Applying permaculture to an urban setting often includes building community and getting the word out. In an effort to keep useful waste products out of landfills, I’ve let certain neighbors know I’ll take things like leaves, woodchips, veggie waste, egg shells and cardboard off their hands. They are only too happy to oblige and I often find “offerings” from neighbors left inside my gate.
It’s heartening to see these offerings because I know I can apply them directly to the third of the permaculture ethics, which is to “return the surplus” to the first two ethics; earth care (restoring living ecosystems) and people care (supplying our needs in a sustainable way). In this way we cycle useful “waste” products back into the system and end up in a more abundant world. Just today I received two such offerings.
Janie, who lives across the street and works at Chow Locally – a local CSA, left me a box of “good produce” - still edible for humans and a bag of “hen produce” – leftovers that had spoiled spots, peelings, etc.
The hens look forward to these weekly deliveries of “hen produce” as it provides them with a change from their typical fare and whatever I happen to be giving them. I also received a small paper bag of crushed eggshells from Rosé over on the next block. These go back to the girls, too, to provide for their calcium needs. I try to gift these neighbors back with surplus produce or eggs when I have some.
Sometimes there’s surplus useful waste that’s a little larger than usual! Donna, of the “Collaborative Urban Swale” fame, had the tree trimmers come to her house last week and they had a full load of chips to dump from previous jobs. Donna took some to mulch the swale with and I took the rest – my infiltration basins and propagation area floor could use some refreshing.
I’m pretty pleased that I could not only keep these “waste” products out of the landfill, but use them to grow food, eggs and harvest water. And I get to share my love of quilting!
Have you ever noticed how the low angle of the rising and setting sun can really heat up your house? Living in the Sonoran desert, it’s hard to avoid noticing when your house starts to heat up before 8 am!
However, trying to block that sun can be tricky due to the angle. While trees provide shade overhead, that low sun is going to slip right under them. It’s the same with porches on the east and west side of the house - the sun will sneak under those porches early in the morning and in the evening.
So what can you do?
In my case, my solution was to design a multi-purpose shade house that runs across the back of the house. It contains my plant propagation area, outdoor shower and the hen yard with two built-in compost piles. The idea was that the structure itself, along with some trellised grape vines (deciduous in winter), would help keep the sun from hitting the east side of my house in the morning, preventing that early morning heat gain that’s so undesirable in the summer months.
I tried to address as many permaculture principles as possible in creating this project. The following principles really stand out:
Observe and Interact – I observed that the low rising sun was prematurely heating up the mass of my house early in the day and transferring that heat inside. In the hot desert summer, this was costing me money on extra electrical usage.
Catch and Store Energy – In the summer, I want to deflect the sun’s energy away from the house (to save on the amount of electricity I use cooling my house). In the winter, I want to capture that sun for passive solar gain. Deciduous vines are perfect for this.
Obtain a yield – Eggs, grapes and compost are all generated in various parts of the shade house. Plus I save money on electricity and water because the shower greywater waters my grapes.
Integrate Rather Than Segregate (also known as “Stacking functions”) – This design is a fairly decent application of “stacking functions” whereby each individual element in the system supports several functions and each function is supported by several elements. While the ultimate goal of the project was to passively shade the eastern façade of my house and save money on electricity, the shade house in its entirety does more than that. The combination of the structure and plantings does shade this façade in summer and still lets light through in the winter. The plantings are watered by the outdoor shower. The floors of both the henyard and propagation area are infiltration basins that collect rainwater runoff from the roof and compost woody mulch in place. The two compost bins in the henyard receive kitchen and yard waste and are turned by the hens. That compost is used in a potting soil mix for the plants grown out in the propagation area and also as top dressing for the vegetable beds.
For folks who are not project-oriented, you might be wondering what steps led up to the building of the outdoor shower. How’d I go from, “hey – an outdoor shower would be nifty” to “whoa – I have a great looking outdoor shower in my backyard”?
You’ve seen the beginning of the outdoor shower/shade house project. Now let’s take a look both backwards and forwards in time to find out how it came into being.
In the beginning, there were thoughts of greywater, a shade house and chickens designed by a brand new Permaculture Design student; her certificate newly minted.
What was a dream in December of 2007 quickly became a reality when I had the opportunity to host Brad Lancaster, water harvesting guru, at my home in May of 2008 to do a workshop on installing an outdoor shower for the Valley Permaculture Alliance. I came to be chosen for this project because I had done a lot of volunteer work for the VPA, building out their social media site and getting over 100 classes up and running.
Brad took a look at my original plan and helped me refine it, giving me more insight into what the greywater budget would be for my shower and what types of plants I might consider growing with the water. The final plan included a shower with three drains, each feeding an infiltration pit. Two pits held grapevines and the third originally held an artichoke. Later it became self-evident that the artichoke basin was getting more water and could support a Chinese elm tree that will ultimately shade the shower, henyard and raised patio area, providing relief during our long, hot summers.
Once the plan was revised to everyone’s satisfaction, we invited participants to the actual build out. About 25-30 people showed up that day to help out and I think it was an eye-opening experience for all of us to see the possibilities of using greywater in our arid landscapes – I know it was for me. Brad also talked about the importance of using the right soap for greywater landscape use and I took his advice and use Oasis Dishwashing soap for hands and body and Aubrey Organics brand shampoos for hair.
It’s interesting to note that several of the participants in that class were so inspired that they went on to work with water harvesting in some way – either by selling materials, as designers, or in the case of Ryan Wood, by becoming the Program Coordinator for the Phoenix branch of Watershed Management Group; a very effective non-profit dedicated to water harvesting in drylands. Watershed Management Group has taken the concept of the barn raising model to design and build water harvesting projects to a whole new level with their Green Living Co-op program. This program allows you to earn hours towards hosting a water harvesting installation at your house by working to help others with their projects.
If you live in Phoenix or Tucson, I highly recommend signing up for this free program and attending local workshops – the education you receive by actually participating in the build is amazing.
So you can see, plans change over time. My more extensive shade structure was limited to just the shade house on the back (east-facing) side of the house. Monitoring the greywater flow to the various infiltration basins indicated that I could swap out a lower water use, seasonal shrub (artichoke) for a large shade tree that will save me some money on my air conditioning bills. It’s a learning process and there are always little tweaks to the system that will let you obtain a greater yield.
Now that we’ve completed the critical step of “planting our water” in our growing area, it’s time to plant the overstory trees.
Phoenix has a great program through its two utility companies, SRP and APS, whereby you can get 2-3 desert adapted trees to plant in your solar arc. The programs stipulate that you need to plant the trees within 15 feet of the east, west or south side of structures. This allows the trees to provide beneficial shade on those hot sides of the house.
Two of the trees in our swale are within 15 feet of the south side of Susie and Morris’ house. The third is not. When we discussed our plan with the utility company, they were ok with us using a third tree somewhat farther away as it will cast a cooling shadow on Donna’s western façade in the summer when the low setting sun is in the northwest and on Suzie and Morris’ house in the winter when the low setting sun is in the southwest.
First we placed the trees in the swale so that their canopies will just touch at maturity. These are a thornless, hybrid Palo Verdes (Hybrid Cercidium “Desert Museum”). Their mature height is 25-30 ft. with a 25-30 ft. wide canopy. The length of the swale is 80 feet long. We wanted some overhang on the sidewalk in front to shade passers-by so we placed that tree first and adjusted the others accordingly, making sure the other two trees were not too close to Suzie and Morris’s carport piers.
Because the trees will need to mature for a few years with their lower branches still attached to avoid “spindling” the trunks, we made sure we planted the trees where these branches would cause the least interference with the cars in the driveway. We will have to do some judicious pruning to train these trees in their formative years without damaging them – they grow really quickly, so we will keep an eye out for any problem branches. These trees with their bright green trunks and branches and dazzlingly yellow springtime flowers are going to look amazing here as they start to reach their full height.
Even better is that these trees hold up incredibly well to our superheated urban desert landscape. We can’t afford to waste time and energy growing poorly adapted trees in a site like this that faces not only the hot setting sun but is also surrounded by hardscape, increasing the heat island around it. And they thrive on only minimal waterings even during the hot summers, once they are past the first two years of their establishment phase.
After the trees were planted, my dad and Donna installed a wire trellis against Suzie and Morris’ carport. This trellis will support Hardenbergia vines to help shade the carport and block the line of site from this area into Donna’s bathroom shower window. Materials used were three metal t-stakes, three sheets of 3.5 x 7 ft concrete reinforcement wire, a handful of plastic zip ties to attach the wire to the t-stakes and a few large staples to hold the top of the wire against the flashing of the carport.
The whole thing went up in a matter of minutes thanks to a homemade water tool that drilled the holes needed for the t-stakes with water pressure.
The “water tool” consists of a 4 ft. length of bent pipe with a pressure nozzle at one end and a control valve at the other with a hose connection. Works great for drilling holes and trenches into compacted soils. It is also VERY messy! Mud everywhere!
We wanted to make sure we knew where the edge of the French drain was so we didn’t dig into it! So Donna and my dad dropped a stringline along the length of it, giving us a good visual of where NOT to dig.
All during the construction and planting of this swale, neighbors turned up to help. Some helped remove excess soil, others to level the bottom of the swale in preparation for planting. The neighbor across the street gifted my dad with some beers he sells – dad was delighted, he’ll always work for beer! And today, Doris, Donna’s neighbor to the south, lent a hand at hole digging. In the process, she also learned which species we were planting so she could try them in her yard as she was telling us she has had poor luck with many plants she’d tried on this super-heated western exposure.
And neighbors keep coming by to talk, ask questions and get inspired. My hope is that more of these projects will start popping up around the neighborhood – wouldn’t that be something to see! Maybe we could even have an impact on the flooding in this part of the neighborhood.
We planted the understory shrubs and herbaceous layers so that the plants will be touching but not crowding each other out at their mature size. Right now it doesn’t look like there’s a lot there – mostly because we purchased small, 1 gallon sized plants – they tend to withstand transplanting better in our climate and they’re way cheaper to buy.
All that’s left is to do is:
Shape and tamp the berm a few more times so it’s more compacted. We had to take down the berm by about 75% because it was too big and left us with no planting room.
Put down a layer of woodchips to help keep the soil cool and moist. This should happen next week after the tree trimmers visit. They’ll chip the tree waste and leave it for us to use.
We may install an automatic drip irrigation system to this area to use during the establishment phase and after that for monthly waterings during the driest (Spring) and hottest (Summer) months. Right now Donna will deep water this area by hand by letting a hose dribble on sections for an hour or so once a week for one more week, then twice a month, then once a month to build up moisture in that area.
And we still have left over dirt and urbanite. Donna will put out the word to the neighborhood on our Nextdoor page – that should get rid of most of it!
Living in a dryland, one of my goals is to capture and reuse as much of my “greywater” as I can, here on my property, "Dolce Verde" in the middle of Phoenix's downtown Historic District.
What is greywater?
Greywater is water that has already been used for one purpose but is clean enough to be directed into the landscape. Sources of greywater in your home include:
Note that kitchen sink water is considered “dark grey water”. This is because kitchen sink water often includes things like grease from washing dishes or harsh chemicals such as cleaning supplies, or other things people put down sinks like solvents (paint thinner, etc). While kitchen sink water can be used as a resource, you have to manage it more closely than other sources of greywater. And you definitely need a jandy valve – a valve that will allow you to switch from venting the water from your landscape to your sewer and back again, to control the water quality that goes to your landscape.
Toilet water is considered “black water” due to public health concerns with human waste products. The best way to handle toilet water is to get (or make) a composting toilet. There are sleek models for inside the house or versions for outdoor models you can build yourself.
So back to greywater.
One of the common problems of greywater is access – how do you get it from inside the house to the landscape?
In my case, my bathroom shower/tub was located on an outside wall, but on the other side was a screened in back porch with a cement slab floor. It would have cost a lot for me to retrofit the indoor shower to vent to the outside. So I decided to turn this problem into a solution and create a fabulous outdoor shower. It’s piped for both hot and cold water and the weather in Phoenix makes showering outside possible all year ‘round. I think I’ve used my indoor shower less than a dozen times since this project was completed in May of 2008.
With greywater, you want to immediately direct the water into an area where it can soak in – you want to avoid storing greywater or directing it to a place that has poor drainage. Always do a “percolation test” (or “perc test”) on your soil by digging a hole about a foot deep, filling it full of water, letting it drain, filling it again and then seeing how long it takes that water to completely drain from that area. If it drains in under 4 hours – you are good to go. If longer, your soil needs work. Consider a different spot.
Using the perc test, we determined that even though I have fairly heavy clay soil, the “perc rate” was adequate for the amount of greywater that would be generated for 2 people taking daily showers of about 5-10 minutes. We designed the shower to have three drains. Each drain feeds an infiltration pit. The idea is that you block off two of the drains with rubber drain covers each time you shower, leaving the third open. The next person to take a shower, moves the drain covers according to a predetermined plan. It’s easy to water some plants more with this system, if say, you have a higher water use plant that will need extra water.
This greywater portion of this project was led by Brad Lancaster, author of the bestselling “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Vol. 1 and 2”. These books are invaluable to any water harvesting endeavor. You can find them in my shop.