,
my beloved moringas were struck by the SUDDEN FREEZE.
I woke in the morning to this sight.
Just days before we had discovered that our drought tolerant moringas had grown another foot since they had stopped being watering by the monsoon rains. Bees buzzed around the blooming flowers. The pods would soon be big enough to eat. Life was good.
After the freeze, I shared my disappointment with sympathetic followers who responded with kind words. Some commented that the moringas might return if the roots were still alive. I held onto that hope.
That was my one consolation. That, and harvesting leaves for tea.
Some of them had grey sections from mold and sap seeping out of them, but there was still an inch of green at the bottom of each plant. (Thanks to the sheet I wrapped around them?)
In my earlier research I read that to have full bushy plants you can harvest easier (rather than long willowy ones), you need to top them after they reach 2-3 feet tall. But I never could bring myself to do that to my baby moringas. The freeze finally forced us to cut them back.
Dan cuts back the moringas in March.
The mulch in the basin had started to decline, so Dan cut the branches and trunks into wood chips and left it around the stumps.
You might have noticed the lovely Broadmoor Broadway Village Neighborhood located in central Tucson just south of Broadway between Tucson Boulevard and Country Club Roads. But did you know that Broadmoor Broadway Village is a showcase of how a neighborhood can be transformed into a colorful community gathering place? Reading the history of the Treat Walkway is practically a step by step guide for growing and maintaining green infrastructure and livable streets!
The neighborhood's journey is an inspiring example of what can be done when a group of dedicated people work together with landscaping experts, neighborhood artists, and the city to create walkable/bikeable streets shaded by desert trees where neighbors can enjoy being outside and being together. These neighbors didn't just build a walkway, they built a caring community.
A Short History of the Treat Walkway and Other Urban Forestry Efforts in BBVNA (condensed for reposting from a longer version by Richard Roati )
The origin of the Treat Walkway goes back to the original design of the Broadmoor neighborhood in 1945. A six block easement connected the neighborhood from north to south. The easement allowed neighbors to walk from the north end to the south end of the neighborhood without walking next to cars. The north end was one block from Broadway and with it, a whole series of shops, restaurants, and other retail establishments.
The south end was one block from Robison Elementary, a TUSD school with long ties to the neighborhood. In the middle of the Treat Walkway lies Arroyo Chico, with its own walking paths on the north and south sides, which connect Tucson Boulevard to the Reid Park multi use path and beyond.
Croyden and Treat
From the 1940’s until 2011, the Treat Walkway was an unpaved easement with uncut curbs. While several neighbors planted desert trees, shrubs, and cacti, much of the walkway easement was uncultivated dirt, hot and dusty in the summer, muddy during the monsoons, and unnavigable by neighbors in wheelchairs.
When Broadmoor Broadway Village became an official neighborhood under the leadership of neighborhood President Connie Anzalone in the 1980’s, improving the Treat Walkway was made part of the neighborhood’s strategic plan. They prioritized the living environment of the neighborhood. In 1987, Connie Anzalone wrote the “Broadmoor Broadway Village Urban Forestry Manual.” Long before “Climate Change” became a household word, Connie defined why the greening of in-town neighborhoods should be a priority for the City of Tucson.
“Let us show the City of Tucson that progress for the future is not only big business, high density living quarters and more transportation routes. It can also be producing life-giving oxygen to improve air quality in a congested urban area. It can also be providing a system of roots to aerate the soil to accept rainwater and prevent erosion. It can be providing homes for wildlife to maintain a better balance in nature… Bare spaces can be augmented with even the most simple easy care things like a Palo Verde tree, a desert broom bush, succulents that never need watering like prickly pear bush, agaves or aloes, or a dish garden.” “A reality of life in Southern Arizona is the seasonal heat, which is worse in urban Tucson than the surrounding open spaces because of all the cement, glass, asphalt, cars, air conditioners, etc. Trees can buffer us from the extremes of high temperatures with their shade, and evapotranspiration… Not only does the residential urban forest help to buffer noise and air pollution, provide shade and micro-climate control, and increase property values, but it provides wildlife habitat, supplies us with food, and beautifies/unifies our neighborhood.”
Connie Anzalone was well known for being a neighborhood leader who joined with other neighbors to stand in front of Army Corps of Engineers bulldozers that were poised to remove all the vegetation from Arroyo Chico and channelize the wash with concrete in the early 1980’s. Because of the efforts of her “little old ladies club,” Arroyo Chico remains un-channelized with native trees along much of its banks.
This is Darryl Hannah, not Connie Anzalone, But you get the idea...lol
In 1991, sections of the Arroyo Chico wash at the east and west ends of the neighborhood were unplanted dirt, hot, dusty, and uninviting entrances into the neighborhood. The neighborhood hired permaculturist Dan Dorsey to draw a design to plant mesquite, acacia, Palo Verde, and Texas Olive trees along the top of the banks of Arroyo Chico. Neighbors used an augur to drill planting holes and trees were planted. The neighbors watered the trees periodically when young until they were large enough to live on their own. Today many of these trees are more than 30 feet tall, and form beautiful entrances into the neighborhood.
In 2006, BBVNA won a Pro Neighborhoods grant to build the first water-harvesting pocket park in the City of Tucson: Malvern Plaza. In 2008, at the intersection of Malvern Avenue and Arroyo Chico, a large swatch of asphalt was removed by City of Tucson work crews, basins were constructed, and Palo Verde, Mesquite, and Netleaf Hackberry trees were planted. Today, the trees are more than 20 feet tall. During the monsoon rains, the basins flood with water from Malvern Avenue, replenishing the trees. The plaza is otherwise unirrigated.
Suzie Husband started a neighborhood effort in 2007 to create beautiful tiles that decorate the tops of the cement tables, making the plaza an inviting location to stop and sit and converse with neighbors. Today you can also read a book from the Little Free Library at Malvern Plaza.
Many neighborhood events take place in the Malvern Plaza, including but not limited to: the Plant Swap, Movie Night, Octoberfest, Meet and Greets, Yoga, and others. The Malvern Plaza remains a gem of the neighborhood, and for the City of Tucson!
In February, 2011, construction began by the City of Tucson on the Treat sidewalk. Enhancements included wheelchair ramps at the pedestrian bridge over Arroyo Chico, the construction of two low walls at Arroyo Chico, the installation of benches, curb cuts at the street, and pedestrian crossings at each street.
After the sidewalk was completed, discussion turned to enhancing the sidewalk with vegetation and shade. The only problem: much of the walkway was without vegetation, the easement was used by T.E.P, Southwest Gas, and the city of Tucson, with both above ground and underground utilities, there were no designs to convince vested entities about what we were planning, the neighborhood had no budget for buying plants, there was no irrigation along the walkway, and few of the residents along the walkway wanted to use their water spigots to water plants that were on a neighborhood easement that was not their own property.
U of A landscape architect Oscar Blazquez provided beautiful drawings, and even an animated video showing what it would be like to walk down the as yet unplanted sidewalk. Neighbors met with Tucson Electric Power, Southwest Gas, and the City of Tucson and showed them our drawings, and discussed what we were planning. The utilities stated their concerns: the plants should not impede utility vehicles from accessing their poles, lines, and meters, the underground utilities should not be cut when the neighborhood dug holes to plant trees and plants, and large trees should not be planted under power lines. With these parameters set, the utilities gave their blessings to planting the Treat Walkway.
A neighborhood work day was announced. A large contingent turned out. Neighbors brought gloves, shovels, rakes, food, and water for thirsty workers. The three Palo Verde trees planted at the corner of Exeter and the Treat Walkway exist to this day, and are some of the biggest trees on the walkway.
Around this time, Ann Pattison and Richard Roati were walking the neighborhood seeking input on obtaining Historic Designation for the neighborhood. They noticed agaves, aloes, and prickly pear plants in neighborhood yards and ask the neighbors if they would be willing to donate plant pups or plant sections for propagating plants for the Treat Walkway. The Treat Walkway Nursery was born. As plant pups, sections, and divisions were collected from neighbors, they were placed into plant pots and grown until reaching sturdy 5 gallon size. We found that plants grown in 5 gallon pots for six months to a year tended to survive better when placed onto the walkway than unrooted plants planted directly. The plantings were arranged so that rainfall from the sidewalk and the surrounding area flowed to the plants, providing enough rainfall to sustain them without supplemental irrigation.
In addition to providing shade and beauty, many of the plants on the Treat Walkway are food sources to both wildlife and people. Mesquite Trees provide pods which can be ground into flour. Palo Verde beans can be eaten like peas when green or dried and cooked. Prickly pears provide nopalitos and prickly pear fruits. Chollas provide cholla buds. Agaves provide fibers and edible hearts or “pinas.” Peruvian apple cactus provide edible fruits. Purslane or verdolagas are harvested after the monsoon rains. Many of the uses of these foods are detailed in books such as “East Mesquite” by Tucson Desert Harvesters.
BBVNA is lucky in many respects in that the soil in much of the neighborhood is some of the best in the city of Tucson. The section between Stratford and Arroyo Chico sits between Citation Wash and Arroyo Chico. As Connie Anzalone noted in her book, “Through years of constant flooding, a thick layer of fertile soil was deposited in the floodplain.”
But as the neighborhood moved north a section of caliche was found. In order to plant the three Palo Verde trees just north of Devon Street, a jackhammer was required to provide drainage. The bottom of the caliche layer was never found. At one point it took more than two hours to retrieve a stuck jackhammer blade from the clutches of the dreaded caliche. Still, the trees took hold, and are growing successfully on the walkway.
In 2014, the City of Tucson provided funds through the Treat Bicycle Boulevard project to work with Watershed Management Group to install a traffic circle. Because the Treat Walkway is a narrow sidewalk, often filled with neighbors walking their dogs, runners, parents with baby strollers, etc., it is not really wide enough to be a multi-use path. Bicyclists in a hurry find that it is faster to take the designated route than to attempt to ride on the Treat Walkway. In 2015, a young bicyclist unfamiliar with the area rode his bicycle south on the Treat Walkway and ran into the side of a car traveling west on Exeter Street, breaking his foot and was taken to a hospital in an ambulance. Since that time, the City of Tucson installed signs and sharrows encouraging bicyclists to use the designated route when traveling the Treat Bicycle Boulevard through the neighborhood.
Bicyclists riding the designated route as well as cars encountered a dangerous intersection at the corner of Manchester and Stratford Avenues. It was often unclear as to who had the right of way while traveling through the intersection. Also, the intersection was an entrance to the neighborhood that presented an unnecessary “sea of asphalt” to visitors that did not represent the values of the neighborhood. The solution was to install a traffic circle at the intersection. Once again, it was the design of Oscar Blazquez which helped to convince the city to install the traffic circle. The city dug out the pavement and Watershed Management Group staff member Kieran Sikdar directed neighbors in the planting of rocks to direct storm water into the traffic circle, and to plant the circle.
.In October, 2014, the neighborhood planted the section of the Treat Walkway between Croyden and Exeter streets. Many of the plants planted on the west side of the walkway can be seen to this day, including Tucson Prickly Pear, yellow flowering aloe plants, octopus agave, mesquite, and Palo Verde trees.
In the spring of 2015, neighbors awoke one day to find graffiti with a bullying message aimed at a young resident on the cement sides of Arroyo Chico. Neighbors sprung into action and in just a few hours, painted two murals on the cement walls. Luckily, after the mural paintings, the graffiti did not return.
In 2015 the neighborhood partnered with the Tucson Arts Brigade (TAB) to create a tile mural on the two low walls that the City of Tucson installed as part of the Treat Walkway sidewalk installation. Working with TAB, neighborhood residents hand painted clay pieces that were fired and then installed on two sides of the walls.
In October, 2015, the City of Tucson completed the installation of a “HAWK” traffic light at the intersection of Treat Street and Broadway Boulevard. A HAWK beacon (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacon) is a traffic control device used to stop road traffic and allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross a street safely. Suddenly, it was easy for Tucson residents living south of Broadway (such as in BBVNA) to walk or bicycle to Himmel Park and the Himmel Park library, visit shops such as Rincon Market, and dine at restaurants It was also easier for residents living north of Broadway to walk or bicycle to shops and restaurants at Broadway Village.
In March, 2017, neighbor and poet Elizabeth Salper won a grant to install a poetry mailbox on the Treat Walkway. The idea of the poetry mailbox is to “give a poem, take a poem.” Elizabeth fills the mailbox with poetry (as well as chalking poems along the walkway periodically).
In 2016, artist Ellen Abrams proposed a memorial consisting of metal flowers, dedicated to all BBVNA neighbors who had passed on, including her sister, Linda Abrams.
Efforts to maintain the Treat Walkway and other vegetated areas are ongoing. As in nature, some plants die due to insect infestation, drought, or old age. As some plants die, new plants are added to replace them.
In addition to the Malvern Plaza, the Little Free Library, the Poetry Mailbox, the traffic circle at Manchester and Stratford, the Art Memorial on the median at Manchester and Eastbourne, the Treat Walkway remains one of the major features of the Broadmoor Broadway Village Neighborhood. Residents often walk with their children and their dogs along the walkway, meeting and talking to their neighbors as they go. Palo Verde and Mesquite trees provide shade to the walkway and make it more inviting and pleasant. As the Treat Walkway has become more inviting to neighbors to visit, crime has been reduced and neighborhood interaction has increased. The trees and other plants on the Treat Walkway continue to grow and shade continues to increase. The Treat Walkway has become one of the unique features of the City of Tucson.
NOTE from Richard Roati: We really would like the Treat Walkway nursery to be a resource to other neighborhoods needing plants for rights of way that no one will ever water and are just ugly dirt pads. At the least we could help others identify plants in their own neighborhoods they can use in similar ways. We have some plants we can donate to neighborhoods if they pass the "I can go see them and say hi" test. Anyone wanting help can send an email to:
The neighborhood is currently in the process of applying for historic designation from the State Historic Preservation Office to protect the neighborhood from overzealous development.
The Broadmoor Broadway Village Neighborhood is an important part of Tucson's history. It was one of the first planned subdivisions built after World War II. It sits adjacent to three historic neighborhoods: Sam Huges, Miramonte, and Colonia Solana. The people who worked so hard to make the neighborhood sustainable are watching anxiously as development encroaches on their backyards. Three seven story apartment buildings have been proposed for the Benedictine Monastery site on Country Club Road, and a 20 story apartment complex proposed for the corner of Campbell and Speedway. As a neighborhood of single family homes, their properties are under threat because of their proximity to the U of A - that is perceived to be worth more with high rise apartments.
The Broadmoor Broadway Village Neighborhood Association is holding a fundraiser at Laff’s Comedy Café on Sunday, April 15 at 7:00 PM. Ticket prices are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Funds collected from ticket sales will go towards the neighborhood’s efforts to obtain Historic Designation status for the neighborhood.
Connie Anzalone would be proud!
Laff's Sunday Show to benefit the Broadmoor Neighborhood Association
When I first moved to Tucson, it rained most every day during monsoon season. I remember waiting for it to cool off in the evening so we could take the little ones to the pool. Inevitably we would watch from the car as a storm swept by. Then we would enjoy the most brilliant sunsets as we swam - storm clouds catching the brilliant hues of the setting sun. That was the beginning of my love affair with this beautiful desert. But it wasn’t until I witnessed the ravages of record heat and sparse rain on our own little monsoon garden that my heart became totally invested in fighting the effects of climate change on our desert town.
I've often pondered how climate change would affect Tucson. Nobody knows exactly. But, from what I've learned, climate change often seems to intensify the extreme weather of a particular area. In that case, Tucson would continue to experience rising temperatures, prolonged droughts and more severe flash floods.
The desert will eventually return to it's natural state with or without us. But if we don't stop savaging the earth for profit, Tucson could become a stark, barren desert. If we don't change our ways now, even our iconic saguaros won't be able to survive the scorching heat.
I sometimes wonder what will become of my little house after finally paying off my mortgage. If temperatures continue to rise, would my boys still want to live here? Would they even be able to sell the house if they decided to leave? That's one reason I'm dedicated to finding ways to lessen the impact of climate change on our town or at least find ways to live here comfortably.
Anyone who is paying attention knows we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and curb our wasteful consumer lifestyle if we want to stave off climate change. But for Tucson to be more resilient, we need to learn to responsibly use the resources the desert has to offer: the power of the sun, native flora and fauna, and our seasonal rainwater.
We can start by implementing solar power to keep our air-conditioners running and planting native shade trees to cool our neighborhoods. But to be really sustainable we need to start living in harmony with the desert. No, I'm not talking about living off the land like the Hohokam before us. I'm not talking about giving up all of our modern conveniences. (Most of them can be adapted or retrofitted to be more environmentally sound.) I'm talking about restoring as much of the desert habitat as possible in an urban enviroment. I'm envisioning our neighborhoods as desert oases with edible forests of native plants and desert rain gardens with drought tolerant heritage crops. You've probably seen some lush desert landscaping or cool community gardens popping up around town. That's what inspired Dan and I to plant our own edible forest irrigated with rainwater and greywater and to start experimenting with drought tolerant crops. We are working towards food security.
How do we transition Tucson into a healthy urban desert oasis? The first step is embracing the nature of the desert we inhabit. Stop trying to force it into something it's not. Stop bulldozing it and paving it over for perpetual development. Shut off the sprinklers that water those little patches of grass in front of businesses. Sorry, manicured lawns don't belong in the desert - native plants do. We need to rethink our perception of tidy xeriscape landscaping and stop suffocating our native vegetation with plastic and mounds of gravel. Why on earth are we raking up all that great organic matter that could be nourishing our soil and allowing the rainwater to sink in?
One of the biggest concerns of living in the desert is having a reliable source of water. Right now Tucson depends on CAP water. A whole coal-powered generating plant was built to run the pumps that push our water 320 miles uphill from the Colorado River. Unfortunately, that source isn't sustainable. As droughts continue, there will be more competition for that diminishing water supply.
The good news is that there is enough annual rainfall to supply every Tucsonan's water needs - if we harvest the storm water. We need to redo our flood control infrastructure so water isn't directed to the streets to evaporate on its way out of town. But we don't have to wait for the city or county to approve expensive infrastructure improvements. We can all incorporate rainwater harvesting features that keep the water in our yards to irrigate our native landscapes, edible forests and drought tolerant gardens.
Diverting roof water to mulch covered catchment basins not only conserves water but helps to restore our aquifers as well. If you wanna see how it's done, you can tour Watershed Management Group's Living Lab and Learning Center. Using a combination of cisterns and earthworks, WMG harvests enough rainwater to meet all of their needs - including irrigating some fruit trees! But more important are their efforts to restore Tucson's aquifers and get our rivers flowing again.
Underground cistern at WMG's living lab
Just imagine! By returning our yards to a more natural state that allows rainwater to sink in, we can replenish the Tucson basin and get the rivers flowing year around. If we could stop development in our flood plains, we might even be able restore the riparian habitats. We could see the return of the great mesquite bosques or stands of sycamore, willow, cottonwoods, ash, and black walnut trees that once hugged the flowing Santa Cruz. The riparian habitat would attract more birds and other wildlife to Tucson. Arizona is already a bird lovers paradise. Ecotourism contributes to our $21.2 billion tourist industry. Can you imagine Tucson becoming the hub of ecotourism?
What is your vision for Tucson? Would you like to ride your bike along a flowing river surrounded by twisty mesquite? Pick a fig from the orchard in the park? Watch hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators flutter around desert shrubs in a traffic median? Snack on some yummy edible weeds? Stop by a neighborhood garden stand for some freshly harvested salad fixin's? Wouldn't it be cool if a local farmer grew drought tolerant heritage white wheat and amaranth by the Santa Cruz river to be milled right here in Tucson and baked into healthy bread in Tucson's own native grains bakery?
That's me holding a bag of freshly milled mesquite flour.
I have a dream. I believe Tucson can be self-sustaining if we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, cut down on waste, restore our desert flora and fauna, and use the desert's resources responsibly. Instead of polluting our water by mining coal, we can be the model of sustainability by powering our vehicles, homes and businesses with solar. We can retrofit our older houses and business buildings to conserve energy and water. We can have neighborhood micro food parks with safe bike paths. We can make Tucson THE ecotourism destination by attracting more birds and wildlife to our urban desert.
Brad Lancaster shows how a curb cut lets in street water to irrigate mesquite trees.
Our edible forest is coming along nicely. But what ever motivated Dan, hacking and coughing, to shovel out our greywater basin and plant saplings on the first day of the New Year?
After a devastating year of national crises that left him reeling, perhaps it was time for a little grounding - digging in for a good year of action.
Implementing earthworks, like our greywater catchment basin, is always a process. We did several loads of laundry to see just how well the wash water would sink into the ground. There was still a shallow pool of grey water after two days. (Now I know why it is called greywater. It was literally grey.) As Dan suspected, he needed to increase the surface area so the wash water would infiltrate better.
Luckily, it was time for another load of whites. While the load was spinning, Dan planted some curry plants in the dirt he had dug out of the basin.
What better way to start the new year than to plant a little hope.
Dan delighted in freeing our little saguaro's tightly wound roots from last year's battered pot and planting it soundly in 2018.
I had just finished posting my last blog celebrating our flourishing moringa trees when BAM! someone asked me how they did in the sudden freeze. I wandered outside to look - thinking I might find a few wilted leaves. I am still reeling from what I found. All the branches and leaves were frost bitten and drooping like stick figures in a hangman game.
By the next day, the flowers had dried on the branches. I tried one. Blech! It tasted awful. I hoped that the hearty pods would make a comeback. But a few days later they shriveled up and died, too.
I shared my disappointment with my mom. How would I face the neighbors who had watched me lovingly nurturing my moringas since they were little. Even when it was time to trim them back so they could branch out, I didn't. I wanted the neighbors to see how well they grew in Dan's catchment basin. Now the whole neighborhood can see my Charlie Brown moringa trees. Mom asked if I was going to share how they were doing on our blog. "I think you should," she said. But was there anything positive I can take from this experience, any lessons to impart?
They say the best lessons come from failure.... I certainly have my regrets. Why didn't I listen to the guy on Tucson Backyard Gardener who warned us that it was time to harvest the last of the leaves? Why didn't we cover the whole tree instead of lamely wrapping a sheet around the trunk? Dan said that it was important to see how this tropical tree would fare in freezing weather. The answer is clear. They don't. I suppose that is why some people grow their moringa in pots, so they can take them in out of the cold. But I've also read that the pot stunts their growth.
If we had potted them we wouldn't have had the abundant leaves that we enjoyed every day. Dan wouldn't have been able to grab his daily moringa supplement while out walking the dog. Towards the end (sob), I was adding them to everything: soups, tomato sauce, calabacitas, eggs... I enjoyed moringa tea everyday - iced tea with fresh orange juice or a hot cup to make me feel better when I was sick... I even brought some to an ailing friend. Ah, the memories... I wouldn't have missed it for the world! (Better stop before I break into song.)
We plan to prune what's left of our moringa down to a stump so it comes back as a bush. I hear they will come back next growing season with even more branches and leaves. To everything there is a season. (There I go again with the songs...)
Yesterday I harvested some of the dried leaves from the branches. (See pic at top of page.) They came off easily. We seeped our own blend last night and shared a lovely cup of tea. It was even better than the tea from the fresh leaves!
It all started by observing where our water was puddling during our magnificent monsoons. First, we made some small changes such as removing a few bricks at the end of the patio to allow it to drain into our hummingbird trumpets. And it worked beautifully! No more mosquito breeding pool!
That success led to other simple adaptations like using the gutters to direct roof water into our kitchen garden. Our kitchen garden is a little experiment in growing food using just what the desert provides to naturally nourish the soil (like compost and palo verde mulch.) It took 3 gallons of water a day for a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants. So we started supplementing that with kitchen rinse water. Ever the optimist, Dan installed a couple of water barrels to collect more rainwater. It retrospect, it seems silly. All for a tomato!
Maybe we'll get a bigger reward for our efforts in edible native plants...
Dan dug up the gravel in the front yard so the rainwater would sink into the ground instead of flowing to the street to evaporate. We would use that water to irrigate an edible forest of native plants: broadleaf hackberry. sweet acacia (behind ocotillo), wolf berry (in basin), desert hackberry (in foreground), and velvet mesquite. Don't know how much human food we'll get from them, but they are great pollinators. We watered them until they were established and then waited for the rain. And waited... Would it ever rain?
We needed something really drought tolerant that we could eat, so we decided to plant moringa in our street side basin. Moringa leaves, flowers, and pods are all edible and highly nutritious - and not just for wildlife. We sowed the moringa seeds in June so they would be well established by monsoon season. It took about a gallon of water a day to get them started until the monsoon rains finally took over. The incredible thing is that the moringa continued to grow after the monsoons ended even though we weren't watering them! They still have flowers and pods! Gonga!
Now we're watching to see what they do in the first frost.
In our backyard, we planted another edible forest of Kino fig and pomegranate trees. (See pic at top of page.) We chose these heritage trees because they have adapted to the desert. Twice a week we slow watered them using a five gallon bucket with two small holes. Dan finally found the time to dig out a catchment basin around the fruit trees and to install a laundry to landscape system to irrigate them. "Celebrate good times! Oh, yeah!" He still needs to shape it a bit and fill it up with organic mulch. But he managed to get it installed just in time for the winter rains!
What's next? It's back to shaping the front yard basin and filling it with a truck load of mulch. There's so much more we want to do when we have the time and money. A chicken coop by the big garden... Maybe a cistern! It's all a process!