Saturday, January 1, 2022

Getting Ready for the Freeze

At last! Winter has descended on our desert town. While there are joys to be had - like nearly an inch of rain that filled up all our cisterns -  winter also brings with it some challenges. 

I've learned (the hard way) that there are some preparations I need to make around our yard to be ready for the freeze. And there are some things that I am still learning - like what to do with the basil... 

After the big rain this summer, our three moringa trees grew so big and had pods (drumsticks) for the first time. What a delight it was to see them flourish and to enjoy the bountiful harvest of leaves, small pods, and flowers!  I will be so sad to see them go. From experience of winters past, I know that our moringa (in the right-of-way with nothing to protect them) die during the hard freeze. In fact, the whole trunk gets moldy inside. The good news is that that they usually come back again from the roots by the next spring. But I feel a bit more secure when I wrap some insulation piping around the bottom of the trunks. Here it is all tied up with string.  

The trunks grew so thick this year, that even two pieces of piping didn't fit around them all. So I wrapped a used plastic mailer around the thickest ones. You know, the envelopes with the bubble wrap in them? It felt good to re-purpose that packaging too. We'll see how it does. 

We had so many edible leaves this year, that we put out a call for people to glean some, but we still had plenty left.

The moringa were starting to lose their leaves in the cold. So I started pulling off the leafless branches and cutting them into small pieces to add to the decaying mulch. That's what Brad Lancaster calls "Chop and Drop." I just love free mulch! 

The day after I got the insulation around the trunks, it started to pour. I knew it was supposed to freeze the next night (Saturday), so I rushed out into the storm and started harvesting some more of the nutrious leaves. 

I wrapped a rubber band around them and hung them to dry. 

Since we will be cutting back the trunks when the cold season ends, I decided I would try a little experiment. I cut one of the thick trunks to see if I could propagate it. 

Here I am carrying the trunk - branches, flowers, and all - to the house. 

I pulled off the branches and cut it into two pieces and planted them about 6 inches into soil  (a mixture of dirt and potting soil.) Yeah, I understand this isn't the right season to propagate this way. It needs to be 70 degrees. But I thought I would start it in the house and plant it when it warms up. (If it works...)  I heard that one gardener had started some in water in the house. 

I also left some test branches to see if these larger trees could make it through a freeze and they did!  I think it was because of the deep watering it got the day before. 

UPDATE 3:50 p.m. The branches still seem to be intact, but the leaves are wilting and dying.

Like I said, it's an experiment... 

Speaking of experimenting... After getting a variety of ideas on what to do with my basil before the freeze,  I decided to try out a few of the suggestions. 

I headed out to the garden to protect what I could of our basil. 

I finally get to try this gardening cage. 

I covered it with an old cloth. I heard it should reach all the way to the ground. I did my best.

Then I dug up one of the smaller basils and planted it in a hanging pot that I will keep in the house until after the freeze. 

I ended up planting three basil plants in the soil that they were grown in. I watered them with rainwater from our cistern. 

Someone suggested that I harvest it before the freeze. I harvested a whole bunch that were getting really tall and going to seed. 

While I was harvesting it, I got a nice surprise. I uncovered a volunteer tomato plant! 

We decided that this little guy deserved the best chance to survive the freeze. So I cut the bottom off a plastic milk bottle for shelter. 

I had done the same thing to protect some cilantro sprouts from the critters in our garden... 

That night it rained. Which was great because it completely filled up our new cistern! Deep watering also helps protect plants from the freeze.*

I covered up our compost with an old table cloth so it wouldn't get over saturated and become anaerobic. 

And I managed to find another one to cover up the cloth I put over the basil.  

I  happily carried my basil bounty back to the house. 

Can't wait to see how my little experiments turn out. In the meantime, we'll enjoy the harvest!

Starting with this tasty pesto! 

Wishing you and yours an abundant New Year!


All you need to know about frost protection in your Tucson garden -*

6 Tips for Protecting your Warm-Climate Garden from Freezing Temperatures -growinginthegarden

Why we put Styrofoam cups on cacti and other Tucson winter gardening tips
Tips for desert gardening in the winter
-  This Is Tucson

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Tucson's Green Stormwater Infrastructure: An Example to Other Cities

Tucson is known for many things: the heat, delicious Mexican food, lovely winters that attract snowbirds (and other birds), outdoor recreation, ranking 48th in school funding, and our friendly small town feel. We have a lot to be proud of too - from our biking trails (the Loop rocks!) to our City of Gastronomy designation.  It may surprise you that Tucson is also known for our innovative water programs. Tucson far surpasses Phoenix in water conservation and rainwater harvesting installations. Our Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) program is still fairly new, yet it is already gaining a reputation as an example for other arid cities. 

Brad Lancaster (who installed the first guerilla curb cuts in the now lush Dunbar-Spring neighborhood) has become a world renowned water harvesting champion. Brad and other water harvesting enthusiasts, including Watershed Management Group, advocated for the city's Green Infrastructure program. On September 4, 2019 the Mayor and Council approved the GSI Program Proposal!

GSI is any constructed landscaping feature that uses stormwater in combination with natural processes to perform ecological services. Those services include managing stormwater (to prevent flood damage), using rainwater to support shade trees and other desert plants to cool our city streets, create a habitat for desert critters and sequester carbon to fight climate change.  

It is recommended that Green Stormwater Infrastructure be installed to irrigate many of the trees that are being planted as a part of Mayor Romero's #Tucson Million Trees program.  

You may have noticed curb cuts directing street water into right of way basins with native plants...

properly maintained right of way basin

Unfortunately, not all GSI installations are good examples.  A series of basins constructed on Stone Avenue had palo verde trees that fell over because they were planted in the bottom of the basin and got root rot. Live and learn. One of the first principles of rainwater harvesting is to observe how the system works and then adjust accordingly.

You may have seen some unsightly basins filled with trash and weeds. One of the issues with the basins is they need to be maintained. They tend to collect trash and invasive weeds like buffel or bermuda grass that block the entrance of the basin and prevent it from working properly.  

A group of water professionals and citizens learn how to monitor GSI

The city is aware and is making strides in correcting the issue. On May 1, 2020, a new Green Stormwater Infrastructure fee was included on utility service statements for residents and businesses within the City of Tucson.

The city's new GSI Program will:

*Provide a funding source for maintaining hundreds of existing GSI features in city neighborhoods
*Support growing more trees and plants on streets, and in parks and public areas using stormwater as a primary water source
*Address and reduce flooding issues on neighborhood streets
*Put rain/stormwater runoff to beneficial use irrigating plants
*Reduce stormwater pollution
*Shade and cool streets, sidewalks, bikeways, and parking areas
*Beautify neighborhoods
*Provide an affordable alternative to building and maintaining expensive underground stormwater infrastructure*

This fee is assessed based on customers’ water use at a rate of 13 cents per Ccf (about $1 per month for the average residential customer), and will raise about $3 million each year to build and maintain projects throughout the city that capture stormwater runoff from public streets and parking lots, and divert it into vegetated water harvesting areas. These kinds of projects are called green stormwater infrastructure, or GSI.

As I mentioned, one of the first principles of rainwater harvesting is to observe how the system works and then adjust accordingly. The city's new GSI system is no exception. There have been some incidents in which city maintenance workers (some outside contractors) weren't aware of how GSI systems work and have unwittingly harmed the system by removing vital native vegetation or over-pruning desert trees. This is very frustrating and disheartening for those who worked hard to install or maintain the systems.

I have attended Low Impact Development (LID) meetings where these issues have been discussed. The city reps listened to our concerns and are doing what they can to solve them. They are working on solutions that include setting up a monitoring system and implementing training for maintenance workers. Dan and I recently participated in both.

Here we are learning how to use the monitoring app on our cell phones.

The apps were used to record the type of water harvesting feature (in this case traffic calming chicanes), inflow and outflow, whether or not the inflow is obstructed with sediment, materials it is made out of (rocks or mulch), the kind of vegetation, invasive weeds, if it needs maintenance.  There was also a place to post pics. 

Dan took lots of pictures including this chicane that was overgrown with bermuda grass. 

While Dan was busy taking pics,  I went ahead and picked up some trash. I felt that if we want to be a good example we need to leave the neighborhood better than we found it.  

Dan and I spotted a lot of invasive buffel grass in the basins. I didn't want it to spread throughout the neighborhood, so I decided to pick what I could out by the roots. It was pretty easy to pull out in the soft basin soil. I was careful not to let the seeds disperse since that would totally defeat the purpose, right? So I carefully broke off the stem below them (see pic below) and placed the seeds in a plastic bag I found nearby. Then I sealed the bag tight so they won't fly out when the trash truck picks it up. 

If you decide to do this kind of work, it's recommended that you wear protective clothing like closed toed shoes, a shade hat, light weight long sleeve shirt, long pants, and gloves. (I know. I know. I didn't. But I wish I had.)  Also be mindful of your surroundings, especially traffic. 

While we were checking out one basin, I got a nice surprise. I found some volunteer sorghum. I went ahead and gleaned the seeds to plant in our greywater basin. We've found that sorghum (from the birdseed the squirrels planted in our yard) helps the water to infiltrate better. Not to mention...the birds like it! 

It was great seeing city and county employees (including those from Tucson Water) who had rallied for Green Infrastructure join interested citizens (like me and Dan) on a Saturday morning to see how our green infrastructure is doing.  They really do care! 

And they didn't just leave it there.  After recording the needs of the GSI, the city held excellent maintenance training that included how it works, how to identify useful native plants vs. invasive, and how to properly prune (or not prune) desert trees.  Attendees included city workers, landscapers, U of A maintenance personnel and even some interested parties from New Mexico and Mexico! 

Makes me proud to be a Tucsonan! 

More Information: 

For the Love of Tucson: Creating a Desert Oasis to Combat Climate Change

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Horse Purslane Mulch

horse purslane provides living and dry mulch for our yard 

You might remember how our yard transformed into a "glorious habitat for pollinators" after the abundant rain this summer. While some people might call them weeds, we were delighted to have this patch of horse purslane as living mulch to slow down the water (preventing erosion) and allow the water to sink in while nourishing the soil. Our edible forest flourished. Our moringa trees grew crazy big and our jujube produced more fruit than we could eat! 

I pulled out the purslane along our path so it would look intentional.  It's super easy to pull!  

Neighbors complimented us on how lovely our yard looked. 

pile of pulled purslane 

If you pull it before it goes to seed, it makes good compost too - especially if you have a hot compost pile that kills any remaining seeds.  

When the pile started to get brown I broke it up into small pieces to replace the wood chip mulch that was decomposing in our basin. Free mulch! 

The rest of the purslane morphed to burgundy with the season.  

Instead of seeing the beauty in the new shade, I worried what the neighbors might think about it -  especially the purslane that the ants got to. It looked pretty weird without its leaves. So I decided to cut it up into mulch too.

In retrospect, I may have jumped the gun.  I heard that some farmers in Wilcox were using purslane as a cover crop. So I googled, "What does purslane add to the soil?

Purslane grows close to the ground and spreads out to create a thick mat that suppresses other weeds and helps to keep the soil cool and moist. This living mulch can be a great benefit to the garden but also it must be managed.

I guess it would have been better for the soil to leave it in until the roots decomposed into organic matter. After learning that, I waited until the purslane dried up before breaking it into smaller pieces.

Notice the red horse purslane in the foreground and the dried straw-like mulch in the background...

At one Master Gardeners presentation, they mentioned that we don't have a lot of organic matter in our desert soil. Is it any wonder when we dig out all the native plants (weeds), rake up the leaves, and even use Roundup that kills the weeds, the soil, the insects and microbes in it. I hope that one day we learn to value our health and healthy soil above superficial "appearances."

A few years ago, I spent weeks pulling Bermuda grass and invasive Russian Thistle out of the alleyway to make room for edible weeds. I dubbed it my "Alleyway Buffet." So I was happy with the patch of horse purslane that become a habitat for butterflies and other pollinators. I watched in awe as the birds swept down to nosh on the purslane seeds. 

alleyway and the area of our future 3 Sisters Garden

Imagine my shock when I caught a neighbor spraying Roundup in the alleyway behind his house - right across from the children's playground and our 3 Sisters Garden. If he had just waited, it would have dried on it's own in a week or so. I would have been happy to use it as mulch! Instead it's going into the landfill.   

Here I am raking up the poisoned horse purslane (including some in our 3 Sisters Garden where the Roundup had spread when it rained... ) We asked the neighbor if we could spread some gravel that was under our eucalyptus tree behind his yard as a natural weed repellent.

Meanwhile, our front yard basin is covered with a bed of free organic horse purslane mulch. I can't wait to see how it keeps the moisture in the ground when it rains and then breaks up into organic matter for the soil. 

More Information: