Tuesday, August 2, 2022

A love letter to our catchment basins

If you have been following our blog lately, you know how thrilled we were to finally get our last two cisterns installed.  (You did it, baby!)


We really needed that harvested rainwater for our thirsty garden this summer as our plants suffered from record heat.  I was feeling guilty for giving them so much water as our main water source, the Colorado River, is drying up due to the extreme drought.  

But now that we've had some rain,  I am really appreciating the beauty and ease of our catchment basins.  During the first big storm even the biggest cisterns filled up, so I needed to figure out how to use up some of the water in order to leave room for the next downpour.  Our hummingbird trumpets (that get the overflow) had MORE than enough water, so I wanted to spread the wealth. 

Meanwhile, I watched in wonder as our catchment basins kept sinking in water.  Rainwater harvesting Guru Brad Lancaster said that a catchment basin can actually store more water than the big cisterns. The cisterns fill up and that is it. But the catchment basin keeps sinking in water. The roots of the native plants and grasses help the water sink in. Those so-called "weeds" help prevent erosion, and keep the woodchip mulch in place to create a sponge to hold the water longer.  That moisture also feeds the microbes in the soil. What a joy it is to see mycelium under the mulch and the resulting mushrooms! The birds love our yard! We like to think of it as an edible food forest for us and the birds. 

Dan has designed our system so the overflow from the cisterns flows into a basin or somewhere where that water can be used. He transformed our front yard into a rain garden.  Every time it rains, we rush outside to see how well the system works! 

My favorite is the jujube basin. We already had gutters and a downspout that directed the rainwater where we wanted the basin. That was the easy part.  But it was quite the effort to get the roots of the aging oleanders removed. Dan planted the three jujube trees up on mounds and dug a basin along the side of the three trees. Then he filled the basin with mulch (that has long since decomposed into nice soil.) We got so much water there during a big storm that it actually washed some of the mulch into the street until we got some volunteer native grasses, horse purslane and wild flowers to catch them. They act as a living mulch. And when the horse purslane died it became straw-like mulch that keeps the moisture in longer. During the winter, I only had to deep water them once a month (or longer.)  During the recent heatwave, it was every two or three weeks. I haven't had to water them at all during monsoon season. And they are flourishing and growing lots of fruit. 

Now much of the front yard is covered with basins.  It didn't happen overnight.  It was a process.  Here's a little history of that process... 

First Dan dug a basin in our right-of-way leaving mounds with five gallon holes in them so we could plant a wolfberry and four moringa trees. At the time, the right of way was completely covered with deep-rooted invasive  Bermuda grass. It was quite a struggle to get it out. (It was even growing under the sidewalk.) Dan conducted a "percolation test" to make sure the water would sink in within twelve hours. Then Dan filled the completed basin with organic wood chip mulch and native grasses.

We planted moringa seeds in June so they would be established by the time the monsoons started.  We were amazed how huge the moringa grew in just one season! (Those moringas have quite a story of their own that you can follow by clicking on the link in the label column to the right.)

Next Dan dug out at least two feet of gravel and the plastic under it. It was funny... when he pulled out a big sheet of plastic underneath it we found Bermuda grass roots creating a design that resembled children's yard art!

It must have been covered up for years just waiting for a crack in the plastic to break through!  Dan took some of the gravel and built up a small berm to keep the roof water from the foundation of the house. It gradually sloped down into a basin that he filled with woodchip mulch.  On the high ends he planted native trees. Near the mesquite tree he put a hackberry bush to take advantage of the nitrogen that the mesquite fixed in the ground. (Dan loves that mesquite tree! He likes to call it his "Charlie Brown" tree because it was a scrawny project reject from WMG. ) Now that mesquite and the hackberry are thriving in our catchment basin!

Through the years the woodchip mulch has decomposed and turned into fine soil.  We really need to get some more... But after last year's monsoon, the whole basin filled with horse purslane - that acted as a living mulch! The bees and butterflies just loved it!  I pulled it away from the pathway and sidewalk so it looked intentional. I actually got compliments on our weeds!  When it died at the end of the season, I broke it into straw-like mulch.


It keeps the moisture in nicely! It is starting to breakdown too, so I'm happy that new purslane is popping up to take its place! (See photo below.) Who says Tucson doesn't have good soil?! You just need organic matter and water! 

We don't like to play favorites, but I gotta say that our catchment basins are my favorite rainwater harvesting feature.  All they take is a little sweat equity, native grasses and mulch!  Like Brad Lancaster is fond of saying, "Love it!" 

Monday, August 1, 2022

Being Neighborly (or Crazy Weed Lady Strikes Again)

Neighbors walking their dog by my moringas
Dan and I are blessed to have good relationships with our neighbors. One reason is because I chat with them when I am out tending my yard. As anyone who walks down my street knows, I love to talk about our "edible food forest." Our neighbors know all about the edible weeds in our yard and how our native trees and moringa are flourishing in our rainwater harvesting catchment basin. One neighbor gamely tried purslane and then planted it in her own yard! 

In a previous blog, I shared how Dave allowed Dan to install gutters and a downspout on the overhang so we could collect the rainwater in our cistern. The overwhelming response on Facebook was, "Good neighbors!" And Dave is a good neighbor. But it was also mutually beneficial. Directing that water into the cistern prevented unwanted erosion in his yard. 

On the other side of the house, our neighbors leave their kitchen scraps for our compost pile. Again, mutually beneficial because it doesn't stink up their trashcans and occasionally they get some of what we grow in the garden. And other food items are distributed over the wall as well... veggies from a big haul at Produce on Wheels, soup (made from food scrap broth), even desserts!  


In the other blog I shared how I will pull the weeds in my neighbor's yard (especially nasty goat heads.)  After the big storm that filled the neighbor's yard with palm fronds, I picked up some and cut them into mulch for our yard. You see, our woodchip mulch has broken down over time and become a part of the soil. So last year I cut our horse purslane into mulch. (It looks like straw...) I decided to take advantage of the palm fronds until the horse purslane grows back and makes living mulch. I wouldn't really recommend it. For the amount of mulch, it really wasn't worth the effort.  

You can see the horse purslane starting to grow back in the picture below and some of my makeshift palm frond mulch. 


While I was in my neighbor's yard I spotted a bunch of palo verde sprouts. To them, they were weeds. To me they were yummy sprouts.  So I picked them and washed them to eat. Again, mutually beneficial!  I even convinced the gals to try them.  They liked them so well, that we split the bounty! How cool is that?! 


Picking the palo verde pods led to the easement where I found my favorite edible weed, purslane, and Dan's favorite, amaranth!  Dan and I gathered a bunch.

That's our dog Pooh, not Dan. This is an old photo.


We gleaned enough for Saturday and Sunday brunch. Saturday we had amaranth scramble with eggs and potatoes. And Sunday we had sautéed amaranth and mushrooms. YUM! FYI Amaranth tastes a lot like spinach (only it's healthier!) 


While I was out watering my yard, I noticed that the bermuda grass in Dave's yard was growing like crazy from all that rain.  So I decided to give it a trim and maybe use it in my compost pit. 


While I was at it, I pulled some sticker weeds. 


I pulled some grass out by the roots and gave some a trim and collected it all for the compost pile.


I should have gotten to it sooner, because some of it had gone to seed. Live and learn...


So I spent an hour going through it and taking out the seeds before putting the grass in the compost pit. (I was curious how much seed was in there, but I won't be doing that again.) O.K. I admit it. It was a waste of time.  But while I was out there I had a nice conversation with the neighbor across the way about not using RoundUp. While we were talking another neighbor came up and told me that she has stopped using RoundUp out of respect for me. 


You can see why Dan calls me the "Crazy Weed Lady." lol  I don't know if that title has caught on with the other neighbors.  But they don't seem to mind my ramblings too much.  I recently found these two gifts at my front door. Aren't neighbors great! 

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Day After (the rainstorm)

After a joyous night celebrating our new cisterns capturing the rain,  I was tempted to sleep in the next morning.  After all, the garden had been watered by the rain... But there was the issue of the water overflowing from a full tank.


How could that happen?  Maybe because I concentrated on using up the water in the smaller tanks first because they fill up the fastest. I should have alternated using the water in all of the tanks. Doh! Fortunately, I had previously removed some bricks that framed our patio (that had been a mosquito haven) so that water would flow into our hummingbird trumpets in the back. So the overflow water wasn't a total waste. 

The next day after the rain...

One of my main rainwater harvesting rules is to use up the rain before it can overflow during the next storm. And Google says there's a good chance it will rain this afternoon! My big dilemma was where to put the water since the yard had already been watered by the previous night's storm.  I know...I know... That's a good problem to have! Now I just need to use up some of that water! 

I checked the soil by the sunchokes under the roof since the rain goes over them.  As I suspected the ground was dry. So I gave them their usual 2 1/2 watering cans of water. But this time they got the benefit of nutritious rainwater!

Then I checked the desert plants on the high end of the basin. The agave looked a little yellow, so I gave it a little bit of rainwater. That gave me the idea to deep water the curry plants and fig tree that are on mounds by the greywater basin. While I had watered the mulch around the plants to maintain the microbes in the soil, I hadn't deep watered them this week. Since I usually use city water on these trees, there was probably a build up of calcium under the ground. So it was a good time to rinse it out with two buckets of rainwater!

5 gallon buckets with two small holes on the bottom let the water out slowly

I poured pasta water on the ground under the fig to build the soil AFTER I watered it, so it wouldn't be flushed away.  (Remember - no salt while cooking pasta.)

After the brutal drought in June, I am keenly aware that every drop counts. As I was filling up the watering can, I noticed the puddle of water that leaked from the hose when I put it on the ground. So now I put the hose into a jar to collect every drop.

Next I checked to see how much water had sunk into the garden. The branches of the palo verde blocked some rain from getting through (and also prevented my soil from being washed away.) So I used half the water I usually use in the garden. 

While I was there, I built up more dirt around the bird netting cages so the pests couldn't get in. 

Then I checked to see if the compost pit needed covering to prevent it from getting over saturated (and becoming anaerobic) if it rained later that afternoon.  The pile had actually gotten just the right amount of rain! Later, when a squirrel dug a hole in the compost, I discovered some nice mycelium growing in the compost! And further investigation showed that the worms (I had previously added to the pile) were multiplying! Yay! 

While I was out there I went ahead and...

Checked for standing water to prevent mosquitoes from laying their eggs in it.

Dumped out the water on this lid... 

Replaced the birdbath water with fresh to prevent mosquitoes (dumping the old on a nearby plant). 


Removed debris in the channel to the hummingbird trumpet.

Removed any eucalyptus bark from the basin and the leaves from the water barrel filter.  

(We had already checked the gutters after the first big downpour and removed some branches and leaves that were blocking the flow to our downspouts and cisterns).

It's not always easy to get up early, but I always enjoy the sweet morning air and being in my garden. Today, when I was out watering, I spotted two baby squirrels wrestling in the greywater basin. So cute!  No wonder I putter around doing all these little tasks! And while it can be a challenge figuring out how much rainwater to use vs. how much to keep in the cisterns for dryer times, I am so grateful to have that rainwater to nourish my trees and little garden.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Racing to get our cisterns installed before the monsoon storms


Dan and I have been anxiously awaiting the rain - while hustling to get our last two slimline cisterns installed to take advantage of the rain that falls on the Southwest corner of the house.

This happy moment has been a long time timing. It's been quite a process. It's taken years to get where we are. First, we had to dig up all the plastic and two feet of gravel from the yard and replace that with catchment basins covered with organic mulch and bunch grass. The catchment basins work beautifully to create rich soil and hold water for our native food forest.  But we also wanted to plant some heritage fruit trees in the back yard, so Dan set up a greywater system from our outdoor washing machine with its own basin. And then I started gardening, so we needed water for that. We started with two fifty-five gallon rain barrels and then added two cisterns (one using the water from our kind neighbors' roof).

It took a while to get the parts and for Dan to find the time to put in our final two cisterns. Last year, Dan optimistically put in the gutters and downspout.  


Dan finally managed to get all the parts he needed for the used cisterns and got to work cutting plastic piping, and gluing them together with PVC cement then installing baskets and covers on the cisterns. 



The next job was to level the ground where the cisterns would go.  Dan was racing against time to get the cisterns in before the monsoon storms. Unfortunately, he made an unexpected discovery. He found pavers hidden under the ground that he spent two afternoons digging up. 


He didn't quite get them out before the first big downpour... We tried to catch what we could by putting buckets under the downspout.  After that bone dry June, we cherish every drop. 


With our hot weather, it didn't take long for the ground to dry.  So Dan got right to work the next day digging out a base for the tanks. He made sure it was level and tamped to make the ground firm. 

Dan gathered sand that had washed into the street from the nearby Arcadia wash. 


There were all these sprouting seeds in the sand, so Dan and I sifted through it to get rid of them and the sharp rocks and glass that might puncture the plastic tanks. 


After spreading the sand out evenly over the hole, Dan made sure it was level. This is important so the tanks don't end up tipping. 


Dan had to hustle on the next workday. He was racing a possible storm. The wind was blowing hard. 


Dan had already cut and placed three PVC pipes across the base and was ready to roll the tanks in place when he found out one tire of the hand truck was flat. So he had to pump it up every time he used it.  


He used the hand truck to put the cistern on top of the PVC pipes (by himself!) 


Then he rolled the cistern into place under the downspout. I finally got to help by pulling the pipes out as Dan lifted the tank.  He repeated that process with the other tank and made sure the tanks were level.  (He uses his level a lot!) 


Dan put the two tanks together with the flex connector.  They lined up just right! Yeah! 


As the wind picked up, Dan changed the direction of the downspout to go over the basket in one of the slimline tanks. 


He added some length to the downspout to direct the water to the opening in the tank. 


There were still some final touches to put on the tank (like a hose bib on the second tank) but it was getting dark. At least we would be able to get the rain from the impending storm.  

But alas... it barely sprinkled that night. 

The next workday, Dan raced to complete the job before the rain.  

I'm so proud of my guy! He got the slimlines installed just in time to catch 3/10th of an inch of rain! 

Needless to say, we celebrated catching all that rain! What a joyous day! 




Wanna share the joy of  rainwater harvesting?  Learn how at Watershed Management Group's and SERI's rainwater harvesting rebate classes.