Saturday, December 24, 2022

Illuminating Christmas

It's that time of year again when I try to wrap my head around the meaning of a Christmas without all the commercial trimmings and trappings. 

In our quest to have a more sustainable lifestyle, our little family does what we can to cut back on our consumption of single-use plastic. We have gotten into the habit of toting our reusable water bottles on the bus and bringing our reusable grocery bags to the store (including canvas bulk bags and produce bags). Our son Jeremy is great at bringing reusable dishes to take home his leftovers when he eats out. Reduced Waste gets trickier at Christmas time. We no longer buy wrapping paper or gift bags. We started by using what we already had. (There are all kinds of articles on how to creatively wrap gifts without paper.) We already have more Christmas decorations than we can use. We enjoy using real plates, glasses, silverware and even cloth napkins at our family gatherings and backyard carol singing parties.  

I guess the biggest struggle for me was dealing with gift giving. Growing up poor, a big part of our family tradition was opening gifts on Christmas Eve. I would use my birthday money to buy cheap presents for my sisters. I loved  playing Santa - getting up in the middle of the night and putting soda flavored lip gloss in the stockings. Buying stuff was a way of expressing love. After years of struggling to find gifts for distant relatives, sending cheap plastic "thinking of you" presents, and collecting a houseful of knickknacks (that I hear are out of style), gift giving has lost much of its appeal to me. 

It's no secret how commercialized Christmas has become. I remember when I was a child my parents trying to put "Christ back in Christmas" by having a birthday cake for Jesus. The whole idea of surprising people with gifts is so profit driven. It encourages people to buy items that the recipient may not want or need. What happens to all those well-meaning, unwanted gifts? We don't have enough closet space for all of ours. Sometimes they get re-gifted, but often they ended up at the thrift store. Some of the toys got broken and end up in the trash. The landfill is full of broken toys. In Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, there is the Island of Misfit Toys. Santa finally gets them to children who will love them. Yep, buying presents has been ingrained in us since we were old enough to watch an animated Rankin/Bass Christmas special. How could we be happy at Christmas without that special gift? 

Now that our Christmas Eve celebrations no longer center around opening gifts, we have had to find new traditions like having family game night or bringing back old traditions like our Christmas Sing-a-long party. I've discovered that what I really care about is being with friends and family. The last few years, we weren't able to get together due to COVID, so we got creative and had a Christmas talent show on Zoom. My sister and I made a real effort to share our lives by calling more often - and sometimes including the whole family on conference calls. That effort has really paid off with a closer relationship. This year we were blessed with visits from both sides of the family. Since we didn't have to do Christmas shopping, we had more time to spend together! The highlight was hiking in our beautiful desert.  I hope that becomes a holiday tradition.

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season! 

More thoughts on sustainable holidays: 

Recreating Christmas Traditions: Harking Back to Simpler Times

Celebrating new traditions that represent our values

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Our Yard the Bird Feeder

Someone on Nextdoor asked where to get a bird feeding table. I don't have one. We've designed our yard to be a habitat for birds - even got a sign from the Tucson Audubon Society for it.
Birds really like bushes (like bougainvillea and purple sage) where they can hide.
I don't put out seeds for the birds. But I have plenty of birds.
I do have bird baths.

That's hackberry to the left

I have native plants that the birds enjoy: hackberry, wolfberry and chiltepin in the front yard.

Wolfberry in foreground and hackberry to the right of the mesquite

This bunny finds shelter in the hackberry bush while it nibbles on some native grass in the basin.

I leave some chiltepin peppers for the birds...

And the birds love the horse purslane (some people call weeds) that I purposely grow in my catchment basin. See the pink weeds? That's dying purslane. The birds just love the seeds! When I leave it, the ants will go after the seeds rather than stripping the leaves off of my moringa!

I grow horse purslane as living mulch then break it down into straw-like mulch when it dies. It also nourishes the microbes in the soil.
Some birds also like my Mexican Honeysuckle seeds (that we water with our kitchen sink rinse water.)

I recommend you apply for the Habitat at Home program too! It's fun! 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Harvesting and Prepping My Winter Garden for the Freeze

Brr... Holding this ice is cold....

After some winter rain, we had our first frost and then deep freeze in Tucson with the temperature getting as low as 28 degrees at night. Yesterday I woke up to find frost on our purslane mulch and ice in the bird baths. 

A few days before, I started harvesting and preparing for the hard freeze. It was past time to harvest my sunchokes (or as we affectionately call them "fartichokes.") The stalks and leaves were all dried up, and some of the roots were breaking through the ground and turning purple. 

 So I pulled the stalks up with the roots. Check out all the edible tubers! 

Can't tell my fingers from the tubers, can you? 

I was so excited that I called my neighbor Julie over to look. She took this pic for me. 

She got a taste of the oven-roasted sunchokes we made for dinner. 

I also picked some red chiltepins (leaving some for the birds.) I had given the last batch to Uncle Rick. 

The next day I harvested most of the moringa tree and hung the branches out to dry for tea. 

I grabbed some leaves and a handful of pods to make moringa soup (using broth I had made from kitchen scraps of onions, celery and carrots.) 

I'm afraid that didn't leave much left on our pour moringa. Just some of the smaller leaves, flowers and pods. See the leaves drooping after the freeze... I hope the seeds are still good in the bigger pods. From past experience I know that most of the trunks and branches will die in a hard freeze. We will eventually prune them down to about six inches. 

But don't worry, in the Spring they always come back from the roots. I like to give them the best chance by wrapping insulation around the bottom of the trunk. 

Next I tended our little winter garden.  I simply put a cloth over the cage that protects my basil from the birds and squirrels.  I didn't bother to cover the chard since it seems to do alright in the cold.  It is also protected by a canopy of palo verde branches and a wall on the other side.   

Yesterday, at the Master Gardeners Winter Garden class, I learned that lettuce and carrots thrive in the winter. The teacher recommended that I keep the soil (not the plants) damp. 

While I was at it, I also dug up some basil by the roots and planted them in a pot that I  brought into the house. (The day before I had sent one home with a friend who brought by his extra veggies from Produce on Wheels.) 

A volunteer avocado plant and our basil snug in their pots on the dinning room table.

But I needn't have worried. The basil under the cover fared well in the freeze. I think being in the ground and the nearby tree and wall helped.

I left the cover off to get a little sun this afternoon.  (Oh! That reminds me I should go cover it!) 

We have a tomato plant that still has some tomatoes on it. Looks like it's protected by the warmth from the south-facing wall. 

My curry plants are absolutely thriving in the cold. 

I'm afraid my new dragon fruit isn't doing so well....

I learned that you shouldn't water cactus before a freeze. My bad. 

I also learned from the Master Gardeners class that you shouldn't fertilize the fig tree before the freeze because the new growth would be more vulnerable. I hope that doesn't include the veggie water and used tea leaves. I use to nourish the soil under our little fig tree. We have some nice mycelium in that soil. The instructor did recommend mulch to keep the soil warm. (But keep it two inches from the trunk of the tree.) 

I was happy to hear that I didn't have to water trees that have gone dormant in the winter. 

It's kinda nippy in here.  A nice mug of moringa tea with orange would really hit the spot! 

For the list of upcoming Master Gardeners classes, go to:

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Create your own Sonoran Desert Food Forest

Richard Roati's food forest

There's nothing like having a lush canopy of trees to enhance your life in the desert. Those trees won't just cool your house and yard (and cut down on your energy bill), but they will help cool off the whole neighborhood. Areas with trees are up to 12 degrees cooler than areas without. And those tree branches hanging over sidewalks make a nice place to walk your dog and socialize with your neighbors. 

You've probably seen gravel and cement in too many yards around town. While that may cut back on the water that would otherwise have been used for a lawn, that cement holds in the heat contributing to the heat island effect. Phoenix, with all its asphalt and cement, doesn't cool off at night! That's dangerous for plants, animals and people. Planting trees helps mitigate the heat island effect.

So...we need more trees in Tucson. But what about the water shortage in the desert? How are we supposed to water all those trees? I suggest we embrace our desert surroundings and plant low water, drought tolerant native trees with rainwater harvesting catchment basins. Native trees take little or no water once established. They include ironwood, palo verde, and velvet mesquite (not to be confused with non-native Chilean mesquite trees that grow too quickly and have been known to fall over during a storm.)

You can learn how to build your own basin at the free Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Classes offered by Watershed Management Group or S.E.R.I

Here's how my husband Dan (a docent at WMG) made our front yard basin...

First, he dug up two feet of  gravel and pulled plastic out of our yard.

Then he observed where the water flowed when it rained. He noticed that an awful lot of water was coming off the side of the roof and was causing erosion where it fell. So he dug a shallow basin in the middle of the yard using that dirt to build up a small berm with a gradual slope so the roof water would flow at least ten feet away from the foundation of our house and into the basin. (The idea is to slow down and spread out the water so it sinks in.)

Because they are on the south side, he planted three native trees far from the house on the high end of the basin. Then he planted some native bunch grass in the bottom of the basin and filled it with woodchip mulch. The roots of the grass along with the woodchip mulch create a sponge to hold the water longer. As the woodchips breakdown they provide organic matter to the soil that in turn nourishes those trees. How cool is that? 

Did you know that those native trees are also edible?  The ironwood and palo verde have yummy seeds. And dried mesquite pods can be ground into a delicious and healthy flour. As long as we have these edible trees, why not just go ahead and create a desert food forest? If you're gonna use water for a tree, you might as well plant something you can eat, right?  But creating a desert food forest provides much more than shade and nutritional food for your family and neighbors. If you do it right, it will provide a fine habitat and food for local birds and flowers for pollinators. And that makes it a lovely place to hang out.

Dan also created a little mesquite guild in our front yard by planting a hackberry bush under the mesquite tree. The mesquite acted as a nurse tree protecting the young hackberry from the sun. It also added nitrogen to the soil. Nearby is a prickly pear cactus that has edible pads and fruit! 

This year we got to try our first hackberry berries. The little orange berries tasted like a combination of cantaloupe and cucumber. The birds enjoy them too. 

In our back yard, we took advantage of our outdoor washing machine to irrigate low water heritage fig and pomegranate trees in our greywater basin.  Heritage trees are ones that have been here so long that they have adapted to our climate. 

Watershed Management Group also offers greywater classes. 

But my favorite rainwater harvesting feature has to be our jujube basin. We already had gutters and a downspout in place.

So Dan dug a long basin with three mounds along it where he planted jujube trees.  Native bunch grass and horse purslane serves to slow down and sink in rainwater, hold the mulch in place and prevent erosion. Jujubes are a Chinese fruit that look like little apples. Although they aren't traditionally from Tucson, we have found that these trees are really drought tolerant with their shiny leaves. I only watered them every other week in the hottest month of June. And I didn't water them at all during the rainy season. This is how they are doing now....

Coming from another part of the country, the first thing many people want to do is plant their favorite fruit trees from home. Totally understandable. Just do a little research and find out how much water those trees need so you don't overwater or underwater them. Find out how to take care of them in the desert. They may need some shade from our brutal summer sun and mulch to keep the moisture in the ground longer. Come up with as much water as you can from greywater (washing machine, bathwater, air conditioner condensate) and rainwater harvested from the roof. Take care of those trees, because when a tree dies in the desert all the water that went into it is lost too. 

Our friend Richard Roati has several big fruit trees in his yard. To offset his water use (and water bill) he has two big cisterns that collect water off of his roof. And he has hooked up water from his bathtub and his outside washing machine. All that water supports his citrus trees, carob, and jujubees. He has also started a nursery of native plants (including agave and cactus) that he has rescued in his neighborhood. We actually got our three jujube trees from him! Thanks, Richard! 

It's important to plant foods that your family will enjoy to prevent food waste and loss of all the water that goes into it. If you already have some fruit trees in your yard that you aren't gleaning, you can always call our local treasure Iskashitaa Refugee Network to come harvest them and prevent food waste. 

In conclusion, here are some recommended ways to put in your Desert Food Forest. 

1) Plant edible native trees and plants with rainwater harvesting (mulch covered) catchment basins. 

2) Plant low-water heritage fruit trees in basins with greywater from your washing machine, air conditioner and/or bathtub. Supplement that with rainwater from your roof directed to cisterns (water barrels). 

3) Plant durable, drought tolerant fruit trees in basins with water directed from your roof supplemented with some rainwater collected in cisterns (large rain barrels.) 

4) Plant a few of your favorite fruit trees that you can maintain with roof and greywater (maybe supplemented with very little city water.) 

To be really sustainable, it is important to calculate how much water you get off of your roof and various greywater sources and then plant only what you can maintain on that budget. 

Watershed Management Group has a calculator you can use:

Like our friend Richard (pictured above) we do a combination of these four approaches in our edible desert forest.  

You can read more with Richard Roati in Exploring food forests in Tucson by Elena Acoba.

Check out the Mayor's Million Trees program

Velvet Mesquite - Arizona Tree Profiles:

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Good Weeds vs. Bad Weeds

With all this rain, we are getting a lot of so-called "weeds." A weed being any volunteer plant that we don't want in our yard. But before you start pulling out all of  your weeds willy-nilly, I thought I'd do a blog on which are the good weeds and which are the bad weeds (in my opinion.) The good weeds include edible weeds, wild flowers and native grasses. The bad weeds include buffelgrass and sticker weeds like goat heads and tumbleweeds . I'll show you how to identify both. If you've read my posts, you're probably aware that I'm an advocate for pulling the weeds where you don't want them and leaving them where you do. 

Should I start with good weeds or bad weeds?  I think we could all use some good news, so...

These native wild flowers (that some people might pull as weeds) aren't only beautiful by they slow down the flow in my jujube basin so the water sinks in instead of running out to the street. And the butterflies and bees love them! 

Senna covesii or desert senna

Sleepy Daisy

The native wild flowers in our catchment basin slow down the stormwater (along with that native grass that is part of the system) to sink in the water and protect the trees. 

This volunteer globe mallow is a nice addition to my cactus garden...

Here's an Arizona Poppy coming up in the place that I transplanted one last year.  

I'm really loving the abundant weed that is covering my front yard basin. I use horse purslane as living mulch. And then break it up into straw-like mulch when it dies! It also has pretty purple flowers that the pollinators just love. And yeah, it is also edible, but not as palatable as my favorite edible weed common purslane (see below.) I would cook it.  

Here I am walking on the horse purslane mulch left over from last year. It's like walking on a wet sponge!  Now there are mushrooms growing there too - a sign of microbes in the soil!  Who says you can't have good soil in the desert!? You just need native plants and rain! 

That brings me to common purslane (also known as verdolagas.) I have waxed poetic in the past about my love for this yummy edible weed and have posted many a blog with recipes. It sorta looks like a succulent with light green or pink stems (that are also edible.)

I guess you can't really call it a weed since I propagate it in my yard (like this patch below.) Check out the cute yellow flowers - that means they have gone to seed. Perfect for planting. I actually wash them off over a bowl to catch the little black seeds. Then I pour them where I know they will be watered - like in the catchment basin shown in the picture below.

baby purslane

This should not be confused with spurge, that is probably growing right under it.  You can tell spurge because white sap comes out if you break the stem. And I think it looks completely different. 

baby spurge 

Also not to be confused with the dreaded goat head... Don't let the yellow flowers fool you! They turn into nasty stickers. Here's a clear picture I got from a Master Gardeners class. 

You won't want to wait until the sneaky yellow flowers appear to pull them out because you may get pricked by a hidden sticker.  

Hey! How did the nasty sticker weeds creep into my good weed section? I'm not done with the good edible weeds! 

We finally got some amaranth in our easement. Yay!  (See pic at the top of the page.) 

While I was out and about I decided to pull some palo verde sprouts to help out our neighbor.  While those aren't traditionally thought of as weeds, by my definition weeds are plants you don't want. And I'm pretty sure they don't want a palo verde forest in their yard.  And I benefited too. Palo verde sprouts are delicious (like their edible seeds.) The neighbors liked them too! 

I grabbed some amaranth for supper....

First, I pulled the leaves off the stem and washed a big bowl of them thoroughly. It's important to pick quite a bit because they shrink when you cook them like spinach.  Then I sautéed them with onions and mushrooms.  Great earthy flavors!  

We love this in a egg scramble, but this time we tried something new!  Amaranth and mushroom enchiladas!  Amaranth is Dan's favorite!  Looks like Freddie wants some too! 

Now for the bad weeds that are popping up after all that rain. 

I kinda went on a quest to get rid of all the sticker weeds in the neighborhood. 

Hiding in the grass, was an innocent looking weed with purple flowers...and stickers!
Can you spot it? 

Oh! Here's the baby sticker weed! 

I'll grab this little goat head while I'm at it. 

There were a bunch of tumbleweeds that were spreading from one yard into the two yards next to it. I pulled those too!

I put them in re-used plastic bags to keep the seeds from flying down the street when the garbage truck picks them up. A good morning's work, if I do say so myself! 

And don't forget buffel grass. You don't want that growing in your neighborhood. It spreads like wild fire and burns as hot. It's pretty easy to pull when they are little. You can identify it because it grows out from the middle and often has burgundy tips. 

But once they go to seed, you'll want to carefully pick off the seeds first and put them in a sealed bag. Then try to pull them out by the roots using a shovel. It's easiest after it has rained for a few days. Then put the whole plant into a sealed plastic bag so the seeds won't spread when the garbage truck picks them up. The buffel grass pictured below spread through the whole lot then down the street and through the neighborhood. Now, when I can't get them out, at least I remove the seeds. 

Buffelgrass identification brochure:

Here's a pic of some baby buffelgrass.  I'm afraid it looks an awful like some other grasses. But a big buffelgrass with seeds nearby is a good clue. 

Weeds are in the eye of the beholder. In the 80s many people planted Bermuda grass - that is now considered an invasive plant. (Which you are well aware of if you've ever tried to remove it. It sends out seeds and runners and has a deep root system....) 

To keep it under control, you can cut it back before it goes to seed. I use the grass clippings from my neighbor's yard on my compost pit! 

But I purposely plant native bunchgrass in our yard to prevent erosion (like around the base of the curry plant below.). It's an integral part of our catchment basins - allowing the rainwater to sink in and acting as a sponge (along with woodchip mulch) to hold the water longer.  (I have been known to give it a hair cut to keep the seeds from spreading too much.) 

I hope this helps you see "weeds" in a new light. Keep the native plants you like, pick the 
weeds you don't. And you can walk barefoot in a yard you love as much as we love ours.

Thanks to Jared from Spade Foot Nursery for helping identify some of the local wild flowers. 

More Information: