Thursday, May 11, 2023

Reporter shares my passion for rainwater basins

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while knows how passionate I am about our rainwater harvesting catchment basins. I've been known to share the benefits with anyone who strolls by our yard. I even started a #lovemyrainbasin campaign to promote them. 

If you're looking for a way to conserve water, putting in catchment basins to water native plants is one of the most effective and affordable things you can do. Sure, covering your yard with gravel and drought tolerant cactus and agaves saves water, too. But there are more productive uses for that space that actually enhance our desert environment. With a little love and care, you can create a shady habitat to enjoy the frolicking birds or glean delicious food from your own edible forest.

I recently had the opportunity to share my basins with Clara Migoya, a reporter with the Arizona Republic, who had read about our campaign. 

Spurred on by the water crisis, a few reporters have done mini-stories on our rainwater harvesting features. While I excitedly pointed out the benefits of our basins, they inevitably zoomed in on our rain tanks. So it was refreshing chatting with an environmental reporter who seemed genuinely interested. 

After the usual interview questions, I showed off how our gutters and downspout direct rain into the long basin that nourishes our three jujube trees (Chinese fruit trees). I explained how Dan had to remove a hedge of ugly, aging oleanders before digging the basin and planting the saplings. The tree on the far end grew four times faster than the two that were planted where the oleander had poisoned the soil. Clara snapped pictures as I pointed out how the native grasses slowed down the water, keeping it from washing away the mulch and organic matter. The roots of those grasses also allowed the water to sink in and helped build healthy soil. The basins soaked in so much rainwater, that I haven't had to water the jujube trees this spring. And the two smaller trees have grown nearly as big as the tallest tree! 

The next stop was the right of way basin. Dan rooted out the bermuda grass that had taken over the area, and dug basins around higher mounds where we planted moringa seeds and a wolfberry plant. He filled the basin with woodchip mulch (that has since broken down into soil). And we planted native bunch grass to help the water infiltrate and prevent erosion. Along with the mulch and other organic matter, it creates a sponge to hold the moisture longer.

Three moringa trees, a wolfberry, Mexican honeysuckle, a volunteer desert broom and some wild flowers provide sustenance for a variety of pollinators. We harvest the moringa leaves to add nutrition to various dishes and dry them to make a healthy tea. 

The moringa trees die every winter during a hard freeze. But they come back from the roots in the spring. Native grasses really did their job here. So much water sunk in from the rainy season that we haven't had to water them so far. During a rainstorm the water will continue sinking in long after our 500 gallon cistern is full. Here I'm demonstrating how high the moringa grow during one monsoon season. That means the roots under the surface must be that long as well.   

I pointed out a good angle to shoot our mesquite guild with the slimline rain tanks in the background. Noticing the Audubon's HABITAT AT HOME sign, Clara asked what makes it a habitat. I was happy to point out the native plants in the mesquite guild that provide food and shelter for birds, pollinators, and other desert critters.  

The mesquite tree provides shade and nitrogen to the desert hackberry and our cactus garden. It acts as a "nurse plant" to protect a young saguaro cactus from the harsh desert sun.

You might be asking, "Where is the basin?" Dan built a berm to direct roof water away from the foundation of the house and into a shallow basin. The desert plants were placed on the high end of that basin. I remember when Dan brought home his scrawny "Charlie Brown mesquite tree." Now it is thriving! 

A gravel path separates the other side of the front yard basin where we have planted a native acacia and another variety of hackberry. Birds enjoy shade from these trees as they peck for seeds from volunteer wildflowers and native grasses. A sign proudly proclaims: PLANTS FOR BIRDS. 

No tour of our yard is complete without a stop at our little garden. The garden is watered with rainwater collected in our rain tanks. Yes, I appreciate them, too. The catchment basins conserve water leaving more in the rain tanks to irrigate our garden! 

What a lovely way to spend the afternoon - discussing a shared interest with an inquisitive environmental reporter (and my son Jeremy who took the pictures of us.)  

Clara and I searching for worms in the compost pit

Wanna help promote rainwater harvesting basins?  Share a pic of your favorite basin on your social media pages. Add the hashtag #lovemyrainbasin 

 If you don't have a basin, you can still help out by "liking" or commenting on other people's posts. 

READ CLARA'S ARTICLE (in the Arizona Republic): 

It's free, it's drinkable. Why don't more Arizonans harvest rainwater during a drought?

Friday, April 28, 2023

How to get rid of toxins in your kitchen

The average American is contaminated with 212 synthetic chemicals*

Including pesticides, phthalates, flame retardants, and chemicals used in plastics and other consumer products.

Many of these toxins come from your home, and in particular, your kitchen.

Where they can have a serious effect upon you and your family’s health:

Many common toxins are endocrine disrupting, can cause developmental and reproductive issues, disturb the gut microbiome and have been linked to cancer.

In short, toxic exposure is NOT GOOD.

But there are simple things you can do to reduce your toxic load...

Starting with some simple actions and swaps you can make in your kitchen...

*Statistic obtained from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found 212 chemicals in blood and urine samples.

Another interesting albeit long read is a study by the Environmental Working Group that found an average of 232 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. Read it here.

Reshared from the Zero Waste Cartel

Sunday, April 23, 2023

"Love my rain basin!" campaign

I love my rainwater harvesting basin! 
Most Tucsonans are finally aware that we are in a serious water crisis, but many aren't aware of one of the best solutions available: rainwater harvesting! On a normal year, Tucson gets enough annual rain to provide every Tucsonan's water needs. Since Tucsonans use up to 40% of our water on our landscapes and gardens, collecting rainwater in our yards can go a long way in conserving city water! 

Tucson Water understands that rainwater harvesting and green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) are some of the most impactful actions we can take to save water. The city implemented a GSI policy, now an integral part of their Storm to Shade program. You may have seen curb cuts directing stormwater to native trees along city streets. This program will help us achieve the city's million trees initiative

Tucson Water also encourages customers to harvest the rain in their own yards. In fact, they put their money were their mouth is. They offer a rebate of up to $2000 for installing rainwater harvesting systems. Unfortunately, only about 1% of Tucsonans take advantage of this opportunity. Education is a big factor. 

Rain barrels aren't the only way to harvest the rain. My favorite rainwater harvesting features are the simple catchment basins and berms we use to water our low water trees and plants. During a rainstorm, our catchment basins keep sinking in the water long after our 500 gallon cisterns fill up. Right now, in our front yard, we have several native trees, three jujube trees (Chinese fruit trees) and three moringa trees thriving without any city water - just the water that has been stored under the surface of their mulch covered basins. Did I mention I love my rainwater harvesting catchment basins? 

You might be wondering, "Where are the basins?" Not all basins need to be rock-lined (like those in the Dunbar-Spring neighborhood). Our front yard basins have subtle slopes lined with native bunch grass to prevent erosion and help the water infiltrate.  The organic matter and wood chip mulch holds the moisture longer. A path with red gravel divides the two basins. Our cactus garden and native trees (that need less water) are on the high end of the basins. 

Here's the challenge...

Do you have a catchment basin in your yard? Do you enjoy a lush desert oasis nourished by the rain?  How about sharing that joy? Let's start a campaign! By sharing photos of your basin with your family and friends, we can reach a broader audience than those in my little social media bubble.  

Here's how:

1) Just grab your cell phone and take some lovely pictures of your best rainwater-harvesting catchment basins. (They should be greening up nicely right now.)
2 Share them with your Tucson friends and family in emails or on your personal and neighborhood social media pages.
3) In the subject area above the pic, simply write, "I love my rainwater harvesting basin!" Or "I love my catchment basin because... (fill in the blank) 
4) Include the hashtags:

I'll start the ball rolling with some sample pics of my catchment basins..

Here's a pic of  our basin when it was new and full of woodchip mulch...

Here's that same basin after rain saturated the mulch...

We can keep this campaign going for the different seasons - showing off our basins full of wildflowers in the spring, filled with water during the monsoon season, or even covered with snow in the winter!

Check out our right of way basin. These young moringa trees grew like gangbusters. 

Dan and Pooh measuring how fast one moringa grew in the right of way basin. 

The flowering moringa and the wolfberry are thriving from the rainwater that comes off of the sidewalk and sky... 

Our three jujubes are budding with just the water stored in their own basin.

We already had gutters and a downspout - so Dan just had to dig the basin and plant the jujube trees. The native grasses help to slow down and sink in the water. 

When it rains, I run out into the yard to see how far the water flows in our jujube basin! This time it reached the last tree! The native bunch grass slows down the rushing water. The roots help the water sink into to the basin and hold it like a sponge! 

So I've shown you some of my favorite basin pics. Now it's time to show me yours. Get outside in this gorgeous spring weather and enjoy taking some pics of your inspiring basins. Then post. Easy smeazy. 

When family and friends ask where they can get more information, direct them to Watershed Management Group for their free Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Classes or Sonora Environmental Research Institute (SERI) for the limited income grant and loan program (and their rebate classes.) 

Together we can inspire Tucsonans to enjoy lush desert landscaping while saving municipal water. 

Here's Dan installing our basins...

Finally got my catchment basin!

Friday, April 14, 2023

The life (and death) of a California poppy

I've always wanted to draft a blog on wildflowers, but some other feat of nature - like rain or even snow in the desert - inevitably grabs my attention...  

A while back, I did highlight a few wildflowers in my timely "Good Weeds vs. Bad Weeds" blog.  

But this season we've been blessed with some really spectacular wildflowers - nourished by, not one, but two days of SNOW in our desert town!

Thanks to Jared from Spadefoot Nursery for identifying this native Lacy Sleepy Daisy that is growing along our sidewalk.

The native globe mallow is really showing off it's (orange) colors in our jujube basin! 

Here's how it looks before it flowers - so you don't mistake it for a weed and pick it....

But I'd say the true star of our neighborhood has got to be the California poppy... So I thought I'd do a quick blog about it while it's still around to enjoy!

If you see this plant in your yard, leave it. It's not a weed. 

It won't be long before your California poppy starts to bud...

Please, don't spray Roundup on it... 

like the neighbor who sprayed Roundup right next door

 to the cute toddler who gathers flowers in the neighborhood. 😒

Does this look better than a flower?

Or the bees that I saw pollinating the poppies in my yard! 

If you leave them pods will grow....

Soon after pollination, the petals and stamens fall off, leaving the central cylindrical pointed seed capsule. It elongates as it fills with seed, turning from green to tan with maturity. Pods open explosively, splitting longitudinally and ejecting the seeds up to 6 feet away from the mother plant. 

How fun is that!?

Then the birds eat the seeds and spread them through the neighborhood...

Can't wait for next year to see all the pretty poppies. Well... not in that one neighbor's yard... Oh, you know what I mean!

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