Thursday, March 2, 2023

Lessons from Snow in our Urban Desert


I woke up to this view from my front door. Snow in Tucson!  This is the second time we have had snow this winter! This is the epitome of what Katherine Hayhoe termed "Global Weirding!" Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. But it is weird. It is rare for it to snow in our desert town.  

I like to fancy myself a "citizen scientist" taking pictures to investigate what is happening in our garden and desert food forest. So out I went this morning with my cellphone to take pics of the snow. Here are the lessons I learned. 

The snow on the gravel or bare dirt has already melted. But where we have native plants (that some people call "weeds") or organic mulch in the catchment basin, the snow was still on the ground. I noticed that there was no snow left where our neighbors have gravel or just plain dirt in their yards. That demonstrates just how much heat gravel holds. But I already knew that from going barefoot when working on my yard in June. I walk on the horse purslane mulch to keep my feet from burning. 

I found a similar development in the easement behind our house. The snow is sticking to the desert mustard on the ground beside our garden. Notice that the snow isn't sticking to the ground in the garden perhaps because the palo verde branches that shelter it from the summer sun also shelter it from the cold. Note that there are no "weeds" in the garden. 

See the snow on the bunch grass in our jujube basin? As the snow melts it is another source of water for the plants and trees in our basins. 

Our native desert trees and bushes have adapted to the occasional freeze and snow storms. In fact, the hackberry in the mesquite guild (below) and our wolfberry in the right-of-way basin seem to be thriving in the snow. The organic mulch helps.  

Then I investigated what was happening in the backyard. The snow was already melting into the greywater basin supplying water for the heritage fruit trees there.

As anyone who has a cistern (rain tank) knows, we get lots of rain off of the roof.  Now our cisterns are overflowing from the snow melting off of our roof and the neighbors' roof. 

snow on our neighbors' roof

snow melting into the cistern

The cistern overflows into the garden...Sheltered by the branches of the palo verde, the chard is doing fine. 

Reminds me of how the snow melts on the Catalinas, rushing into our desert streams to nourish the surrounding trees and riparian habitat. 

view of the top of our watershed - the snowcapped Catalina Mountains

Here's what I learned from my little citizen science project this morning:

I learned that ground covered with gravel retains more heat so the snow melts. But without a catchment  basin to gather that water for a nearby tree, the water is often wasted. (Though the water can sink in under the gravel to water a nearby plant if there is no plastic preventing it.)  In our yard, the native grasses and organic mulch allowed the water to slowly melt into the catchment basin to the benefit of our native trees and bushes. I observed how the snow in our greywater basin melted into the basin to water our heritage fruit trees and how the snow on the roof melted into our cisterns filling them up to use on our garden and landscaping.

Who knew we had a "snow water harvesting" system?! In the desert! How great is that!? 

Monday, February 6, 2023

Zero Waste Gardening: Building Soil with Kitchen Scraps

I started with compost, covered it with bermuda grass then planted carrot seeds

If you've been following this blog, you may have heard me lament on how it is nearly impossible to be completely Zero Waste in our consumer culture. Our family is Reduced Waste at best. But we do try. For instance, we tote reusable grocery bags (including produce and bulk bags) and refillable water bottles. 

One area where we've come closer to Zero Waste is in the garden. I don't use any store-bought fertilizer since it is packaged in plastic then shipped from far away and may even be derived from fossil fuels. I apply homemade compost topped with mulch made from organic matter that I gather from our yard (bermuda grass before it goes to seed and hollow palo verde pods)  And I'm proud to say we're pretty much Zero Waste when it comes watering our garden. We didn't use any city water to irrigate our garden or landscaping this year - only rainwater!  (Though we do reuse some kitchen rinse water on our compost pile.) 

harvesting rainwater from our neighbor's roof for our garden

My main reason for gardening, besides growing nutritious food, is to restore some organic matter to our desert soil. I heard at a Master Gardeners lecture that there was hardly any organic matter in Tucson. Many gardeners like to tidy up in the winter by weeding or removing the dead plants. But those so-called weeds provide many benefits to a garden including nourishing the microbes in the soil, giving food and shelter to pollinators, and sequestering carbon.

One thing I do to build soil is cut up banana peels and mix them with used tea leaves to create mulch to spread with the leaves that have fallen under our low-water fruit trees. I soak some banana peels to make a tea to add potassium more quickly. I also nourish the soil with unsalted pasta water, bean water and the water from steaming vegetables. So none of that goes to waste.

Speaking of...we are also working on preventing food waste. I collect the ends of onions, celery and carrots and cook them into a delicious broth which I store in reused mayonnaise jars.

Then I add the cooked celery and carrot scraps with other produce scraps, more banana peels, apple cores, potato peels, used coffee grounds and tea for the compost pile. We are blessed to have neighbors who leave their kitchen scraps for us on our shared wall.

And sometimes we are blessed with an over-abundance of veggies that have been saved from the landfill by Borderland's Produce on Wheels. My husband Dan is the guy riding up with his burley cart.

We do our best to use them up before they go bad. But try as we may some of it ends up in the compost pile to the delight of some very plump worms. 

There are many composting methods. The easiest being just pile your nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps.  green vegetation, used coffee grounds and tea leaves between layers of carbon-rich materials like brown (dried) vegetation, leaves, branches, and shredded paper. (Find a whole list of compostables here.) And keep it damp (not soaked) by spraying it with the hose. But it will take from 6 months to a year once you get a good-sized pile. 

Our friend Richard by his compost mound that includes weeds but takes a year

I'm gonna talk about the method I know - my fast composting method with worms. 

I started out by piling our kitchen scraps, egg shells, used coffee grounds and tea leaves, and some dried leaves, branches, pine needles, and ripped paper and some dirt. We put up a little fence to keep the dog out. We poured our dirty dish water on it to keep it damp. But it was taking a long time - and it never really got hot enough despite exhausting efforts to stir the heavy load to get more air circulation. After over 6 months, I did have some compost at the bottom of the pile though.

I learned that there were some items that were never going to break down: like hard fruit pits, pine cones, "compostable" take-out containers, big sticks, and egg shells. I found out later that Tucson already has too much calcium in our soil, so eggshells aren't recommended. And those "compostable" containers are only compostable in a commercial facility. The avocado pits actually sprouted in the compost pile and grew leaves. I potted two for house plants. They're doing really well in their compost potting soil. 

Live and learn. It was a good start, but I wanted my compost faster. 

Several years back, Dan and I participated in a vermiculture workshop hosted by the UA Students for Sustainability. We even started shredding office paper to start our own system. I was thrilled when I finally got 8 worms from a farmers market. One evening I dumped them on the pile. At first, I was a little worried that birds that peck through our compost pit would gobble them all up. But I continued to tend the compost pit. I learned that worms don't like onions, citrus peels, and pine needles, so I stopped adding those. I started cutting the kitchen scraps into smaller pieces so they compost faster.

Cutting kitchen scraps into smaller pieces while watching TV

Now I mix the scraps with used coffee grounds and shredded paper before adding it to the pile.

We keep it damp with our dirty dish water.  (We use a greywater dish soap that doesn't have salt.) I needn't have worried about the birds getting all the worms. After a couple of Produce on Wheels runs, we have lots of fat and sassy worms. 

Now we get compost in about three weeks. But I have to sort through the worms. lol 


T U C S O N  O R G A N I C  G A R D E N E R S Home Composting in the Desert Guide 

How to Survive Without Plastic Kitchen Trash Bags: Keep your trash dry by composting

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Building Community with Rainwater Harvesting Projects

Dan and I were on a mission to photograph some examples of rainwater harvesting for the new website soon to be launched: Desert Lifestyle Tucson.

During our self-guided tour of Dunbar/Spring, we captured more than rock-lined catchment basins and cisterns. There were signs of community - a community that Brad Lancaster carefully crafted along with his guerrilla curb cuts...

... including signs displaying before and after photos of the neighborhood project. It's a story I love to share - how this once stark, crime-ridden neighborhood became an example of Green Stormwater Infrastructure and community building.

The streets are now lined with large native shade trees nourished by stormwater runoff. Neighbors followed Brad's example, and installed their own curb cut basins to take advantage of the monsoon rain that had threatened to flood the foundation of some of their houses. The once illegal curb cuts are now an integral part of the city's Green Stormwater Infrastructure policy.

Evidence of community collaboration expands throughout the neighboring streets with traffic calming chicanes and medians decked with edible desert plants and cool art, a well-used bike lane and lovely, well-worn walking paths through lush canopies of full mesquite, palo verde, and ironwood trees.

Crime has actually declined as neighbors came outside to enjoy it.

We spotted another neighbor out enjoying the shade of the native vegetation in the traffic circle.

Dan and I caught some of that neighborhood spirit and gathered a few pieces of trash.

We got in one last shot of Brad's neighborhood...

... before heading across Stone for a yummy vegetarian lunch in the shade of saguaro ribs at our favorite neighborhood restaurant, La Indita.

We took with us inspiration for community building projects for our neighborhood.

More Information: 

The Water Harvester: An Invitation to Abundance

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 phasing out 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 cheaper 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: