Sustainable Living Tucson.+Add.Feed Info1000FOLLOWERS
Our musings on the steps we are taking to transform our convenient consumer lifestyle into a more sustainable lifestyle - by incorporating sustainable practices and habits into our everyday life that protect our land and conserve our precious water supply.
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!
I was overjoyed that it finally rained last night! First thing in the morning I scurried outside to see how my garden was doing. The cowpeas were thriving, snug in their bed of pala verde mulch and some fallen corn stalks.
One still had a flower!
The tomato plant seemed to enjoy the fresh rainwater. With a little help from some mulch to keep the ground consistently moist, the tomato had gone from orange to red overnight.
(When we first started this garden we used some stinky mulch (not good), but I tended the soil with used coffee grounds and tea leaves until the soil is really rich and nice now. That, and palo verde mulch, is all we use in this kitchen garden. Tryin' to keep it native - to see if we can actually grow food with only what we have at our place. )
When I first went out, I got sticky mud on my feet from trekking through our backyard basin. By late morning the ground was already hard and dry. But the little mounds of mulch around the fig trees were holding the moisture nicely. A good reminder that we need to finish digging the basin and fill it with mulch!
It wouldn't be morning without checking on the moringa in the catchment basin. The pala verde mulch was thinning a bit, but along with the roots of the native grass and some moringa branches with yellowing leaves that I had "chopped and dropped," it was forming a nice sponge to hold the rainwater. I noticed that the mulch also prevented erosion from the rain.
I'd say that was worth celebrating! So I grabbed a branch. (They come off easily at the stem. It's a very giving tree...) Thought I'd try my hand at making some moringa tea.
I washed the leaves thoroghly. Boiled stems and all for about a minute. It's the water that has most of the nutrients. It tasted sorta like green tea. I tried to sweeten it with stevia, but it didn't really work. I liked it better plain. (Maybe it would work with a combination of white tea?)
Later that afternoon, I was so fatigued from working on desktop activist; I needed a nap. I drank one glass of moringa tea and was replenished immediately. Even had enough energy to write this blog!
To autumn rain, muddy feet, mulchy gardens and miracle moringa! Cheers!
Woke up to the smell of rain this morning. Or so I thought. Outside I found the ground bone dry. Still… it smelled like hope to me. And I need a little hope these days.
Lately I’m not getting up as many blogs as I would like. Too many days have gotten away from me as I got sucked into the “black void” of following the damaging acts of our government for Desktop Activist Tucson. With all that is going on in the world, it’s hard to find time or the rationale for the more joyful pursuits like blogging or writing my screenplay.
My one solace is tending our little garden and watching what we planted grow. It gives me a chance to watch the butterflies and bees (there still are some!) pollinating our moringas, listen to the sound of birds singing and children at play. Or, like Pooh above, just bask in the morning sun and autumn breezes. Ahh…Autumn.
I need that. It’s been a long, hard summer.
We tried an experiment. Inspired by the rich natural soil in the alleyway (nourished by decomposing weeds and some native trees), we decided to plant a 3 Sisters Garden with drought-tolerant heritage seeds. The object was to see how our garden would fare on just our monsoon rain and some palo verde mulch to hold in the moisture.
Unlike last year, we actually got some nice monsoon showers this summer. Every morning I happily recorded the growth in our heritage garden. While the Tohono O’odham 60 Day Corn didn’t “grow as high as an elephant’s eye,” it did grow up past my knee. It even started to sprout some seeds.
I was completely disheartened when someone or something stomped through our garden knocking down the corn.
But amidst the bent, dried stalks, there were a few patches of green - signs of life in the desert! The cowpea plants we got from our local seed library had survived! A friendly gardener encouraged me, “I think it’s time you watered them. They deserve it for hanging in there. They are survivors.”
So I started lugging my watering can out behind the back fence to water them. Those sun scorched, insect ravaged plants sprouted new leaves and then I spotted - the first white flower!
It was wonderful to see something growing amongst all the devastation. (OK. I’m getting a little dramatic here.) But this was just the reminder that I needed to make more of an effort to find a balance in my life - between fighting environment assaults and doing things that enrich my soul. I finally found the heart to work on my love project again.
Grateful to be catching a little morning solace, I breathe in the autumn breeze and survey my garden. In the kitchen garden, a tomato is showing its autumn colors. As I fill the clay olla by the cherry tomato plant bees buzz overhead - a welcome sign that the tiny yellow flowers will be pollinated. Closer inspection uncovers two new tomatoes! A glimpse of hope.
Just as we headed off for a long weekend, we noticed they had started blooming. Couldn't wait to get home and share pics with ya'all. When we got back, we were delighted to see bees pollinating the blooms!
But then I noticed something disturbing - several branches seemed to be snipped off . We assumed that a neighbor had harvested some of the edible leaves while we were away. No biggy... I had given several dog walkers a taste of the radishy leaves and offered them as a morning moringa supplement. We couldn't eat them fast enough anyway. Just wished that they hadn’t harvested from our fullest tree - before we got a good pic!
The next morning there were more leafless branches. Ants were climbing up the trunk to the tiptop branches. I thought they might be leaf eaters, but Dan pointed out that there was no trail of ants carrying leaves back to their hole. Closer inspection uncovered a bunch of ants really chawing down on the trunk
and the sap seeping from it.
Just when we were looking forward to the blooms transforming into yummy foot long seed pods, it looked like they were all going to be devoured by ants.
That evening they were still going at it so Dan poured cinnamon around the trunk. (That had stopped ants from tracking into our kitchen after all...) A neighbor suggested that we put cayenne pepper around the trunk. He knew some farmers who planted them in their gardens to keep out ants.
The next morning, our moringa was buzzing with activity. I spotted a little grasshopper sitting on a stark branch. The bees were busy pollinating. And yes, the ants were still climbing the trunk and sinking their jaws into the yummy flesh. Yep, we have ourselves one extremely edible plant. Our edible plant! And we hadn't even gotten to try Filipino moringa soup yet!
This was war! I got out the cayenne pepper and sprinkled into the hole the ants had eaten through. I put it around the trunks (with the cinnamon). But there wasn’t enough for all four trees, so I went searching for more in the pantry. I found something red. I sprinkled it into the ant hole by the sidewalk and along the trail of ants.
When I checked it later I found that it hadn't deterred them. In fact, they were marching right through it. I took a little taste - it was taco seasoning! I searched for something more deadly - super hot New Mexico green chili powder. I sprinkled that over the taco seasoning. I filled the ant hole beside the sidewalk with it. Ant holes multiplied in the green chili. Were they taking it home?
I spotted a little lizard waiting to climb up the trunk. I remembered another lizard who had reared up on it's hind legs to chomp on some amaranth leaves. Recalling the leafless amaranth patch, I chased the culprit away.
We always expected to share some of our moringa with the desert critters. But did I really have to serve 'em 4 spice moringa chili!?
I checked the hole in the trunk where I poured the cayenne pepper. At least those ants were gone. So the cayenne pepper had actually worked! Lesson learned.
When I got back from another weekend away, our moringa tree wasn't only hanging in there, but it had grown by leaps and bounds!
A butterfly fluttered about. Bees buzzed around. The blooms had been pollinated and were growing pods! Maybe sharing our moringa with wild life wasn't so bad... Maybe we'll get to try foot-long pods after all.
After digging up layers of gravel and plastic from the backyard, Dan finally got our heritage fig trees and pomegranate in the ground. (Yeah!) After our newly planted startups finally started growing some tomatoes (Yeah!), we have to go away for a long weekend. Not to worry, my grown boys have come to the rescue.
Look! I grew tomatoes!
Taking advantage of the “teachable moment," I dragged my disinterested boys along (Jeremy debating politics, Josh texting his girlfriend) as I demonstrated how to care for my babies, eh, garden. Since Jeremy accused me of micro-managing, and Josh demanded, "If you want me to do this, write it down" - this is what you get!
DIRECTIONS FOR WATERING MOM'S GARDEN:
Use blue water bottle to water the two potted curry plants on table, and fill up olla by tomato plant in front of the back wall. The olla (along with the wood chip mulch) helps keep the ground damp longer. Pour the remaining water in the mulch around the plant. Don't forget to put the black cap back on the olla.
Water the kitchen garden in the morning and the evening using two metal watering cans full of water. The best times to water in Tucson are in the morning and early evening so it doesn't evaporate so fast!
Helpful hint: hold up the spout while you are carrying it outside to keep from spilling on floor. If you disregard this advice, step carefully on slippery, wet floor.
Water AROUND the plants, not on top of them. Don't rush and pour it all in one spot making a hole in the mulch. The idea is to keep the ground and mulch damp around my tomato plants.
Water the plants in our freshly dug basin.
Note: Dan still needs to dig this catchment basin deeper (leaving the trees and their circle of mulch on higher ground) and fill in the rest with mulch. But we needed to get the plants in before they were root-bond. So he put mulch around each plant. Dan plans to install a greywater system here to reuse water from our outside washing machine to irrigate our drought tolerant edible trees.
Use one watering can full of water on my sad looking re-planted tepary beans and chiltepin. (I'm hoping they will come back and add nitrogen to the ground. )
Use one can of water for each fig tree. Pour the water around and around the fig tree getting all of the mulch wet. If it looks like it is starting to puddle, alternate watering the other tree so it has time to sink in.
Use two cans of water for the lone pomegranate tree - watering all the mulch around it. It will hold in the moisture longer.
Don't forget to use the water from your coffee grounds.
You can put the plastic water bucket here while you close the door so the cat won't get out, or you will be spending your weekend looking for the cat.
Alternate pouring coffee grounds around tomato plants, fig trees, or pomegranate. I'm hoping it will keep the bugs away.
Don't forget to use your dish water on humming bird trumpets. Pour chunky, greasy water on compost.
Lastly, water the surviving tepary bean plants in the garden behind the back-wall (beside the fenced garden.) They survived the hot summer; they deserve to live! (1 can will do.)
Don't forget the animals...
Feed the dog 1 scoop of dog food and then put her out. You can try using a treat to get her outside Try to take her for a walk in the evening.
Take out the trash!
Came home to two happy animals and property watered plants.
With all of my desktop activism, I've gotten behind on my blogs. Sorry! But I wanted share at least one last purslane recipe with you.
With the monsoon rains winding down, I have a feeling that this may be the end of purslane season. The little patch in the front yard, where I happily gather purslane for breakfast or dinner nearly every day, has flowered (little yellow buds) and the stems are getting woody. Hmph! Last night I had to remove the stems before adding the leaves to my cucumber salad. So sad because the citrusy stems are the best part in that dish.
I think they're still good if you cook them. A couple nights ago I made a yummy pesto and purslane "focaccia" on some bread I found at the nearby Babylon Market. (You can also use prepared pizza crust, toasted English muffins, or thin ciabatta.)
I cut a handful of purslane stems with tear-shaped leaves from my favorite purslane patch - leaving the rest of the plant to continue to grow to be harvested later. I washed them in a bowl, swishing them around, so the little black seeds would fall off into the water (to be thrown into the back yard to sow more purslane for next monsoon season.)
click on pic see little seeds
I quickly chopped the purslane up (stems and all) and sautéed them until tender with about 3 tablespoons of prepared pesto and maybe 3 tablespoons of olive oil. I spread that over the focaccia and topped it with a chopped tomato and some freshly grated parmesan cheese. I warmed it up in the pre-heated oven (400 degrees) for a few minutes - just long enough for the pesto oil to sink into the crust and the parmesan to brown a bit. Easy smeasy dinner in a few minutes. And so good!
We considered browning the bread with the pesto and then topping it with a salad of chopped purslane, tomato and queso fresco (feta would also work.) That would have been good a little earlier in the season when the stems were less woody. Last week, I used our handy-dandy George Foreman grill to whip up a quick purslane, tomato and fresh mozzarella (pesto is good in this too) Panini. One morning I just threw some purslane on a bagel with cream cheese. Another evening we had a picnic of Mexican verdolagas stew with black beans on a tortilla topped with queso fresco. Oh, yum! I'm getting hungry!
Oh, how I will miss harvesting this tasty, nutritious green fresh from my yard!