Sunday, August 21, 2016

Our Desert Community Plants the Seeds for a New Doc

Since Dan and I started blogging about our journey to a more sustainable lifestyle we have had the opportunity to come in contact with so many inspiring community groups cultivating an oasis of sustainability here in Tucson.

Emma demonstrates how to shore up a catchment basin.
Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is reviving their cultural traditions by having tribal elders mentor youth on their native foods. Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace re-built the Mission Garden, a living museum, to demonstrate how to grow crops from pre-Columbian to those that Father Kino established in that location.  Native Seeds/SEARCH 
maintains community food traditions by preserving diverse and heritage seeds. Manzo ElementaryChangemaker High and City High tend to the next generation of desert gardeners. Through their community garden programs, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona doesn’t just feed the hungry, but teaches them to grow food for themselves. Iskashitaa Refugee Network assists refugees in becoming self-sufficient (and reduces food waste) by harvesting fruit that would otherwise go unpicked. Dunbar Springs neighborhood worked to make their street an example of an edible, urban forest irrigated by rainwater. Watershed Management Group is building a community that works together to restore Tucson’s aquifer by implementing rainwater harvesting techniques and desert landscaping in people's yards, gardens, streets and businesses. These groups (among others) are gleaning from Tucson’s rich cultural history ways to live in harmony with the desert. This is truly an exciting time to be a part of this vibrant community!

Shooting the first segment with Brad Lancaster at Dunbar Springs
I decided to make a documentary about the accomplishments of these communities with the hope that it would inspire others. So I approached activist/ documentarian Evan Grae Davis with the idea. Evan had just read Edible Baja Arizona’s article about Tucson being the first US city to be designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy for the same advancements. He was excited to tell our story!

Our last shoot was for the rainwater harvesting segment featuring Watershed Management Group. Dan and I have planted our roots into the WMG community. In addition to being members of their co-op, Dan recently got the good news that he was accepted into their docent training program!  We love being a part of a community that is working to restore our groundwater and get our rivers flowing again.

Here we are shooting in Jason and Connie Carder's yard. (See Jason working alongside of Emma in the pic above.) They had 3 roadside catchment basins (wow!) and berms installed to control the runoff after their house had been flooded during a recent storm.

Happy owner Connie Carder
Co-op members Grant and Carrie Stratton share why they volunteer
Where's Waldo...uh...Dan? 
Emma helps a co-op volunteer arrange rocks 
Two hard workers: workshop instructor Emma Stahl-Wert and my baby Dan
A little patch of purslane ignited a conversation about edible weeds. Later in the day, Dan heard someone call out, "Don't step on the purslane!" A woman after my own heart! It's so great to work alongside kindred spirits who feel as passionate as we do about getting our rivers flowing again and protecting purslane

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Are you a good weed or a bad weed?

You may have heard the saying: one person's weed is another person's wildflower. Since I began harvesting edible weeds, I've really started looking at them. Really seeing them. Some are pretty even before they bloom. They make lovely ground cover. But we've been taught to weed out any that aren't in Better Homes and Gardens. Perhaps businessmen called them weeds because they are free. They can't make money off of them, so they invented weed killer. There are other reasons for weeds like nourishing or repairing the soil. 

I guess I would call weeds unwanted, intrusive pants. Most of us call Bermuda grass a weed. It's such nuisance! But my husband Dan sees it as a desert survivor. It needs very little water, and you can't get rid of it. It's here to stay! The lawn in our neighborhood park is made up mostly of Bermuda grass. Dan also dried up some and used it (successfully!) as mulch for our gardens. It's all a matter of perspective.

We have a weed (yes! I call it a weed!) that starts off innocently enough with two sweet little leaves, and then grows into a pretty bush with fuzzy light green needles.

These "bushes" climbed up the garden fence and over the top and dropped tiny red berries (seeds) into our garden. I spent hours pulling those bushes that lined the fence out by their deeply embedded roots. These cute little weeds are the bane of my existence.  Every morning there are new ones to pick out of our garden. On a good day, it's just a handful. But I usually fill up a medium mixing bowl. These bushes took over one quarter of our yard and threatened to take over the whole alleyway before Dan and I spent a brutal morning pulling them out. Dan has since planted another garden in that plot. The soil under these weeds was so rich!

Anyone know what this is? 
One person's weed is another person's fresh greens. In fact, the Tohono O'odham called purslane and amaranth summer greens.

Last summer we discovered purslane behind the neighbor's wall.  I was determined to make sure that the patch returned. I bet Dan thought I was crazy for pulling Bermuda grass in the utility road. But I wanted to make sure people didn't use roundup on my favorite edible weed. For a long time nothing grew. Until... we had a couple of big storms. Then we had horse purslane. More rain, more purslane. Common purslane and amaranth! It grew every place I had pulled out the grass!

horse purslane

Our alleyway buffet
Nearly everyday we pick some purslane or amaranth from our backyard buffet. You can snap off common purslane (with the tear-shaped leaves) and pop them in your mouth. To me it tastes like a combination of parsley and citrus. Some people think it tastes slightly peppery. It's great raw, stems and all, for salads. It's also yummy sauteed like spinach, on meat, in soups and sauces.

If you snap off the branches where they meet the stem, you can leave the rest of the plant in the ground to grow more!

We've got tons of native horse purslane growing in our alleyway. You can identify it by it's round leaves. Unfortunately horse purslane makes my throat scratchy if eaten raw. So I saute the leaves or cook them in sauces or soups and enjoy all that omega 3.

Horse purslane sauteed with garlic is delish on crusty bread with goat cheese!

It was a pleasant surprise when amaranth popped up next to the purslane! Our guide to native foods suggested that we eat the leaves when the plant is still small. If you pull off those on the outside and leave behind the little ones in the middle, the plant will produce more leaves to eat. 

Dan puts uncooked amaranth in his omelet, then tops it with sauteed purslane and salsa! 

Who gets to decide what's an ugly weed and what's a useful plant? It all depends on how you look at it. When I walk down the street, I don't see pesky weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. I see lunch.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rain in Tucson! A Reason to Celebrate?

Streets flooding, cars submerged in underpasses, drain pipes spouting...

Stone underpass photo by Alfonso Sahagun Casaus
This is what we call "flood control" in Tucson.

Our infrastructure was designed so rainwater is directed into the streets where it creates hazardous driving conditions until it evaporates in the hot desert sun. This makes me crazy!

A catchment basin
The other day, while waiting for my friend at a neighborhood restaurant, I noticed that water was flowing out of their parking lot and into the street. I figured they had left the hose on so I went to investigate. I followed the stream of water up the side of the parking lot where it made a hard right turn then went along until the end of the pavement, then under a cute pedestrian bridge and to a WASH. So the water collected in the wash was being directed out into the street! Arghhh!  While Dan and I couldn't wait to earn enough co-op hours to get our own catchment basin to "plant the water," precious agua was being directed into the street to evaporate!

This is Tucson recently posted the article, "Here's why those same Tucson streets flood every time it rains."  According to the article, the reason we have flooding is because it would cost $100 million to fix the 47 projects that flood every year. The attitude of the state officials is "Why bother? Just leave the water in the street and it will evaporate." But that is just the point. We need an infrastructure that directs the rain so it sinks into our depleted aquifer instead of just letting it evaporate. There is actually enough rainfall to supply water for every person in Tucson! That doesn't seem to be our representatives priority - even with Tucson suffering from a 20 year drought.

Curb cuts get rainwater off of city streets to water native plants and our aquifer.
Watershed Management Group has come up with a solution to our water woes! And the solution is in our own backyard! And front yard! They are encouraging people to irrigate desert landscaping with our abundant rainwater! By working together to "plant the rain" with cisterns, road cuts, and rainwater harvesting we can restore our ground water and get the rivers flowing again! How amazing is that!? The idea is to keep water in your yard instead of running off into the street - directing rainwater to irrigate native plants, fruit trees, and gardens while sinking it into the ground.

A while ago we made some minor adjustments in our yard to make use of the runoff to water our Mexican Honeysuckle.

You might recall me frantically hacking at the bricks that were trapping the water on our patio. (It wasn't a pretty sight!) Dan had suggested that if I used the right tool for the job, I could get that brick out lickety-split (actually that's my mom's word) with the brick intact.

Turns out Dan was r-r-right. Using his new pick, Dan got a row of bricks by the cactus garden out in 10 minutes. He was mostly done before I managed to get the cell phone. (But, to be fair, the bricks weren't even half as deep as mine!)

Yesterday's monsoon was the perfect time to test how well they drained.... After three hours of raining, our "wading pool" drained in a few minutes! And I have to admit, Dan's drained better!

We can use a similar technique to get water off of our city streets! By putting in curb cuts, rainwater is directed to roadside catchment basins to irrigate native trees and restore our aquifer!


By working together we can take advantage of our abundant rainfall to make our city greener, save city water, and get rainwater out of our city streets! Making use of all that glorious rain is a great reason to celebrate!