Permaculture in Practice

Nate Downey's views on saving the world as expressed in his published work

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A Primer on Water Harvesting

This column was first published in The Eldorado Sun in June, 2005

Relish our recent rains. Celebrate our seminal snows. Verily cherish our verdant vistas. Just don’t be fooled.
Fluke weather is no excuse for ignoring the truth. Ours is a parched, windswept land of desiccated soils and sparse vegetation. Ironically, on those rare days when storm clouds form and our incessant sun eases up, monsoons of mass destruction can wreak havoc. It’s often even unclear as to whether certain storms help heal the land or if they ultimately injure her with their ensuing erosion.
Yes, enjoy wet weather, but remember: we choose to live in a desert. If we are to bestow a livable community to our children, an entirely new approach to water is necessary. Water harvesting — collection of precipitation — is the fountainhead of this step forward.
Assuming 12 inches of rain, a 2,000-square-foot pitched-roof house plus 1,000 square feet of garage, portals and sheds, over 22,500 gallons of water can be harvested in an average year. (Note that the evaporation associated with our flat roofs makes our potential per capita average harvested gallons slightly less). Since, according to the city, an average Santa Fean uses 55 gallons of water daily, this amount of surface area would provide all the water needed for an average resident. If we decide to treat and recycle effluent, it’s possible to imagine a Santa Fe household consuming only harvested precipitation.
Certainly mainstream culture wanders far from this ideal. However, if our community continues to grow, our conventional water supplies will continue to decline. Logic dictates inevitable, revolutionary changes. At this historical moment our role is to be part of a smooth transition toward commonplace water harvesting. When this transition is complete, conventional water supplies will be used only in times of drought. This will allow our aquifers, rivers, lakes and reservoirs to recharge during soggier times.

Two types of water-harvesting systems are easily distinguishable: active systems and passive systems. Active systems include moving parts that need regular maintenance. These systems often feature a storage tank (called a cistern), which allows for harvested water to be used on demand long after a given precipitation event.
Cisterns can be above ground or below ground. Above-ground tanks usually cost less than below-ground tanks. Not only do the materials cost less because they do not have to withstand the weight of the surrounding soil, but labor costs are also less compared to the costs of a below-ground system (namely, the excavation, installation, backfill and appropriate use, or disposal, of excess excavated material).
Active systems also need delivery systems (often called conveyance systems) that capture runoff from canales and downspouts. Collecting all the water from a pitched roof with gutters and downspouts is a relative breeze. The canales that project from our flat roofs complicate matters because runoff can shoot several feet away from a building or be blown with the breeze sideways or sometimes back against the stucco. The best solution to this spastic situation is to direct runoff to a box drain via a below-grade “funnel,” made on site with a 5-foot by 5-foot sheet of shower liner (found at hardware stores). Runoff flows directly into the drain or slides easily into the drain after first hitting the shower liner. Cover this vortex with a few inches of medium-sized gravel or river rock. In places where significant debris collects on a given roof, delivery systems also include sediment traps that prevent particulate from polluting the tank.
Once the water is in the tank, getting it out can be as simple as using a sump pump and hose. It can also be as complex as building an underground pump house and installing a pump, pressure tank, water-level reader, various electrical connections, an air vent and an incandescent light and/or insulation (to prevent freezing in winter). At this point in your efforts, it’s often worth connecting your cistern to a system for use inside the house or to a drip irrigation system. This means adding float switches, filtration, a pressure regulator, a pump start relay, irrigation valves, a computerized irrigation clock and a connection to a supplemental water system such as a well, private utility or municipality. Certainly active systems are the way to go when it comes to providing efficiency and productivity, but they do not fit every budget and do have appreciable potential for things to go wrong.

Fortunately, one of permaculture’s most helpful principles is “Start small.” If resources are spent unwisely, the transition to a sustainable approach to anything is sluggish, so it’s best to build constantly on one’s successes.
Passive water-harvesting systems require little or no maintenance and often cost much less money to install. On the flip side, passive systems do not allow for future use on demand. Water in passive systems is stored at or near the root zones of plants.

On-contour swales
Other than mulching, the easiest way to harvest water locally (and recharge the aquifer regionally) is to contour your land appropriately. Even seemingly flat land can be subtly sculpted to slow the flow of water during a monsoon. On-contour swales are ditches dug perpendicular to any slope with the dirt from the ditch placed on the downhill side in the form of a berm.
If we install appropriate plants to take advantage of our swaling, supplemental water is needed only to establish a landscape and, sometimes, to keep certain plants alive during drought. As opposed to a being a constant drain on our aquifer, such a landscape ultimately helps restore regional water supplies by allowing excess water to percolate through the earth and not slide sediment into supplies downstream.

Check-dams in Arroyos
Surface runoff should also be harvested in arroyos. Depending on the expected peak volume and velocity of runoff during an extreme storm event, check-dams of various materials and sizes can be installed perpendicular to flow. In low-flow arroyos and head cuts (the beginnings of arroyos), branches and other organic matter or even fences (called weirs) can be effective. In medium-flow arroyos, properly sized and stacked rocks work well. In high-flow channels, 4- to 8-inch river rock wrapped in wire cages (called gabions) are often prescribed.
Upstream from such structures, relatively level terraces form naturally with sediment brought in by large storm events. Water collects around the perimeter of such terraces and at the base of these structures, and can be used both by volunteer and planted species.

Pumice Wicks
Although swales and check-dams can use water that comes directly off of a canale or downspout, the most efficient passive system for harvesting roof runoff is the pumice wick. In this case, runoff flows into a perforated pipe surrounded by a trench filled with pumice, which is extremely hygroscopic and absorbs several times its own weight in water. The pumice is covered with a thick layer of newspaper to prevent the wick from clogging. Then a few inches of native soil are spread and lightly tamped on top of the trench. Trees, shrubs, perennials and carefully placed annuals are planted on either side of the wick. Since their roots suckle up to this underground sponge, plants establish much more quickly with much less supplemental water.
There are many more techniques for harvesting precipitation. If they should ever work in conjunction with serious treatment and recycling, the only forces preventing us from being aquifer-independent are our own motivation and lack of money. These forces, of course, are real, so this transition will take time. But if we start now, maybe our children will have a chance to take water harvesting to the level that may one day prove necessary for their survival.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Dead Piñons Beget Opportunity for Creativity

On a cold and foggy Saturday morning last November, Bill Mollison, the progenitor of permaculture, began a daylong seminar about our piñons with a description about sin curves, moon cycles and drought patterns. Then, without warning, he bombarded his audience with a campaign of shock and awe.
Many who drove up the Old Santa Fe Trail to Camp Stoney on November 13 were outraged by tirades on a host of topics, from the cancer of the American lawn to parents who purchase ponies as a covert form of birth control for their girls. Others were insulted by invectives aimed at our president, religion, tofu and pet food bought from multinational corporations that run cattle next to villages of starving children.
Finally, having provided the necessary perspective, Mollison began to discuss the piñon situation just before lunch. Surrounded by armies of zombie pines flaunting ochre needles and pallid boughs, he beamed, “I think it’s marvelous.”
Most people would expect less callousness from a guru who started a worldwide movement focused on sustainability. Others would expect a little sympathy from a preacher of principles that mimic nature. But Australia’s official ecologist of the 20th century proudly admits he is not a gentleman. He’s seen too much devastation — environmental devastation far more horrific than dead evergreens. Sure, he might benefit from a few manners, but one has to wonder if Mollison would be as effective without his candor.
For permaculturists, the piñon situation is not a problem to bemoan—it’s a reality to accept, an opportunity from which to learn, and an invitation to produce creative solutions. Before considering any solutions, however, it is best to examine the causes and effects of any situation.
There are various explanations for the death of our trees. One obvious cause is the drought. However, it is important to understand drought not as an unlucky experience, but as a normal occurrence. Observation of tree rings shows that drought cycles are surprisingly predictable.
Another cause is the unnatural densities that our piñon forests attained in the last century due to a brief period of intense overgrazing at the end of the 1800s. For ages our ecosystem was kept in balance by periodic grass fires that would destroy most of the young piñons in the extensive existing meadows. When the railroad suddenly delivered endless boxcars of sheep, huge herds quickly devoured our grasslands. Piñons then grew up without the regular scorching that had kept the population down.
In his tome Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Mollison references fellow Australian ecologist Arthur Birch, who claims that species risk the greatest possibility of extinction when their densities are either extremely high or extremely low. Applying this principle, clearly we see that our piñons became too dense for their own good, and as the drought worsened (quite possibly exacerbated by global warming), conditions became perfect for the bark beetle.
Some effects are quite clear; others are less so. Many property values will go down; others, especially for those properties that have no piñons, might go up. Many people will lose valuable privacy; some will forge friendships with newfound neighbors. Many folks will spend lots of money removing the perceived unsightliness, while locals will benefit from the extra employment. Meanwhile raptor populations will increase, as large dead trees make perfect perches. As a result, rabbit and gopher populations will decline, making gardening easier.
The fire risk and its potentially catastrophic effects dominate much of what Mollison calls our “hysteria about the pines.” Fortunately, he says, unlike ponderosa pines, which hold sap for decades after death, piñon pines contain the hazardous fuel for only two years — which is also about the time it takes for their needles to fall to the ground. This means that the fire risk will soon be nonexistent.
The most significant long-term effect is that our already barren landscape will become more desolate, as soil erosion will intensify considerably. Although piñons are not famous for their effectiveness at controlling erosion, their branching structures certainly deflect the impact of rain, wind and even sunlight — all of which ravage any vulnerable landscape. More importantly, as the trees’ extensive lateral root systems decay, their ability to retain soil shrinks proportionally.
There are three basic questions to respond to from a permacultural perspective:
1. What should we do to prevent further loss? Not much. Permaculture is not big on pesticides, especially those that add poison to nut-bearing trees. Numerous sources report that spraying chemicals doesn’t always work. At the very least, spraying is expensive — especially when one considers the subsequent “need” to respray ad infinitum. Another option is to water the important trees (in terms of shade, wind protection and privacy), always keeping in mind that mining an ever-shrinking aquifer is not desirable.
2. What should we do with the dead trees? Not much. One of the great “Mollisonisms” is “Work is pollution.” The trees will fall to the ground soon enough. Trees that could threaten people and property, or even those that seem unsightly, can be cut down — especially if the remains are used for either erosion control or firewood.
3. What should we do to restore the land? Plenty:
Harvest precipitation. By contouring the land to increase infiltration from rainfall and snowmelt, significant moisture can be captured in “passive” systems. “Active” systems, which include cisterns, pumps and drip irrigation, although expensive, are extremely effective at providing enough supplemental water to establish plant material. Such systems can be financed through the Permaculture Credit Union, one of the sponsors of the Mollison seminar.
Reuse “waste” water. A new state law allows for the use of gray water in the landscape without a permit, as long as certain “best management practices” are followed. Find details at the New Mexico Environment Department’s web site, Defined as “waste” water from showers, washing machines and sinks (except kitchen sinks), gray water can be used in a variety of ways, as described in several books by Art Ludwig. These books can be purchased at many local nurseries and bookstores or at
More expensive systems that need permits are also available. These treat sewage, or black water (gray water plus waste from kitchen sinks, dishwashers and toilets), and turn this resource into irrigation-quality water. An extensive list of these systems can be found by using Google and searching for “list of approved systems and products for on-site sewage treatment.”
Mulch. Spreading chipped trees, bark, straw, gravel, compost or other appropriate materials on the ground in planted areas is essential for the success of any restoration project. Protecting the ground from the wind and sun helps it retain moisture, and thus plants need less precipitation and fewer supplemental nutrients in order to survive.
Collect condensation. In places that get even less rain than northern New Mexico, people grow trees by creating moisture via condensation. One technique is to plant trees in wide holes that are 15 inches deep. These holes are then filled with gravel. When the temperature changes between day and night, the air between the gravel condenses and leaves enough moisture behind to establish the plant.
Sow seed. Bringing back the grasses, wildflowers and shrubs that existed prior to the late 1800s is, perhaps, the best place to put your energy. With a diverse seed mix, proper timing, good technique and a little luck, results can be pleasantly surprising. Mix seed with binder (a natural glue available at nurseries) and keep an eye on the five-day forecast. Sow and mulch just before monsoons arrive.
With so little rain, such poor soils, incessant sunshine, unforgiving winds and extreme daily temperature shifts, it’s a wonder anything grows here. Keep in mind that ecosystems are in a constant state of change and that you are not alone in your often frustrating attempts at land restoration. Finally, remember the most important virtue during times like these: patience.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Declaration of Independence --from Aquifer (July 2002)

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for people to redirect the pipes connecting them to their shrinking aquifer, and to consume a separate and equal water source to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for mankind’s inertia requires that we make a declaration of the causes that impel them toward this new direction.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all treated water is created equal, that it is endowed by its Creator with unalienable potential. To secure this potential, systems are installed such that whenever any such system becomes unsustainable, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that systems long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. But, when a long train of abuses evinces an unconscious design to suck the aquifer and our rivers dry, it is our right, it is our duty, to provide sustainable alternatives. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
We have refused to consider the awesome potential of the resources that fall from the sky and run down our drains. We have unnecessarily forbidden graywater recycling with regulations that make it prohibitively expensive. We have called underground cisterns too pricey and then spent untold dollars digging for water we never find.
We have obstructed the legality of above-ground cisterns in certain subdivisions, choosing aesthetics over necessity. We have combined, with others, to claim rights to water that doesn’t exist in dry years. We have abdicated our responsibility concerning our own roofwater runoff and wastewater (to bloated bureaucracies and big-time developers who determine that rainwater-catchment tanks and onsite wastewater-filtration systems are too much to deal with – while much of the rest of the world successfully uses these simple technologies).
Meanwhile we continue to plunder our rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers without worrying if our children will grow to hate us for our wastefulness.
We have been warned, from time to time, by lesser droughts, but most of us quickly forget the circumstances of our settlement here – while we allow yet another ill-conceived development to scar the natural landscape with water stolen from future generations. Many of us often have appealed to the magnanimity of the powers that be, but such powers have been deaf to the voice of justice.
Most conventional developers and government bureaucrats do not understand that we constantly, and at an alarming rate, are shrinking our aquifer. At the same time the no-growth folks do not understand that without the jobs and gross-receipts revenues that we obtain from construction, our community would go down the drain faster than so much runoff and wastewater.
We, therefore, in order to form a more perfect community, establish justice for our posterity and provide for the common defense of our local economy, do declare that in all future development, roofwater catchment and wastewater recycling can and of right ought to become the norm, such that some day in the not-too-distant future we become free from, and independent of, our current state of addiction to a shrinking aquifer while remaining free to grow our community and economy in a sustainable manner for future generations. And, for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.

Let's Not Be Bird-Brained about Rainwater (June 2002)

They say turkeys sometimes drown when they open their beaks to the sky during a torrential rain. Pretty funny, isn’t it? But, unfortunately, in a way we here in the American Southwest resemble those clueless birds. Ostriches are not the only long-necked dingbats we mimic, especially when it comes to our water supply.
Why, when it rains, do we make almost no attempt to collect the most precious of desert resources? At least turkeys (to a fault) understand the concept of rainwater catchment. Not until we start collecting and using the rain that careens off of our roofs during every storm, as well as melting snow, will we be able to deny this bird-brained reputation.
If you are ready to cut this albatross loose, make sure you get to one of the upcoming educational fairs providing information about conserving and harvesting water. KABC and the City of Santa Fe will sponsor an event on Sunday, June 2, at Villa Linda Mall. Then, on June 9, the Arroyo de Los Pinos Project encourages you to “Run-off to the Museums” on Camino Lejo for a water fair focussing on storm water and erosion control.
Water is just one of several resource-oriented themes that will be featured at a June 21-22 event called “Opportunities for a New America.” Sponsored by KSFR radio, the event is the brainchild of Realtor Alan Hoffman and will take place at Town & Ranch on the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Don Gaspar.
In case you can’t make these events, here’s a brief primer on cisterns (rainwater-harvesting tanks), which are really the best way to collect precipitation.
A 1,000-square-foot roof can yield 7,500 gallons of water in a year with average rainfall. That’s enough to fill a 55-gallon drum over 136 times. If you are good at regularly emptying water from your cistern, that roof could harvest most of its rain and snow with a system made up of three or four 850- to 1,200-gallon cisterns.
Cisterns can be installed either above ground or underground. Due to the expense of excavation, back-filling, tamping and pipe connections as well as the removal and disposal of excess earth, underground cisterns usually cost many times more per gallon than those placed on the surface. Depending on the complexity of the system, an above-ground installation can be as easy as unloading the cistern from a truck and placing it under a canale or downspout.
A big advantage of above-ground cisterns is that, in many cases, it is not necessary to use a pump to deliver water to plants. If your property has adequate slope, water will drain out of the tank to plants that need it, especially if these plants are appropriately placed in low areas.
Installation costs vary with onsite factors including slope, access, number of canales or downspouts, existing vegetation and planned vegetation; and options such as float switches, recharge lines, pressure tanks, pumps, filters, valve boxes and drip-irrigation systems.
Connecting a cistern to drip irrigation can easily be done, but it’s more complicated than most people think. The easiest way to pump from a cistern is to connect a sump pump to a hose (Don’t get electrocuted!). Unfortunately, drip irrigation is much more efficient than hoses and/or soaker hoses.
The future of this region will depend on people making the necessary transition to watering with harvested water, not with the shrinking resources in our rivers and aquifers. We already have Turkey Day celebrating the food we harvest in the fall. Now ’s the time for a spring holiday when we gather together to learn about the many ways to harvest our much needed, but often wasted roof runoff.

Bury Pipes to Save Plants during Drought (May 2002)

This relentless drought is the best thing that could happen to Santa Fe.
Optimistic projections suggest that the San Juan-Chama water-diversion project will be complete by 2007. The problem is that this will only provide enough water for for about 40 years. Without a drought now that forces our community to learn how to survive on very little water, what will happen to Santa Fe when there is no new diversion project to turn to?
If we really want to prevent Santa Fe from becoming a ghost town, we need to take this Stage 3 Drought Emergency very seriously. This means watering outdoors no more than once per week from the city system.
Right now, I should probably apologize to my landscaper colleagues as well as conventional gardeners. For most of them, seeing these words in print will cause heart palpitations. The good news is that there actually are ways to establish drought-tolerant plants on once-a-week watering.
This is especially true if you supplement with roof water caught in cisterns. But, since the average monsoon season doesn’t start until July 7, even if you installed a cistern today, it would likely remain empty until at least mid-June.
In the meantime here are some techniques you can adopt to ensure that young plants survive if you live in the City of Santa Fe or if you just wish to do the right thing voluntarily. These techniques assume that you select plants that are drought-tolerant and that your mulch is at least three inches thick.
My favorite technique is one that I devoted an entire column to during the drought of 2000. (Feel free to contact me for a copy). It’s called deep-pipe irrigation, and it’s quite simple.
All you have to do is “plant” small-diameter perforated pipes next to roots of plant material and fill the pipes with gravel. When you water normally, also make sure that water is directed down the perforated pipes so that the entire root zone gets moist.
A similar technique, what permaculturalist Tim Murphy calls “wick drip irrigation”, is a modern version of a “French wick” (not to be confused with a pumice wick or a French drain!). Get a 2.5 gallon water jug or similar container. Then, get some dirty, well-worn nylon twine that will wick water, and shove the twine through a plastic tube. Make sure there is slack on either end of the tube, and tie knots at the ends of the twine.
Next poke a small hole through the top of the container and shove the plastic tube with the twine in it into the bottom of the container. Then, put some rocks on top of the end of the twine to prevent the twine slipping and also to prevent the container from blowing away in the wind.
Plant your plant so that the other end of the twine is coiled around the root zone of the plant. Be sure that the plastic tube covers the twine such that none of the twine is exposed to air. Finally, water the plant and then fill the container with water. Water should gradually migrate from the container to the root zone of the plant through the twine over the course of a week or two (depending on the size of your container and the effectiveness of the twine you choose).
The use of deep, unglazed, terracotta pots buried so that they can be filled with water, but so that they can also slowly leak water through the pores in the pots is called “buried olla irrigation.” This technique has been used for centuries very effectively.
Hopefully people will have the opportunity to continue to use all of these techniques here in Santa Fe for centuries and centuries to come.

Water Conservation --We Can do More (April 2002)

Habits in adults are very hard, almost impossible, to change (as Aristotle said). But when fate forces us into a behavioral change, we have no choice but to be up for the challenge. Here in the drought-stricken Southwest (and this year, too, in most of the United States) the challenge revolves around the habits we must change in order to effectively and maturely address our lack of water.
One might think that New Mexico would be able to teach folks in other states, who are new to living with drought, about all the things we do to conserve water in the landscape. Unfortunately, this really isn’t the case.
Sure, we have drip irrigation. Yes, we have far fewer outdoor swimming pools per capita than most cities. Yes, it’s easy to buy beautiful, drought-tolerant plants and trees. Yes, we have a strong tradition of living well with very little rain. And, sure, there’s a small alternative community of gardeners and landscapers who have worked at conservation for many years. But the bottom line is that we are not the highly effective leaders that we should be when it comes to water conservation.
In fact it seems we lag far behind where we should be – that is, to borrow permaculturist Bill Mollison’s phrase, “if we wish to maintain any claims to consciousness or morality.” We still have many too many water-wasting golf courses. And, although the number of residential lawns is dropping every year, many commercial and government buildings still maintain vast expanses of lawn. Even the State Land Office, of all places, flaunts a big lawn in the heart of downtown. Meanwhile the New Mexico Environment Department drags its feet incessantly on the updating of wastewater-recycling regulations.
The root of the problem is that most of us lack any hint of the habits that will one day come to us naturally. With the hope that the current drought might motivate people to change their habits, here are some suggested behavior modifications. (Most of these “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Water-Conscious Land Stewards” are described in greater detail in my previous columns. I can send copies if you contact me.)
Harvest roof water. Many of us have found that the rain barrels we place under our canales begin to overflow very quickly during monsoons. Using cisterns and pumice wicks, we can put this resource to good use.
Recycle wastewater. The “black” water we flush down our toilets and the “gray” water that runs down our drains is an incredible untapped resource. Onsite treatment systems are safe and efficient, especially if designed and installed properly.
Catch runoff water. Our clayey soils quickly seal up when moisture falls. This causes a “sheet flow” effect where water careens through the landscape leaving eroded soil in its wake. Why not contour the land and direct it to plants and trees?
Install “deep pipe” irrigation. Instead of watering plants only at the soil’s surface, we can “plant” small-diameter, perforated pipes filled with gravel next to our plants. This way, we can direct water to a given plant’s entire root zone using much less water to establish a plant or tree.
Mulch. If you don’t have at least a three-inch-deep layer of mulch around your plants, you are letting moisture in the soil evaporate.
Use appropriate grasses. If you must install a lawn, buffalograss and blue grama are great alternatives to fescue and Kentucky blue grass.
Become politically active. People familiar with these issues know that legal questions abound concerning water that falls on and water that flows through a piece of property. In addition to accepting the challenge to change our habits on a personal, land steward level, we will need to rise to the challenge of participating in a strong legal/political defense of our basic, natural right to effectively conserve water.

Analyze these: the Forces Flowing through Your Land (Feb. 2002)

Anyone involved in real property would be wise to use a permacultural method of design called “sector analysis.” For buyers, this might mean a smart purchase or an expensive mistake. For sellers, this might mean a quick closing or a lesson in patience.
Sectors are places on a property through which certain forces flow. Fire, wind, water, light, noise, views, wildlife, people and zoning ordinances are some examples. Analyze these and you have begun to understand your land, especially as it relates to appropriate ways to develop it.
First, brainstorm a site-specific list of all of the potential forces on your property (as in the sample list above). Second, determine when, where and to what degree these forces could effect the property and its inhabitants. Finally, after you analyze your land in this way, steps can be taken to ameliorate the negative and accentuate the positive effects of these forces.
Let’s look at each force in our sample list in order to understand something about the basic nature of these sectors.
• Here in the Southwest, fire should be considered before buying a piece of property and choosing a building site. Catastrophic fire will typically climb up a wooded, southwest-facing slope. But your fire sector will depend on a site-specific analysis of the existing topography and the size, density and dominant flora in a given fuel supply (i.e., dense evergreen forest or sparse grassland).
Ideally, your house is nowhere near a threatening fire sector. This could prove costly, not only in terms of lives and property, but also in terms of work needed to ameliorate the dangers.
• Wind is another force to be analyzed. In Northern New Mexico the prevailing winter winds come from the northwest and the prevailing summer winds come from the southwest (which is part of the reason why the fire sector is often in this sector). In April, wind often blows through fiercely from all directions, especially due west. But, like the fire sector, local topography, tree cover and existing structures will play a significant role in determining the various fire sectors that change with the season.
Sometimes you may prefer to place your house in a wind sector. In hot climates, cool summer breezes are essential. But often the windiest part of a piece of property is the last place you would want to build a home: Not only is wind uncomfortable and annoying, it can wreak havoc on plant life and produce very high utility bills.
• Water is an example of a sector that you want to have flowing through your property, but there can always be too much of a good thing. Erosion caused by our summer monsoons is often fierce. Careful observation of the land should be applied here so that erosion control measures can either be avoided or can be as low-cost as possible.
• The powerful forces of light, noise, and views have a common denominator in that their negative effects (for example, city lights, loud neighbors, busy roads) can often be reduced by trees. On the other hand, positive effects of these forces (solar gain, bird songs and mountain vistas) often help sell properties.
• The potential paths of wildlife and people should be analyzed so that they can be encouraged in some places and discouraged in others. Living among wildlife can be a life-enhancing experience, but steps must be taken to keep wildlife from ravaging our gardens and garbage. Our fragile soil demands that pathways are determined so that people and their vehicles do not destroy the landscaping that we use to accentuate the positive and ameliorate the negative effects of the other forces.
• Local zoning ordinances also need analysis, because that mountain vista you have could some day feature a spanking, new Wal-Mart. If you want mountain vistas and don’t want to be a NIMBY (“Not in my back yard!”), don’t forget to analyze this important sector in great detail.

Zonation: Designing Your Personal Ecosystem (Nov. 2001)

Permaculture provides 10 effective “methods of design” that determine a system’s components, their appropriate placement and the most beneficial way they will relate to one another.
One of these principles is “zonation,” the method of placing all components of a system within one (or more) of six quasi-distinct zones. Picture a pattern of concentric circles, as the waves that radiate from a pebble dropped in a pond. We see this pattern in tree rings, targets, rainbows, solar systems and even poker games (chairs, players, cards, chips, drinks, and, finally, the jackpot) and shopping malls (parking, curbs, sidewalks, landscaping, exterior walls, business establishments, interior pedestrian routes, and, finally, the food court).
Now picture yourself at your house. This is Zone 0. Here is the place where you put things you need in your immediate vicinity. Some examples are the greenhouse, shadehouses, sunny patios, potted plants and herbs, shade-creating vines, solar panels and graywater-filtration system.
The remaining zones emanate from this center but their shapes will reflect the irregularities of the existing landscape as well as the unique needs, desires, habits and values of a given individual, family or, as in the case of village or community, the general population. Any given zonation strategy will also be imposed upon by the conclusions made by other design methods.
This makes design even more necessary because the simple, predetermined mathematics of concentric rings breaks down immediately as constant factors and variables are taken into account.
Zone 1 is directly outside Zone 0 via the home’s most frequently used doors (especially the kitchen door). Sustainable design dictates that you should place components that you will visit most often (daily or several times per week) in Zone 1. This usually means culinary herbs and other edible plants, well-mulched and often-pruned plants and trees, water-storage systems, compost, cold frames, firewood pile, chicken house, fragrant plants and plant species that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
Surrounding these components, Zone 2 typically contains localized wind and fire protection, main crop vegetables, small orchards, farm animals, gazebos, small ponds or fountains, view screens, noise abatement, shade trees, the irrigation clock (if needed) and appropriate plant guilds.
In residential, non-farm situations, Zone 3 contains larger erosion-control structures, rainwater-harvesting systems such as on-contour swales and key line systems, large-scale wind and fire protection, hawk poles, “magic spots” for intimate conversation and meditation and wildlife waterers.
Zone 4, which is managed least intensively, holds harvestable wild berries, nuts and firewood. Visits to this zone occur no more than a few times per season.
Finally, Zone 5 is the natural world from which the only thing we harvest is information. Here we learn about nature’s patterns and principles, information we hopefully can apply effectively in Zone 0 through Zone 4. There can even be a Zone 6, which is the area where we let nature have her privacy away from any human infringements.
Zonation is one of the most important design methods in permaculture, especially for beginners because it forces us to save time and energy in our daily lives. Installation errors made early on – for example, placing garden vegetables far away and out of sight – can be expensive to ameliorate. But designs can change easily and often have far-reaching effects.

Brother, Can You Shift Your Paradigm? (Oct. 2001)

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Please email me for a faxed version of my first column written after 9-11.

A check from the IRS? Invest in Your Land (Aug 2001)

The check’s in the mail. Well, not exactly. A letter from the IRS telling you about your check in the mail is in the mail. Hmmm.
As we Americans all know, when you get your bribe from the president, you should go out and spend it. But why not spend it in a way that is both ethical and profitable? Here are some suggestions from the permaculture perspective:
Sow seed. If your check happens to be on the small side, buy cool-season vegetable seed like spinach, lettuce, kale, chard or peas. Plant it soon. But, buyer beware: Many seeds sold these days are sterile, genetically engineered to make you buy more. Plants of the Southwest has a great selection of heirloom seed packets as well as native and appropriate bulk seed.
Plant a fruit tree. Fruit trees are a particularly good investment. For less than $75 you can buy a decent-size tree, compost, organic fertilizer, mulch and a set of tree stakes. In a few years you can begin to enjoy its fruits. Tooley’s Trees up in Truchas is a great local source for drought-tolerant, cold-hardy varieties.
Install drip irrigation. If time is money, drip irrigation buys you at least a square foot of real estate somewhere downtown. You’ll need a battery-operated clock, a filter, a pressure regulator, tubing, emitters, at least one end cap and all the necessary couplings, barbs, T’s, L’s and Y’s.
If you’re already confused, don’t be. It’s easy, but I’d recommend a visit to The Firebird. You can get out of there for less than $150 and they’ll teach you how it works. Think of the time you will save when you no longer have to run around every other morning with a hose as you look to see if any of your neighbors busted you spilling on the concrete walk.
Mulch your yard. Santa Fe Greenhouses and Payne’s deliver bulk bark and compost, which are great mulching materials. Gravel can be a low-maintenance mulch if laid properly over a permeable weed barrier. Standard colors and sizes can be delivered by companies listed in the “Sand and Gravel” section of the yellow pages. Santa Fe Stone, Milestone and Cuyamunge Stone sell the more pricey colors and textures better for small areas, pathways or aesthetic accents.
The Feed Bin and Monte Vista Feed sell my favorite mulch: straw. Many horse stables off West Alameda charge a small loading fee for manure, which is always well worth it. As a mulch, manure is best under straw and even better under straw and on top of corrugated cardboard. But that’s a topic for a future column.
Catch rainwater in a pumice wick. Regular readers of this column understand pumice wicks. Basically, they’re skinny sponges protruding from water-runoff sources such as roofs and driveways. Plant next to pumice wicks; plants thrive around the mini-aquifer right at their root zone. Pumice is not expensive, and can be delivered by Coppola, Santa Fe Concrete and numerous branches of the Montaño family.
If you pay a water bill, pumice wicks can eventually pay for themselves. If you happen to live near an edge of an arroyo, install wicks to prevent erosion. They will soon increase the value of your property, especially if directed to a windbreak, garden, trellis or small orchard.
Actually, all of these suggestions will increase the value of your property and they’ll usually provide rates of return higher than the rates of most stock portfolios. Unlike many investments (including most types of home improvements), the value of a landscape physically grows as plant material grows. Paints chip. Pipes rust. Wood rots. Concrete cracks. Roofs leak. But, as dependably as the government, plants grow.

PC in the Railyard with Diamonds

Picture yourself in a train at a station where organic farmers do not sell French fries. Suddenly someone is there at the turnstyle, the girl who sells strawberry pies. Perennial flowers of yellow and green greet you as you’re walking home. Gaze at the rooftops that collect the rain. Pick a peach! This is how the rail yard could be.
Picture yourself in a home on a small street where out your font door is a beautiful park. One of your neighbors stops by for a nightcap. It’s safe walking well after dark. There’s a few taxis, but you take the bus, each day when you go to work. Climb in the back with your head in the clouds. Read a book! This is how the Santa Fe rail yard could be.
Since permaculture is about creating sustainable systems, a final design for the rail yard would have to fit within existing financial parameters. Fortunately, at least for the visionaries among us, I don’t know these parameters. However, the more we flounder waiting for the perfect plan, the harder it will be to excite funding in the future. This makes me feel more confident as I put this relatively uninformed bug (a Beatle, perhaps?) in the community’s ear.
The Farmers’ Market would be an integral element of a permaculture-based rail yard. There is nothing more basic to our bio-region’s sustainability than local farmers selling their produce locally. It’s also a great way to build community among diverse people.
There would also be a public park full of edible plants, fruit trees and places to relax in the shade or to be protected from the wind. Hopefully there would be noise-buffering trees and view screens near major intersections.
A good-sized gazebo for small community performances or other events would draw people in. It would be built right in the middle of a traditional plaza surrounded by locally owned businesses serving community needs. (Have you ever seen those pictures at First National Bank? There was corn growing where we now have lawn!).
Right nearby this new plaza would be a large parking garage (preferably underground) and a major Santa Fe Trails hub. Both would likely be within easy walking distance to the train station, which would be converted into a mostly elevated high-speed rail powered by renewable energy or at least clean-burning fuel. Sidewalks and bike trails would replace car-filled streets.
Every impervious surface (roofs, roads, walks, trails, driveways) would direct precipitation into a cistern system for use inside buildings then, after treatment, for subsurface irrigation to nourish a gorgeous, drought-tolerant landscape.
New structures would be built to take advantage of solar gain for heating in the winter and with convection-cooling systems for the summer. Hopefully they’d be built out of non-toxic, eco-friendly and recycled materials wherever possible.
My guess is that such a project could be financially feasible only if we changed our beloved view-enhancing, one-story-house pattern. In fact many buildings around the plaza and in the downtown area have more than one floor. It may be that in order to get the necessary return on investment many buildings have to be several stories high.
This would not mean hotels but rather affordable housing and indoor shopping. What better place to provide affordable housing than in a place where most people wouldn’t need a car?
This kind of New Urbanism strategy has been talked about for years in Santa Fe. Some courageous developers are even attempting it. The time has come for our elected officials to get on board.

Buzz on Herb Spirals: Efficient Elegance (June 2001)

In this post-hippie world, the term “herb spiral” may be unfortunate. For clarity’s sake, just avoid any visions of Governor Johnson dancing with Jerry Garcia.
The kind of herb spiral I’m pushing is a graceful garden feature for almost any patch of flat, sunny ground. Picture a planting bed coiled up like a cinnamon roll, with a high point in the middle.
Herb spirals are one of the most efficient, productive, beautiful and elegant of all permaculture pattern applications. They’re efficient because they create one place where all of your culinary herbs can grow within an easy reach.
They’re productive, because they provide a wide range of microclimates, while they simultaneously take advantage of precious vertical space. Such microclimates produce very robust plants. Meanwhile, the heat that emanates off of the rocks that hold the spiral together helps to extend the growing season for whatever you happen to plant in the spiral.
Herb spirals also are very beautiful. A tall, bronze fennel presents a gorgeous hue and fascinating texture. A flowering thyme cascades over native rocks. A fragrant rosemary provides afternoon shade to the dark green, serrated edges of parsley growing below.
This narrative could go on and on. But it is important to note that there also is usually plenty of room in an herb spiral for interplanting nonedible colors and textures, especially when they encourage beneficial insects.
The spiral is one of nature’s most elegant patterns. It’s an archetype of power with a positive purpose. It’s an icon that speaks a universal language of organized energy. And, in a garden, it effortlessly invites people to wander through the wonderland that it quickly creates.
To build your own, you’ll need to know the area of your spiral. Typically, a spiral’s radius is determined by the arm’s reach of the smallest person who plans to use it.
Then, site it. Consider putting your spiral near the kitchen. You may want it in a more prominent place, but keep in mind that part of your spiral’s efficiency and productivity will be diminished if you make getting to it inconvenient.
Once you have a site, loosen up the ground below and dump a pile of amended soil on top. The height of the pile (ultimately, your spiral) is up to you and depends at least in part on your rockworking skills. One and a half feet high is sufficient, but go higher if you can.
Finally, build a low, rock retaining wall similar to a sturdy, rock edger that you might run along a planting bed. The challenging part is that this small wall should be built to rise up and around your soil pile in a spiral pattern. (Important: Make sure the low point of your spiral is on the north side of your soil pile to create the widest variety of microclimates).
Now it’s time to do your planting. Herbs that need the most water and the most shade get planted at the bottom. Plant herbs that need the most sun and the least amount of water near the top. Plant herbs that like full sun and more water on the lowest part of the south or southwest side. Herbs that prefer part sun get planted on the east and west sides, keeping in mind that the west side gets hot, afternoon sun, while the east gets cooler, morning light.
For more information on applying natural patterns as well as specifics on herb spirals, check out the “Patterning” chapter in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Tagari Publications, 1988) by Bill Mollison. Or give me a call. I’d be happy to direct you toward creating such a potential bounty of healthy deliciousness. And, remember: if planted densely and mulched heavily, herb spirals can be weed-free.

Step Off Straight and Narrow for Your Garden (April 2001)

If you are planning a vegetable garden this summer, it’s time to get to work. Here are some ideas to make your efforts more efficient and productive.
First, you’ll want to determine the best location for your garden. The most popular of all permaculture principles – “Work is pollution” – applies here. Why create extra work for yourself by exiling your garden to some distant corner of your property? This practice comes from a time when society looked down on growing veggies. Now that it is widely recognized that homegrown food is healthier and more ecologically conscious than factory-farmed food, this has changed.
I have a theory that every step away from your kitchen door that you put your garden means a time that you will neglect to visit your garden in a given year. This means that weeds and pests can get out of hand before you know it, and precious, ripe produce can rot on the vine without being harvested. This translates into more work and less reward for your efforts.
Second, you’ll want to reconsider any preconceived notions that you have about planting in straight rows. Working with nature, the most basic of permaculture principles, suggests that there are real benefits to planting gardens in curved rows. There are very few, if any, straight lines in nature. So, why should we try to impose our abstract Cartesian mindset on the real world?
Curved garden rows protect plants from the effects of our often brutal winds. Straight rows tend to multiply these damaging effects, which include higher evaporation rates, increased soil erosion, sand blasting, and branch and stem breakage. Bill Mollison, the father of permaculture, even claims to have witnessed a “zucchini uproot and bowl along like a tumbleweed.”
Curved rows also serve an aesthetic function in the landscape by allowing plants to seem as if they were not forced on the land, but rather as if the plants were always meant to be there. If people perceive the rows at all, their elegant undulations will produce a soothing effect among all who wander by. This also helps to blur the somewhat contrived distinction between “garden” and “landscape,” and this in turn helps to encourage more interest in the garden.
Perhaps the least obvious but most important (from an efficiency/productivity standpoint) reason to plant in curved rows is that they use space better than straight rows. In any straight-row system a small patch of wasted garden space exists (in the middle of the square made from any four neighboring plants). In Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Tagari Publications, 1988) Mollison demonstrates that 45 plants fit in curved rows while only 36 plants fit in straight rows given an equal area and the same inter-row and in-line spacing.
The wasted space in straight row gardening also creates more work for the gardener since the unplanted areas make a larger aggregate area that will need to be weeded. In addition water is wasted in a less-dense, straight row system as compared to a more compact, curved row system.
It is important to consider which species of fruits and vegetables you will plant in your garden. Some plants are strong allies. Others are compatible companions. And a small number of plants are incompatible with each other.
In permaculture, we plant flora in beneficial relationships called “guilds.” In a typical guild one plant will protect the others from prevailing winds. Another will attract beneficial insects. A third will fix nitrogen in the soil. Others will act as a living mulch by shading the soil and preventing the encroachment of unwanted weeds. Still others will repel certain nasty garden pests. For more information on guilds in the vegetable garden, an excellent resource is Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Companion Planting (Rodale Press, 1994).

Credit Union Encourages Permaculture Ethic (March 2001)

Perhaps a superficial reading of the last parable in the Book of Matthew is ingrained in our collective unconscious. In the Parable of the Talents (Ch. 25;14-30), Jesus urges us to put our money to work, as opposed to hoarding it.
Ethical investments (those that respect God’s creation and apply the Golden Rule) would probably be required. The problem is that ethical investments – especially safe ones that guarantee a specific return – are rare.
This is changing. Thanks to over three years of volunteer work by a group of local people, an alternative financial institution has opened in Santa Fe. Called the Permaculture Credit Union (PCU), it’s the first new credit union chartered by New Mexico in 30 years.
Like all credit unions and banks, PCU provides dividend-bearing savings accounts and competitive CDs, both insured by Uncle Sam. Unlike banks, credit unions are nonprofit institutions that have members who can participate in a one-person, one-vote process to control the use of the institution’s money.
Anyone can become a member of a credit union as long he or she falls in the “field of membership”. PCU’s field includes people who “believe in the ethics of permaculture” and/or complete a permaculture design course, or are members of a permaculture organization.
“What makes us uniquely different,” according to PCU board member Vint Lawrence, “is that we are bringing permaculture ethics to the financial industry. That’s really the fascinating part... How do you operate a financial institution based on the ethics of respect for nature, respect for people and reinvesting surplus? It’s almost an oxymoron.
“We hope to reflect these ethics by loaning money for things like energy-efficient products, by not taking advantage of people by charging high late fees, and by reinvesting in the community that’s depositing its money instead of sending money out of state,” Lawrence said.
PCU is not yet able to provide checking accounts, but it will begin to loan money in early April from its office in the State Employees Credit Union in the Villa Linda Mall parking lot. Lawrence said that especially for the first couple of years the credit union will be highly regulated, so the types of loans will be somewhat limited.
“It’s difficult to say how much leeway we have,” said PCU board chairman Phil Vergamini. “If somebody wants $1,000 because his refrigerator died, we might encourage them, as part of our education program, to think in terms of energy-efficiency. But we can’t hold them to doing that.”
“We’ve had many discussions on this whole notion of ‘Can you use a financial institution for social engineering?’ But, because it shouldn’t depend on any single criterion, you shouldn’t have to pay twice as much interest on a big truck if what you’re doing with it is repairing the planet. However, someone might qualify for a larger loan because their operating costs will be lower using a more efficient vehicle,” he said.
Although the PCU board is banking on a belief that “people involved in permaculture are open to sustainability, the reality is that whoever is a member is also likely to be an ordinary human being.” Vergamini said. “The bottom line is that our values aren’t going to overshadow good business judgment.”
Certainly it seems as if Vergamini and Lawrence are putting their “talents” to use but in a way that would, if successful, gradually change our entire culture’s understanding of wealth as well as its relationship to “dough.”
A PCU membership costs only $5. Right now PCU is open five days per week from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. but these hours are sure to increase as more people recognize the benefits of a safe, ethical investment providing competitive rates. Please call 954-3479 or visit for more information.

A Short Course: How to Make Pumice Wicks

It’s been a wet October after months and months of nada from the sky. Do you know where your water went? Most of it probably careened off your land via an arroyo or storm sewer, as opposed to being used by plants in your landscape.
Why not store this water in a no-maintenance pumice wick? These invisible “sponges underground” are easy to install.
Pumice is a white, lava rock extracted from the Jemez Mountains. There are companies that mine and transport pumice in not-so-environmentally-friendly ways but since the advantages of pumice wicks are great, the effects of mining should not preclude their use.
Pumice is extremely light and porous and costs about $30 per cubic yard and many sand and gravel companies sell it. Try to get pea-gravel-sized pumice. It seems to work best.
The basic idea behind these wicks is to harvest runoff from any impervious surface. When plants are planted on either side of the wick, they are given a supply of moisture at their root zones for weeks or even months after every rain. Wicks are not to be installed too close to existing vegetation, because trenching damages root zones and can do more harm than good.
Pumice wicks embody such permaculture principles as making the least change for the greatest possible effect but for landowners with our erosive desert soils, the most important permaculture principle pertaining to wicks is, “Every element in the system should perform more than one function.”
Of course, the main function of pumice wicks is to harvest rainwater, but another function is that they help to control erosion. Instead of allowing gallons of water to pour off of roofs and roads, wicks reduce the quantity and velocity of stormwater runoff, which in turn prevents soil from washing away. This function is certainly beneficial to those who care about their valuable property.
Here are some basic guidelines for building pumice wicks in association with a roof. This process can be adapted to harvest water from driveways, roads and patios, too. the owners of challenging sites will benefit from the advice of a drainage expert.
Under your canale or downspout, dig a 3-foot-diameter hole. Fill the hole with one foot of gravel. Place a 12-inch-cube box drain on the gravel with the outflow hole for a 4-inch sewer and drain pipe facing toward your future wick.
Next, dig a trench eight to 10 inches wide and around 17 inches deep. Trenches should drop a half-inch every 10 feet. Keep the trenches at least three feet away from foundations.
Trenches longer than 20 feet should have perforated pipes running down the middle of the pumice so water will be released evenly. If you want to use water far from the canale, the location must be downhill. Run 4-inch (unperforated) pipe from the canale to the desired location, and begin your wick.
Add 10 to 12 inches of pumice to the bottom of the trench then on top a layer of 20-24 sheets of newspaper, which will prevent dirt from clogging the pumice. Backfill the trench with dirt (over the newspaper) and tamp.
Finally go back to your hole. Fill in gravel around your box drain. In the case of canales create a funnel to direct water from the roof into the box drain using a piece of thick plastic, such as shower liner. Cover the drain with gravel, and you’re almost done.
The last step is to ensure that runoff has an appropriate place to go when the wick is saturated. To this end, simply make sure water from your saturated wick flows into a neighboring French drain, which readers of this column understand as that oh-so complex water harvesting technique, the gravel-filled hole.

Use Pipe, Saw & Gravel for Plant-Watering Aid (Oct. 2000)

Watering only once a week usually spells death for new plants. One way to reduce plant mortality rates while abiding by the City of Santa Fe’s recently imposed restrictions is called “deep pipe irrigation.”
It’s simple. You can either follow the steps below or invent your own method using the basic concept of getting water to plant roots, a variety of materials and a little ingenuity.
First, get 2- or 3-inch-diameter PVC pipe. You’ll want each piece to be 18 to 24 inches long. Then, starting about six inches from the top, using almost any kind of saw, cut slits along one side of the pipe at two- or three-inch intervals, all the way down. Get some gravel, grab your shovel, and you’re ready to install some deep pipe irrigation.
Dig a hole for your plant and then widen one side of the hole by 10-12 inches. Stick your piece of pipe vertically on the edge of the widened side of the hole so that about three to six inches of non-perforated pipe stick out above the ground. Make sure the slits in the pipe will face the plant.
Plant your plant. Gently pack soil around the pipe. Fill the pipe with gravel. Make a small crescent-shaped berm or tree well for rainwater harvesting. (If the ground is completely flat, you can build a completely circular tree well.)
The final step, as readers of this column know by now, is to mulch well. And you’re done.
Well, actually, not quite. Don’t forget to water, and when you do, of course you’ll want to water both the plant and into the pipe itself. By leaking out at various intervals and at the bottom, the pipe will stimulate root growth where regular watering does not easily reach – especially in our clayey desert soils.
Books of straw (the square slices of bales) placed vertically near plants and watered in a similar way can also work. The books are shorter than the pipe, so they won’t water as deeply. Since the books are rather wide, you could end up exposing significantly large sections of plant roots to the air, especially if you put the book too close to your plant. If, to prevent this problem, you make the books skinnier, make sure the straw books remain densely packed in order to prevent them from clogging up with soil.
When it is important for a particular plant to grow symmetrically, and often it is, using two or three deep pipes around the plant is a good idea. This will ensure that the roots and associated branches on one side of the plant do not grow more quickly than the others. In reclamation situations, one pipe is sufficient, but inside formal courtyards three evenly spaced pipes would probably be worth the effort.
We’ve used cardboard boxes filled with pumice and even local fist-sized rocks very effectively. Such pumice (or gravel) pockets should be shared among plants by installing each pocket in the center of a plant guild. These mini-reservoirs work especially well in the depressions of on-contour swales. They can make supplemental watering much less necessary, because significant quantities of rainwater are funneled directly to the point where they are most needed.
In keeping with the permaculture principle that every element in a system should perform more than one function, the section of the pipe that sticks up out of the ground works effectively as a stake for securing wildlife prevention fencing around individual plants.
These pipes are also great places to add an extra irrigation emitter. In so doing the actual amount of water necessary to ensure plant survival will usually be much less than the amount needed to keep plants alive when they are only allowed one watering per week.

Untitled (Sept. 2000)

Although some people in development-related businesses are complaining, no one should blame the Santa Fe City Council for imposing a Stage 3 water alert. Our two reservoirs (which account for 40 percent of our water supply) are 80 percent empty. It would have been irresponsible for the Council not to administer the only powers it currently has for curtailing the effects of the drought.
Unfortunately, Stage 3 is just a stopgap measure. If the 1996 drought provides us with any lessons, one is that when we get normal moisture, higher consumption soon follows. The reason for this is that we do not see the existing alternative water sources that stare us in the face everyday. We need a new approach to water, one that first helps us see, and then makes it easy for us to use, all of the water that we unconsciously waste as modern Americans living in an arid land.
One of the skills that permaculture tries to help hone is our power of observation. We encourage people to observe a piece of property. With no preconceived notions, we focus on determining basic facts. Where is it warm? Where is it windy? Where is it noisy?
A step up from that regime is to concentrate on a particular type of energy flow such as water. Take a moment to walk around your home and yard. Observe all of the places where water flows. Inside you’ll find sinks, showers, tubs, toilets and perhaps a washing machine. Outside you’ll discover canales or downspouts, driveway edges, bottoms of slopes and arroyos, hose bibs, perhaps a drip irrigation or pop-up spray system.
Combining these observations with basic permaculture principles, we discover that there is a whole new world of resources. The drains in our sinks, tubs and washing machines can contribute nutrient-rich graywater for use in landscaping. Downspouts, canales and roof edges are vast, untapped resources for harvesting water. Even slopes and the bottoms of arroyos can be seen as ideal places to slow down the flow of our most precious resource.
Appropriate planting must also be addressed in our new approach. Not only Kentucky bluegrass, but less-thirsty fescue lawns (in the vast majority of cases) should be replaced with native buffalograss and blue grama that need very little, if any, irrigation once established. From an extremist’s perspective (which may one day be mainstream), the only flora given supplemental water are plants and trees which provide food, shade, wind protection and other necessities.
How, then, should we begin this new approach, which amounts to nothing less than a major paradigm shift?
Out of a basic instinct for self-preservation, it is the development industry (and all its related suppliers, contractors, subcontractors, marketers and bureaucrats) that needs to lead the way. That there is a growing sentiment in the Santa Fe area that development should cease due to our lack of water. The only way to prevent this sentiment from spreading is to see water in this new way.
It’s time to sink or swim. We no longer have the luxury of merely talking about graywater recycling, rainwater catchment and appropriate planting. The private and public sectors must work together to break down existing regulatory barriers while simultaneously creating incentives for applying these simple, necessary techniques.
This new approach needs visionaries at the city, county and state levels who see every square foot of every rooftop as a resource. Architects, engineers, builders, plumbers and landscapers must begin to see sinks, showers, canales and downspouts as ways of increasing a property’s value. And conscious Realtors will also be needed to promote the benefits of this new approach.
As these changes take place, landowners will begin to recognize the alternatives that exist. The market will then be driven toward water wisdom.

Sowing Seeds: It's Just Like 'Being There' (Aug. 2000)

Getting grasses and wildflowers to grow without supplemental water is downright difficult in the desert. Poor soils, strong winds, ravenous wildlife and little rain make sowing seed seem like some sick satire illustrating man’s subserviance to nature.
Fortunately, with the help of modern meteorology and a basic knowlegde of what seeds need you can reclaim your land. It just takes a little preparation, an educated guess and maybe some dumb luck.
The first step in being prepared is to acquire appropriate seed. A wide variety of drought-tolerant species is best, because each species has a particular combination of conditions to which it will most vigorously respond. Santa Fe-based Plants of the Southwest, for example, carries wonderful grass mixes such as Dryland Blend and Sandy Soil Stabilizer as well as an excellent wildflower package called High Plains Piñon-Juniper Mix.
Diversity is especially effective when mixes include warm- and cool-season species. This ensures that more bare ground is covered throughout the year. A wide seed palette will also create a more productive and beautiful landscape – not only by being healthier, but by revealing nature’s various contrasts of color, form and texture.
This diversity also benefits the land, because groups of companion plants tend to grow in distinct patches, which then protect each other from harsh winds and our omnipotent sun. Other than in cases where a particular aesthetic or need is to be considered, both wildflowers and grasses should be sown together in the area that you wish to reclaim.
Think of wildflowers as reformers of sociopolitical landscapes. Such figures support and are supported by “grassroots” movements. Wildflowers and grasses have a similar symbiotic relationship. The down side is also similar: We pay a steeper price for both wildflowers and reformers. The former cost more money at the nursery. The latter (think Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King) often pay the highest of prices.
I digress.
In addition to ensuring diversity, don’t cover your seeds with too much or too little soil. Seeds generally like to be buried as deep as their width. Simply raking an area after seeds are sown works great.
Seeds also need mulch, but not too much. In order to retain moisture and protect seeds from wind, a thin layer of straw or acidified compost is a must. Natural binder, or tackifier, can be purchased from a local nursery and should be mixed with your seed before sowing. Binder may also be sprinkled on top of your mulch. When wet, binder adheres seed to soil.
It also never hurts to prepare your ground by raking or digging in compost, which can be delivered in bulk by local nurseries and landscape supply yards such as Santa Fe Greenhouses, Payne’s Soils and Ulibarri Landscape Materials. If you really have your act together, you have already sheet-mulched your land. At any rate some organic matter mixed with your existing caliche is essential, but use sparingly with wildflowers, many of which don’t like overly rich soil.
If you truly do not plan on watering the area that you sow, you will need daily access to a reliable five-day forecast, because your all-important educated guess will be based on preparing for one of those weeks with four or five days full of rain. When you see that one of those wonderful weeks has finally arrived, don’t delay.
Timing is key. Our average monsoon season starts July 7 in Santa Fe. But remember, expecting monsoons to start on a specific date makes about as much sense as attempting to predicit an election five months from November. That is why being ready to reclaim a landscape at the right time is an essential component of successfully seeding areas of barren, erosive ground.

Keep Fire in Mind when Selecting Building Site (June 2000)

On the first full day that Los Alamos reopened after the fire, the effects of the catastrophe were everywhere. Green ribbons were wrapped around telephone poles to thank firefighters. Red Cross vehicles waited in traffic. A big, hand-painted sign advertised “FREE SHOWERS.” Along Diamond Drive, cops were stopping rubbernecks like me from snooping around the burnt-out neighborhoods.
Not much smoke wafted through the City on the Hill, but a thick haze choked Española. The huge cloud finally dissipated on the other side of Oklahoma, according to an interview on the AM dial. Everyone was trying to make sense of the city’s newly blackened backdrop.
There has been a firestorm of finger-pointing. Blaming the poor soul who struck that fateful match is silly when one considers that an even worse fire (starting below, instead of next to, the city) could easily be ignited by a careless smoker, a car backfiring, or a bolt of lightning. On the other hand blaming an “act of God” after decades of suppressing natural fire cycles also seems ridiculous.
The ultimate cause of the catastrophe is that most modern people do not put enough thought into their land before they develop it. We tend to think about a piece of property just as it was on the first day we laid eyes on it. We are oblivious to nature’s power – just as nature is oblivious to whomever thinks he has the power to own her.
In order to combat this problem permaculture design stresses two important strategies. The first is site selection. There are appropriate and inappropriate places to build. The tops of big hills in fire-dependent landscapes are among the least appropriate. In the heat of battle, it was appropriate to protect a high-security lab high above some steep, densely forested terrain. On a day like today, however, it does not take a rocket scientist to see that the site for the Manhattan Project is much less appropriate as a site for a large human settlement.
The other strategy is to design for catastrophe. In the case of fire, if an inappropriate site has already been selected, we design ways to prevent the fire from having a catastrophic effect. First, we determine the fire’s likely path. Slope is often the determining factor, but wind directions, fuel loads and moisture content within fuel loads all play critical roles in determining a fire sector.
Once the fire sector has been determined, we decide how to incorporate a variety of techniques. Firebreaks, driveways, ponds, animal grazing pastures, on-contour swales, fire retardant plant species, graveled areas, hardscaped patios, high-water-use flora (such as vegetables and fruit trees) can all be placed in the fire sector.
Sprinkler systems may also be installed on rooftops, but remember that fire can take out powerlines, rendering pumps useless – just as pumps died at important water tanks during the Cerro Grande fire. This means that an alternative power source such as solar panels should be designed and installed to create redundancy.
As part of the design, residents need to be informed about wildfire. One thing that is essential to understand is that people do not usually burn up in flames during a crown fire – the radiant heat far out in front of the flames poses the real danger. Therefore a root cellar is an ideal place to be during a fire – much safer than in a car, for example. Sometimes even waiting in the fire shadow of a house until the fire passes could save a life.
Fortunately, here in Northern New Mexico we have relatively few natural catastrophes and fire happens to be one against which a good design can have a significant effect.
A good reference is Permaculture for Fire Control from a 1981 talk by Bill Mollison. Contact me if you would like a copy.

An Australian Experience with Cisterns

After four weeks in Australia and New Zealand, I am pleasantly surprised to report that their toilets actually do flush in a different direction.
The stranger part is that it’s not about flushing clockwise or counterclockwise. Toilets from Down Under flush perpendicularly to the surface of the water in the bowl. First, the flush jets straight toward you; then, miraculously, the mini-geyser gets sucked down, under and out of sight.
But the more bizarre part is where their water comes from. Sure, it comes from the sky. But then it slides down rooftops into cisterns and gets pumped to the toilet, the shower, the drinking water squirter in the fridge and the garden.
Contrast this scenario with all the work that our water has to go through. Our water comes from the sky, too, but it takes a long time to make it to the tap. First, it probably had to freeze and end up glomming onto a glacier. Then after eons it sank down into our aquifer.
Centuries later we hire engineers, geologists and hydrologists (or at least a dowser) to tell us where our nearest water source might be. We pay for a massive drilling and pump project and the digging of a deep trench and the laying of a pipeline. The pump requires a large expenditure of electricity.
Sometimes, even after all of this work, our water must be cleaned with a “healthy” dose of chlorine.
Compared to the efficient and sustainable roofwater-catchment systems of the Aussies and Kiwis, our water delivery system is an energy-inefficient process that borders on the ridiculous.
It would be funny if it were not so serious. Right now communities throughout the Southwest are still in the midst of a frenzy to acquire and defend water rights. Since our aquifer is being depleted faster than it is being replenished, one day people will begin to see that a new approach to water is needed.
This approach will have to include cisterns. With our 13 inches of average annual precipitation, a 1,000-square-foot roof harvests nearly 10,000 gallons of water per year. This is certainly more than enough water for establishing and maintaining a native landscape around the home or business.
When combined with greywater recycling and composting toilets, families throughout the state could live independent of expensive water rights or diminishing aquifers. If we consider garages, carports, portals, sheds and other impervious surfaces, most households have water catchment potential that far exceeds 1,000 square feet.
In Australasia, where only the simplest filtration systems are commonplace, no one seems worried about getting sick from drinking roof water. Here in New Mexico, however, where we have more lawyers than cows, cistern systems that filter water for drinking can be complicated: charcoal, micron, cellulose and ultra-violet filters and ozone distribution and “first rinse” systems.
“Especially if your roof is flat, viruses, bacteria and oxidized paint on the ground can be blown onto your roof,” said Greg Friedman at Good Water Company in Santa Fe, “so it is very important that appropriate filtration systems are installed.” The company’s roofwater filtration systems range in price from $300 to $5,000.
As we say in permaculture, it is usually best to “start small.” Our first step as a community will not be to drink water off of our roofs. It would probably be best to get in the habit of using cistern water for landscaping, because flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees need very little in the way of filtration.
For many people, using cisterns would be like turning the world upside down. This might be just what folks need given the Southern Hemisphere’s wealth of inspiration.

Passive solar design works well in Santa Fe (April 2000)

With our cold winter nights and typically sunny skies, Northern New Mexico has long been a hotbed for passive solar construction. The ancient Anazazi built cave dwellings in south-facing cliffs that soaked up the sun's heat all day and released it at night. Later Pueblo cultures situated their adobe villages to maximize solar gain, and Spanish settlers constructed important buildings in solanas, or "sunny areas".
In the late 1970s Ed Mazria and other local architects demonstrated the great potential of passive solar technology to a nation stressed by the effects of an energy crisis. Although the industry did have its ups and downs during the ensuing years, the country's largest municipal passive solar building, the new Genoveva Chavez Community Center, designed by Mazria & Associates, is now open in Santa Fe.
Passive solar architecture applies appropriate site selection and solar orientation in combination with thermal mass, insulation and ventilation to control indoor temperatures. Potential home builders who wish to decrease their dependence on utility companies should consider applying such techniques. Owning a solar home is also an asset when it comes time to sell.
There is not enough space here to delve into the details of solar architecture and there are many excellent books on the subject. People in the market to buy property should be aware that choosing an appropriate site to build a structure can be just as important as designing the structure properly.
If your entire property is on a north-facing slope or is shaded during the winter by hills or tall evergreen trees, even the world's best solar architect would face an improbable task. In general the best sites are slopes that face south, because the sun's path is lower in the sky during the winter. Structures built on such slopes will collect more solar radiation than structures built on flat land.
In addition, south-facing slopes are usually more protected from cold, north winds than are horizontal properties. Of course, if the piece of property that you do choose is relatively flat, the effects of north winds can be reduced by windbreaks, earth berms and appropriate building materials that increase thermal mass and the "R" (insulation) value of a building.
Looking for property with a south-facing slope also makes sense, because of a phenomenon known as the "thermal belt." The thermal belt is that section of a slope that is neither close to the top nor close to the bottom of a hill. Colder local temperatures are found both at the tops of slopes (where less heat radiates from the earth's mass and wind-chill effects are greater) and at the bottom of slopes (because heat rises). What is left is the warmest part of the slope, that nearest its mid-section.
It is also important to understand that slopes facing the southwest are less suitable for passive solar structures than slopes facing southeast. One reason for this is that the hot western sun will often make indoor temperatures uncomfortably warm, even in the winter, not to mention summer. Another reason is that, after a building releases its heat at night, an eastern exposure will tend to quickly warm up a building. Southwestern facing slopes can still be used as long as fast growing deciduous trees are planted on the west side of the building site and windows are eliminated or kept to a minimum on west side walls.

Recycle Graywater to conserve water resource (Dec. 1999)

Most people living in sunny New Mexico have no choice but to limit the water they use. Water bills and covenants, not to mention our consciences, demand that we find alternatives to this draining problem.
One alternative is to use gray water for plants and trees in the landscape. In so doing we apply permaculture’s Law of Return, which states that nature demands payment for that which we take from her. Rather than merely taking water out of the aquifer until it runs dry, we can decide to reduce our use and nurture the landscape (with this nutrient-rich resource) in the process.
In the broadest sense the term gray water refers to waste water, except for toilet water (black water), that flows down household drains. Although safely using gray water is not rocket science, mistakes can be very dangerous. Due to the difficulty of filtering disease-laden fats, oils and grease, waste water from kitchen drains should not be used.
Laundry machine water can be used as long as diapers, liquid fabric softeners and pollutants such as gasoline are not included. Waste water from showers and tubs is also an acceptable source. Bathroom sinks are generally viewed as the safest sources of gray water.
For health reasons, gray water should not be used above ground. This makes it incompatible with spraying on lawns. The resource is usually used in trenches filled with gravel or pumice. In 1994 California made the use of gray water legal in drip irrigation tubing – as long as it is buried nine inches underground.
One of the best references I have found on the subject of installing gray water systems is Robert Kourik’s Gray Water Use in the Landscape (Metaphoric Press, 1988). The Cooperative Extension Service and the New Mexico Environment Department also have valuable information regarding the safety and legality of using gray water.
It is legal to divert gray water to your landscape in New Mexico. Unfortuna-tely, it’s not an easy or inexpensive undertaking for law-abiding citizens. In fact the legal on-site treatment of gray water is only slightly less expensive than the on-site treatment of black water.
According to our state’s liquid waste disposal regulations, gray water must first pass through an entirely separate septic tank before entering one of several approved filtration and dispersal systems. Variances can be granted by the state Environment Department, but these are not often obtained.
The conservative stance that New Mexico currently takes is understandable. No one wants to put people or the natural environment in risky or hazardous situations. But as water rights become increasingly expensive, hopefully our state will look to the successes of other jurisdictions such as the state of California and the city of Tucson, Ariz.
There is also an unrelated bureaucratic obstacle for residents hooked up to municipal sewer systems. There will likely be objections from city officials who long ago realized that their treatment facilities will not function if too many people divert gray water from the sewer. The reason for this is that if facilities were forced to treat a greater percentage of black water, at some point there would not be enough liquid effluent to dilute the excess solids.
Fortunately, as is often pointed out in this column, “the problem is the solution.” The solution is not to make gray water illegal in municipalities but to encourage the installation of composting toilets, which would reduce the quantity of solid wastes at sewage treatment facilities. This would help the environment and municipal budgets.
As we soon leave this hot, dry fall-winter of 1999 in the dust, the bottom line is that we will need to come up with some alternatives to our water woes. Gray water recycling is one such alternative that needs strong public support as well as intrepid and visionary regulatory action.

Developer's Task: See Solution in Problem (Nov. 1999)

Certain inevitable forces flow through real estate. Some are natural forces, elements of the physical environment such as stormwater, wind, sunlight and soil structure. Cultural forces – vehicles, pedestrians and utility lines are examples – are generated by humans.
Just as individual landowners can increase their property’s value by applying permaculture principles, developers can improve on their investments by designing communities that work with these inevitable forces.
When developers regard such forces as solutions to problems rather than as nuisances, everyone benefits. The result is enhanced when the solutions are integrated in a mutually beneficial manner. This integration applies the permaculture principle, “cooperation, not competition, is the key to sustainability.”
Especially here in the arid southwest, natural forces are best understood as potential resources. Too often developers think of stormwater as a waste product that should be directed as quickly as possible away from homes and roads. Imagine how much more beautiful and comfortable our subdivisions would be if stormwater was given a chance to percolate into the local soil.
Perhaps the solution to the “problem” of our strong winds could be a windbreak of properly placed trees and shrubs. The solution to our relentless sun could be a system of well-situated shade trees, and the solution to the fragile, dry dirt left behind by development could be a heavily-mulched soil that supports native grasses and wildflowers.
Imagine stormwater directed to our windbreaks and shade trees, which in turn would provide protective microclimates for healthy grass and flowers.
Especially now, as we turn the corner of a new millennium, cultural forces, (like natural forces) are best understood as elements that enhance, rather than hinder, the quality of life in our communities. Too often we demand too much space for our motor vehicles and not enough access for alternative forms of transportation. Imagine how much happier and healthier we would be if we had plenty of bike paths and safe sidewalks and easy access to reliable public transportation,
Perhaps the solution to high heating bills could be an increased number of passive solar homes; and to high crime rates could be more eyes on the street (as opposed to closed garage doors). Perhaps developments could even address psychological problems by encouraging positive interaction among neighbors.
Imagine further that these cultural solutions were intelligently integrated in a synergistic system. Our relationships to our cars would become less of a priority in our lives than our personal relationships, and these would allow us to feel safer and more comfortable at home.
The main difficulty with this approach, which is essentially the approach of the New Urbanism/anti-urban sprawl movement, is another cultural force: the marketplace. Developers do not have the luxury of waiting very long for a positive return on their investments. Even though the payoffs of New Urbanism are greater in the long run, the up-front costs will be higher, especially when one figures in the amount of time necessary to educate bankers, bureaucrats, regulators and consumers.
It is up to us, as citizens and consumers, to encourage developers, planners, regulators and bankers to provide sensible alternatives to urban sprawl. If we believe that we would be better off living in communities that work with (not against) the inevitable forces that effect development, we should empower ourselves by voicing our opinions firmly and consistently.
Eventually more and more forward-thinking “powers that be” will recognize the great economic potential inherent in communities that are ecologically and socially conscious.

Microclimates Make Time Travel Easy (Oct. 1999)

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Try Hawk Pole for Rabbit, Gopher Damage (Sept. 1999)

After a summer of serious monsoons, harvest time should be a happy time here in the arid Southwest. But when our feral friends feed on the lion's share of our landscape's bounty, early autumn is rarely very blissful.
When deer, rabbits, gophers and other fauna threaten our plants and trees, we usually choose between one of two options. We either encourage them to find food elsewhere, or we exterminate the beasts of burden.
Fortunately, there is a third option that has worked successfully around Santa Fe not only in reducing rabbit and gopher damage, but in increasing local raptor populations. It's called a hawk pole.
Hawk poles serve as the bird of prey equivalent of a drive-thru restaurant. Picture the busy intersection of Rodent and Rhubarb. A hawk pulls up, waits, and finally decides whether to pick up a field mouse appetizer, go for a gopher, or maybe move straight to a supersized rabbit meal big enough to share with the whole family.
Hawk poles are tall posts that stand a minimum of 12 feet (15 feet is better) above the tallest vegetation in a particular area. In order to install your own hawk pole, first dig a hole in the ground deep enough to support the top-heavy pressure of your chosen pole. Second, while the pole is laying on the ground drill two holes in the top end and stick branches in the holes to function as perches. Finally, place the pole in the ground and tamp any loose dirt at the base of the pole until fully compacted.
Be careful. As pole heights increase, so do the dangers of installation. Where local piñon and junipers have reached maturity, putting up posts that tower over the trees is not easy. Also make sure that your chosen location is not too close to any structures or places where people typically congregate.
As far as encouraging animals to find food elsewhere, the best deterrents are fences. Keep in mind that deer are high jumpers (not long jumpers), so angling the top of your fence toward their habitat will give the deer a longer, more difficult jump. This method also helps to deter rabbits. However, as with all burrowing animals, make sure that your fence is buried at least 18 inches deep. It also helps if the buried part of the fence can be installed so that it slopes upward.
If fencing a large property does not fit within your budget, consider fencing individual plants and saplings until they become tough enough to withstand occasional nibbling. When birds are a problem, fencing your fruit trees and gardens from above can be accomplished easily with bird netting.
Other benign ways of deterring animals from your landscape include sprinkling various substances such as blood meal, human hair and human urine around the flora that you desire to protect, leaving a radio on in your garden for deer, setting clackers that drive gophers batty, and of course there's always the pain-free, catch-and-release trap for rabbits and other small mammals.
As a last resort, exterminating our furry friends may be justified in extreme cases of plant or tree loss. Painful traps, toxic poisons and noxious gases can be purchased locally, but each method poses safety risks and/or ecological problems.
From a purely permacultural perspective one could kill, prepare and eat (or otherwise utilize) such an animal before killing it. In this way the animal at least returns to the system through a positive process, not a wasteful one.
Of course, most of us have grown so accustomed to prepackaged food that eating wild rabbits is nearly as rare as riding in covered wagons. For this reason it makes sense for most folks to leave the killing up to the raptors, and work on the preventative methods listed above.

Beauty and Ethics at Play in Landscaping (August 1999)

Permaculture’s greatest contribution to landscaping and perhaps to all of human culture is its ability to enhance our understanding of beauty.
Beauty is often something we see, smell, taste, listen to or touch. But we are attracted to ideas and feelings, too. Efficient cars seduce us. Productive businesses lure us in. People who seem to be ethical (or at least agree with our understanding of ethics) appeal to our higher selves.
Undeniably, there is a form of beauty that resides outside the five physical senses in our thoughts and emotions.
As a design science founded in ethics and having efficiency as its method and productivity as its goal, permaculture excites an understanding of a deeper sense of aesthetics. Physical beauty is not unimportant in permaculture, but permaculture also attempts to attract people to the land on a variety of other levels.
Take two common plants: the rose and the raspberry. Most people would say that the rose is more attractive than the raspberry. More often than not, from a purely visual (or aromatic) perspective, this is true. If, however, we give more credence to our taste buds, most of us would find the raspberry more attractive.
If we enhance our understanding of beauty to include the attractive quality of an ethic based on earthcare and its corollary, care for people (as permaculture does) the raspberry would often be viewed as a more attractive landscape element than the rose.
As a food source, raspberry plants provide us with a way to tread more lightly on our planet’s ecosystems and can make our lives happier and healthier.
All edible plants that become part of the local landscape give us an attractive opportunity. Rather than depending on the wasteful and polluting systems of modern agriculture (not to mention all of the associated transportation and packaging costs), edible plants can be consumed locally with no negative costs to the environment. As people become increasingly interested in ecological issues, the attractiveness of edible plants becomes increasingly apparent.
Edible plants, incorporated into the ornamental landscape, also have the attractive effect of making life easier for people. Although there is always some work associated with consuming food from one’s landscape, the work associated with food bought at the grocery store is far greater when one considers the cost of the product, the cost of driving to and from the store, as well as the time wasted while doing such errands. This convenient attribute of edible plants is further enhanced for those who find that their daily levels of stress to be reduced by puttering in the garden.
In addition to having these convenient and stress-relieving qualities, most people are aware that local produce grown without pesticides will enhance the quality of their lives from a wellness perspective. Not only can food become contaminated by chemicals it absorbs, but produce loses nutrients as time passes between harvest and consumption. Moreover, it just tastes better.
Changing a culture’s aesthetic understanding is a slow process. Although I have promoted the use of edible plants for years, I have suggested planting many more roses than raspberries. Sometimes the intrinsic, physical beauty of a thing is simply overwhelming. Other times it is best to work within the existing aesthetic in order have an opportunity to incorporate a new one.
The importance of this new aesthetic, however, should not be underestimated. As we become more and more dependent on an international web of food production and distribution, we become more and more susceptible to problems outside of our control. It is this new, expanded understanding of beauty that may be the key to reducing this unhealthy level of dependency.

Mulch to Retain Moisture for your Plants (July 1999)

After an unusually hot and dry winter and an extremely windy spring, finally Northern New Mexico has been blessed with the kind of nasty weather that locals can easily appreciate: rain!
Ten straight days of intermittent showers could signify the start of a wonderfully wet monsoon season. On the other hand, it could merely be reminiscent of last October when a couple of snowstorms had people predicting a wet winter.
Unfortunately, at this stage in meteorology's evolution long range weather forecasting looks a lot like surgery back when it was practiced by barbers and blacksmiths. The fact is that accurate long term predictions are usually just lucky guesses. Who can say whether the recent rains are a last "hurrah!" before a record drought or whether it is time to start building another ark.
Since one never knows when the next catastrophic event (or series of events) will come, wise land stewards take into account potential extremes as opposed to statistical averages. In the case of rainfall, we should consider Santa Fe's average of 12 inches per year to be less important than the years when we receive less than five or more than 20 inches of precipitation.
In permacultural terms this is called "designing for catastrophe". In layman's terms it is called overkill (until the big storm or serious drought comes along).
One of the easiest ways to prepare for extreme levels of precipitation is to lay down a thick blanket of mulch around plants and trees and on bare or unhealthy patches of soil. Mulch is any material that you place on the earth's surface which improves the soil's ability to support life. Straw, bark, compost and gravel are the most frequently used mulching materials.
One increasing popular product is the biodegradable erosion control blanket, a long roll of straw sandwiched between a coconut or jute mesh. Typically these blankets are unrolled over areas where seeds have been sown, then they are tacked down with long metal staples.
During extended periods of drought, mulch will retain moisture, prevent evaporation and create a microclimate for beneficial insects. During strong monsoons, mulch will control soil erosion by lessening the impact of precipitation and by reducing the powerful forces of sheet flow and head cutting.
One excellent reason to mulch is that the process illustrates the greatest of all permaculture principles, namely, "work is pollution." Since most mulch materials are light, inexpensive and easy to install, the energy output associated with mulching is minimal, while the payback is enormous.
By simply spreading a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch (preferably on top of a 12-sheet layer of newspaper or a standard weed barrier), the conditions become ripe for natural processes to effectively do chores such as watering, tilling, fertilizing and weeding.
The time to mulch is now. Not that there's anything wrong with mulching throughout the four seasons. An annual roadside crop of garbage bags full of freshly raked leaves makes autumn an inexpensive time to mulch. Blankets of bark work wonders by keeping root systems warm in winter. And in spring a layer of straw "books," or "flakes," laid on the land helps prevent the damaging effects of our relentless wind.But right now, with the impending possibility of summer storms and the intensified evaporation caused by the summer sun, mulching should be at the top any responsible landowner's list of priorities. Without mulch precious rainwater is wasted and whatever moisture that remains in the soil is lost to evaporation. Without mulch valuable flora withers and precious real estate washes away.