Designing an Irrigation System

Watering Plants Plants need a steady supply of water. They do not have an active circulatory system. Nutrients and the compounds the plants make from the nutrients are carried throughout the plant by a process called transpiration. Within the plants, … Continue reading

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Plant Uses in Our Yard

There are many reasons for planting a specific plant in a yard. Some plants bring nutrients from deep in the soil or fix nitrogen from the air, making the soil more fertile. Others produce masses of organic material that improve the tilth of the soil when composted. Plants provide food for people or animals, attract pollinators or beneficial insects or repel pests. Still others purify the air, are fragrant or add beauty to our homes or yards. Most plants fulfill more than one purpose. As I was planning the yard I produced a spreadsheet of the uses of the plants I wanted in the yard. Follow this link to see that spreadsheet.

Purposes of plants

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Step One – Cleanup

When we moved into the house a broken up back patio was full of junk left by previous tenants. The yard was covered with weeds and there was one half dead Siberian elm. The yard sloped toward the back with a drop of about 2 feet.

We gave away the patio cover on freecycle and broke up the patio.
We gave away the patio cover on freecycle and broke up the patio.

A few trips to the recycling center and restore and a few things thrown into the trash eliminated the junk pile on the patio, a post on freecycle and the patio cover was gone and a few days with the sledge hammer removed the broken green patio and  surrounding sidewalks.

We changed the level of almost theentire back yard.

We changed the level of almost the entire back yard.




Tilling in the compost before we plant.
Tilling in the compost before we plant.



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Our Starting Point

Almost two years ago we began looking for a large property with a small house in the city of Albuquerque. There were many criteria running through our minds as we searched for property. Our oldest daughter needed a place to live while she was finishing college. After that we would move in, create a sustainable home and garden and retire. As we visualized our retirement we knew we wanted it to be close to a bank, grocery store, home improvement store, and places where we could go out to eat or for coffee.
We looked several times at this property, trying to decide why we needed a garage that was larger than the house and how we would unify the separated parts of the yard. As we considered that the ideas jelled. We would create living space for our daughter in half the garage. We were told that zoning would not allow that, which would be true if it were being converted to an apartment to rent out, making this a multi-family residence. But with a family member there it is still a single family residence even though our daughter’s space will be private and self contained. It will be ready for her to move in only months before her graduation, but she likes it so well she plans to stay for a while. Then we have two other daughters who might be looking for a place to live.

The cars are parked on the future patio while the garage houses construction materials.

Various codes require that we connect the two buildings into one. The connecting room was originally going to be empty space until Lynn’s mother decided she wanted to move in with us. It will now become a bedroom/sitting room for Grandma, private yet connected to both buildings.
As we began planning the ideas for the yard began to jell. We will use the soil from the yard to make rammed earth walls around the property line. It is a little too sandy to make a sturdy wall but it is a simple matter in Albuquerque to make a phone call and get a truckload of adobe clay delivered. When that is mixed with the existing soil it will make a very strong wall.  Fruit will grow both inside and outside the wall.
The removal of the soil for the wall will make the yard lower so that greywater can be gravity fed from the showers and washing machine. A spiral butterfly and hummingbird garden will be placed in the north east corner of the property. We will be able to see it out of our office window.

Future site of the hummingbird and butterfly garden.

Fruit, shade and evergreen trees will be planted on two-thirds of the property, wrapping from the east side of the house, around the south and into the back yard adjacent to the west side of the house. Each tree will have its own little community of nitrogen fixers, bee attractors, pest repellers, mulch producers and soil looseners. At least half the plants will produce human food while achieving their other tasks.
The west part of the back yard will be devoted to herbs and vegetables, planted intensively in mixed stands. The caterpillars, aphids, beetles and bugs will have to work at it to find their favorite plants, although I am sure they will. Chickens will help us deal with this, although the chickens will have to be protected from the hawks that nest in the tree across the street.
In the house the wall down the center of the house will be replaced with a couple of posts and a beam, opening up the kitchen, living and dining rooms into one great room. The south wall of the kitchen will open onto a patio that is also accessible from Grandma’s room. The former garage, which had already been converted to a utility room will house a larder and workspace for canning, preserving and storing the bounty of the yard. A lath house will be added outside the back door to dry herbs and vegetables.

There is still a significant amount of work to do before the lath house can be built in this spot.

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Planning the Urban Food Forest


The gardens I studied in Honduras had five canopy zones,
vines along the ground, herbaceous plants, larger herbaceous and small shrubby
plants, large shrubs and small trees and large trees. How can I translate that
to my high elevation, arid temperate urban garden?

The trees are easy. I will grow traditional fruits like
apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry and apricot along with a few more marginal
varieties like figs and Carpathian Walnuts. One option for dealing with global
warming is to bring plants north, or to higher elevations, so if they cannot be
grown where they traditionally thrive they will survive in the cooler lacation.
Unfortunately some of my favorite tree fruits like avocados and coconuts are too
tender to try to produce here even with global warming.

I will plant a variety of large shrubs between the trees.
Pomegranate,elderberry, chokecherry, and wolfberry to start. These are all good
for juice and jelly, but perhaps more importantly, they distract the birds from
milder tasting tree fruits.

It is the lower stories where I will need to search out
new varieties. Most of the annual vegetables we grow require full sun and will
not do well under trees. While we have more intense sunlight than anywhere else
in the United States there are still many vegetables I will grow in the
unshaded part of my back yard.

Under the trees I will plant a few traditional
vegetables: lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, peas and members of
the cabbage family. I will concentrate more on culinary herbs and perennial
vegetables that evolved as understory plants in the woods and forests of the

I will start with Jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts,
clumping bamboo and daylilies. All of these tend to spread, but with our dry
soil they can be easily controlled by allowing the soil to dry out. In the
brighter areas I will plant asparagus, rhubarb, air potato and a variety of

My favorite herbs are parsley, chives, rosemary, thyme,
garlic, oregano and cilantro. I will plant these in the spaces between young
trees. After these are established I will seek out other herbs that will do
better in heavier shade as the trees grow.

All of these species will be planted in a carefully
planned arrangement so they have room to mature, get the appropriate amount of
water, are accessible for harvest. The garden will be pleasing to look at but
will appear wild and natural.

The natural vegetation of this area is not trees and
these understory herbs and vegetables. After all, we only get about 9 inches of
rainfall a year. Harvesting the rain from the roof will increase that to about
12 inches, greywater to almost 20. Adding lots of mulch and organic matter will
get us through the dry spells with only a little supplementation, so I have
many choices for the understory.

The entire process will be documented on video, so watch
for announcements of the videos on YouTube.

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Reverse Innovation Down on the Farm

In 1988 I was a graduate student in the Horticulture Department at Kansas State University. All my course work, all my planning and preparation and my focus for the first two years of my PhD work was aimed at going to Africa to develop the horticulture component of a Farming Systems project. Then, in the fall before I was to complete my comps and begin my dissertation research the dean called me in and said “You are going to Honduras. This is the President of the school where you will be staying.”

The President of Zamorano University explained that they had started an Agriculture Extension program and that they were having trouble introducing home gardens to the people of Honduras. I was to come down and figure out how to get Hondurans to grow home gardens.

My protests that I had not studied Spanish, I had not studied Central American agricultural systems and I wanted to go to Africa were ignored, and late that spring I was on my way to Honduras to carry out some quickly planned research into home gardening.

As the young Agriculture Extension students showed me around the villages where they worked, and where I would be expected to work we stepped over squash and sweet potato vines, wound our way among mangos, bananas and avocado trees and pushed aside huge pepper and tomato plants to get to the houses. I realized that Hondurans did have home gardens, but since they did not look like North American or European gardens they were not recognized as home gardens.

I got depressed. I had a totally useless dissertation project that was not going to be effective or useful in any way. This was in the days before cell phones, and even landline phones were very unreliable, so communication with my major professor, or my new husband for that matter, was very difficult, which added to my problems.

After a few weeks a nutrition professor who was not part of my dissertation committee came down for another project, we designed a new dissertation project and she took it back and presented it to my committee. I ended up studying the home gardens of Honduras. Every home we visited but one had a home garden, the gardens were dense, multilayered and varied. I found a total of 309 species of plants in Honduran home gardens, 197 ornamentals, 77 food plants, 31 medicinal species, 18 species for household uses, like making brooms or dippers, 12 used for seasoning and other uses. This is many more species than commonly found in North American or European gardens.

Twenty four years later I am about to put the information I gathered in Honduras to work in my own home garden in the United States. In June, 2012 my husband and I will be moving to home on a ¼ acre urban lot where we will develop a dense, diverse, multi-layered urban food forest much like those I studied in Honduras. Our dry, temperate climate will dictate different species, but we will experiment and adapt, using the principles of reverse innovation, as presented by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble in their new book Reverse Innovation to bring the garden principles developed in the tropics to the temperate, urban home garden.

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Urban Heat Islands and Global Warming


Are Urban Heat Islands and Global Warming related? The simple answer is yes, and no. They are not part of the same phenomenon.

An urban heat island is formed when the massive structures and paved surfaces absorb the energy of the sun, turning it into heat. The buildings are then warmer on the inside and the heat is radiated into the atmosphere throughout and around the city. A city can be several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. This is especially true at night, when the surrounding countryside cools much more quickly than the city.

The result of urban heat islands are that precipitation patterns change, more air conditioning is needed in the summer and less heat is needed in the winter. The exact effects depend on local vegetation and climate patterns. There is much less effect from building a city in the desert, where there is little vegetation and the soil tends to act as a heat sink anyway, and in a forested area, where the trees cool the atmosphere. The hard surfaces of cities cause water to run off much more quickly and therefore provide less cooling effect than if it fell on forest soil and were slowly absorbed.

The relationships among solar energy, vegetation, climate and the water cycle are very complex and no one really understands them completely at this point. Suburbs around desert cities are cooler than either the city or the surrounding desert because of the lawns and trees planted

Global warming is caused by the increase of various gasses in the atmosphere, which trap the energy of the sun and prevent it from escaping back into space, thus increasing the energy of the global system. A better word for Global Warming might be Global Energizing. Some of that energy
is converted to heat, thus increasing the overall temperature of the atmosphere. Some of it is dissipated in powerful storms.

There are a variety of greenhouse gasses but the most plentiful is carbon dioxide. Methane, nitrous oxide and others trap significantly more energy but are much less plentiful. The increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come mostly from burning fossil fuels and the
destruction of forests. In the natural cycle of things, animals breath out carbon dioxide, plants absorb it, and with the help of sunlight turn the carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen.

Again, relationships are very complex and not fully understood, but study over the last 4 decades has proven that the phenomenon exists. Reducing emission of carbon dioxide and increasing the number of plants available to absorb it can have an effect on global warming, but because of the
complex relationships and the fact that plants increase the water vapor in the air, another greenhouse gas, no one is sure exactly how much.

So how are Urban Heat Islands and Global Warming related?

When more air conditioning is needed more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, increasing global warming. When the atmosphere is warmer and heat is prevented from escaping the urban heat island will be warmer. And the relationships are so complex that no one really fully understands them. Various computer models have been developed to model the effects, and as new data is added they come closer and closer to predicting what is likely to happen.

Vegetation can reduce both, so growing more plants may be the best solution for both. To learn how to garden urban situations check out the Penthouse Garden Club.

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Local Food

Local Food is a growing movement of people interested in buying food grown in their own area and producing food for sale in their own area. It involves farmers markets, home gardens, community supported agriculture, slow food restaurants and a variety of co-ops.

There is no real definition of how close to home the food needs to be grown in order to be considered local food, but if its delivery involves a ship, a plane or a refrigerated semi it is generally not local.

People eat local for a combination of reasons.

  • The food is often fresh and has not been submitted to artificial ripening processes.
  • Massive amounts of energy have not been used in its delivery, thus reducing  carbon
  • It supports the local economy
  • People who eat meat can assure that the animals were raised in the open without excessive hormone or antibiotic use.
  • Relationship can be formed between the producer and consumer

If you eat locally grown foods you will eat seasonally. You will not have fresh grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus or lettuce every day of the year. But each fruit and vegetable in its season can be relished and enjoyed. It will taste better and you will look forward to it eagerly.

People who eat primarily local foods are called locavores.  Locavores  seek out sources of local food and try to get the greatest possible variety in their area.

Home gardens:  The back yard is the most local source of local food.  Anyone can grow some of
their own food and those with a large yard can provide a significant portion of their own vegetables and herbs. To learn more about home gardening go to Crops in the City. If you live in an apartment, townhouse or only have a balcony, terrace of rooftop on which to grow your food check out the Penthouse Garden Club.

Farmers markets:  Local growers gather weekly or monthly at Farmers Markets all over the country to sell their produce. An amazing variety of foods can be found at many Farmers Markets. To find a Farmers Market close to you look on community bulletin boards, in local newspapers or check out

CSA: CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you become involved in a CSA you
contract with a farmer to grow produce for you. The farmer then knows what to plant and that there is a market for the produce. You share in the risk with the farmer that there may be a drought, hailstorm or crop failure, but when all goes well you get fresh produce throughout the season. You can find CSA groups at Local Harvest. They are much more common in the eastern half of the United
States and on the  West Coast.

Local Farms: Local small farms often have fruit and vegetable stands along the road. You might also be able to form a relationship with a local farmer and buy your produce directly from them, even if they do not generally sell to individuals.

Co-ops: Co-ops are any group who agree to get together and cooperate. It can be a group of
backyard gardeners who are sharing their produce, a group of consumers who combine their buying power to get the food they want at lower prices, a group of local farmers who market together or a large, regional organization that competes with factory farms. To find out more about natural food buying cooperatives go to Co-op Directory Service.

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What is Permaculture

The word permaculture comes from the combination of the words permanent agriculture, but the practitioners of permaculture talk about much more than establishing a no-till farm. Central to permaculture are the
ideas of care for the earth, care of people and everyone getting a share of the fruits of the earth and labor of people.

Permaculture principles are:

  • Observe and interact
  • Catch and store energy
  • Obtain a yield
  • Apply self regulation and accept feedback
  • Use and value renewable resources and services
  • Produce no waste
  • Design from patterns to details
  • Integrate rather than segregate
  • Use small and slow solutions
  • Use and value diversity
  • Use edges and value margin
  • Creatively use and respond to change

Permaculture was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970”s. It has since grown to an international movement and is practiced in a number of different ways in a number of different environments. Both the philosophical and conceptual aspects of permaculture as well as the practices have expanded and spread. Each is applied within the environment and culture, so there is no single practice or technique for all permaculture installations. As long as the principles are adhered to, to the best of the practioner’s ability, it is a permaculture, whether it is a small urban situation or a major ecological reclamation project, whether it is in a rainforest or desert.

In the desert water harvesting through the use of swales and berms, and addition of organic matter have become important permaculture practices. Examples of desert permaculture can be seen in the high, cold desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA as well as warmer locations in the Middle East, Africa and of course, Australia where permaculture originated. As desertification continues because of mechanized and industrialized agriculture and global warming, these desert practices are becoming even more important the world over.

A very interesting video on a permaculture project in Jordan can be seen by clicking on the link below.

Permaculture in Jordan

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