Thursday, December 28, 2017

After the freeze

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!

And I won't regret what I did for love.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Growing our Edible Forest

We have a dream of transforming our previously gravel yard into a desert oasis with an edible forest and native pollinators irrigated with rainwater.  We have a long way to go. Just making our landscape as water efficient and sustainable as possible is an experimental process.

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 Mexican Honeysuckle. And it worked beautifully! No more mosquito breeding pool! And our Mexican Honeysuckle perked right up!

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.  All for a tomato!

Maybe we'll get a bigger reward for our efforts in edible native plants...

Dan dug up all the gravel in the front yard so the rainwater would sink into the ground instead of flowing out to the street to evaporate. (We still need to add some organic mulch. It works with the roots of native grasses to form a sponge that allows the rainwater to seep into the ground and hold the moisture longer.  This is what Brad Lancaster calls "planting the rain.") 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. (The mulch holds the moisture and releases nutrients as it breaks down.) 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... Our friendly neighbor has offered to let us connect a cistern to the gutter on his roof to water our that garden! It's all a process!

Gotta love the process!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sinking in the Autumn Rain

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 compost (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. 

This little guy (can you spot him?) flittered by to enjoy the sweet moringa nectar. Our moringa is great at attracting pollinators of all kinds!

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 then strained out the leaves. (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! 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Morning Solace

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.

Then...the rains stopped. And it got scorching hot. It was unseasonably hot and dry

 In two weeks it looked like this...

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. 

Another benefit of working in the garden:

Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mucho Munchable Moringas

or how I served up 4 Spice Moringa chili to desert critters...

Planting my babies
Remember when we first planted the moringa seeds in our roadside basin this June? We crossed our fingers and hoped that they would get established before the monsoon storms roared in. We knew moringa were drought tolerant, but wow! We had no idea how much they would grow - even after we stopped watering them.  

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 y'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 leaves. 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 chawin' 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 it 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 those determined ants. 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. If they didn't care for cayenne pepper, they would hate New Mexico green chili. I sprinkled that over the taco seasoning.  I filled the ant hole beside the sidewalk with it.  But ant holes multiplied in the mounds of 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 plant, 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 five alarm 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. 

We knew moringa liked to be pruned from the top - it stimulates new growth. But after another weekend away, we were surprised to find that our moringa tree had grown by leaps and bounds! (It was about as tall as Dan before...)

 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 "drumstick" pods after all.  (Here's how.)

Or not... 
this little guy was eyeing the moringa 

Moringa are for sharing!

Lesson learned.

2018 UPDATE: I found this video that demonstrates a good way to keep ants from destoying your moringa. I'm gonna try it before they get to another moringa! 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Teachable moment for the boys

catchment basin a work in progress
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!


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!

Love, mom

Came home to two happy animals and property watered plants.

Yep! The soil is damp! 
The tomato actually grew while we were away!
One happy dog! 
Nicely done, Josh!