Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Lessons from the Rain: Connecting with Our Neighbors

I recently posted a pic of the gutters and downspout Dan installed on our neighbor's overhang pouring rainwater into our new cistern. The overwhelming response on Facebook was, "Good neighbors!" And Dave certainly is a good neighbor. But it was also mutually beneficial. Directing that water into the cistern prevented unwanted erosion in his yard. This story not only illustrates the importance of having a good relationship with your neighbors, but also how interconnected we are. 

Nature knows no boundaries. What grows in the neighbors' yard, may end up in ours. This morning I found a branch with pine cones on our side of the fence. We don't have a pine tree. But I benefited by using the pine needles in our compost pit! (If only we could replace our eucalyptus tree with a tree that would drop leaves that would nourish the soil. )

Last night, a gust of wind dropped a branch from our eucalyptus tree onto our neighbor's roof. They say good fences make good neighbors. But if you have one of those "widow makers" it's better to have open communication with your neighbor! A friend shared how his neighbors got mad because he took out a tree that shaded their yard. So we discussed the tree situation with our neighbors over the fence. 

A big downpour (not to mention birds) also spreads seeds. Weeds don't stop on the property line. If allowed to go to seed, they will spread throughout the neighborhood. That's why I sometimes venture into my neighbor's yard and pull out the sticker weeds. And Dave always thanks me.

I recently pulled the native grass that lines Dave's sidewalk and replanted it in our street-side catchment basin. Again, it's mutually beneficial.  (The roots of the native grass work with the woodchip mulch to create a sponge to hold the water longer. The grass also helps prevent erosion from big storms.) 

There is a right of way on our block that is covered with highly flammable, invasive buffelgrass. Just after it rains, I have been known to get out there with my little shovel and pull up what I can by the roots before they go to seed and spread throughout the neighborhood. If I see one popping up in someone's right of way, I simply bend down and pull it out. It's good exercise.


My husband likes to call me "The Crazy Weed Lady." Not sure if that has caught on with the other neighbors yet. They might be calling me "Annoying Moringa Woman" or "Edible Weed Gal" or "Water Schlepper."  Anyone who walks their dog past our house may be privy to an unsolicited lecture on the benefits of our rainwater harvesting basins or get a taste of the moringa or purslane growing in our yard. Sure, this might be annoying for some, but others have caught on and implemented rainwater harvesting in their own yards. One neighbor even planted some of our purslane seeds in her yard. I think it's worth it.  

I hope my lessons on edible weeds have kept some people from spraying Roundup. The herbicide some people spray all over their right of way doesn't just stay in their yards either. It is washed down the street in the rain. It sinks into the ground. Roundup has been detected in aquifers! That's a problem because, here in Tucson, we store our drinking water in our aquifer. The aquifer is only 5-8 feet below property near rivers. Watershed Management Group encourages people near rivers to put catchment basins in their yards to replenish the aquifer. 

Rainwater doesn't always stay in one yard either. It often runs into the street or even into a neighbor's yard causing erosion and damage to the foundation of houses. But we can put in catchment basins to slow down, spread out and sink in that water in our yard to use on our native landscaping. If your street is at the bottom of the watershed, neighbors can work together to put in street-side green infrastructure to protect and shade the neighborhood.

We can have beautiful, cooler, green neighborhoods. We just need to take a lesson from the rain and connect with our neighbors. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Before and After the Rain

Last night we celebrated the long awaited rain by taking a lot of pictures. 

There is always some preparation for monsoon season: clearing debris from the gutters to the cistern, adding more mulch to basins, and  making sure that nothing is obstructing the earthwork channels that direct water to the hummingbird trumpets. 

But this year we have had to deal with the effect of extreme heat followed by flooding on our landscape. A couple weeks ago, a "Tree Stress" alert was issued. We were encouraged to deep water all our trees to survive the excessive heat. Dan was shocked by how much water we used. 

That was followed by a "Flash Flood" warning. And down it came with a fury!

One thing I learned was that I could have held off on deep watering my native trees. I also learned that every drop of water is precious! 

Luckily Dan had already installed a small cistern to harvest the water from our generous neighbor's roof. Thanks, Dave!  . 

It was a delight to see it working well.

Dan tried to get in another cistern before last night's storm. But he only managed to get in the gutters before the downpour started. 

So he grabbed every bucket and pan he could find to catch the water rushing from the downspout. 

This was quite the gully washer! Our new cistern and the blue water barrels filled up.  It filled up our greywater basin...

Our right of way basin was quickly filling up...

Our jujube basin started overflowing...

No worry about mosquitoes... The water in all the basins sunk in beautifully (as planned) by morning! 

After seeing the effects of extreme heat on our plants, we learned that every drop of water counts.  I've gotten in the habit of checking the weather each morning to see if it is going to rain. I try to use up the water in our buckets before the next downpour. I don't want to leave water in the buckets long enough for mosquitos to lay their eggs in there anyway. 

But where to put the water?  

I used my favorite water bucket to deep water my garden and the jujubees (alternating between them so the water could have a chance to sink in and not cause erosion.) A few of the buckets had lids so I left them for later (in case it doesn't rain.) Dan is in the process of installing a bigger cisterns that won't need to be completely emptied before the next rain.  Thank heavens!  All this bucket schlepping is killing me! 

While I was out there, I also did a little damage control.  I made sure that the mulch was three inches away from the trunks of the trees so termites didn't get them. I was  careful not to disturb the white stuff (mycelium) that means that the soil is healthy.  I was also happy to see the little mushrooms around the big jujubee (that also means that soil is good.) Wow! The soil sure loves the rain! 

Checkout how these tiny "weeds" kept the mulch from washing out of the basin! The native grasses that lined our right of way basin also slowed down the storm water to prevent erosion!

The roots of the native grasses and other desert plants work with the wood chip mulch to create a sponge to hold the water longer.  These so-called weeds are a vital part of our earthworks! 

Now we're ready and looking forward to more rain! 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Excessive Heat Warning in Effect

I just asked Google the temperature for the umpteenth time. It's 4:47 p.m. Sunday. 110 degrees. There is currently an Excessive Heat Warning in effect! I'm having a moral crisis. The other day someone on Facebook advised that we all deep (slow) water our trees if we want them to survive the extreme heat this weekend. (I re-shared the post.) So I set about deep watering all of my trees - making sure to do it before it got to 90 degrees (the temperature when plants stop evapotranspiration.) I was up until 2 a.m. Friday night!

Today I read all these articles on our water issues and how the level of Lake Mead (where we store our CAP) is getting dangerously low. In Tucson, we are proud of our water conservation efforts. Tucsonans use 20% less than Phoenicians. But today I read, "Tim Steller's opinion: Shocking water news in Arizona, Tucson should lead to more action" 'Last year, 2020, marked the first year this century in which Tucson Water’s residential customers used significantly more water than the year before. We used 7.5% more water per capita in 2020 than in 2019.'  Anyone who has stepped outside knows the reason - it's friggin' hot out there!

While we try to conserve water where we can (carrying out our rinse water to the hummingbird trumpets, turning off the tap while brushing our teeth or washing our hair, taking less showers and using our laundry water), we are still a part of the problem! I just deep watered all of my trees and some other plants! I'm really torn! On the one hand, if we lose those trees - we lose all the water that has gone into establishing them. On the other hand - that's a lot of water (especially when you multiply it by every yard in Tucson!)

Fortunately, most of our trees are native, but we do have some so-called "drought tolerant" fruit trees that have been struggling in this heat. Are they really practical? Sure, we have a few rain barrels and a cistern. But how does that help if it doesn't rain? Maybe it's time to make some hard decisions. I've already stopped watering a fig that didn't take off after 3 years. Are our moringas next?

On the bright side, Dan's setting up our new solar oven.


Monsoon season dawns with record heat, slight chance of rain in Tucson

Tucson Clean and Beautiful (Trees for Tucson) has a presentation on how to care for trees in Tucson and how much water they need. Check it out!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Celebrating Small Blessings

After a challenging month trying to grow food while conserving water, it is nice to celebrate the little blessings. It definitely has been a challenge this May...Oh my gosh! Will it ever rain!? But I've learned the best thing I can do is to maintain our native edible plants in our food forest with as little water as possible. For example, our prickly pear. After enjoying some yummy Nopales, I decided it was only fair to finally water the drooping prickly pear. I also only watered our desert hackberries once. So far, I haven't had to water my mesquite or palo verdes at all. In the way of full disclosure, I do deep-water our drought-tolerant jujubes once a week.  And we have been rewarded with our first baby fruit! 

click on pic to see the baby jujubes 

My daughter-in-law and I did plant a few summer plants from seed: sunflowers and cowpeas. The lizards chowed down on the cowpeas and three of the sunflowers. So we decided to cover the last of the sunflowers with some old shade netting to keep the lizards off.

Fatima constructing a fortress to keep out lizards 

We are enjoying an unexpected benefit. Volunteer purslane has popped up and is thriving in the shade and water I give to the sunflowers. And the netting keeps the lizards from eating it! If you've followed my blog for a while, you may be aware of how obsessed I am with purslane. It is definitely my favorite green. This morning I harvested some for a quick scramble. Popped some in my mouth too. Citrusy deliciousness! I even called over our neighbors to try it.

I removed the wooden shish kabob skewers and rocks holding the netting to the ground.

harvesting the purslane 

I hold the stems while I cut off the yummy top branches and leaves. See, if you leave the stems and roots in the ground they will grow back in a day or two. 

I pull out a few blades of grass that are getting in the way...

I wash the purslane over a bowl to catch the little black seeds. Then I pour the seeds under a plant I already water to grow more purslane for the lizards. lol 

Purslane has a unique flavor when cooked.  I wanted to make sure I could taste it this morning, so I left off the usual pesto and added some fresh tomatoes to compliment it. I quickly sautéed them with 3 eggs. Next time I'll pick a little more purslane, since it tends to shrink when cooked. But today I wanted to have plenty left for one of my favorite dishes: potato and cucumber salad


Monday, March 15, 2021

Preparing the Soil for "ReGeneration: The Tucson Story"

art by Rihanna Gayle 

I click the link - Join with Computer Audio - like I've done numerous times while recording my virtual play ReGeneration: The Tucson Story. But this time there is a class full of teenage art students waiting behind their Zoom windows for me to be let in. Their teacher, Amy Wood from Sky Islands High School, introduces me. I scramble to recall what I had planned to say to inspire them to create art work for my play - starting with the story of why I decided to take on this ambitious project. I recount how I used to take my kids to the pool every summer afternoon to cool off from the hot Tucson sun. Inevitably we would end up waiting in the car until the monsoon storm had passed. But as the boys grew up, I began to notice that it didn't rain as often as it used to. I began to worry. What if Josh and Jeremy decided to stay in Tucson? Would there be enough water?

Then an event happened that changed our lives.  One fine fall morning, my husband Dan peddled off to enjoy Watershed Management Group’s Homescape Harvest Tour clasping a map of some yards that the co-op had worked on. When Dan got home, all sweaty and out of breath, he rushed me out the door to see some exciting examples of rainwater harvesting. I was especially blown away by WMG’s Living Lab and Learning Center where every plant on the property, including some fruit trees, were irrigated with stormwater. They weren’t using any city water! Docents explained how there was enough stormwater to fill every Tucsonan’s needs if we all “planted the rain.” Finally! A practical solution to making Tucson water secure!

For the last seven years, Dan and I learned everything we could about rainwater harvesting and sustainable living. He became a member of their co-op, spending every free weekend digging catchment basins in people's yards to sink in the rain and installing big water barrels to collect runoff from rooftops to irrigate native plants. I blogged about our adventures (and misadventures) in transitioning our own yard into a desert food forest.

Then we realized that despite our best efforts most Tucsonans still hadn't heard of rainwater harvesting. We needed to reach beyond our little Facebook bubble. That's why I wrote the play - to reach out to those who would be the most impacted by climate change - particularly young adults. Like those in Ms. Wood's art classes. We needed their help to make sure our play appealed to their generation. Fortunately, the students embraced the challenge and went to work creating the art that opens many of the scenes. We're thrilled to have them on our team.

art by Aiunae Thompson 

ReGeneration: The Tucson Story is about a diverse group of teens who bring their communities together to save Tucson as the climate disaster progresses. The cool part is that it was presented by a diverse group of teens inspired to share sustainable solutions.

To reach the teen audience, I needed to make sure that the dialogue reflected the way they speak. This was an issue because it had been a while since my boys were teens. A high school English teacher agreed to have her students look over the dialogue when they got back from Spring Break. Then COVID struck.

I continued to work on the script after my screenwriting group critiqued it. I was painfully aware that while the pandemic may have stalled my efforts, it certainly had not slowed down climate change. I decided that it was time to contact high schools and theater companies about producing the play. But they had problems of their own. Teachers were struggling to adapt to virtual classes. Local theater companies were working on ways to stay relevant. There was no time to read a play from an unknown playwright. However, in the problem was the solution. Drama teachers and theater companies started producing virtual (Zoom) plays. That was it! Inspired by their productions, I decided to produce a virtual reading of my play.

It was time for a leap of faith. I started a search for the diverse cast of 16. A friend introduced me to a drama teacher. She announced it to her class. I finally got a response from a bright young actress, Itzel Macias. She convinced a couple of friends from drama club, Ariel Cheng and Andrew Trever, to audition. They impressed me with their talent and enthusiasm! I cast them all. They were instrumental in getting this production off the ground becoming the first members of Team ReGeneration. 

Andrew Trever, who plays Alex, wrote in his bio: “I joined the ReGeneration project because as a young Latinx person it spoke volumes to me to be able to work with such a diverse cast and to be able to talk about a subject that affects me and the very town I call home.”

I strongly believe that our diverse communities need to work together on sustainable solutions if we want to lessen the impact of climate change. That theme is woven throughout the play. It was important that those voices be as authentic as possible. So I researched Tohono O’odham and LatinX cultures. To make sure I was respectful of their traditions, I had members of those communities give me feedback and incorporated their suggestions into the script. I made a concerted effort to cast the main characters with actors of the correct ethnicity. That was a challenge. After an exhaustive search for the Latino brothers, I finally spotted a PSA with a young man who looked right for the part of Rogelio. I tracked Eduardo Rodriguez down on Facebook and asked him if he would be interested in being in my play. I waited with anticipation as he read the script. He got back to me after a few days. Said he was fascinated with the sustainability aspects of the play. But it was the characters’ relationships that kept him turning the pages! He was definitely interested in the part. Only... one thing... he was a Pima Community College graduate. Somehow I managed to convince him that he could play 14 year old Rogelio. And I was right. It was fun watching his transformation!

As difficult as it was finding the young Latino actors, I knew I had a bigger challenge ahead - finding a Tohono O’odham actress to play Ha:san. Then it happened... a little miracle...I discovered a short video by a young Tohono O’odham woman who lives on the reservation near Sells. We connected on Facebook. I was so blessed to have Tierra Domingo in our production. We worked together to make sure her character and the T.O. traditions were presented accurately and respectfully. She even recruited her little sisters for the storytelling scene – all donned in their traditional Tohono O’odham dresses! Tierra recently shared her experience in her tribe’s newspaper, The Runner. Her dress inspired this drawing from Sisiki Bidelman-Owens, one of the art students from Sky Islands High School.

I am so proud of the talented and hardworking young actors who also contributed as the assistant director, stage manager, promoters, technical support and artists. We held all of the rehearsals and production meetings online. There were certainly challenges with using a virtual medium and a steep learning curve for me. But it was fun to work with this creative group of young people to find solutions. The teens were masters at coming up with blocking and using props in the limited space. Even separated in their individual Zoom frames you can see the comradery. They were also my advisers. When I was struggling with finding the balance between using authentic street dialogue and being culturally respectful, they shared valuable insights. They taught me how to be a better director and communicator. And I think they learned a thing or two. Throughout the rehearsal process, the teens discovered sustainability practices like rainwater harvesting and regenerative gardening. During the Q & A at our virtual premiere, some shared what they learned. Andrew said he's thinking of growing a garden! Plans are in the works for Tierra to speak at Ha:san Prep, a Tohono O'odham school here in Tucson.
photo by Javier Castillo
Speaking of the Q & A... There is another member of the panel I want to introduce. I was looking for an artist who could bring a teen audience to our virtual premiere and a friend recommended R3D. To be honest, I wasn't sure if he even wrote the kind of lyrics I needed. There were no songs about the environment or climate action on his page. The closest thing I found was a music video about the police inspired by what had happened over the summer called "Land of the Privileged." But when I pointed out that he still had eight days left to write a new song for the premiere, he took up the challenge. He wrote "Our World" super fast, in two days. I asked him why he was interested in this project and he responded, "I’m all about cleaning the earth. Saving the planet, we live in it and we must keep where we live clean. I also want my kids, kids, kids to have a better future but it starts with us. Therefore our kids will learn and continue to keep Earth clean so their kids future will be brighter than ours."

Listen in as R3D performs his new song, "Our World" and joins Tierra, Andrew, and Itzel on the Q & A at our fun-filled virtual premiere of ReGeneration; The Tucson Story now available on Youtube.

People are always inquiring why more young people aren't involved in our sustainability community. Sometimes they just need the opportunity to share what they love. Prepare the soil and plant the rain. Invite them to the garden. And watch them grow.  

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Secret of P.O.W! Reducing Food Waste During Covid

The pandemic has certainly presented some new challenges to low-waste living. Grocery stores have bagged up all their bulk items and banned re-usable produce bags. And then there's take out... We support local restaurants by picking up take-out once a week, but often end up with a trashcan full of plastic and Styrofoam. We so appreciate restaurants like Mama's Pizza ( and Zayna's ( that use compostable takeout containers!
We have found other ways to cut down on our waste - like making sun tea rather rather than purchasing the bottled variety. When Dan has time, he bakes his own bread so we don't get those plastic wrappers. During these challenging times, we do what we can manage. 

On the bright side, the pandemic has made us more mindful of our food waste. We have cut back our grocery shopping to every 3 or 4 weeks. As a result we have become more careful to use up everything in our refrigerator. I check what's left in the fridge when deciding what to have for dinner each night. My Nana would be proud!

Borderlands has taken up the challenge of food waste on a much bigger scale. In 2018-2019 Borderlands rescued 32 million pounds of unsold produce from ending up in landfills. Produce on Wheels distributes it to the public. You can get 70 lbs of produce for $12!

There is usually a line to pick it up, but often there is food left over that gets thrown out. So every few weeks, Dan gets up early on Saturday morning and rides his bike to load our 70 lbs of produce onto his yellow Burley cart.  Maybe you've seen him...

That's a lot of produce! How do we use it all up? We do our best. There are some things we have learned (sometimes from our mistakes) that I'd like to share with you.

1) Before picking up P.O.W., check the list of available produce.
Since the point is not to waste food, we make sure that they are offering foods that our family will actually eat. There have been times when we get a lot of some veggie we don't like. I give away what I can but sadly, some of it ends up in our compost pile.

2) Make a plan. You are going to get lot of food and it helps to have a plan of how you are going to use it. Before Covid, I used to make a big batch of ratatouille or green beans with tomatoes for potlucks. And set up a produce table so people could help themselves. My friend Mia splits her bounty with a friend and makes salads for the week ahead. Maybe there is a local church you can give it to or you can share it with your neighbors. I recommend you do this right away because it will be VERY RIPE when you get it.

3) Processing your produce. First, enjoy going through your bounty. Take out any produce that's already going bad so the mold won't spread. We cut off the bad spots and make broth out of what's left (including the ends of onion and celery for flavor) and compost the parts we don't use. Use the produce that is the ripest first. Refrigerate what you can.  That night I will start boiling the ripest tomatoes to make tomato sauce. My family has gotten spoiled having homemade marinara sauce made from fresh tomatoes (for like 28 cents a pound!)

4) Make a shopping list. Before heading to the store, I make a shopping list of the ingredients that I will need to supplement the veggies I got from P.O.W. I keep track of what ingredients and leftovers I have left to work with. That makes it easy for me to figure out the menu for the week.

5) Enjoy your food! We usually pick up P.O.W. when they have tomatoes and squash. One of the first things we make is Three Sisters calabacitas (zucchini, black beans, corn, homemade stewed tomatoes, and onions - topped with cilantro and queso fresco). Yummy! This time we got a lot of summer squash, so we used that instead. Summer squash seems to get over-ripe pretty quickly so we had summer squash fritters the very next morning. And then steamed with dinner that night. You can't have steamed summer squash every night (or at least I can't) so we have to get creative. 

6) Freeze or pickle what's left. We got so many tomatoes this time that I went ahead and boiled and froze some in old gelato containers! Last month, we got so many cucumbers that Dan made easy refrigerator pickles. We used old pickle and mayonnaise jars.

As mentioned before, I boil odds and ends with onions and celery to make veggie broth. This not only prevents food waste and keeps the packaging from the landfill, but it is also more delicious and nutritious than packaged brands. Sometimes the store brand is so watery that I'm not sure there are any veggies at all! I reuse old jelly jars to put the broth in.

This week we had a special treat - green chiles that we roasted on the metal rack in the oven. (We put a cookie sheet under them to catch the mess.) I used the broth, squash, some leftover black beans and the green chiles to make a zesty tortilla soup topped with cilantro and queso fresco (see pic at top of page.)

We also got a surprise this week - a lot of artichokes! What do we do with all those artichokes? We ate them with melted butter and then cut up the hearts to make spinach-artichoke dip and pasta salad with some of the cherry tomatoes we got. Did I forget to mention we got a crate of cherry tomatoes?

We hope you enjoy your P.O.W. bounty as much as we do. Since the point is to have as little waste as possible, I can't stress enough having a plan. And if you are giving away the food, do it as soon as possible. Maybe make some soup for an elderly neighbor who can't get out. Maybe set up a food pantry in a nearby park.

If you can't get rid of it fast enough, perhaps there is a neighbor who can give it to their chickens. Again, we struggle with this as well. Some of these lessons we learned from our mistakes. The cherry tomatoes went bad before we could figure out what to do with them. Looks like WMG's chickens will be getting a treat.

Check Produce on Wheels' calendar times and locations: 

You can also get 60 lbs of produce for $10 from Market on the Move

Read more ideas for food security here.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Citizen Science: Experimenting with Kitchen Trash to Remediate Soil

I have learned a lot from Master Gardeners - especially their virtual lectures on soil. But to be honest, I have had a few gripes about past presentations where they suggested the use of herbicides to keep out "weeds" or recommended plants that require too much water in our drought-stricken desert.  To their credit, more recent presentations have included rainwater harvesting and permaculture in addition to irrigation systems. So that's good. But there was one statement that really bothered me. The master gardener proclaimed that there was very little organic matter in the desert. I couldn't resist leaving a comment in chat that there could be if we didn't pull all of our native plants and grasses (i.e. "weeds") and left leaves and other debris on the ground to nourish the soil rather than covering everything with gravel. He admitted with a shrug that that was a good idea.   

It is no secret that I am an advocate for returning our yards (as much as possible in an urban environment) back into a native desert habitat.  Dan and I dug up all the plastic and gravel and replaced it with earthwork basins and woodchip mulch in an effort to sink in the rainwater, nourish the soil and grow native and drought-tolerant edible trees. But after 25 years at this location, our yard is still negatively impacted by the weed killers from previous owners.

Scraping out poison green gravel

Even after digging out a layer of green (we believe poisoned) gravel to make a greywater basin for our heritage fig trees, those poor little trees are barely holding on after three years. As an advocate for greywater harvesting, it pains me deeply to admit our failure. And it's not for lack of trying.

I baby those little guys. I get up early to water the organic mulch around the basin (with rainwater when we have it.) I am experimenting with a makeshift "no waste" fertilizer made from kitchen trash that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill or our slow working compost pile. 

I started with a mixture of coffee or tea and crushed organic egg shells - until someone informed me that Tucson dirt already has too much calcium. That made sense since I had dug up some calcium buildup and even some caliche in our yard. (I can still see egg shells in one of the basins since it takes so long to break down...) So now I just use the used coffee grounds and tea leaves...

I also pour all of my vegetable and pasta cooking water in the basin to add minerals. And even the slime water left when preparing nopalitos (prickly pear cactus.) 

After drying my moringa leaves for tea, I put the stems in the basin for mulch. If moringa is good for us, it must be good for the plants too, right? 

I figured banana peels would add potassium.

I read that legumes add nitrogen to the soil, so I started soaking and planting cowpeas and other beans around my fig trees, curry plants and jujubes. The cowpeas actually bloomed under our curry plants and some even grew bean pods. 

But lately the lizards eat the leaves off of the beans. It may be the definition of insanity, but I keep trying.

I heard that hair was good for gardens, so I started adding our pets and even our own hair to the mix. I cut the hair up into tiny bits and mix that with used tea leaves.  I'm not sure it's breaking down to nourish the soil, but at least it's making mulch. 

I've always taken a lot of pics of my process and different experiments in our yard. I like to fancy myself a "citizen scientist."  But since that disturbing statement about our lack of organic matter, I have been really trying to remediate the soil.  

Another comment I heard was that if there is fungus growing in your soil, you are watering it too much. We planted three jujube trees at the same time. I have observed that the jujube tree that is doing the best has little mushrooms growing in the organic mulch around it and clumps of white organic matter. I think that's a good sign.

The other two jujubes have no mushrooms and none of the white stuff and they seem to be struggling. They are less than half the size of the big jujube and much less full. Dan said that those two were planted in the basin where he had dug up oleander shrubs. So the poison from the oleander may still be in the ground there. He also discovered some asphalt along the edge of the basin. First, the weed killer in the green gravel and now this!  Please, keep in mind that what you put in your yard can impact the soil for future owners. 

big jujube in foreground, smaller in background

I finally looked up what kind of ground our jujube preferred to better understand why the one tree was doing better than the others.  I found...

Dig up a bit of soil at the site where you plan to plant or have a jujube growing. Squeeze some in your hand and open your hand again. If it stays in a tight clump that doesn't break up under light pressure, it is clay and you need to steer clear. If it doesn't hold together at all, it is sand and probably doesn't hold enough nutrients. If it breaks up under light pressure, you have loam, and the plant should thrive. When there's a little sand in the loam that's even better for the jujube, which needs a well-drained soil. Make sure you're not at the bottom of a hill or near where your home's downspouts release either because these plants prefer dry feet.

One video I watched had very productive plants growing in red clay soil. According to my copy of Fruits of Warm Climates, sandy loam is the preferred soil type for jujubes, but the plants must be fairly adaptable to do so well there.

Inspired by the screening of "Kiss the Ground" - a doc about how saving our soil could help fight climate change. I decided to do some research on whether my little additions were actually doing anything to remediate the soil. To really know, I would need to get the ground in different areas of our property tested to see if there were any deficiencies. Since that wasn't an option, I did conduct a fascinating google search.

First, I found out there was indeed organic matter in desert soil. To learn more about desert soil, check out this article from the Desert Museum.

But what was my "no waste" fertilizer adding to the soil? Here's what I found out.... Most plants need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Coffee grounds have a high nitrogen content, along with a few other nutrients plants can use. In compost, they help create organic matter that improves the ability of soil to hold water. We've got a keeper, folks! 

Used tea grounds and fresh tea leaves contain nutrients and tannic acid that, when added to the soil, create a more fertile environment for garden, landscape and container plants. Because tea grounds are natural, organic matter, they increase nutrient levels and improve soil quality as they decompose.

Banana peels contain nutrients that are essential for healthy potted plants. However, they don't contain everything your plant needs. As they decompose, banana peels add potassium as well as small amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and magnesium to the soil in a similar fashion as a slow-release fertilizer. Not only do they add nitrogen to the soil, balancing any carbon-rich materials that might already be in there, they also add to soil structure and improve drainage.  It adds Tannic acid that slightly lowers soil pH to acid loving plants (best for flowering plants like roses). It also creates good drainage and moisture retention. GONGA! Another keeper! 

Human hair is a rich source of nitrogen. Human hair is good for plants when combined with compost since it takes too long to break down. 

In addition to water and sunlight, plants need certain nutrients to grow, particularly nitrogen. While nitrogen is abundant in the Earth's atmosphere (composing about 78 percent of it), it is in the form of molecular nitrogen (two nitrogen atoms bonded together), which is unusable to plants. For plants to take up nitrogen, it must be "fixed" into compounds such as nitrate (one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms), which plant roots can absorb from the soil.

Were the beans I was planting doing any good? 

While some plants, such as legumes, get their nitrogen through symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, others rely on fertilizers, whether organic (composted plant waste or animal manure) or inorganic (the man-made stuff you buy at the gardening center).

Legumes, including beans and peas, are able to have a symbiotic relationship with a specific family of bacteria called rhizobia. The plant roots form nodules (little bumps), which house the bacteria. The nodules provide protection for the bacteria and the root provides them with sugars as a food source. In return, the bacteria take atmospheric nitrogen, which plants can’t use, and through a process called nitrogen fixation they convert it to ammonia. The ammonia is converted to nitrate as it is absorbed by the plant.

In a green plant before flowering, 60% of the fixed nitrogen is found above ground in leaves and stem and 40% below ground. The same plant with mature pods has 80% of the plants fixed nitrogen in the seed, 9% in leaves and stem, and remainder in the roots.

Forage crops that are harvested and removed from the land provide almost no nitrogen for future plants because “roots and crowns add little soil nitrogen, compared to the above ground biomass“. About 80% of a plants nitrogen is found above ground.

The most efficient way of fertilizing soil with legumes is by using them as a green manure. Just as legumes start to bloom, which is when they’ll be richest in nitrogen, work them into the soil where they’ll decompose and release the nitrogen they stored. Don’t let them flower fully and go to seed, as the nitrogen will largely migrate into the seeds. (That’s why legume seeds are high in protein, of which nitrogen is a prime component.) So, with the green mature method, you don’t get to eat your beans and peas or whatever else you sowed: you have to turn the mother plants under.

However, you can have your nitrogen and eat it too, to a certain degree. Grow your peas, beans, broad beans, etc. the way you usually do, harvesting (and eating) their seeds, but don’t pull the plants out in the fall. Instead, cut off the leaves and stems if you want to (although you could work them into the soil as well), but leave the roots in the ground to decompose. Not all the nitrogen moves to the seeds, so the rotting roots still contain a decent share of nitrogen that future vegetables will be able to harvest.

So here's what I learned about the beans I planted. The ones that grew bean pods actually fixed less nitrogen in the soil than the ones with just leaves, so I shouldn't let them flower. Dan disagrees about turning the growth under because it is tilling. He suggested that since I don't want to disturb the microbial growth, that I should just let them rot in the ground to fix the most nitrogen. 

Dan also mentioned that native legumes like mesquite and palo verde fix nitrogen. And they don't require a lot of water and the lizards don't eat the leaves off of them. The green seeds of the palo verde are edible. And the seed pods on the mesquite can be ground into a yummy and nutritious flour. But that's another blog...leave those pods where they land for a natural mulch that doesn't wash away as easily in the monsoon floods (like woodchip mulch can.) Yet another reason to grow native plants in your yard - to leave organic matter for living soil - desert style! 

What I leaned from our desert farming friends Donald and Cristina : The soil is high red clay in a hard calcium carbonate pan. Alkaline soil is just part of the lower desert soil make up. The alkalinity in desert soils will generally start at a pH of 7.8 and goes up from there. The problem is when the soil pH is higher than 8.5 it indicates the start of a saline situation. Calcium is one of the main elements that contribute to high pH. It is hard to lower. Adding organic matter greatly helps. Organic matter when it starts to break down by the bio activity releases organic acids. The acids attaches to elements that raise the pH. This acid make the elements more water soluble so it can be leached out at a lower depths in the soil. It is Important to add soil sulfur along with organic matter. This really helps lower lower pH. It is organic. I have been gardening with a high clay soil for about 40 years, would not trade it for anything else. Again Organic Material (which includes your kitchen scraps, chicken manure mixed with hay, in ground composting etc) helps open up the soil for water and plants roots. Learning how to mange high clay soils can be your friend. Clay has some characteristics that are helpful growing plants in the deserts. Clay retains more water helps extend the periods between irrigations. Clay soils believe it or not are more fertile. It retains nutrients a lot better. In the desert you will not get rid of calcium. In our soil the calcium is well disseminated to hard pans in the soil like cement. Our soil when we moved here the upper inches was a little over 8. Now with Organic Materials-and soil sulfur the pH is now about 7.8.

Organic material is the best cure for all types and textures of soil. There are elements in the soil that make it alkaline, the biggest ones are calcium and sodium. Sulfur helps. Use organic materials that do not include calcium like egg shells, ashes, and salt bush, tamarisk or salt cedar leaves.

To find out what kind of soil you have, use the NRCS Soil Survey Web Platform:

How to use the NRCS Soil Survey Web Platform to find information about your soil using the NRCS Soil Survey web application.

I don't know about you, but I've learned a lot from my efforts as a "citizen scientist." I will definitely keep using my beneficial "no waste" mulch of coffee, tea, banana peels and hair! While being grateful for our edible forest of native desert plants that don't require so much care to provide us with shade, food and a habitat for critters. 

More information: 

Do Legumes Add Nitrogen to the Soil? -Garden Myths

Recommended by a facebook friend: DIY soil analysis jar

To be continued...