Lorna Sass interview 2010: Part I

Nationally-known cookbook author and food writer Lorna Sass interviewed me on Feb. 21, 2010. See Part I, Part II, and Part III.

In the first video (above), I’m wearing one of my handwoven tunics. I explain what the word “permaculture” means. I list some of the cool season crops that grow well at high elevation. Then, I touch on the history of farming in Flagstaff. I also explain the importance of composting and talks about the challenges of large-scale composting. Finally, I discuss my sustainable living ethic and how this plays out in my daily life.

Mid-fall gardening

Mulch is happening. My leafy greens bed has been doing quite well with cold-tolerant species like self-seeded arugula, dandelions, and orach, a perennial related to spinach. The cold season herbs are still leafy, too. The Chinese garlic chives are self-seeding around the apple trees. The weather is supposed to turn colder this week. And we are supposed to have our first hard freeze tonight in Flagstaff, Arizona. I expect the perennial greens and herbs will go dormant.


Fall compost applications to my garden beds

Dan sifted 18 gallons of compost at Juniper Street community garden. We deposit all of our food scraps at this community composting site. Dan has done a lot of work to maintain and improve the compost bins and turn the compost over the years. See what this dark, rich compost with composting worms looked like back in June before the monsoon rains sped up decomposition.

I spread the compost on my two apple tree beds, container gardening beds around the outside of the house, and the container beds on our balconies. I first raked back existing mulch, spread the compost, then replaced the mulch. When the apple trees’ leaves fall in a month or so, they will create a natural mulch topping for the two miniature forest gardens.

Topsoil builds slowly, more slowly in semi-arid climates than in humid temperate climates (I’m talking decades and centuries). Stable humus-rich topsoil lasts for centuries if cared for properly. The soil microbiome needs plenty of freshly-deposited organic matter on the surface for food and to create a spongy mulch layer. Fertilize from the top down, as happens in wild ecosystems. Plant trees and other perennials to create stable microclimates that protect soil.

Focus your soil-improvement labor, time and money on beds for intensive annual vegetable and herb growing and on tree planting sites if your yard is not very large. Apply compost in the fall at a minimum of a half-inch thick layer. Add two to three inches if you have enough to go around. The compost can be half-finished. Add more, optionally, in the spring; spring compost must be fully finished. If you are using the cool compost method, you can build a frame with a wire-mesh bottom (quarter-inch holes) for sifting out un-composted material. Hardware stores sell mesh with quarter-inch or half-inch spacing, depending on how fine you like your finished soil.

Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains 4th Edition Book Cover Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A Guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens


How the Ancestral Puebloans in northern Arizona benefited from volcanic cinder mulch

Dan’s father, and his father’s wife, came to visit. We took them on a tour of Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments, which are right next to one another northeast of Flagstaff.

We stopped at Wukoki Ruin, my favorite pueblo in Wupatki National Monument. You can see a light dusting of volcanic cinders around the ruin from Sunset Crater. The cinders used to be deeper in this area but have eroded away over the last 1000 years.

Sunset Crater, today a 1000-foot-high cinder cone, probably erupted in the 1080s. We walked up to the Bonito Lava Flow, which erupted from the base of the cinder cone. I told them to smell the ponderosa pine bark, which smells like butterscotch, and Dan’s father decided to become a tree hugger.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

A thick layer of ash and cinders piled up for miles around Sunset Crater. The Ancestral Puebloans, which here included the ancestors of some Hopi clans, called the Sinagua by archeologists, noticed that native plants grew bigger and faster in areas with roughly one to four inches of cinders (deeper cinder deposits inhibit plant growth). Farmers planted in the cinder mulch. Warm season crops like corn, beans and squash benefited from the heat-retaining cinders and extra soil moisture.

The Sinagua had previously lived in small clusters of pit houses. After the eruptions began, they built pueblos from rocks and mud plaster. At its peak, the biggest pueblo in the area, Wupatki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument, had 100 rooms and was three stories high. It housed as many as 100 or more people. The pueblo was inhabited for 150 years, until the Great Drought of the late 1200s.


Community composting at Juniper Street Community Garden

How we compost

If your living situation does not permit construction of an outdoor compost pile, consider starting an indoor worm-composting bin (vermicomposting). Alternatively, look for a neighbor or a community garden that might welcome your food scraps for their compost pile. I’d like to see every neighborhood have a communal composting site.

My husband maintains the compost bins at our neighborhood community garden. I coordinated Juniper Street Garden for eight years; I no longer garden there, but we still use the compost bins. The three bins sit at the back of the garden in front of a fence. Only two appear to be in active use right now: the new scraps pile on the far right (with the screen over the top to keep out animals) and the halfway done pile in the middle of the bins.

The original coordinator and garden creator built the bins out of discarded wooden pallets. Dan added scrap galvanized metal, wood and cardboard to the sides to hold in moisture better.

At home, we put our food scraps in a plastic bucket (salvaged cat litter buckets, mostly) next to our kitchen sink (second photo). We keep the lid on to control odors and keep insects out. Full buckets are stored in the garage.

  • He periodically empties the buckets into the active compost pile.
  • Then he adds dry leaves (high carbon material to balance out the high nitrogen food scraps); he collects bags of raked leave sin the fall and stores them in the garden shed.
  • Next, he turns the pile and waters it as he rinses our buckets (compost piles should be kept moist, not too wet or too dry).
  • He adds a final layer of leaves on top.

It is a cool composting system because the active food scrap pile does not accumulate waste fast enough to heat up (as opposed to a hot composting system; I discuss a number of composting methods in my book). Cool composting systems tend to be fungal-dominated rather than bacterial-dominated, another characteristic of compost that I explain the book.

Dan also made the sign explaining to people what to put in the compost and what to leave out. Animal products attract skunks and other nuisance animals to the compost and garden while woody plant materials do not compost within a year in these bins because they are not kept moist enough and turned on a regular basis.

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens.