Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Attack Your Water Bill from All Directions!

by guest blogger Steve Barancik

Can you improve your sustainability? We have! At least when it comes to water.

This is our most recent water bill. As you can see, our water usage has been trending sharply down over the last two years. We're now at about 30% of average residential consumption.

We've managed this drop despite:

  • Keeping a garden
  • Keeping chickens
  • Nurturing a couple fruit trees (while giving the death penalty to a couple others)
  • Planting trees and cactus constantly!
It can be done...and you can save money while doing it!
(And remember: lowering your water consumption lowers your sewer bill as well.)


We guttered up part of the roof, where runoff was not being made good use of, and attached the gutters to a tank....

That water now goes toward fruit trees and the garden.

Do we use ollas in that garden?...

Why yes, we do.

We turned off the irrigation to our landscape plants....

You'd be surprised how many of your plants are established and don't need it!

We removed the "weed-control" plastic from both front and back yards....

We used passive water harvesting techniques to:

-redirect (and infiltrate) water where it's needed....

- keep water from jumping the curb and leaving the property....

- and capture water that runs by the property or runs onto the property from neighboring properties!...

We dug a basin and diverted alley runoff to support a mature oak without groundwater....

And by the way, we eat from that oak. So do our chickens!

One key thing we do is make use of our graywater...and here's the thing: We don't HAVE a graywater system; we ARE the system. We capture shower water in buckets....

...and sink water in a dishpan.

(That's Lisa—the other half of "we." She thought of the dishpan as a graywater tool!)

We even catch laundry water in a bucket!...

The tank holds the laundry and spins. The spigot drains the water

Oh, and speaking of buckets...

Why would I go out of my way to get a straight-sided bucket? Well, it certainly makes scooping water out of a flooded street easier! All it takes is a quarter inch rain event for me to be able to fill basins that aren't filling on their own.

I'm a big believer in the water-saving powers of mulch....

I not only try to make use of all the debris and cuttings from plants on my property, but...

I've been known to rescue landfill-bound rakings from neighbors as well!

I even use a technique to irrigate BENEATH my mulch in order to lose less moisture to evaporation.

When it comes to water, I contextualize our use by comparing it with what falls on our 8,257 sq ft lot. At 11.59 in. of rain in a normal year, we have just under 8000 cu. ft. falling on us. Our groundwater use for the last year was only 3300 cu. ft., so I'm pretty happy. I'll be happier still if you're able to put any of these techniques to use yourself!

Another benefit...

This shaded walkway didn’t exist when I moved in six years ago...

Steve is a teacher who thinks his students deserve better than what we're leaving them. You can read more on his facebook page

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Desert Victory Gardens

Inspired by empty grocery shelves and too much free time from sheltering in place, people rushed off to Home Depot to empty the shelves of gardening supplies. Many started their own "victory gardens."

For you young'uns out there…Victory Gardens were made popular during WWII when people planted vegetable gardens to supplement their meager rations. The government promoted victory gardens as a way to support the war effort. They even offered a booklet to help first time gardeners.

I thought a peek at that booklet might be helpful.

1. Don’t start what you can’t finish. Before you start a garden, count the work involved even before seedtime and through to harvest. Abandoned gardens are a waste of seed, fertilizer, tools, insecticides and labor. 

Great advice. Wait! No mention of water? The writers obviously weren’t living in the desert during a 20 year drought and record heat wave!

When I think of Victory Gardens I think of my nana’s garden with perfect rows of vegetables. But nana lived on a farm in the Midwest where there was plenty of water. The gardeners of that age weren’t concerned about pollinators going extinct due to insecticides. They were blissfully unaware of the impact of climate change or fertilizer made out of fossil fuels.

Check out number 7. Don’t let the pole beans block out the beets. In fact, don’t let any of the tall crops shade short ones whatever they are. Growing things must get sun. 

What!? They obviously haven’t watched their veggies wither and die in the scorching June sun. But I’m afraid many first time desert gardeners might.

There are lessons to be learned in the desert all around us.

Baby saguaros survive the harsh summer by sheltering in the shade of native trees like a mesquite or palo verde. They don’t call these trees “nurse plants” for nothin’. Our garden is shaded by two palo verde trees. Veggies grown under mesquite and palo verde trees also benefit from the nitrogen those trees fix in the soil. As far as those pole beans go, the Tohono O'odham demonstrate how the three sisters (beans, squash and corn) benefit from being grown together. The beans climb the corn and fix nitrogen in the ground, and squash leaves cover the ground to protect the soil and keep down weeds. After soaking beans for dinner, I sometimes plant a few under my young fruit trees for a nitrogen boost.

Unfortunately, the giant eucalyptus tree that used to shade our entire backyard died this year. Now our baby fig trees suffer from direct sunlight. Taking advice from experienced Tucson gardeners, I've concocted shade contraptions out of tomato cages and some recycled shade mesh. No need to shade or water our native trees. Our desert hackberry, acacia, mesquite, and palo verde are thriving this summer with no additional city water. Yeah! The lesson from this is to plant native trees or heritage fruit trees that can take the summer heat!

One of our most helpful low-water gardening methods was inspired by early inhabitants in tune with their desert surroundings.

Back when the Santa Cruz River flowed year around, the Tohono O’odham practiced ak chin irrigation. When the monsoon rains came, the river would overflow washing nourishing silt over the flood plain. The silt would retain the moisture and replenish the soil. It would nourish the durable native seed crops they would plant in the floodplain. In a similar fashion we keep fallen leaves and apply organic wood chip mulch to nourish the soil and retain moisture in our garden and desert landscape. This traditional T.O. method also inspired the rainwater harvesting earthworks method of slow, spread and sink.

NOTE: If it's windy, it's best to water plants in the early morning. Otherwise,  water them after it cools off in the evening so the water won't evaporate in the heat of the day.

Pioneers living through droughts, treated each drop of water as precious. You may have seen westerns where the whole family used the same bath water. Gross! But we can use the same water twice. Dan and I carry our kitchen rinse water out to our hummingbird trumpets. A friend has an outdoor shower that waters his landscape. We use the greywater from our washing machine to irrigate our heritage fig and pomegranate trees.

We gleaned a great water conservation method from the Mexicans who built Tucson. They buried round ollas (unglazed terra cotta clay pots) in the ground and planted veggies around them. Water is poured into the opening on the top. That water slowly seeps through the pot into the soil. The roots of the plants wrap around the olla taking just the amount of water they needed. This saves a lot of water!

Nourishing the soil with compost, covering it with a thin layer of mulch and watering it with rainwater are desert gardening basics. To save water and have a healthy plant or tree, it's important to know how much water they require. Likewise, it's important to sow the right plant in the right season. Another tried and true technique is to plant short-season crops after the monsoons and use added rainwater to grow fast-growing favorites.

Sadly, it’s been a while since it’s rained in our yard. And the rainwater we collected in our water barrels is long gone. So I’ve had to resort to using more city water than I want to this summer. To offset that extra water use, I look for other ways to conserve water. Instead of a full shower, I often take what nana called a “spit bath” or sponge bath and then pour that water onto plants!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gateway dishes: Vegetarian comfort food

Fakey meat balls with white gravy topped with onions 
I remember tagging along with my sister as she drove all over Tucson trying to find the ingredients she needed for a healthy vegan diet. It is so much easier to avoid eating meat these days. Grant it, Dan and I aren't vegan. That's just not sustainable with our lifestyle - yet. It is so much easier being vegetarian than to be a vegan. There are so many popular dishes that are already vegetarian - pastas, pizza, gnocchi, enchiladas, burritos... There are even vegetarian tamales without lard!

My son Jeremy has been a vegetarian since he was seven, so I had lots of practice revising what the family had for dinner to vegetarian versions. Now Dan and I are moving towards a vegetarian lifestyle for our health and the health of the planet. (Though we still have fish once a week.) It's all a process. I believe that if everyone cut back their red meat consumption, that would have greater impact on the planet than a few members of  the vegan community doing it perfectly. So let's start there!

For those meat lovers out there... There are all kinds of convenient and delicious vegetarian "meats" - in addition to the large variety of veggie burgers. We were really crazy about Quorn fakey chicken products until we had them so often we got tired of them. The breaded "chicken" patties make a fast and delicious chicken parmesan sandwich using left over marinara sauce and mozzarella. Or leave off the cheese and bread (if you can bear it) for a yummy vegan version. I also like to make meat ball subs using veggie meatballs. (Gardein is our favorite). I serve 3-4 meatballs and some marinara sauce on a pretzel bun for a super quick and tasty lunch.

I have also made fakey chicken-fried chicken by adding white gravy and serving it with mashed potatoes. Yum!  A recent favorite is a twist on that. Smother the fakey meatballs with white gravy!  (For best results: Microwave the meatballs then add them after the gravy is cooked. They will be firmer and won't turn your gravy pink). Serve the gravy on a heaping pile of mashed potatoes with sauteed onions on top of that. The onions make it even more savory!  We use cow milk, but I'm sure there are ways to use other kinds of milk if you are vegan. Again, it's all a process. It can be difficult changing eating habits - especially when it comes to comfort foods. This recipe definitely qualifies as comfort food with me! Yum!

But my family's favorite veggie meat is definitely soyrizo. We like the taste better than greasy chorizo. (And who knows what goes into that...)  We are have been putting it in our breakfast burritos and tacos for years and I'm still not sick of it. Can't speak for the boys...

Stirring eggs into soyrizo 
For breakfast burritos, I saute the soyrizo while I microwave a medium size potato. Then I cut the potato in to cubes and saute them with the soyrizo. Finally I stir a couple of eggs right into that. (I call it my moist maker.) When the eggs are lightly cooked I add grated cheddar cheese on the top, turn the heat down and cover with a couple of flour tortillas (and a lid) until the cheese is melted. That also warms up the tortillas and makes them nice and moist.

Breakfast tacos are even easier - especially if you have a son to grate up the cheese and cut the avocado!  I saute the soyrizo, then stir in a couple of eggs. I serve them with slices of avocado, grated cheddar cheese and chunky salsa on a soft corn tortilla. You can fry up the tortilla if you want, but there are thick, soft varieties that don't even need frying.

Soyirzo breakfast tacos with cheddar cheese, avocado, and salsa
I know! I know! These are processed foods. Really fast food. But if you are still stewarding at home you may have the leisure to try recipes that take a little more time and effort. There are so many fun recipes on the internet.  (Look out for them on my Facebook page too.) Maybe you can even get a Moosewood recipe book and try your hand at some very healthy vegan recipes. Definitely worth the effort! There's a bbq lentil loaf I just love!

For an easy, unprocessed dish, you can always just soak some beans over night and throw 'em in the crock pot in the morning... They'll be done in time for a late lunch. Just add salt and cumin.  Or put it in your solar oven to be ready by dinner. Easy smeazy!

It's all a process. Try out these dishes or come up with some of your own. Just start. The planet is waiting.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Time to Move Tucson!

All this downtime has given Tucsonans a chance to reflect on how we do things here. When the city shut down, people drove less and air pollution decreased! As soon as the state weakened the stay at home recommendations, air quality got worse. This is a teachable moment!

How can we expand travel options so more people can walk, bike, or take public transit? How do we improve reliability of travel time, particularly as we grow? Do you have an idea about how to make our streets safer? Do you have suggestions for areas that could use tree-lined sidewalks, biking trails, shaded bus stops, and traffic signs?

Your help is needed in shaping the City’s vision and action plan to answer these questions and more. Together, we can create the city we want to live in.

The City of Tucson is preparing a city-wide transportation master plan that will create a mobility blueprint for the City’s future in a rapidly-changing world. The plan will be innovative, creative, and inclusive. By working together, we can commit ourselves to create a mobility future that works for all of us.

The outcome of the planning process will be a document that informs the Mayor and Council’s decisions in the very near future about policy, resources, and how welcoming and livable our city is to visitors, residents, and business owners.

The City of Tucson has been hosting town meetings to introduce their mapping app. This app is so cool. You can click on specific areas and add your own suggestions about what should be included there (like sidewalks, biking trails, green infrastructure, shaded bus stops, safer crosswalks, etc.)

Do you know of an area of town that needs any of these features? Do you have your own ideas? This is your chance to share them!

Jana bringing glass bottles to Ward 6 before the pandemic 
I personally ride the bus, so I see the need for more stops, later running times and more shade. Right now you can't get everywhere in Tucson. I've heard stories of people getting stranded because they didn't realize that the bus stopped running so early. Imagine being stranded on a cold night. If we are going to get more people to ride the bus instead of driving all over town in single-occupant vehicles, then we need to make it accessible and comfortable. I shared that opinion on the survey. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas too!

Here is a link to the website with the transportation survey and the interactive map app. 


Have fun!


Friday, May 29, 2020

Powered by the Sun. And Beans

By guest blogger Sergio Avila*

Time at home can help feed some creativity, or at least allow some leisure time to try new things. Some people are gardening and/or cooking at home; some are working out, painting or playing an instrument. In my case, it has been a time for trying, learning and even experimenting, and I acknowledge it is a privilege. A few weeks ago, I decided to dust off my solar oven and cook some meals while taking advantage of the longer, warmer days. This time has allowed me to experiment with my cooking, new recipes and also to share with other people who haven't considered cooking with the sun. 

The solar oven (also known as 'sun oven') is a box made of wood, metal or another material, lined with insulation on all, but one side; with a small door to insert cooking pots and pans, sitting on a metal plate at the bottom. The box is open on one end, but covered with a glass to allow the sunlight to heat up the metal plate. The way this works is by heating up the metal plate where pots sit (like your stove) while also keeping the heat inside the box (like an oven) while it sits directly under the sun. Sometimes people add metal “wings” over the box to capture more sunlight. In my case, my solar oven is large so the sunlight comes in through a glass window; temperature inside can get up to between 250 and 300 degrees F. 

It's important the solar oven rotates to always face the sun with the glass side. There are many ways of doing this, from just moving the box with your hands, adding wheels or even a solar sensor that will rotate the box when shaded - which I saw once while visiting Tucson's Festival of the Sun, an annual solar potluck and exhibition at Catalina State Park. 

Generally, vegetables are the easiest to cook. I like to cook beans (black, pinto or tepari beans), lentils, calabacitas (a dish made with squash, onions and other veggies.) Pre-soaked beans will cook in around 3 hours, and with enough water, they can stay there a little longer. Once I made Mexican rice and I was pleasantly surprised! I'm not much of a baker, but sugar or oatmeal cookies would be easy to make.  At the Festival of the Sun I saw people cooking meat, ribs, cakes. I think this takes practice, and knowing your oven well, but it's worth the try. You can even use it to boil water, make sun tea or dry fruit (though this requires air circulating).

If you are a do-it-yourself kind of person, there are many plans to build your own solar oven online; a quick search should give you lots of results, ideas, and photographs. You can use mostly recycled materials, and might need to buy a piece of glass, a metal plate for the base, and the insulation that covers the walls. If you want to invest some money and buy one already made, that's also a good route and you should find many alternatives.

In Tucson, you can experience the flavors of solar-cooked food and learn about appliances and solar arts from Citizens for Solar and the Solar Guild. Their annual Solar Potluck, co-sponsored by Catalina State Park, is an educational, family-friendly event to learn about solar cooking, energy conservation and other topics on sustainability.

A little practice will help you estimate cooking time, amount of water or other details for successful, delicious meals. In years past I left food cooking, went to the office and came back to a ready pot of veggies or lentils. Solar ovens can be used at home, at the work place, the park, or even during camping trips. I like the solar oven because I can cook some meals with little supervision and zero energy. My solar oven also provides me with the opportunity to show and tell, to share ideas for sustainable alternatives, and inspire others to create their own. It makes me feel independent and taking advantage of a resource we enjoy in Arizona pretty much all the time. 

Sun’s out. Solar oven’s cooking!

*Sergio Avila is a wildlife biologist and conservationist, an immigrant, a trail runner, and a desert dweller. He works as Local Outdoors Program Coordinator with the Sierra Club, and is a Commissioner in the City of Tucson’s Commission on Climate, Energy and Sustainability, and a Society for Conservation Biology Board member. He can be found in Twitter and Instagram @Sergio_concolor

Monday, May 25, 2020

Spineless Prickly Pear Brunch

As Dan and I steward in place, we are enjoying the desert bounty already growing in our own backyard - our spineless prickly pear! My friend Duane tells me this isn't prickly pear pickin' time... But our spineless prickly pear is ripe for the pickin'!

You can identify this variety by the yellow flowers, pink and burgundy fruit and the new beaver-tail shaped pads with little curved conical green leaves. 

For the past few weeks Dan has been harvesting the ripe, burgundy colored fruit and making delicious prickly pear syrup. You can watch our "how to" video here.

Dan holding the fruit with tongs and brushing off spines 
Meanwhile, I have been harvesting our nopales and preparing them for breakfast and snacks. This has come in real handy since we aren't going to store as often in an attempt to avoid the crowds during the pandemic! We don't really have to tend the cactus like I do with our other edible plants. Though Dan occasionally dumps some kitchen rinse water on them when they are looking really desiccated.

harvesting the younger pods with bbq tongs
Lately I have been harvesting the new pads. FAIR WARNING: the word "Spineless" in the name is misleading since under the curly leaves are white spots with tiny spines that can stick to your fingers or tongue if you're not careful. I got one in my finger that was irritating me to no end last night. The younger pads are darker green and smaller (averaging 5 inches) than the older pads that appear spineless. The older pads are tougher and not as tasty. 

younger prickly pair pad with leaves ready to be harvested
Here's how I prepared the pads...

First, I put them in a plastic bowl to keep them from moving around as much. I hold them still with salad tongs as I scrape off the leaves and those sneaky spines under the leaves.  I found it easiest to use the grill scraper we had in a bbq kit. You can also scrape them with the blade of a knife - but then you can't use the bowl to control them. 

Next, I rinse off the spines with water and and pour it out over on the cactus. (We try not to waste water since we live in the desert.) 

I found that the spines on the edges of the pad are difficult to scrape off, so I use the salad tongs to hold down the pad while I cut off the end and the sides of the pad. 

Then I cut them into pieces. 

Finally, I rinse off the nopale pieces to get rid of the rest of the spines and to rinse away the slime. Notice that I am doing it outside to keep all the spines out of my kitchen. 

I don't like to waste anything, so I pour the slime water around my potato plants. I hope they like it. 

These pods produce a lot of slime. (Think "Ghost Busters.") They need to be rinsed off several times until most of the slime is gone or you lose patience. 

Then I dice an onion and saute it with the nopales. 

sauteing them produces more slime
You can eat them like that on a tortilla. But we added tomatoes, potatoes and eggs to make a yummy scramble. I microwaved a potato while I was cooking the nopales. When the nopales were cooked (tender and lighter in color) I  removed them from the skillet, added a splash more olive oil, and fried the potatoes. I added the nopales and chopped tomatoes, scooted them to one side of the pan and scrambled 3 eggs on the other side of the pan. Finally, I stirred it all together. 

nopales scramble! Yum! 
Meanwhile, Dan blended some prickly pear syrup, lemon lime seltzer and spiced rum to make a prickly pear cooler to have with our nopales scramble. We enjoyed a yummy brunch on the patio with a lovely view of hummingbirds pollinating our prickly pear blossoms. More fruit to come! 

Now that's what I call stewarding in place!