Wednesday, January 24, 2018

For the love of Tucson: Creating a desert oasis to combat climate change

When I first moved to Tucson, it rained most every day during monsoon season. I remember waiting for it to cool off in the evening so we could take the little ones to the pool. Inevitably we would watch from the car as a storm swept by. Then we would enjoy the most luminous sunsets as we swam - storm clouds catching the brilliant hues of the setting sun. That was the beginning of my love affair with this stunning desert. But it wasn’t until I witnessed the ravages of record heat and sparse rain on our own little monsoon garden that my heart became totally invested in fighting the effects of climate change on our desert town.

I've often pondered how climate change would affect Tucson.  Nobody knows exactly.  But, from what I've learned, climate change often seems to intensify the extreme weather of a particular area. In that case, Tucson would continue to experience rising temperatures, prolonged droughts and more severe flash floods. That means even more flood damage as storms further erode the banks of hard, dried river beds.

The desert will eventually return to it's natural state with or without us. But if we don't stop savaging the earth for profit, Tucson could become a stark, barren desert. If we don't change our ways now, even our iconic saguaros won't be able to survive the scorching heat.

I sometimes wonder what will become of my little house after finally paying off my mortgage. If temperatures continue to rise, would my boys still want to live here? Would they even be able to sell the house if they decided to leave? That's one reason I'm dedicated to finding ways to lessen the impact of climate change on our town or at least find ways to live here comfortably.

Anyone who is paying attention knows we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and curb our wasteful consumer lifestyle if we want to stave off climate change. But for Tucson to be more resilient, we need to learn to responsibly use the resources the desert has to offer: the power of the sun, native flora and fauna, and our seasonal rainwater.

We can start by implementing solar power to keep our air-conditioners running and planting native shade trees to cool our neighborhoods. But to be really sustainable we need to start living in harmony with the desert. No, I'm not talking about living off the land like the Hohokam before us. I'm not talking about giving up all of our modern conveniences. (Most of them can be adapted or retrofitted to be more environmentally sound.) I'm talking about restoring as much of the desert habitat as possible in an urban environment. I'm envisioning our neighborhoods as desert oases with edible forests of native plants and desert rain gardens with drought tolerant heritage crops. You've probably seen some lush desert landscaping or cool community gardens popping up around town. That's what inspired Dan and I to plant our own edible forest irrigated with rainwater and greywater and to start experimenting with drought tolerant crops. We are working towards food security.

How do we transition Tucson into a healthy urban desert oasis? The first step is embracing the nature of the desert we inhabit. Stop trying to force it into something it's not. Stop bulldozing it and paving it over for perpetual development. Shut off the sprinklers that water those little patches of grass in front of businesses. Sorry, manicured lawns don't belong in the desert - native plants do. We need to rethink our perception of tidy xeriscape landscaping and stop suffocating our native vegetation with plastic and mounds of gravel. Why on earth are we raking up all that great organic matter that could be nourishing our soil and allowing the rainwater to sink in?

One of the biggest concerns of living in the desert is having a reliable source of water.  Right now Tucson depends on CAP water. A whole coal-powered generating plant was built to run the pumps that push our water 336 miles uphill from the Colorado River. Unfortunately, that source isn't sustainable. As droughts continue, there will be more competition for that diminishing water supply.

The good news is that there is enough annual rainfall to supply every Tucsonan's water needs - if we harvest the storm water. We need to redo our flood control infrastructure so water isn't directed to the streets to evaporate on its way out of town. But we don't have to wait for the city or county to approve expensive infrastructure improvements. We can all incorporate rainwater harvesting features that keep the water in our yards to irrigate our native landscapes, edible forests and drought tolerant gardens.

Diverting roof water to mulch covered catchment basins not only conserves water but helps to restore our aquifers as well. If you wanna see how it's done, you can tour Watershed Management Group's Living Lab and Learning Center. Using a combination of cisterns and earthworks, WMG harvests enough rainwater to meet all of their needs - including irrigating some fruit trees! But more important are their efforts to restore Tucson's aquifers and get our rivers flowing again.

Underground cistern at WMG's living lab

By returning our yards to a more natural state that allows rainwater to sink in, our hope is that it will replenish the Tucson basin and get the rivers flowing year around.

But I have an even greater vision!
If we could get everyone on board, we might even be able restore the riparian habitats by the rivers. We could install green infrastructure and drywells throughout the city. We could all use earthworks to sink in more of the storm water in our yards, schools, churches, business properties, and empty lots. That would slow down the rush of water before it gets to the rivers and washes. Then the county could stop bulldozing the native vegetation in our washes for flood control. That native vegetation would act as a sponge allowing flood waters to sink in! There would be less flood damage so we would save money. (Extreme weather costs Tucson and Pima Country $9,449,667 a year.)

Just imagine! If we could stop development in our floodplains, we could see the return of the great mesquite bosques or stands of sycamore, willow, cottonwoods, ash, and black walnut trees that once hugged the flowing Santa Cruz. The riparian habitat would attract more birds and other wildlife to Tucson. Arizona is already a bird lovers paradise with ecotourism contributing to our $21.2 billion tourist industry. Imagine Tucson becoming the hub of ecotourism!

This may seem impossible with our current "development is progress" mentality. But consider this - the city has plans to relocate family homes and businesses to widen Broadway. That is going in the wrong direction if we want Tucson to be sustainable. It encourages the growth of our car culture that accelerates climate change.
What is your vision for Tucson?  Would you like to ride your bike along a flowing river surrounded by twisty mesquite? Pick a fig from the orchard in the park? Watch hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators flutter around desert shrubs in a traffic median? Snack on some yummy edible weeds? Stop by a neighborhood garden stand for some freshly harvested salad fixin's? Wouldn't it be cool if a local farmer grew drought tolerant heritage white wheat and amaranth by the Santa Cruz river to be milled right here in Tucson and baked into healthy bread in Tucson's own native grains bakery?

That's me holding a bag of freshly milled mesquite flour.
I have a dream. I believe Tucson can be self-sustaining if we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, cut down on waste, restore our desert flora and fauna, and use the desert's resources responsibly.  Instead of polluting our water by mining coal, we can use one of the desert's most abundant resources - the sun! Why not power our vehicles, homes and businesses with solar? We can retrofit our older houses and business buildings to conserve energy and water. We can have neighborhood micro food parks with safe bike and walking paths. We can make Tucson THE ecotourism destination by attracting more birds and wildlife to our urban desert.

Brad Lancaster shows how a curb cut lets in street water to irrigate mesquite trees.
We already have a great community working to make Tucson more sustainable: Sustainable Tucson, Feeding Tucson, Community Water Coalition, Sonora Environmental Research Institute, Sonoran Institute, Watershed Management Group, Tucson Water, the 2030 District, Local First, Zero Waste Tucson, UA Compost Cats,  Desert Harvesters, Iskashitaa Refugee Network, Arizona Master Naturalists, The Sierra Club, Tucson Audubon Society, Mission Garden, Trees for Tucson, Native Seeds/SEARCH, the Pima County Seed Library, Living Streets Alliance, the U of A, the Desert Museum, and the Community Food Bank's Community Gardens. Several schools like Manzo Elementary and Changemaker High have gardens and there are already a number of neighborhood gardens.

The Pima County Department of Environmental Quality is working on a manual for better green infrastructure. The City of Tucson and Pima County have pledged to fight climate change.

Let's work together for a sustainable future for Tucson! 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Digging in the New Year

Our edible forest is coming along nicely. But what ever motivated Dan, hacking and coughing, to shovel out our greywater basin and plant saplings on the first day of the New Year? 

After a devastating year of national crises that left him reeling, perhaps it was time for a little grounding -  digging in for a good year of action.  

Implementing earthworks, like our greywater catchment basin, is always a process. We did several loads of laundry to see just how well the wash water would sink into the ground.  There was still a shallow pool of grey water after two days. (Now I know why it is called greywater. It was literally grey.) As Dan suspected, he needed to increase the surface area so the wash water would infiltrate better. 

Luckily, it was time for another load of whites. While the load was spinning, Dan planted some curry plants in the dirt he had dug out of the basin.

What better way to start the new year than to plant a little hope.

Dan delighted in freeing our little saguaro's tightly wound roots from last year's battered pot and planting it soundly in 2018. 

Does my baby know how to celebrate or what!?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

After the freeze

I had just finished posting my last blog celebrating our flourishing moringa trees when BAM! someone asked me how they did in the sudden freeze. I wandered outside to look - thinking I might find a few wilted leaves.  I am still reeling from what I found. All the branches and leaves were frost bitten and drooping like stick figures in a hangman game.

By the next day, the flowers had dried on the branches. I tried one. Blech! It tasted awful. I hoped that the hearty pods would make a comeback.  But a few days later they shriveled up and died, too.   

I shared my disappointment with my mom. How would I face the neighbors who had watched me lovingly nurturing my moringas since they were little. Even when it was time to trim them back so they could branch out, I didn't.  I wanted the neighbors to see how well they grew in Dan's catchment basin. Now the whole neighborhood can see my Charlie Brown moringa trees. Mom asked if I was going to share how they were doing on our blog. "I think you should," she said. But was there anything positive I can take from this experience, any lessons to impart? 

They say the best lessons come from failure.... I certainly have my regrets. Why didn't I listen to the guy on Tucson Backyard Gardener who warned us that it was time to harvest the last of the leaves? Why didn't we cover the whole tree instead of lamely wrapping a sheet around the trunk? Dan said that it was important to see how this tropical tree would fare in freezing weather. The answer is clear. They don't. I suppose that is why some people grow their moringa in pots, so they can take them in out of the cold. But I've also read that the pot stunts their growth.  

If we had potted them we wouldn't have had the abundant leaves that we enjoyed every day. Dan wouldn't have been able to grab his daily moringa supplement while out walking the dog. Towards the end (sob), I was adding them to everything: soups, tomato sauce, calabacitas, eggs... I enjoyed moringa tea everyday - iced tea with fresh orange juice or a hot cup to make me feel better when I was sick... I even brought some to an ailing friend. Ah, the memories...  I wouldn't have missed it for the world!  (Better stop before I break into song.) 

We plan to prune what's left of our moringa down to a stump so it comes back as a bush. I hear they will come back next growing season with even more branches and leaves. To everything there is a season. (There I go again with the songs...) 

Yesterday I harvested some of the dried leaves from the branches. (See pic at top of page.) They came off easily.  We seeped our own blend last night and shared a lovely cup of tea. It was even better than the tea from the fresh leaves!

And I won't regret what I did for love. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Growing our Edible Forest

We have a dream of transforming our previously gravel yard into a desert oasis with an edible forest and native pollinators irrigated with rainwater.  We have a long way to go. Just making our landscape as water efficient and sustainable as possible is an experimental process.

It all started by observing where our water was puddling during our magnificent monsoons. First, we made some small changes such as removing a few bricks at the end of the patio to allow it to drain into our hummingbird trumpets. And it worked beautifully! No more mosquito breeding pool! And our hummingbird trumpets perked right up!

That success led to other simple adaptations like using the gutters to direct roof water into our kitchen garden.  Our kitchen garden is a little experiment in growing food using just what the desert provides to naturally nourish the soil (like compost and palo verde mulch.)  It took 3 gallons of water a day for a few herbs and a couple of tomato plants. So we started supplementing that with kitchen rinse water. Ever the optimist, Dan installed a couple of water barrels to collect more rainwater.  All for a tomato!

Maybe we'll get a bigger reward for our efforts in edible native plants...

Dan dug up all the gravel in the front yard so the rainwater would sink into the ground instead of flowing out to the street to evaporate. (We still need to add some organic mulch. It works with the roots of native grasses to form a sponge that allows the rainwater to seep into the ground and hold the moisture longer.  This is what Brad Lancaster calls "planting the rain.") We would use that water to irrigate an edible forest of native plants:  broadleaf hackberry. sweet acacia (behind ocotillo), wolf berry (in basin), desert hackberry (in foreground), and velvet mesquite. Don't know how much human food we'll get from them, but they are great pollinators. We watered them until they were established and then waited for the rain. And waited... Would it ever rain?

We needed something really drought tolerant that we could eat, so we decided to plant moringa in our street side basin. Moringa leaves, flowers, and pods are all edible and highly nutritious - and not just for wildlife. We sowed the moringa seeds in June so they would be well established by monsoon season. It took about a gallon of water a day to get them started until the monsoon rains finally took over. The incredible thing is that the moringa continued to grow after the monsoons ended even though we weren't watering them! They still have flowers and pods! Gonga!

Now we're watching to see what they do in the first frost.

In our backyard, we planted another edible forest of Kino fig and pomegranate trees. (See pic at top of page.)  We chose these heritage trees because they have adapted to the desert.  Twice a week we slow watered them using a five gallon bucket with two small holes. Dan finally found the time to dig out a catchment basin around the fruit trees and to install a laundry to landscape system to irrigate them. "Celebrate good times! Oh, yeah!"  He still needs to shape it a bit and fill it up with organic mulch. (The mulch holds the moisture and releases nutrients as it breaks down.) He managed to get it installed just in time for the winter rains!

What's next? It's back to shaping the front yard basin and filling it with a truck load of mulch. There's so much more we want to do when we have the time and money. A chicken coop by the big garden... Maybe a cistern! It's all a process!

Gotta love the process!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Sinking in the Autumn Rain

I was overjoyed that it finally rained last night!  First thing in the morning I scurried outside to see how my garden was doing. The cowpeas were thriving, snug in their bed of pala verde mulch and some fallen corn stalks.

 One still had a flower!

The tomato plant seemed to enjoy the fresh rainwater. With a little help from some mulch to keep the ground consistently moist, the tomato had gone from orange to red overnight.

When we first started this garden we used some stinky compost (not good), but I tended the soil with used coffee grounds and tea leaves until the soil is really rich and nice now. That, and palo verde mulch, is all we use in this kitchen garden. Tryin' to keep it native - to see if we can actually grow food with only what we have at our place. 

When I first went out, I got sticky mud on my feet from trekking through our backyard basin. By late morning the ground was already hard and dry.  But the little mounds of mulch around the fig trees were holding the moisture nicely. A good reminder that we need to finish digging the basin and fill it with mulch! 

It wouldn't be morning without checking on the moringa in the catchment basin. The pala verde mulch was thinning a bit, but along with the roots of the native grass and some moringa branches with yellowing leaves that I had "chopped and dropped," it was forming a nice sponge to hold the rainwater. I noticed that the mulch also prevented erosion from the rain. 

This little guy (can you spot him?) flittered by to enjoy the sweet moringa nectar. Our moringa is great at attracting pollinators of all kinds!

I'd say that was worth celebrating! So I grabbed a branch. (They come off easily at the stem. It's a very giving tree...) Thought I'd try my hand at making some moringa tea.

I washed the leaves thoroghly.  Boiled stems and all for about a minute then strained out the leaves. (It's the water that has most of the nutrients.)  It tasted sorta like green tea. I tried to sweeten it with stevia, but it didn't really work. I liked it better plain. (Maybe it would work with a combination of white tea?)  

Later that afternoon, I was so fatigued from working on desktop activist; I needed a nap. I drank one glass of moringa tea and was replenished immediately. Even had enough energy to write this blog! 

To autumn rain, muddy feet, mulchy gardens and miracle moringa! Cheers! 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Morning Solace

Woke up to the smell of rain this morning. Or so I thought. Outside I found the ground bone dry. Still… it smelled like hope to me. And I need a little hope these days.

Lately I’m not getting up as many blogs as I would like. Too many days have gotten away from me as I got sucked into the “black void” of following the damaging acts of our government for Desktop Activist Tucson. With all that is going on in the world, it’s hard to find time or the rationale for the more joyful pursuits like blogging or writing my screenplay.

My one solace is tending our little garden and watching what we planted grow.  It gives me a chance to watch the butterflies and bees (there still are some!) pollinating our moringas, listen to the sound of birds singing and children at play.  Or, like Pooh above, just bask in the morning sun and autumn breezes. Ahh…Autumn. 

I need that. It’s been a long, hard summer.

We tried an experiment. Inspired by the rich natural soil in the alleyway (nourished by decomposing weeds and some native trees), we decided to plant a 3 Sisters Garden with drought-tolerant heritage seeds. The object was to see how our garden would fare on just our monsoon rain and some palo verde mulch to hold in the moisture.

Unlike last year, we actually got some nice monsoon showers this summer. Every morning I happily recorded the growth in our heritage garden. While the Tohono O’odham 60 Day Corn didn’t “grow as high as an elephant’s eye,” it did grow up past my knee. It even started to sprout some seeds.

Then...the rains stopped. And it got scorching hot. It was unseasonably hot and dry

 In two weeks it looked like this...

I was completely disheartened when someone or something stomped through our garden knocking down the corn. 

But amidst the bent, dried stalks, there were a few patches of green - signs of life in the desert!  The cowpea plants we got from our local seed library had survived! A friendly gardener encouraged me, “I think it’s time you watered them. They deserve it for hanging in there. They are survivors.”

So I started lugging my watering can out behind the back fence to water them. Those sun scorched, insect ravaged plants sprouted new leaves and then I spotted - the first white flower!

It was wonderful to see something growing amongst all the devastation. (OK. I’m getting a little dramatic here.) But this was just the reminder that I needed to make more of an effort to find a balance in my life - between fighting environment assaults and doing things that enrich my soul. I finally found the heart to work on my love project again. 

Grateful to be catching a little morning solace, I breathe in the autumn breeze and survey my garden. In the kitchen garden, a tomato is showing its autumn colors. As I fill the clay olla by the cherry tomato plant bees buzz overhead - a welcome sign that the tiny yellow flowers will be pollinated. Closer inspection uncovers two new tomatoes!  A glimpse of hope.