Friday, July 19, 2024

Storm to Shade Across Tucson

 by Blue Baldwin, Storm to Shade Program Manager

Grabbing the water off the road to grow healthy tree.

In the cool early hours of a midsummer morning in Barrio Kroger-Lane, long-time resident and community organizer, Josefina Cardenas, prepared breakfast burritos to share with her neighbors to fuel their morning’s work. With the support and expertise of Tucson Clean and Beautiful’s green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) maintenance team, Josefina and her neighbors took to their neighborhood streets to care for the GSI assets built there over the past decade. As they pulled weeds, collected trash, and spread native seed mix, nanas and tatas worked alongside younger generations, sharing their knowledge of desert plants and their healing properties and memories of the nearby river that once flowed perennially.

Tucson Clean and Beautiful is one of six maintenance contractors deployed seasonally by Storm to Shade (S2S), the City of Tucson’s GSI program housed at Tucson Water, to ensure the safety and functionality of some 450 GSI assets located throughout the City’s six wards. This cohort of specialized contractors provides routine maintenance as well as certified arborist services, invasive plant control, reconstruction of assets, community outreach, and stipends to pay community members who wish to be involved in caring for their neighborhoods’ assets. With this workforce in full effect for almost two years, Tucson’s GSI is thriving—providing shade, cooling, habitat, and beautification—thanks to the energy and resources being invested in our City’s urban infrastructure. To view a map of GSI assets throughout the City, see

In another neighborhood, over a dozen children and a handful of adults gathered at the intersection of Holladay Street and Santa Clara Avenue in the Elvira Neighborhood to celebrate the completion of a brand new GSI project with Eegee’s and a native plant give-away. Among them was Beki Quintero, a lifelong servant of the Tucson community. For years Beki had advocated to decrease the size of this awkward and potentially dangerous intersection situated in a neighborhood teeming with kids. When Ward One’s Budget de la Gente Program launched, this project was selected for funding and Beki and her neighbors’ dream was finally realized. To minimize project costs, S2S collaborated with the Department of Transportation and Mobility’s special projects team to accomplish much of the work in-house--removing pavement, excavating basins, and re-striping the intersection. S2S contracted local GSI experts, Productive Patches LLC, to add the finishing touches--microbasins and swales--and a landscape contractor to plant native trees, shrubs, and succulents. These days if you drive by after school, you’re likely to spot a gaggle of neighborhood kids hanging out near their new green space.

Intergenerational stewards of Barrio Kroger-Lane celebrate work well done.
Intergenerational stewards of Barrio Kroger-Lane celebrate work well done.

To date, Storm to Shade has constructed six new GSI projects, most recently at Ironhorse Park, El Rio Neighborhood Center, Lower Lincoln Park, the intersection of 11 Ave. and Flores St., and the traffic triangle at Holladay St. and Santa Clara Ave. The Aviation Greenway between Kolb and Calle Polar, a collaboration with TEP, will be complete July ’24 and an additional handful of projects are set to break ground by year’s end. Many more are in the design pipeline. For a complete list and story map of projects, visit  

S2S is also celebrating the completion of several large-scale projects funded by Pima County Regional Flood Control District, which serve primarily as flood control facilities but also provide the greening, cooling, and beautification benefits of GSI. S2S provides landscape maintenance for these facilities, which include Cherry Avenue Park, El Vado Basin, Sunland Vista Wash, and soon-to-be-completed Alvernon Park Basins, as well as several others constructed by the District over the past years. 

In the shade of the mature mesquites in the GSI area of Highland Vista Park, a dozen participants in the Pima SmartScape GSI course practice proper pruning techniques under the exacting eye of certified arborist, GSI expert, and SmartScape instructor Emma Stahl-Wert. The group consists of S2S maintenance contractors, a newly minted City Parks project manager, and other landscape pros and community members interested in expanding their knowledge of GSI. This GSI course is one of three new courses offered by SmartScape (funded by Tucson Water’s Conservation Program) developed in partnership with City of Tucson. The others are a one-day SmartScape “Bootcamp” designed as a crash course in best practices for landscape maintenance, and an Urban Forestry Management course. The goal is for every City employee who touches landscape to complete all three courses. This investment in staff significantly reduces unintended damage to landscapes, boosts morale, and creates a ripple effect as folks transfer knowledge among their peers in the field.  

Emma guides SmartScape participants through proper pruning technique.
Emma guides SmartScape participants through proper pruning technique.

Looking forward, S2S hopes to better align with the City’s equity goals by evaluating new models for prioritizing capital investment that center equity as the primary driver for investment rather than equality. Currently, S2S capital investments are divided equally across the six wards and the Mayor’s Office. Given vastly different demographics, green space, and climate vulnerability across the wards, equal investment is not equitable investment. Tucson is not alone in grappling with this issue. The conversation around GSI and equity is happening at fever pitch across municipalities and utilities in North America and is the central theme of myriad conferences, webinars, and publications. S2S, the Urban Forestry Program, and other Tucson programs’ use of Tree Equity Score as a tool for prioritizing investment within wards has positioned us a leader among our peers in North America, and we are excited to continue to lead by making S2S a truly equity-driven program.  

Path to tree equity
path to Tree Equity 

-reshared from the City of Tucson Climate Action Report

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Celebrating the start of purslane season

So excited that purslane season is finally here. We celebrated with a yummy smothered purslane and potato breakfast burrito. 

Purslane season officially begins at our house after the second monsoon downpour. But my story doesn't start there. I am always on the look out for purslane to relocate into my yard. (Why does everyone get purslane before we do?) So I planted some I found in front of The Loft Cinema. But I guess I really jumped the gun this year. Before it could spread, it was eaten by the critters in our sun burnt, barren desert food forest. (Honestly, I'm glad they found something to eat.) 

But did that stop me?  More recently I planted a few sturdy purslane that already had some little yellow flowers. Since they were about to go to seed, I hoped that they would spit them out. And spit they did!  Check out the baby purslane that spouted round the mother plant! Once the monsoon rain started they spread like crazy! 

Purslane seeds get caught in the gravel

Success! See them sprouting along our gravel path.

I usually try to plant them near something I am already watering. But in my enthusiasm to get them going, I have been known to water them with rainwater from my cistern. Yep. I water my weeds! 

Here I am harvesting some for a celebratory brunch. They are best harvested in the morning before they wilt in the hot July sun. Notice that I leave some of the branches intact so it will grow back! 

Next I rinse them off  3 or 4 times. The little black seeds fall to the bottom of the bowl. I pour the seeds and water where I want some more purslane to grow.

Full confession. I was anxious for the horse purslane to start growing in our shallow basin, so I had planted one in the middle of said basin - that was immediately eaten by a hungry critter. But I needn't have worried. After a couple of big rains the horse purslane came back on its own. I am looking forward to it becoming living mulch

Here I am taking a pic of the first horse purslane growing along our gravel path and in the remaining poppy stem mulch. 

Back to what you all are waiting for... I chopped the purslane stems and leaves and sautéed them with some onion then added them to some home fries and scrambled eggs. Seasoned with garlic salt. Yum!  You can also add green chilis. But we were all about celebrating the purslane today. Wrap it up in your favorite tortilla. 

We cooked some more purslane in half a small can of green chili sauce and doled it out on our burritos!
Dan likes a lot of green chili sauce

Cheers to the start of purslane season!  I hope you enjoy one of our favorite purslane recipes. 

You can find that recipe and another favorite recipe here

UPDATE June 14: Baby purslane is starting to get big! 

Check out the horse purslane coming back in our rainwater basin. Soon to be living mulch!

The start of living mulch to nourish our basin! 


Saturday, June 22, 2024

New Windows on the World

I've noticed that in our sustainability community there are several camps that concentrate on different aspects of sustainability. Some excel at recycling or zero waste, others avoid fossil fuels by installing solar and driving an electric vehicle, yet others choose a vegetarian lifestyle. We fit snuggly into the rainwater harvesting, water conservation camp, but we try our best to practice a well rounded sustainability lifestyle. We take alternate transportation, enjoy a mostly vegetarian diet (though we occasionally eat fish), we  have reduced our plastic and food waste and participate in low-water desert gardening and native tree planting. We do what we can. But if I'm honest, we have fallen behind in one area - solar power.

Some years ago, Robert Bulechek conducted an enlightening presentation at a Sustainable Tucson meeting. He suggested that when it's time to replace gas powered appliances, replace them with electric ones. Then they can be run off of solar power.  Well, some of our appliances are on their last legs, so we will be replacing them soon. We have already replaced our air conditioner with a more energy efficient heat pump. And we finally got on the list to get solar from our respected local solar installer Technicians for Sustainability. But our progress was stalled when they asked how much energy we will be using. We needed to factor in energy efficient windows that we hadn't installed yet.  

We are excited to announce that we finally got our old leaky windows replaced. It was some effort to remove the furniture 3 feet from the windows. 

But it was so worth it. We just love them! Since they block UV light and people can't see in as easily, we were able to get rid of our hard to dust blinds and heavy curtains. What a view!  It's almost like being out in the desert habitat (that is our yard) without enduring the extreme heat. 

Now we can watch a variety of birds splash in the birdbath or rest in the shade of our native plants and trees in our rainwater harvesting basin while enjoying breakfast in comfort.

I wish my phone could catch our lovely view out the dining room window.

I look forward to watching the rain fill up our slimline tanks - when the monsoon storms finally roll in. Who am I kidding? I will be out there in the rain! 

Here is the view I get to enjoy out of our kitchen window while doing the dishes. I look forward to getting a better view of the baby squirrels wrestling in our greywater basin.

Every morning I greet the day by watching the birds out of our bathroom window. So glad that we didn't put in privacy panes! 

One unexpected benefit of the energy efficient window is that they lessen the noise from the traffic on nearby Speedway (which is living up to its name lately.) So we get a better night's sleep. 

And because of the UV protection we got to remove the old, dusty blinds behind our black out curtains that were needed to block out the sun in our south facing room. 

And now we are able to easily open up the curtains to enjoy the light of the day instead of being stuck in a dark cave or turning on a light! And we can actually open up the windows to cool off naturally in the evenings. 

It's not a bad view from outside either...

Quality windows weren't cheap, but at least we will be getting a break on our taxes. 

Next up...replacing our kitchen appliances with (hopefully) energy efficient electric appliances and having solar installed. Then we will be proud members of the energy efficiency camp! 

What Kind of Climate Champion Are You?

Later this afternoon...

I took this out of the bathroom window 3 days later. 


Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Work Parties Build Sustainable Homesteads and Community

We used hyperadobe to berm an earth-sheltered geodesic dome which will be a massive aquaponic greenhouse.

Guest Blogger: Christian Sawyer

Howdy. I’m Christian Sawyer — an organizer and homesteader in the Douglas Basin of Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County..

In the early Fall of 2021, I went on a three-hour bike ride to a potluck. My car had broken down but I *really* wanted to be at that potluck. I was invited by a family whom I had only met once, briefly, and wasn't sure if I'd get another invite if I turned this one down.

The reason I was so dead set on attending that potluck was because I had come to the conclusion that, living rurally and somewhat remotely, building community relationships was going to be one of the most valuable investments of my time and energy. You don't get invited to potlucks every day out in the valley. So, I popped in the Google map address and rode off into the sunset.

I did get to meet some great people that night who were building their own homesteads and were deeply invested in doing it sustainably. Some new friends even offered to give me a ride home when it started to rain.

I got another message from the hosts a few months later. They wanted to start a local group to help each other build sustainable housing, a shared interest among many in our mutual friend groups. Some had already begun such projects; others had been involved in the practice professionally. This was right up my alley as a sustainability nerd and someone looking to put down roots in the area.

Our inaugural meeting, January 2022

I brought five people with me to the inaugural strategic meeting for this project. About 14 people attended in total. We sat in a circle and traded ideas. Thankfully, we didn't get bogged down with endless ideas and paralysis analysis. We decided on a simple scheduling structure. Every first and third Sunday of the month we would meet up at someone's property to help them build. The host would organize the tasks for the morning, tools needed, and make lunch for everyone.

Our process hasn't changed much since then. The only big difference is the size. We recently set our record for most attendees at a work party, 75 people - including children. (See pic on top of page.)

Our community most commonly builds with geodesic domes, hyper-adobe, and strawbale. Hyper-adobe is the most common material/technique. It's a recent variation on the "super adobe" technique made popular by CalEarth where bags or tubing are filled with dirt, compacted, and then secured to each other with barbed wire -- a kind of low-tech rammed-earth process. Hyper-adobe instead uses mesh tubing that allows the dirt in each layer to congeal with the other layers, creating monolithic earthen walls which don't require barbed wire and use less tubing. As a building material, it doesn't get much more sustainable than dirt. It's local, there's lots of it, it's cheap, and it can decompose right back into the ground if needed. Earthen walls are also highly fire-resistant; but they don't provide a high insulation value, leading local home builders to increasingly pursue submerged or "earth-sheltered" homes which are typically four to eight feet deep into the earth and capped with a geodesic dome. This greatly increases the insulation of a structure, and the surrounding earth provides passive temperature stabilization. (At twelve feet of depth, soil is typically a stable temperature year-round, which is around 67 degrees in our area.) The academic literature typically claims a roughly 75% reduction in energy demands for earth-sheltered houses. Our anecdotal evidence in the community, comparing the energy efficiencies of different homes, supports this.

Geodesic domes are popular because they're incredibly fast and relatively affordable to construct. The steel-bar frame is put up in one day, then covered with fabric and sprayed with insulating foam in one or two additional days. The basic shell of these homes is roughly $10,000-20,000 depending on the size.

earth-sheltered greenhouse addition to a tiny home

After our first couple of "work parties" (that's what we call it when we get together to build homesteads), I had heard that there was a similar group of homesteaders in the Willcox basin, the larger northern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley. At that point they were only meeting to discuss alternative homesteading at potlucks. I got myself a potluck invite, drove up, and introduced their lead organizer to the "work party" concept we had adopted in the south valley. The north group immediately began hosting their own work parties on every second and fourth Sunday.

A key factor in this story is that, over the last five years, Cochise County has begun to attract increasing numbers of people interested in sustainable home building because of our county's "Rural Residential Owner-Builder Opt Out Amendment.“ This special permit was created in 2006 when the county transitioned to the International Building Code standard and some locals petitioned the county to create an allowance for building outside of existing code in rural areas.

The key lines from the amendment read:

“The purpose of this amendment is to exempt a Rural Residential Owner-Builder with a Category D property of four acres or more from compliance with the Cochise County Building Safety Code."

By allowing owner-builders these options, this amendment is intended to encourage the use of ingenuity and personal preferences of the owner-builder in allowing and facilitating the use of alternative building materials and methods.

As the lead "political guy" in an area that is often skeptical of political activism, and in a world where politics are so broken, I find respite in my work party community. It's a group of people from all walks of life, various political attitudes, social issue positions, religious backgrounds, and lifestyles. People avoid talking about contentious issues and focus on what we have in common: a desire to build and live in beautiful ways, in a beautiful place, with beautiful neighbors. These people give me hope that we can heal the cultural wounds and afflictions which seem to only grow more severe every year. I hope to see more such communities popping up around the country. That may depend, of course, upon securing the liberties to build alternatively and sustainably, such as we have down in Cochise County.

Today you can find many popular YouTube channels of alternative builders in Cochise County. The most well-known is probably Tiny Shiny Home by the Longnecker family. Although my friends Mark and Heather might be up and coming YouTube favorites as their most recent video garnered over 1 million views in just a few days.

Find out more information by joining a Facebook group, like Cochise County Alternative Home Building, Supporters of the Cochise County Opt-Out Permit, and Cochise County Homesteaders.

I've recently begun publishing a newsletter for the alternative/sustainable homesteading community called The Ground Party Papers, covering groundwater issues, local politics, and, of course, alternative building.

You can contact me at:

Saturday, June 8, 2024

What to do with all those dried poppies

A few days ago I noticed a bunch of dried poppy plants in a neighbor's yard. We were already using our dried poppies for mulch since most of our woodchip and horse purslane mulch had broken down into soil or was taken away by some productive ants. We love to keep as much organic matter as we can in our basin. This time of year it helps to protect the soil from the harsh sun. And the birds and native bees appreciate it too. Also notice the dried native grasses that we keep for food for birds and bunnies. 

So the next day I ambled up to the front door and asked if I could grab their dead poppies to use for mulch in our basin. I had a nice chat with our new neighbor. I found out that she had been leaving them there for the birds, but thought that some other neighbors didn't appreciate it, so they were planning on doing some yard work on Saturday. She said I was welcome to take them before then. So I was out this morning at 7 a.m. (before it got crazy hot) gathering dried poppies. After the first load I put on my straw shade hat and got a drink of water. I was quiet as a mouse so I wouldn't disturb them. Well...until I sat down on a rock covered with ants! But I dusted the ants off and went back to work.  I gathered six plastic buckets full! And pulled some other weeds for them for good measure. I made sure not to include any foxtail seeds in my buckets. 

I broke the poppy stems into smaller pieces and spread them in our basin.

When I got back to my computer I noticed that there was a warning of strong wind today at 2! Doh! My timing! I didn't want them to fly away in the wind so I wet them down to make them heavier. (I figured it would be good for the soil underneath anyway.) 

I hope that will keep them from flying away in the wind. But if you see few straw-like stems in your yard, consider leaving them. It's good for the soil. Your plants will appreciate it.

While I was out there, I went ahead and put some more water out for the critters. It's hot out there! 

Helpful Hint: You can also put dried poppies in your compost pile or use them as mulch in your garden.

More information:

UPDATE June 22, 2024: Poppies in flooded basin during first monsoon rain...

June 24, 2024: Doves cooling off in the poppy stem mulch a few days after the rain.


Thursday, June 6, 2024

Appreciating our Cisterns During this Dry Spell

It is no secret that my favorite rainwater harvesting feature is catchment basins. They can sink in more water than our largest cistern can hold while nourishing the soil and providing food and shelter for birds and other desert critters. But I have to admit that during this long dry patch, (our last wet day was the hail storm on April 1st) I am extremely grateful to have several cisterns to keep my new plants and moringa alive in this extreme heat. (As I write this, there is a heat warning in effect.) 

Every morning before the temperature reaches 80 degrees (the temperature when plants stop taking in water), I am outside watering my baby plants with my watering can filled with rainwater from our cisterns. I have already emptied one slimline cistern and the other one is nearly empty.

Fortunately, I still have water in our biggest cistern in the backyard, but that requires me carrying it through the house. (See pic at the top of the page.)

I get water from the big cistern to daily water the newly planted hibiscus in the greywater basin and to deep water our heritage, desert adapted pomegranate tree, the hibiscus and two curry plants. We're excited that the pomegranate finally grew big enough to support some fruit this year! 

5 gallon buckets with 2 holes in them deep water pomegranate and hibiscus 

We also have a medium cistern by the garden that gets water off of our kind neighbor's huge roof. The few plants I have in my veggie garden only require one watering can a day to keep them going. (I usually have more planted there but I didn't get around to it with my broken wrist.) 

A few years ago, I asked someone at Watershed Management Group if there was any point in putting in rainwater harvesting cisterns when we are getting less and less rain. They replied that you need even more cisterns to get you through the dry months. I have to say I am absolutely a convert now. We are so grateful to have gutters that direct the water from our roof into our rainwater harvesting cisterns to get us through this dry spell and heat wave. Thanks to the cisterns, we haven't had to use any city water in our yard so far this year. 

If you want to try out rainwater harvesting you can start with a little 55 gallon water barrel for a reasonable price.  Here is our first one that we used to water a few veggies. Dan directed a downspout from the gutter into the blue barrel below.

To find out how much water you can harvest at home, try out this simple water budget calculator from Watershed Management Group.

Learn more at Watershed Management Group's Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Classes:

Read another cistern story:

Racing to get our cisterns installed before the monsoon storms

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Harvesting Moringa for My Mom's Tea

Moringa Bouquet for Mom 

I'm so excited that my mom is coming to visit for a few days.  Our moringa plant has been growing nicely (with a little help from a recent deep watering with rainwater from our cistern) so I went ahead and harvested some to dry for some nutritious tea for my mom.

It's super easy to snap off the branches. The moringa actually likes to be pruned this way. It encourages new growth.  

Next I wash it over our metal dish pans. (That water will go on our Mexican Honeysuckle.) 

I wrap a twist tie around the stem and hang them in a bunch to dry on a rack in our guest room. It takes about 4 days for them to dry that way. The smell of fresh moringa fills the room! 

I remember when I first planted it by seed in our (then) new right-of-way basin. Oh, the memories...


After the leaves are dry, I take them off of the branches.

Here's how much tea it made for my mom. 

Then they are ready to be scooped into a tea ball to seep in a cup of boiling water. 

Can't wait to share a nice cup of moringa tea with my mom.

NOTE: Our moringa are planted in the right of way basin - which is great when it rains. (It grows up to 6-8 feet after the monsoon rains.) But not so good in the winter since it has no protection from the cold. It always dies back when we have a hard freeze so I harvest the leaves before then. But we're always excited when it comes back in the spring. 

More moringa memories: 

Why is moringa good for you?