Monday, June 13, 2022

Excessive Heat Wave

I was nervous about going on a two week vacation and leaving my precious plants to be hand watered by a kind neighbor during the hottest month of the year. Our cisterns and water barrels had long since run out of rainwater. In preparation for the trip, I started deep watering all the plants a few days ahead.  Dan had read that when the temperture is over 80 degrees that plants can't transpire, so they don't take in water. Since we don't have a drip system, I had to wait until it cooled off in the evening or early morning. I used that time to gather my Zero Waste assessories for our road trip.

For our deep watering we use a method recommended by a local arborist. Dan had drilled two small holes in five gallon buckets.  We use three buckets of water on each of our three jujube trees. It takes 20 minutes for each bucket to drain. Luckily, we have three buckets or I would have been there all night. I did that same process with our moringa, pomegranate, fig, and curry plants. The day before we left, I even watered our cactus garden, agaves, and an acacia that hadn't started to leaf yet. On the night before we left, I used the hose to slow water our hummingbird trumpets that usually get our sink rinse water everyday.

Meanwhile, I took pictures of our plants to include in the directions for our neighbor (which included filling the bird bath.) I didn't get much sleep that night worrying about my plants and all that water!  I guess you can call me a parachute plant parent. And I still had to plant my sweet potato slip in the morning! 

After a lovely family vacation, I finally got the nerve to text our neighbor to see how things were doing. She said the plants were doing well. She enjoyed two tasty cherry tomatos. Whew! 

When we got home three days later, I was shocked to find that Tucson was under an excessive heat warning! 

One of the tomato plants was looking pretty sad (despite having several tomatoes on it.) Our mint plant that was strugging before the trip was now dead along with some tomato volunteers. (Mint never makes it in our yard... Go figure...) Some of the leaves on our sunchokes were a little crispy.  Oddly, our moringa had flowers. Usually they get flowers after they are really big. And one of them was really struggling.

After 12 hours on the road, I stayed up late watering my emaciated plants. 

I was actually surprised to find that the sweet potato plant was flourishing with new leaves (in the compost under the bird netting cage.)

And the curry and some of the tomatoes were doing just fine. Thanks to my kind neighbor! Of course our native plants were doing great. The acacia now has leaves, and the mesquite has lots of pods. I was surprised to see how well the jujubes were doing. All three have lots of little fruit! Maybe those shiny leaves make it durable?  

Since I got home I've been kind of sleep deprived, staying up late and getting up early trying to water the plants in my garden before it reaches 80 degrees.  It was 78 degrees at 5:30 this morning! When am I supposed to water them?!! We haven't even washed our dirty clothes from the trip yet because the greywater irrigates the fig and pomegranite and we don't want to waste that water if they aren't taking it in. 

When I decided to write this blog, I figured I'd reach out to some gardening experts on Facebook.  

I heard that plants can't take in water after the temperature reaches 80 degrees. With this extreme heat way into the night, how are you watering your plants? Also, are there some plants (heritage figs and pomagranite or native trees maybe) that have adapted to take in water after 80 degrees?

Jared Kitty Katt McKinley from Spade Foot Nursury gave the best reply: 

That is an overstatement. And it’s a dangerous one because it leads people to making bad choices. One must water plants when it’s hot and dry. Plants most certainly take in water above 80°. It’s kind of ludicrous to suggest otherwise. Especially native plants that evolved with monsoon. Sometimes institutions take research done in other places and extrapolate. I would pay that advice no heed as it really doesn’t apply to our climate. Plants cool themselves off by taking in water and letting the water evaporate from their leaves. If they weren’t taking in water after 80° they would die. One can always expect some wilting and visual struggle in some plants, particularly new plants in summer. But as someone who has started countless plants in summer, I’m here to tell you that so long as you water consistently and correctly, your plant (given it’s appropriate for our climate and properly planted) will make it. For whatever it’s worth, I think it’s best to water in the morning in summer if only because you don’t want a plant to spend it’s driest hours during a hot part of the day.

Thanks, Jared! So what did I learn from all this?  That I should check with our local desert plant experts before getting sleep deprived. I think it's best to water early in the morning or late at night so the water doesn't all evaporate.  We need to get those other two cisterns installed before the big monsoon rains start! And hook up a string of clay ollas to them so they can be self watering! I'm so grateful to have native mesquites and drought adapted jujubes that do great on just the water that sinks into their catchment basins - and palo verde volunteers that shade our little garden.  

I plan to finally get a good nights sleep... well... as soon as I water the moringas. 

Larger considersations:

Planning for Urban Heat Resilience


Friday, June 10, 2022

Reduced Waste Road Trip


I have been meaning to write a Zero Waste blog for sometime now.  But, to be honest, our life-style is Reduced Waste at best. We try to practice the 5 R's of Sustainability: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost).  But our consumer culture makes it hard. COVID made it next to impossible. Our neighborhood grocery store, Sprouts, started bagging everything in the bulk section and wouldn't even allow us to use our reusable produce bags. Boo! 

We did what we could. We bagged our own groceries so we could use our reusable grocery bags. We found other ways to cut back on single-use plastic like brewing sun tea and using kitchen scraps to make veggie broth (that I store in repurposed mayonaise jars.) But we also wanted to support our favorite local restuarants by getting take-out once a week. We were shocked (and upset) by the huge pile of plastic and styrofoam take-out packaging. We are forever grateful to restuarants like Zayna's that offer paper takeout containers. Those are the ones we frequented most often.  

Recently, we were presented with a new challenge...traveling during COVID. When we got news that my family was getting together for my mom's 80th birthday party, I really wanted to be there. Since the mask mandate had been lifted, we decided it would be safest to drive to the reunion in Wisconsin. Road trip! We don't own a vehicle, so Dan rented a mini-van (which got surprisingly good gas mileage.) 

I prepared for our "Reduced Waste Road Trip" by gathering our zero waste accessories: re-usable grocery bags, a travel coffee mug, water bottles, take-out containers, toiletries, etc. Since we had a van, we had plenty of room. When Dan saw the plates and bowls I set out, he said I was getting carried away. (While he was packing his coffee grinder and french press...) He claimed we wouldn't need them since we would be eating at restuarants - one of the joys of traveling cross country.

So off we went, our refillable water bottles and a travel coffee mug at hand. We simply filled them up when we stopped at rest areas. No single-use water bottles for us! Nope. When it came time for lunch, it was my son Jeremy's job to look up restuarants that had outdoor dining and vegetarian options. When we arrived, he brought the reusable take-out containers. Jeremy loves left-overs, so he had already gotten in the habit of bringing plastic bowls with lids when he ate out.  At this point in our journey, we'd already saved at least 8 plastic water bottles, 3 to-go cups, and a styrofoam take-out container from the landfill. And it was just lunch time on the first day of a three day drive. Yay us! 

At the hotel, we unpacked our toiletries including a shampoo bar (no plastic bottle) and our own bar of unpackaged soap (so we don't have to use theirs.) I even brought deodorant in a cardboard container. We brought homemade toothpaste (baking soda and coconut oil) in an old caper jar. And...yes...that's a plastic toothbrush.  I didn't have any bamboo toothbrushes left, so I used a plastic one I found in my toiletry bag. One of the principles of Zero Waste is to use up what you already have first. The baggie we carry the soap in has been reused for 5 years! Full disclosure... Dan did use one of the hotel's disposabable glasses for brushing his teeth. But he brought it along to use for the rest of the trip.

I had my handy-dandy water bottle by my bed with ice from the ice machine. Good thing I brought two bottles (one for tea, one for water) because the opening of the other one was too small for the ice cubes. 

I also brought real silverware and our reusable plastic bowls (Jeremy's take out containers). These came in handy when we took advantage of the continental breakfast.  I used my reusable plastic bowl in place of the styrofoam plates the hotel provided.  I just wish I had my own cup for the orange juice. Doh! 

We just needed to pack some lightweight plastic cups and plates into our handy Zero Waste bag. Dan! 

When we got to our hotel room in Wisconsin, we unpacked the big comfort items. In addition to Dan's coffee grinder and french press, I brought a glass jar to make ice tea in.  Since I couldn't make sun tea, I microwaved it and let it cool off over night.  


We were so happy to see that the hotel was making some attempt at recycling...

They encouraged customers to use the same towel several times to conserve water - which we did!

Inspired by these signs, I used shampoo from the dispensers instead of our bar shampoo. They must be refilling these bigger containers, right? But I found out from the housekeepers that they just replace them. Oh, well. It was an opportunity to teach them about plastic waste, "Did you know that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish?" 

We picked up some fruit and other goodies from the store - in my reusable produce and bulk bags...

I always keep a few produce bags and a light grocery bag or two in my purse. You never know when you'll go shopping... 

I love shopping at thift stores while on vacation. You learn a lot about a town by what ends up at the Goodwill. Check out what I found!  A sweater I have been searching for forever, shorts, a new hat and even a Dutch girl souvenir. The birthday girl found some great books. Recycled and reused! (Look up how much fast fashion ends up in the landfill.) 

I just wish I had gotten a small drinking glass...

Here's to finding an outdoor coffee shop with paper take-out containers! Good to know there are like-minded people out there. 

Even the gas station in Oklahoma encouraged customers to use re-usable glasses... 

I know what you're thinking. It's supposed to be a vacation! Was it worth it?  I think so. It's actually kinda fun. And it feels good to know that we kept all of that plastic and styrofoam from two weeks on the road out of the landfill! All it takes is a little forethought and before long it becomes a habit like brushing your teeth with a bamboo toothbrush.

Check out how our plants did while we were away....

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Yummy palo verde seeds ripe for the pickin'

Want a native food snack that isn't as spiny as some?  You might have some growing in your own yard!  I spotted these palo verde pods hanging over the backyard fence. 

It's so much easier to pick them from the tree then bending to pick them after they sprout in my garden!

If you gotta pull them from the ground, you can munch on the new sprouts!  

But they won't be as tender and sweet as the green palo verde seeds. Just crack open the pod and pop the seed in your mouth.  Unlike mesquite where you can gnaw on or suck the ripe pod, the palo verde pods are bitter.  But the seeds are so delicious - reminisent of edamame. (And you don't have to blanch and salt them.) 

Yum! Palo verde seeds! 

Unless you want to blanch and freeze them... But why wait when you can have a yummy snack right now?  

nom nom nom

For more ways to serve palo verde, check out this blog

And here's how to harvest mesquite

Sunday, May 15, 2022

UPDATE on Spring Garden in Desert Food Forest

In my April 6th blog I wrote about my little experiments of growing a vegetable garden amongst my desert plants at strategic spots around the front yard.  Here are the results of those experiments and what I learned from them. 

I planted one of the tomato plants in a hole left from pulling out a dead milkweed. The soil around the roots looked really good so I thought the tomato would do well out there in the sun. I protected it from lizards and squirrels with a plant cage.  As you can see, this tomato plant did great. I was delighted when it got flowers. But I wasn't sure if it was a self-pollinating tomato, so I took the cage off of it for a few days.  

To be honest the plant cage was a little bit of a pain. I had to remove the gravel I had built up around the cage to keep out the pesky lizards. And it was difficult getting the spike that held the cage down back into the hard ground. One day I spotted some termites in the woodchip mulch dangerously close to the tomato plant, so I had to remove the cage to pull the mulch back. Another time I had to remove it to pull off some low branches that were getting brown from touching the ground. But all in all I'd say it was worth it. Look at all those tomatoes that the squirrels can't get! 

opening the cage
The next experiment wasn't as successful. I wanted to see how our tomato plant would do in the mesquite guild. I was hoping the tomato plant would benefit from the nitrogen the bean tree fixed in the ground. I don't know if there was too much shade, mulch or the hard ground that kept the plant from thriving, because I damaged the trunk when I pulled off a low hanging leaf. 😒

Next are the Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes). I hand water all of my garden to control how much water I use. I was concerned about how much water I used to get these started.  I watered them several times a day to keep the bulbs moist as recommend.  It was really good for soil. Check out the mushrooms growing there! 

But all the new watering used up the rainwater in my cisterns. Once they were established I cut back the water to once a day.  They seem to be alright with it. I think the living purslane mulch helps retain the water.  I heard that plants don't take in water above 80 degrees. So I try to water them in the morning just after 8 a.m. (Now that it is getting hotter, it's more like 7 a.m.) 

Jerusalem artichokes now hitting the top of the cage 

Unfortunately, I didn't get directions on the sunchokes before planting them. I found out later that they would crowd out any other plant nearby. So when they got bigger, I removed the tomato I planted under the same cage.  I dug the hole in the new spot first, then I carefully dug around the roots of the tomato plant and grabbed some of the surrounding soil to plant with it.  

Might have been better not to do this during the heat of the day... It was looking really sad. I even had to prop up the wilty branches with some sticks.  I thought it might be a goner. 

But I watered it and concocted a shade contraption for it.

I went ahead and harvested some purslane for lunch while the sunchokes were uncovered.  

The tomato plant is thriving on the south facing wall that gets plenty of sun and occasional shade from the toilet planter (don't ask... lol)  I try to water the tomatoes at the same time everyday at 8 a.m. before it gets too hot.  

Well, that was a fun and mostly successful experiment!  I learned a lot and didn't kill most of my plants. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Planting my spring garden in my desert food forest

There are numerous humorous memes about gardeners' addiction to buying too many plants. I get it. I did some of my own shopping at the recent Organic Gardeners Spring Plant Sale. I got some Jerusalem artichoke, cherry tomato, oregano, peppermint and mint starts and a free succulent clipping. 

My first task was figuring out a place to plant them that would give them the best chance to thrive. The woman who sold me the Jerusalem artichokes suggested that they could go in the same spot where I had previously planted sunflowers - on the south side of the house. There was still some compost left in the ground so I just added rainwater and a little potting soil that Dan had left over from an experiment. I sprinkled some used tea leaves on top as mulch. I went ahead and planted one of the tomato plants next to them to take advantage of the sun on the south facing wall.  

I was a little worried about critters getting to them. This little guy was watching me the whole time.

I remembered how the squirrels had dug up the sweet potatoes I planted in the garden. And Jerusalem artichoke roots are yummy, too. So I put protective cages over them. Good thing too. The next day I caught a squirrel pouncing on it. I think the squirrel and lizard were in cahoots because the squirrel loosened the dirt built up around the bottom of the cage allowing the lizard to get in. So I fortified the bottom of the cage with gravel.

Jerusalem artichoke plants after 8 days 
I found some purslane (my favorite edible weed) along the street and planted it just outside the cage to take advantage of any water run off.  In just two days it grew tiny yellow flowers.  I'm hoping it will spread its seeds. 

I hand-watered with rainwater from our cisterns every few hours to keep the soil moist. I suppose it would have been easier to have a string of ollas or a soaker hose. But this method gives me a chance to stretch my legs, get some fresh air and enjoy watching my plants grow. I like to use a watering can because the light stream prevents erosion of the soil I lovingly built. And hand-watering really teaches you that every drop counts.   

Next, I searched for a place for the other tomato plants. I found a spot with a dead milkweed by a boulder in the front yard.  I pulled it out by the roots. The soil was rich where the roots had been, so I just had to add water. An organic gardener suggested that I pull off the bottom leaves and plant them up to their top leaves to stimulate more root growth for a stronger plant. 

I had a little experiment in mind for the third tomato plant. I wanted to see how it would do as part of a mesquite guild - hoping it would benefit from the nitrogen in the ground. 

I planted the last tomato start in the backyard garden to see how it does in the shade of a palo verde in a thin blanket of compost.

I decided to plant some basil seeds next to it as complimentary plants. They share the water too. This time, I put the cage down first as a guide to see where the seeds should go. 

I secured the sides of the cage by patting down mud around the edges of the cage and placing rocks in the corners. Good thing too!  A squirrel ran right into it twice trying to escape from me.

I also planted some chard and kale seeds in other rows that I had already enriched with compost. Luckily one of our cisterns is near the garden. But it was running out of water! I'm afraid I hadn't thought through how much more water all this would take. 

And I still had to plant the oregano and mint! At least I had an olla to save water on two of the peppermint plants. The water seeps through the terra cotta pots and plants wrap their roots around the pot only taking the water they need. 

But there were still my other plants to water as well.  Our curry, which had grown so full after the monsoon rain, was now struggling.  First, it lost some leaves during the cold snap. Some of the remaining leaves are now browning. I think it was because I was only watering the surface.  

So I decided to deep water it (less often) with a slow drip from two little holes in the 5 gallon bucket.

It's important to learn how much water your plants need in the different seasons - so you don't overwater them. If the plant dies prematurely all the water that went into it is wasted. I recently found out that herbs don't need to be watered very often. I may have lost some herbs from over-watering. 

Luckily it recently rained filling up our big cistern, medium cistern and two smaller water barrels. I just wish we had another cistern (or two) to get us through the dry spells this spring. Because we have already emptied the two smaller blue water barrels and most of the medium cistern. We try not to use too much city water since Arizona is suffering from a 27+ year drought and Lake Mead (where we store our CAP water) is drying up. Conserving water in our landscaping can really make a difference since the largest use of potable water in Arizona is landscaping and as much as 70 percent of residential water use is outdoors. 

Dan and I are fortunate to a have greywater system so we can reuse our washing machine water to help irrigate our drought tolerent fig and pomegranate trees. We carry out sink rinse water to our hummingbird trumpets. We pour the water from steaming our veggies and cooking spaghetti around our trees to nourish the soil. (I leave the salt out of the water.) 

I think the lesson for me is to factor in how much water we can get in our cisterns, water barrels and greywater systems (with some supplemental city water) and grow the amount of plants that fit that budget. No matter how fun my little experiments are...

Here is Watershed Management Group's water budget calculator - if you want to check out how much rainwater and greywater you can get in your home. Have fun!