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.

Planting a new shade tree

This is how you carry a 12-foot 5-inch tree home in a bicycle trailer. The sales guy at the plant nursery was shocked to see that Dan was planning to carry home the tree by bicycle, saying something like, “Are you sure you are in good enough physical shape to carry it home? When you said you had a bike trailer, I thought you meant you had a motorcycle with a trailer.” As Dan was bicycling home through downtown Flagstaff, a woman shouted, “I like your tree.”

Lombardy poplars are not the most multiple-use tree species, but they fit our requirements of being tall, narrow and fast growing, while not obstructing the view of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians coming into and going out of the townhome complex. The four other shade trees along the western side of the house, combined with added attic insulation, have lowered summer high temperatures in the house by 15°F or so. I expect this tree to eventually lower summer afternoon high temperatures by up another 5°F in the bedroom. The shade will also extend use of the back balcony earlier in the afternoon. We don’t have air conditioning, so shade is very important to our comfort.

The house looks and feels so different than when we  moved in back in 1999. There was no shade, just an ugly box-trimmed juniper hedge along the west side of the house (the little pine tree in the third photo, which I took before buying the house, is now the 20-foot tree in the first photo).

Before the tree could be planted, the large boulder on the corner of the property had to be moved, as it was in the perfect location for a tree to provide shade at the critical time in the lat afternoon. A couple of weeks ago, we noticed a small back hoe parked in the commercial parking lot next door. Dan left a note on the windshield, and the driver called and agreed to move the boulder a few feet for free, which was very nice of him.

Next year I might be able to squeeze in one last crop of vining peas, which are relatively shade tolerant, but then I’ll have to grow either species that are very shade tolerant, like leafy greens, or move the planter to a sunnier location. I’ve used a planter and trellis to shade the balcony during summer afternoons for more than 10 years.

Pablo is excited about the new tree. Pablo loves trees. I expect him to start spending more time on the balcony.

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


(Photo via: laurel-kathleen: #soapwort #butterflymoth at Palmer Park Hiking Trails)

Many soaps and detergents are biodegradable, meaning that they are compostable. However only some plain commercial soaps and natural plant alternatives are biocompatible, meaning that they will not harm plants, animals or soil microbes when discharged into garden beds in greywater. A number of plants contain saponins, natural detergents that make water sudsy. Use the sudsy water to wash dishes, clothes or yourself. The following list is not comprehensive:

  • Save the rinse water from washing quinoa. The grains are coated with saponins to help them survive the cold temperatures of the high Andes Mountains.
  • Roughly chop 10 fresh soapwort stems (pictured) with leaves about 6–8 inches long or pieces of dried root. Put 2 cups water and stems in a stainless steel, glass or enameled saucepan. Bring to a boil on stovetop, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Alternatively, simmer in a solar oven for 1 hour.
  • Carefully snip a large yucca or agave leaf from the bottom of a plant (the tips have sharp spines). Shred and pound the leaf to separate the fibers. Wet fibers and rub between your hands to create a lather.
  • Chop buffalo gourds into pieces using a large kitchen knife. The skin is thin; the inside is filled with seeds and stringy, bitter flesh. Simmer pieces in water to produce a sudsy solution with a lemon yellow color. Vary the amount of water to produce solutions of differing concentration based on the intended use. Mash softened pulp with a bean masher. Strain out the solids before using.
  • The soy whey left over after making tofu is also naturally sudsy.

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

This brand new book by a beekeeper and gardener with a lifetime of experience is a great addition to any gardener’s, wildlife enthusiast’s, or beekeeper’s library. Whether you just want to help out struggling native or honeybee populations being decimated by colony collapse disorder, or you are a food gardener who wants to attract pollinators, or you are a beekeeper, this book is the go-to reference guide for bee-friendly gardening. Other species of pollinators will benefit, too.

Author Peter Lindtner has been head horticulturist at the world-renowned E.I. DuPont Garden at Hagley Museum, the original site of the DuPont company, for more than 30 years. I know Lindtner. He live lives a few miles away from where my family lived in Delaware. His daughter is friends with my sister. Lindtner is a Czech immigrant, while his wife is a Hungarian immigrant, so our families have a shared ethnic history. His daughter helped him with computer and internet-related book tasks.

From the book Introduction: “Have you ever wondered why honey bees are more attracted to certain flowering plants and not others?  Which flowering plants are better sources of nectar and pollen?  What can we do and how can we promote honey bee friendly gardens?  What are the best trees, shrubs and plants we can plant to maximize honey production?”

“My interest in honey bee attracting plants began when I was 15 years old. … During my studies for my Masters Degree in Plant Science, at the University of Delaware, I conduct(ed) research on the pollen collection from four beehives in a specific location. I collected pollen pellets for eight months, twice a week, beginning in early March through November. During this time I produced thousands of color slides, black and white pictures, and images from a scan electron microscope. I have selected approximately 700 of these images to illustrate this book.”

“Beekeepers should be familiar with nectar and pollen plants surrounding their apiaries to maintain successful honey producing beehives.  They can encourage park authorities, garden owners and nature lovers to plant more bee attractive plants which will bloom throughout the growing season.”

“Small gardens provide a more natural and organic environment for honey bees since they typically aren’t sprayed with poisonous chemicals unlike monocultures which are sprayed systematically.  This strongly supports my idea in using garden plants for improving “bee pasture” (the significance of wild and cultivated plants, bushes and trees that supply forage for bees with plentiful nectar and/or pollen). “

Buy the book from Wicwas Press. Amazon has a “Look Inside” feature for the book on its Kindle edition page.


It’s sunflower time

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

It’s sunflower time here in the mountains of northern Arizona. I let these wild sunflowers grow in my garden because they provide multiple ecological functions for FREE: nectar for hummingbirds, nectar and pollen for beneficial insects, seeds for seed-eating birds (some of which eat garden insect pests earlier in the year), and of course, beauty for people. The Chinese garlic chives around the apple tree are also flowering. When the flowers die, they will provide mulch for the garden, as well as reseed themselves. Multiple functions for each garden element is a keystone principle of permaculture.

My simple water harvesting systems

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

Top four photos: During years when there are frequent rains, like this year, we connect a section of used firehose to the roof gutter spout next to the stairs. The hose directs roofwater to the garden plot in front of the stairs. Because the plot is graded to tilt towards the house, the hose sends the water all the way out to the barberry shrubs on the higher, outer edge; the water can then flow down slope as it filters through the soil. The barberries are almost ready for picking. This garden bed used to have a pebble mulch like the side of the house (lower photos); Dan put some pebbles on top of the hose and spray painted it to camouflage it—-it needs a design makeover to blend in better.

Third photo: During some past years that had a mix of heavy rains (monsoon “bursts”) interspersed with dry spells lasting longer than a week (“breaks”), we used the same downspout to collect and store water in two plastic storage bins found in the Dumpster. The second, larger bin was located under the stairs. The two bins were connected with a hose. A spout near the bottom of the smaller bin allowed me to hand water vegetables growing on both sides of the driveway. This set up made the most sense when the apple trees were small and I grew tomatoes and other large crop plants in those plots; I could use the stored water directly around the tomatoes, for example, and not waste water on areas in between. Now that the plots contain mainly orchard guild members it makes more sense to use the firehose for passive watering instead.

Bottom two photos: A second passive roofwater system uses the second gutter spout on the southwest corner of the house. A grey sits under the spout. A piece of window screen on top filters out large particles of dust or asphalt from the roof shingles. Four garden hoses attached to the cooler fan out from it, one for each of four poplar trees on the west side of the house.

In the bottom photo you can also see the greywater hose coming out from underneath the garage door. That hose is also connected to each of the four tree hoses as need be to keep the trees watered during drier weather.


Planting apple trees & an apple plant guild

First two photos: My apple trees today, fully leafed out. Right now the trees are watered almost exclusively with greywater from the downstairs shower, as this is a hot, dry time of year.

Photos 3, 4 & 5: My two apple tree have grown quite a bit since I first planted them in May 2009.

  • In 1999 when we moved into the townhome, there was nothing planted in the outer, smaller bed. The “soil” was composed almost entirely of volcanic cinders poured into the space as fill.
  • The soil in the larger plot was mostly highly compacted silt and clay. The original landscaping plants were an ailing aspen tree that had to be removed soon after we moved in, a large, hideous juniper pruned into a large box shape, and the barberry shrubs.

To prepare the soil for planting trees (after calling 511 to have the underground electrical, phone and plumbing lines mapped out) I used a pick axe, a handy permaculturist’s tool, to remove the extensive juniper roots after I sawed off the branches, and to dig out four-foot by four-foot wide holes two feet deep (a total of 64 square feet of silt and cinders). I made my own topsoil by switching some of the cinders and silt into the opposite plot and adding a lot of organic matter. The top of the soil is a little lower than the driveway so that rainwater and snowmelt runoff drains into the beds for a passive water catchment system (it also works well for draining grey water into the beds).

Last photo: July 2009. When the trees were smaller I grew tomatoes and herbs around them. Now that they shade a considerable space around themselves I grow mostly bulbing vegetables and flowers and onion family species like walking/Welsh onions, leeks, Chinese garlic chives and irises, and leafy greens that that tolerate or prefer shady conditions.