Author Archives: Jennifer

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In “Right Livelihood – How Can We All $upport One Another?”, author Carolyn Payne-Gemmell brought up some limitations of a traditional “veggie swap” that excluded the ability to purchase products with currency.  And while I understand that one of the main ideas behind swaps is to build community, like Carolyn, I actually believe that swaps can severely limit community-building and right livelihood, even if unintentionally so.  So the question becomes, is there a better way?

Surplus citrus bounty gleaned by volunteers.
Surplus citrus bounty gleaned by volunteers.

Several years ago, backyard vegetable gardening experienced a renaissance where I live in Phoenix, Arizona.  Part of this was brought on by the housing market crash of 2008 where many people lost not only their jobs but their homes as well.  As people began growing food, some ended up with an overabundance of certain items.

Many of these folks could also benefit from a little cash, so they went to the local farmer’s market to find out if they could sell their surplus there.  The problem was, for the small backyard grower, the surplus only lasted for a small window of time and then they were back to having only enough to meet their own needs.  The stream of surplus was not guaranteed over time and didn’t warrant investing in a weekly market booth and setting up a business entity with the required insurance.

Edible flowers.  Photo courtesy of the Hadley Farmship
Edible flowers. Photo courtesy of the Hadley Farmship

After watching many small growers become frustrated with the system, market manager, Cindy, approached a small local permaculture group to see if they could help out.  From that contact, the Community Exchange market booth was born.

Marketing for small growers to help start the Community Exchange booth.
Marketing for small growers to help start the Community Exchange booth.

The idea behind the Community Exchange booth was simple; anyone with small surpluses of products could join the Community Exchange booth instead of paying for a booth of their own.  Prior to the start of the market, these small scale growers could barter with each other if they so desired.  Prices were clearly marked on the produce so equitable exchanges could be made.  After the start of the market, the remaining produce would be sold to the public.

A bounty of Thompson seedless grapes.
A bounty of Thompson seedless grapes.

From the sales, 80% of the profits go back to the individual sellers.  These sellers can elect to help out at the booth, or not.  At the end of the day, vendors can pick up any unsold produce.  Or, if they choose not to return to pick up any unsold items, they are donated to local charities.

Cherry plums and white donut peaches.
Cherry plums and white donut peaches.

The other 20% of the proceeds go toward: paying for yearly booth rental and insurance; a reserve account for expenses, and to provide a modest “appreciation gift” for the table manager and the business director.

The table manager is responsible for checking the vendors in at the beginning of the day, and checking them out at the end of the day and noting the produce that was sold and returned to each vendor.  He is also responsible for setting up the booth, making attractive displays and keeping the produce iced in extremely hot weather.  The business director handles scheduling, back-end management of the booth, setting up the business entity and making sure all paperwork is filed correctly.  He also fills in at the booth as necessary and trains new people to be table managers.

The Community Exchange model seeks to provide both a swapping opportunity to the participants at the beginning of the day, and a way for people to earn a small income from anything that was not swapped.  No one becomes unintentionally excluded – it is microbusiness at its best!  And because there is a diversity of people participating, the booth always has ample and varied products to offer.

Crafts made by women from a local battered women’s shelter.
Crafts made by women from a local battered women’s shelter.

One of the best things about the Community Exchange booth is that it is inclusive.  Several participating vendors are on fixed incomes or have limiting impairments.  Others come from underrepresented community segments such as shelters or immigrant populations.  The Community Exchange booth provides a wonderful way for products from these individuals to be included and valued.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQBb6JCw6Uo

As word of the Community Exchange booth spread, many market-goers became intrigued with the idea that this food was produced in the surrounding neighborhoods by these micro growers and as a consequence the booth has become a fan favorite; building community and understanding between buyers and sellers.  This popularity and support has enabled some growers to expand their endeavors to the point where they earn a modest living and can provide for themselves in financial difficult times.

The Community Exchange concept was designed to be a repeatable, standalone model that could be replicated around the city or around the globe.  To that end, we’ve provided our “working documents” here so that interested groups can start their own Community Exchange booth.  Conventions vary by location but many of the items contained in these documents can be modified for local use.

 

The Downtown Phoenix Market.  Tucked in the surrounding neighborhoods, industrious growers and crafters are hard at work!
The Downtown Phoenix Market. Tucked in the surrounding neighborhoods, industrious growers and crafters are hard at work!
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I keep track of my year-over-year electrical use so I can tell, in a general sort of way, which of my energy savings methods is working and which give the best return on investment.

General background on my house

  • 1,100 square feet
  • Single story
  • Built in 1939 out of bricks laid in a Flemish bond pattern
  • One human occupant, two cats
  • Central air conditioning (heat is gas)

The numbers

2011 is the baseline year: 6,813 kWh used – highest usage is in summer with the A/C running.

In March, 2012, I had additional insulation blown into the attic to bring it up to code (R38) and 5 roof vents put in.

      • Project cost: $1700
    • Energy savings over 2011: 407 kWh
    • Cost savings over 2011: $52
    • Amount of time to see return on investment: 33 years

In May, 2013 dad put up three cheapo exterior blinds from Home Depot across my front porch which faces west. It’s also the side of the house with my biggest windows – ugh! I also started paying meticulous attention to my daily energy use by checking my account on aps.com. I am on their 7PM to noon plan whereby energy is less expensive during those hours and more expensive during peak usage times from noon to 7 PM. I found that by keeping the thermostat at 86° during peak times and 84° during the other times in the hottest months actually saved me money over trying to sweat it out with NO A/C during the hottest part of the day and suffering through indoor temperatures often in excess of 92°.

  • Project cost: $40
  • Energy savings over 2012: 1536 kWh
  • Cost savings over 2012: $115
  • Amount of time to see return on investment: Immediate!

APS 2011_2012_2013

So the winner by a long shot is “exterior shades and paying attention to thermostat settings”!

I’m glad I insulated and vented the attic too – don’t get me wrong. I can feel the difference the insulation has made especially in the really hot months when the heat build-up in the attic would make my interior walls warm to the touch. That doesn’t happen anymore.

I’m still working on strategies to keep even more heat off my house in the summer to stop the bricks (thermal mass) from heating up. Here’s one of my strategies from a few years ago – use summer vines to shade the porch. This worked pretty well and had the added benefits of being pretty and green and also, being a plant, transpiring a little, thus adding a tiny bit of cooling. But it wasn’t solid shade like the blind, and there was no way of covering the middle bay of the porch which leads to the front door.

passive shade, wix 071209 004

Here’s the front of the house with the blinds – notice that all three porch bays have a blind on them. They did an amazing job shading this western side of my house, especially in the evening when the sun was low enough to slide under my tree canopy.

front yard1 052213

Plans for more energy savings in 2014

With our intense summer heat and with my biggest windows on the HOTTEST side of my house (West), I’m investing in a “hedge fund”. What’s that you say? Yes – a hedge fund – basically some tall shrubs placed strategically along the inside of the fence surrounding the front of my property. These shrubs will ultimately grow to a height where they will act to block that low, setting sun in the summer, thus acting as another “solar baffle” to keep the heat off my house.

Basic model of the west side of my house at 6 PM on June 22nd without tall “solar baffle” shrubs.  Note the low sun angle in the evening allows the sun to shine right under my tree canopy and hit my house – including my windows.
Basic model of the west side of my house at 6 PM on June 22nd without tall “solar baffle” shrubs. Note the low sun angle in the evening allows the sun to shine right under my tree canopy and hit my house – including my windows.
Basic model of the west side of my house at 6 PM on June 22nd WITH an example of a tall “solar baffle” shrub.  Note the shadow of this shrub (6 ft) now blocks out that low sun angle and shades my front porch.  The idea is to plant a variety of “solar baffle” taller shrubs in the yard that will serve as another layer to protect against that low summer setting sun while simultaneously making the air around my house cooler with their evapotranspiration.
Basic model of the west side of my house at 6 PM on June 22nd WITH an example of a tall “solar baffle” shrub. Note the shadow of this shrub (6 ft) now blocks out that low sun angle and shades my front porch. The idea is to plant a variety of “solar baffle” taller shrubs in the yard that will serve as another layer to protect against that low summer setting sun while simultaneously making the air around my house cooler with their evapotranspiration.
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Hello and welcome to the first ever “Abundant Desert” Permaculture Design Course. I’ve taught sections of this course before, and now it’s time to teach the whole thing.

So what is it that you’ll be learning? What exactly do you get by being in a Permaculture Design Course and what’s expected of you? Let me answer these questions:

First of all, a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) is an organized way of taking you step-by-step through the philosophy and design principles to help you achieve your vision of sustainability. You’ll develop knowledge and skills that you can apply right away to experiments of your own. Since its inception in the late 70’s, permaculture has been used around the world to address some of the most pressing environmental issues of the day – soil erosion, water scarcity, pollution, the high cost of energy and dwindling resources, overpopulation, and lack of personal contentment with one’s life.

Although permaculture addresses some truly dire issues, it is based in positivism – the belief that we can make a difference – and it will give you the tools to do just that in a way that most speaks to you, your vision, hopes, beliefs and talents.

Becoming a Certified Permaculture Designer

At the end of this course, you will create an original design for a property of your choosing. You can work on your design as an individual or as a group, and present the design to the class. If your design demonstrates that you understand the basic design and philosophical principles of permaculture, you are awarded a Permaculture Design Certificate.

What’s that you say? You’ve never created a design before? Well, that’s what this class is about. I’ll make sure you get plenty of practice before the final project. Remember, I want you to succeed! We need more people with permaculture consciousness creating awesome projects and doing their creative thing in the world.

Philosophy

So about that final design….

As mentioned above, permaculture is based in positivism. Skills and confidence help build positivism, so throughout this course, there will be a lot of low-stress activities that will build confidence in your ability to realize your vision. As a guiding principle, we’ll use the Parable of the Pottery Class.

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

We don’t want to be left with grandiose theories and a dead design! So we will create lots of designs – both together and individually – and we will make all sorts of interesting mistakes and discover some cool stuff along the way. We will NOT get stuck in our heads or worry about creating “perfection” – after all, where can you go once you’ve attained perfection? No place. It’s a dead end. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keep experimenting. That’s where the fun is!

So what exactly will you be learning?

Here’s the course schedule:

  • Jan 26th – Introduction
  • Feb 2nd – Concepts and Themes in Design – Part 1
  • Feb 9th – Concepts and Themes in Design – Part 2
  • Feb 16th – Methods of Design – Part 1
  • Feb 23rd – Methods of Design – Part 2
  • Mar 2nd – Pattern Understanding
  • Mar 9th – Mapping Lesson
  • Mar 16th – No class
  • Mar 23rd – No class
  • Mar 30th – Climate Factors
  • Apr 6th – Trees and Their Energy Transactions
  • Apr 13th – Water – Part 1
  • Apr 20th – Water – Part 2
  • Apr 27th – Soils
  • May 4th – Earthworks and Earth Resources
  • May 11th – Climate Design – Part 1
  • May 18th – Climate Design – Part 2
  • May 25th – Urban Application and Community
  • Jun 1st – Strategies of an Alternate Global Nation
  • Jun 8th – Final design presentation

Where will the course take place?

The course will be held at my home, “Dolce Verde” in Fairview Place. The address is 2017 N. Laurel Ave, Phoenix AZ 86007. There may be alternate locations for a few of the classes. Rides will be available to other locations.

Fees, payment dates and withdrawal policy

The course fee – for this one time only – is $375 – half the price of the lowest PDC in Phoenix. All future classes will be $750.

  • $100 is a deposit and is due by Jan 12th. This deposit holds your spot for you in this class and indicates that you are serious about learning. It is NONREFUNDABLE. If, for some reason, you find that you are not able to take the class after you’ve paid the deposit, you may apply it to a future PDC at Abundant Desert.
  • The balance of the funds is due by the first class.
  • Space in this class is limited to 8 students.
  • Withdrawal Policy: You have 30 days in which to withdraw from the class and be refunded your money MINUS the deposit.

Some of you ask, “Why is it so cheap?”

I have a specific goal in mind – to become a Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) certified instructor. Teaching this course is part of that goal – and I need your help! The PRI is the governing body of Permaculture and has a set of standards for those of us interested in becoming PRI-certified PDC teachers. So, as part of this course, you agree to:

  • Sign up on the PRI site (free), add a brief description of your final design and indicate that you had me has a teacher – this will help me earn hours towards PRI-certification.
  • I request plentiful feedback from you – what worked, what didn’t, what needed more time, etc. I need you to help me become the teacher I envision. Really.
  • You will help me build course materials that will be used and refined in subsequent PDCs that I teach.

Your experience

Each session of this course is 4 hours long – starting at 9 AM and ending at 1 PM. There will be at least 2 breaks during each session to get up and move around, grab a snack, etc.

Your comfort during the class is paramount. Please bring with you any food, drink or items such as pillows, sweaters, etc. that will aid in your comfort. If you feel so compelled, bring a snack to share with others. However, please note that the host site is a smoke-, drug- and alcohol-free zone.

Timeliness is CRITICAL. Please plan on arriving to class by 8:30 in order to get settled for a start time of 9 AM. I cannot stress how important it is to respect this point. As many of you know, I have physical limitations. By 1 PM I am near the end of my energy endurance for the day and I will need to rest my limited vision. PLEASE be cognizant of both my time and the time of other students in the class. You cannot receive a PDC certificate without completing the full 72 hour class. If you are late or miss a class, it will have to be made up later.

Participation

Each week, in addition to the time spent in class, there will also be some homework assignments. Depending on the topic, this may involve watching a YouTube video, reading a blog, taking a short quiz to test your knowledge, or finding an example of something and making notes about it. Because permaculture is based heavily in observation and thinking about those observations, we will talk about the homework assignments in class, compare notes, thoughts and develop ideas.

In closing…

I would just like to say how excited I am to interact with all of you. I look forward to seeing you on January 26th at 8:30 AM. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at: support@abundantdesert.com.

 

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Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security

By Masanobu Fukuoka

Introduction by Larry Korn

Rating:  9 out of 10

 

When I first came across this book, I immediately wanted to read it because I live in a desert (Sonoran) and am always on the lookout for new books that address the growing problem of desertification in our world.  What I expected from this touted inventor of Natural Farming was essentially a recipe book for HOW to go about returning vegetation to the deserts.  What I got was much different.

The first three chapters of this book are dedicated to explaining Fukuoka’s philosophy which in turn sets up the later chapters on Natural Farming.  I found this section hard to get through because, quite honestly, it challenged many of my belief systems and ways of being – even as a dedicated permaculturist.  I found myself wanting to challenge Fukuoka at every turn as he systematically tore down much of Western philosophy with well-reasoned arguments based upon observation and Eastern philosophy.  I’ll admit to gritting my teeth and often snorting in arrogance as I read some passages.

Then a funny thing happened.  I realized that I had come to many of the same conclusions he had (although not so deeply nor so succinctly) through other paths.  That’s where the old brain cells kicked into high gear and I became very fascinated with this book.  Would I go so far as to denounce Western philosophers and scientists from Descartes onward?  Probably not as these thinkers are part of a whole just like Fukuoka.  However, I can see Fukuoka’s point about how many Western philosophies lead to a world view where humans are cast as superior to nature and therefore presume dominion over it as a right.  This is in opposition to Fukuoka’s world view of humans as an integral part of nature and therefore a partner with equal footing to every other part of the natural world.  Much use is made of Western scientific methods that allow for all sorts of experiments, many of which have had dire consequences over time.  Do I believe the Western scientific approach is always bad?  No.  Good scientific research is based on the same things that Fukuoka based his Natural Farming methods on – observation and experimentation.

Chapters 4-6 are what I originally expected from this book and are about Fukuoka’s travels to some of the deserts of the world and his vision for regreening them, mostly by spreading a multitude of seeds encased in clay across the broad landscape.  I’ve filled this part of the book with little green sticky tabs drawing my attention to various methods he tried and their success.

I was heartened by his travels and the interesting people and attitudes he met along the way.  He explains his techniques of welcoming rain back into a landscape through the revegetation of those landscapes.  He describes the creation of food forests, the importance of sowing a multitude of seed types along with supporting microorganisms, and it really difficult climates, he explains his method of using trees along waterways to act as natural pumps over time to rehydrate and refertilize ever greater portions of the landscape.  And one can see how his methods of observation and natural farming really do make a difference.

In conclusion, I was left with the thought that the title of this book “Sowing Seeds in the Desert” doesn’t only apply to the physical practice of seeding deserts.  In fact, this book is in equal parts practical, hands-on advice and an analogy of the human experience at this point in history. It strongly advocates that the true seeds we need to sow are in our own ways of thinking and acting.  We, as humans, have become the desert – we’ve been stripped of much of our nature and we have only a few seeds left to cling to.  Because of this, we have become internally and externally damaged by our own heedless behaviors towards the extension of ourselves – nature.  If we can take the time to observe this situation, we have a chance to repair ourselves and our landscapes and bring back the abundance that truly is our heritage.

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This past November (2013), Watershed Management Group's Green Living Co-op installed a "Laundry to Landscape" system at my house.

The Green Living Co-op runs on a barn raising principle - basically you earn "hours" by participating in other members' projects.  After you've earned a set amount of hours, you qualify to host a workshop at your house.  A co-op project manager works with you to design the system and oversees the project work.  They also provide educational information along the way.

The end result is that the homeowner gets a well-designed project installed with free labor and the participants get hands-on practice building out these projects.  Having an experienced designer lead you through the steps to build out one of these projects really builds confidence that you can do this!

Here's a short video showing the progression through pre-planning, the day of the installation, and the subsequent test run of my new "Laundry to Landscape" system.  I love it!

Benefits of reusing greywater

Here’s how this project fits into the overall plan for my front yard, which faces west, here in Phoenix, Arizona:

  • It provides water for tree canopy coverage on this western exposure – the hottest side of my house.
  • It provides water for vines growing up a trellis in front of my patio and my big, west-facing windows.  These vines will act as solar baffles for the low western setting sun that sneaks in under the tree canopy in the evening and which currently heats up the mass of my brick house and transfers that heat inside.  When you’re dealing with 100 days of 100° + temps (30 of those days between 110° - 120°), the very last thing you want is the setting sun taking one final opportunity to add more heat to your living space!
  • With only 7.5” of annual rainfall in Phoenix, we need to use water wisely.  Reusing greywater is a great way to grow desert-adapted trees, shrubs, vines and more – essentially slowing down and capturing more “energy” from this element instead of letting it flow into the municipal sewer system.  These native and xeric plants function to attract native pollinators, cover the ground to hold moisture, provide shade, provide food and act as a living air conditioner making the whole property cooler and more pleasant to be in.  It is regularly 10-20° F cooler on my property when compared with properties that have predominantly grass or rock landscaping.
  • The reclaimed water and the woody mulch in the infiltration basins, help build more fertile, biologically-active soils that will, over time, alter the texture of our highly compacted clay soil, allowing an ever greater range of plants to fill in various niches.
  • There is also a very important community aspect to this project.  Because I live in the urban core of the largest dryland city in the USA (and the 6th largest metro area overall), showcasing working projects that are viewable to passersby is a big goal of mine.  People like to see how something works – what it looks like, feels like.  A well maintained project with an informational sign or two, an invitation to tour the site and maybe a related “Introduction to Permaculture” class, will greatly increase the acceptance and implementation of similar projects throughout the neighborhood and beyond.

So basically, we desert dwellers need to get over the prevailing “squick factor” Western culture tends to have around greywater and embrace this valuable resource as one of the major forces in re-greening our deserts.

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A note from Rosé in the bag of cotton scraps brings up an opportunity to share (recycle) skills in the ‘hood.  She even wrote the note on a recycled envelope.
A note from Rosé in the bag of cotton scraps brings up an opportunity to share (recycle) skills in the ‘hood. She even wrote the note on a recycled envelope.

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.

A bag of “hen produce” and a small paper bag of crushed egg shells.  Also some scrap cotton fabric for composting or shredding for hen nests.
A bag of “hen produce” and a small paper bag of crushed egg shells. Also some scrap cotton fabric for composting or shredding for hen nests.

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.

The cardboard box from the “good produce” is retained to line the bottom of the hens’ nest boxes (easier to clean out the “nutrient” the hens deposit).
The cardboard box from the “good produce” is retained to line the bottom of the hens’ nest boxes (easier to clean out the “nutrient” the hens deposit).
Recycled cardboard in the nest boxes.
Recycled cardboard in the nest boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Big pile of wood chips out in the alley behind my neighbor’s house.  We have an agreement that wood chips can be dumped there for communal use.  About half of them are gone already.  Note the lovely sign made out of a recycled pizza box lid.  Don’t want our bulk trash service to haul off this valuable resource!
Big pile of wood chips out in the alley behind my neighbor’s house. We have an agreement that wood chips can be dumped there for communal use. About half of them are gone already. Note the lovely sign made out of a recycled pizza box lid. Don’t want our bulk trash service to haul off this valuable resource!
The floor of the propagation area with fresh wood chips.  This area is designed to be an infiltration basin for water coming off the back of the house.  The floor here is actually dug down about 20 inches and backfilled with woodchips.  This slows and sinks rainwater runoff and helps rehydrate my soil.
The floor of the propagation area with fresh wood chips. This area is designed to be an infiltration basin for water coming off the back of the house. The floor here is actually dug down about 20 inches and backfilled with woodchips. This slows and sinks rainwater runoff and helps rehydrate my soil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

And the cycle continues!  Down-the-street neighbor, Patrick, just stopped by to pick up some soup and quiche – a trade for giving me rides to doctors’ appointments.  Fairview Place is a WONDERFUL, community-minded neighborhood.  I’m so lucky to live here.
And the cycle continues! Down-the-street neighbor, Patrick, just stopped by to pick up some soup and quiche – a trade for giving me rides to doctors’ appointments. Fairview Place is a WONDERFUL, community-minded neighborhood. I’m so lucky to live here.

 

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Climbing nasturtiums are overtaking the eastern wall of the propagation area.  Although the leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious), I don’t eat from these particular plants because they are watered with greywater from the outdoor shower.
Climbing nasturtiums are overtaking the eastern wall of the propagation area. Although the leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious), I don’t eat from these particular plants because they are watered with greywater from the outdoor shower.

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.

Before:  This picture of the eastern façade of my house was taken at 7:41 am on September 26, 2006.  The high was 102° that day.
Before: This picture of the eastern façade of my house was taken at 7:41 am on September 26, 2006. The high was 102° that day.

I tried to address as many permaculture principles as possible in creating this project.  The following principles really stand out:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
After:  The eastern façade of my house after the shade house is fully constructed.  You can see a lot of the back wall of my house is blocked by the physical structure.  As the grape vines grow, I’ll get even more vertical shade in the summer, but I’ll get passive solar gain in the winter when the vines are dormant.
After: The eastern façade of my house after the shade house is fully constructed. You can see a lot of the back wall of my house is blocked by the physical structure. As the grape vines grow, I’ll get even more vertical shade in the summer, but I’ll get passive solar gain in the winter when the vines are dormant.
The beginning of the shade house.  You can see my exterior blinds covering my windows in the background.  It’s amazing how much sun and heat exterior blinds can block.
The beginning of the shade house. You can see my exterior blinds covering my windows in the background. It’s amazing how much sun and heat exterior blinds can block.
My dad, a civil engineer, built the shade house, but it was up to my mother and me to do the endless painting.  So much painting…
My dad, a civil engineer, built the shade house, but it was up to my mother and me to do the endless painting. So much painting…
The hen yard with built-in compost bins.  The hens perch over the bins at night and drop “nutrients” into the compost while they sleep.
The hen yard with built-in compost bins. The hens perch over the bins at night and drop “nutrients” into the compost while they sleep.
Hens processing green waste into eggs!  Note the deep litter on the floor of the henyard.  This serves as a rainwater infiltration basin for any rainwater that runs off the back part of the roof.  You can also see into the side of the propagation area in the back.
Hens processing green waste into eggs! Note the deep litter on the floor of the henyard. This serves as a rainwater infiltration basin for any rainwater that runs off the back part of the roof. You can also see into the side of the propagation area in the back.
Four young ladies huddled in the same nest box.
Four young ladies huddled in the same nest box.
The corridor between the back of the house and the shade house.  The metal gates can be locked and I can open my back windows to let airflow through while still maintaining safety without ugly security bars.
The corridor between the back of the house and the shade house. The metal gates can be locked and I can open my back windows to let airflow through while still maintaining safety without ugly security bars.
Winter crops being grown out in preparation for planting season.
Winter crops being grown out in preparation for planting season.

 

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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”?

May 2013:  My outdoor shower at my property, Dolce Verde.
May 2013: My outdoor shower at my property, Dolce Verde.

 

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.

My original final design project of my property submitted for my first Permaculture Design Certificate back in 2007.  My instructor was Don Titmus of Four Directions Permaculture.  This is the overlay of shade structure that I envisioned covering much of my roof.  The final shade house was much more modest in scope.
My original final design project of my property submitted for my first Permaculture Design Certificate back in 2007. My instructor was Don Titmus of Four Directions Permaculture. This is the overlay of shade structure that I envisioned covering much of my roof. The final shade house was much more modest in scope.

 

 

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.

August 2008:  The shower is functional but the infiltration pit is not planted yet.
August 2008: The shower is functional but the infiltration pit is not planted yet.

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.

 

November 2008:  The infiltration pit is planted with a couple of artichokes and the henyard and compost bins are complete.
November 2008: The infiltration pit is planted with a couple of artichokes and the henyard and compost bins are complete.

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.

May 2008:  The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop.  All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.
May 2008: The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop. All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.

 

May 2008:  The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop.  All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.
May 2008: The basic work of installing the infiltration pits and the mockup of the shower platform with drains was accomplished during the workshop. All this is now hidden by plants and the shade house structure.

 

June 2012: Thompson grapes growing over the top of my shower.  You can see bunches hanging down against the wire.  They also grow across the top of the shower and hang down into the shower proper.  I can eat grapes while I get clean!  Interestingly, that particular grape has no direct water to it – it survives by sharing the water vented to the Chinese elm.
June 2012: Thompson grapes growing over the top of my shower. You can see bunches hanging down against the wire. They also grow across the top of the shower and hang down into the shower proper. I can eat grapes while I get clean! Interestingly, that particular grape has no direct water to it – it survives by sharing the water vented to the Chinese elm.

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.

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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.

Trees in position where their canopies will just touch at maturity.
Trees in position where their canopies will just touch at maturity.

 

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.

Donna and Chip, hard at work planting the overstory.
Donna and Chip, hard at work planting the overstory.

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.

Dad and Donna installing a trellis made of concrete reinforcement wire and t-bars against Suzie and Morris’ carport.
Dad and Donna installing a trellis made of concrete reinforcement wire and t-bars against Suzie and Morris’ carport.

 

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.

 

 

Building angled trellises for shade 015

 

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!

 

Dad and Donna stake out a string line along the edge of the French drain – we don’t want to dig into the landscape fabric and gravel!
Dad and Donna stake out a string line along the edge of the French drain – we don’t want to dig into the landscape fabric and gravel!

 

 

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.

Neighbor Doris gets involved with the planting!
Neighbor Doris gets involved with the planting!
lower 16th flood4
The street in front of Donna’s house after a 1” rain event. This is the lower end of the neighborhood so they get stuck with all the stormwater. If enough neighbors upstream of this area harvested their rainwater on site, we could stop this from happening.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

understory 2
Even though it’s Nov 2nd, it was a hot day in Phoenix. Here the plants are getting a long, slow soaking. Bet they’re glad to be out of those pots!

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.

Hardenbergia vine up against the trellis.  These vines should start having sprays of purple blooms soon, earning it the nickname of “lilac vine”.  They will bloom well into Spring, adding a burst of color to our winter landscape.
Hardenbergia vine up against the trellis. These vines should start having sprays of purple blooms soon, earning it the nickname of “lilac vine”. They will bloom well into Spring, adding a burst of color to our winter landscape.

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!

 

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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.

Permaculture handydude, Chip S., takes the inaugural shower after hooking up the hot and cold water.
Permaculture handydude, Chip S., takes the inaugural shower after hooking up the hot and cold water.

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:

  • Bathroom sinks
  • Showers/tubs
  • Washing machine
A jandy valve that allows you to switch kitchen sink water from landscape to sewer and back again.  Very convenient!
A jandy valve that allows you to switch kitchen sink water from landscape to sewer and back again. Very convenient!

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.

 

Frame out of the base of the shower stall with three drains, each leading to an infiltration pit.  Note the shower is slightly raised allowing for gravity feed from the shower base into the infiltration pits (1/4” drop per linear foot).
Frame out of the base of the shower stall with three drains, each leading to an infiltration pit. Note the shower is slightly raised allowing for gravity feed from the shower base into the infiltration pits (1/4” drop per linear foot).

 

These two infiltration pits will grow grapevines up and over the yet-to-be-built shade house across the back (east side) of my house.  In the hot desert summer, the vines will block the morning sun from hitting the bricks of my house and heating it up during the summer.  In winter, the vines lose their leaves and the sun hits the bricks, helping to passively warm the house.
These two infiltration pits will grow grapevines up and over the yet-to-be-built shade house across the back (east side) of my house. In the hot desert summer, the vines will block the morning sun from hitting the bricks of my house and heating it up during the summer. In winter, the vines lose their leaves and the sun hits the bricks, helping to passively warm the house.
This is the wall that needs protection from the early morning desert sun – you can see I have outdoor blinds protecting my windows.  These pictures were taken in mid-May and we’re already well into the 100°+ days.
This is the wall that needs protection from the early morning desert sun – you can see I have outdoor blinds protecting my windows. These pictures were taken in mid-May and we’re already well into the 100°+ days.

 

The finished shower platform with three drains.
The finished shower platform with three drains.
The beginnings of the shade house structure that will ultimately hold the outdoor shower, henyard with compost piles and propagation area.
The beginnings of the shade house structure that will ultimately hold the outdoor shower, henyard with compost piles and propagation area.

 

Dad building out the shower surround.  We also have hot and cold water hookups ready to go! (Gotta love having a father who’s a civil engineer!)
Dad building out the shower surround. We also have hot and cold water hookups ready to go! (Gotta love having a father who’s a civil engineer!)
The interior of the shower.  The walls are white fiberglass that will withstand our intense summer heat and sun.  There’s also a light in the shower for nighttime use.  The shower functions as an outdoor lighting feature at night – with the light on it looks like a large Japanese shoji lantern – an unexpected and delightful effect.
The interior of the shower. The walls are white fiberglass that will withstand our intense summer heat and sun. There’s also a light in the shower for nighttime use. The shower functions as an outdoor lighting feature at night – with the light on it looks like a large Japanese shoji lantern – an unexpected and delightful effect.
The shade house starting to take shape around the shower.  The slated parts are the back of the compost bins (slats are removable).  The hens’ roosting areas are located over the compost bins.
The shade house starting to take shape around the shower. The slated parts are the back of the compost bins (slats are removable). The hens’ roosting areas are located over the compost bins.

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.

 

 

 

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