Saturday, October 31, 2009

Turning of the Year

I get tons of New Years. Starting at Rosh HaShanah in the early fall, I celebrate a number of turnings and renewals throughout the fall and early winter. Tonight, it's the Celtic New Year, a time for remembering the honored ancestors at the time of the harvest - very much like the Dia de los Muertos which is woven into our Tejano culture.

The garden is also turning. Old sunflowers make it to the compost, and little lost onions from last year's planting get transplanted to new spots. Squash and mesclun still coexist in the cooling air. The morning glory vines grow heavy with flower and leaf, while the grape vines begin to shed their leaves. The Mexican marigold mint finally puts out its flowers - a sign that Dia de los Muertos is here. I reconstruct paths to make more space for rapidly growing trees, and try to make headway at the weed springing up in the paths.

This fall's weeds are a testament to how wet it's been lately - lush little broadleaf weeds like dandelion and thistles are springing up everywhere. I name them biomass and throw them in the compost before they can go to seed.

Tonight, there shall be candy for the kiddos, and some time to honor the ancestors - including my garden club member mom, her mother that helped me plant my first garlic, and my dad's dad - who helped me plant my first 'big' garden and helped me put away the harvest. Perhaps a nice dinner with a few choice veggies.

Blessings of the harvest season to all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When Life Gives You Cukes . . .

I signed up for a local farm-to-home delivery service recently. This is a bit foolhardy, since there's already the huge backyard garden. The method to the madness was evening out what I'm already growing with veggies that I can't (or don't) pull off at my scale. Time will tell if this is more method or madness.

In the meantime, I found myself with an abundance of cukes and peppers.

Thankfully I love pickles. I 'only' have a few quarts left from the summer's canning - so an opportunity to make more is always welcome. On the other hand, three medium cukes and a handful of peppers aren't worth getting out the water bath canner for.

What's a girl to do? Fridge pickles, of course. With apologies to my metric-using international readers, I offer . . .

Farmhouse Bushel Fridge Pickles

Sanitize two quart jars in simmering water for 15 minutes. Sanitize two quart jar lids by pouring boiling hot water over them and leaving to sit. (Do not boil the lids, please!)

Whisk together in medium size bowl and set aside:

  • 2 cups white distilled vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup pickling salt
Slice thinly:
  • 2-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium onion
  • enough pickling cucumbers and peppers to fill the jars
Gather pickling spices and mix 2-3 tablespoons to taste:
  • Allspice
  • Cloves
  • Peppercorns
  • Mustard seed
  • Hot pepper flakes
  • Dill seed

Now, gather your jars and layer in the veggies and spices to fill. Pour the pickling brine over the top, splitting evenly between the two jars. (Note: The pickling brine will only come about 2/3 of the way up the jars at first - this is normal. As the veggies give up moisture, they'll create the rest of the brine.)

That's it! Simple as can be. Put the lids on the jars, and put them in the refrigerator. Every day for a week, invert the jars once or twice to distribute all the spices and keep the brine well mixed.

The hardest part? You have to leave them at least a week before eating. The longer you leave them, the better they taste. They'll keep about three to six months in the refrigerator - if you can keep from eating them that long.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Do You Have A . . . ?

One of the recurring refrains I hear is "I'd love to have a garden, but I don't have space." In most cases, the space is there - it just requires a lot of creativity. (I do have one exception; I'll get back to her in a few.)

It's easy to have the idea that self-sufficiency means moving out to a farm, raising goats and chickens, and farming on a large scale. And don't get me wrong - there are a lot of folks doing that, and I admire them. For any sustainable local food system, we need folks farming on a scale large enough to share and sell a generous surplus.

But while we need small-scale farmers, we don't all need to be small-scale farmers. In fact, I'm fairly opposed to that idea (for a number of reasons that are probably beyond the scope of this post). I don't envision sustainability as a spectrum where we all start in apartments and end up in farms.

So, when folks talk about not having the space, I think about things a bit differently.

So, you don't have a farm. Do you have a house? Some folks -- like the Dervaes family in Pasadena, California -- have created amazing, small-scale homesteads on no more than a typical urban lot. Others -- perhaps inspired by Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates project -- have replaced their front lawns with luscious, edible landscapes.

For many of us, that kind of ambition is inspiring -- but overwhelming. Thankfully, no one needs to start like that. Do you have a four-foot square patch of land? Here in Austin, permaculturist Dick Pierce is fond of saying that a 4x4 bed is a "really big garden!" And, it's true. That size is great -- and sustainable for beginning gardeners. And, planted with the principles of a book like Mel Bartholemew's "Square Foot Gardening", a small family can easily supplement or replace the grocery with just a small plot.

Do you have a neighbor? In my case, I have room for several small fruiting trees on my lot - but not enough to plant cross-pollinators without taking space away from the plant diversity. My plan over the coming here is to convince a few neighbors to let me plant free fruit trees in their yards, to allow for some cross-pollination. Everyone wins.

Maybe you don't have a house, or don't have a lot of space. Do you have a courtyard or balcony? My first garden was a 1x8 foot strip of dirt in front of my apartment, where we grew tomatoes while potting a few herbs for the porch walls.

Do you have a wide path or sidewalk? One sunny path could house a row of dwarfing fruit trees, or a strawberry pot full of herbs. Do you have a window? Window boxes are beautiful, and can grow a spot of herb tea.

The design that occupies the back of my mind quite a bit is my friend the apartment dweller. She has a front porch, but no sunlight there. No sunny windows to speak of. I puzzle over what do to for her sometimes. But there's always an outside of the box.

Do you have a community garden nearby? Many will offer a 10x10 plot for a ridiculously low price; others allow for beautiful co-created spaces. Both might be an option for a city dweller. Do you have a friend with space? Many people would be delighted to have a garden, but don't want to exert the effort to put one in. If offered some veggies for the taking, many would be delighted to give a friend gardening space. Do you have a CSA? Many will let you volunteer for a few hours a week to get your own share of vegetables, cost free.

Space under the cabinet can be a place for sprouting, or making your own kombucha. Do you have a skill? You could offer to barter with a gardener or farmer - your writing, or accountancy, or whatnot for a few veggies and herbs. Heck, some crazy folks will trade veggies for spare cardboard and leaves . . .

You get the idea.

I don't feel like what we need is for everyone to get their own back to the land patch. I feel like what we need is more creativity and greater interconnection. Not everyone has land, but everyone has innate skills and creativity that can be used right now, from anywhere, to share in the rich abundance that is already present in communities. To me, that feels like a true path to freedom.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rainy Days Are Here Again

Gorgeous rainy morning here in Austin. All morning, I could hear the bands of rain blowing in, remnants of a spent-out tropical storm. The rain has settled to a gentle and steady downpour, although I'm eyeing massive red-and-yellow bands of rain west of me on the radar.

It's a good time for rain. The fall planting of summer squash is starting to set fruit, the beets are all coming up, four beds of arugula and mesclun have just begun sprouting, and I've put out the first of two bulbs of garlic. Oh, and the horseradish would probably like to start coming back.

On top of all this, I've signed up for a weekly CSA share from Farmhouse Delivery. I'm excited about the increased diversity, and also braced for the onslaught. Between the CSA and my own output, I should have more than enough to meet my own needs, put some up, and share the surplus. It's an eight-week experiment, and then we'll see what I decide for spring. Every year my goal is to grow enough to live solely on my own veggies; through the cool season I can nearly make it, and during the summer I can't. (That's the paradox of Tejas - the hot, dry season is when everything dies back.)

We'll see. I fully expect a winter of more food preservation posts. There are worse things. ;-)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

100 Ways to Conserve Water #12: Kitchen Water

There are some rules of thumb that tend to be consistent between regions and districts that allow the use of greywater. For example, water for light uses such as bathing and washing is generally available for treatment and re-use. Water used for flushing toilets is always considered 'black' water, which is treated as sewage.

This tends to be where the similarities end. From there, you have a variety of treatment options and - you'll pardon the pun - grey areas that need to be navigated. (If you're interested, there are a number of great books on rainwater harvesting - such as "Create an Oasis with Greywater" available through my Resource links, and Oasis Design has created a great online directory.)

Some greywater systems recycle and treat water used for bathing and clothes washing to re-use for purposes such as flushing toilets; others may reuse the water for irrigating ornamentals or creating a wetland. Those types of systems are wonderful - but they also require a level of technology and expense that's beyond the means of many small scale homesteaders. What we need is a simpler, low-tech solution.

Reusing your kitchen washwater not only reduces your overall water use, but also captures bits of organic matter into the soil that would otherwise have gone down the drain. By far the simplest way to reuse kitchen greywater - if your district allows it - is to reuse washing water on your trees or ornamental plants, or to pour it into a compost pile that needs moisture (Without knowing a lot more about your eating habits than I probably should, I'll have to recommend that you not use kitchen grey water to water your edibles.)

How do do it

Before you start, please do check your regional code. Laws around greywater use are still evolving, and what's encouraged in one district or state might be prohibited in another.

Making sure you can capture that water most effectively might take acquiring a dishpan or two and making few changes to your routine at first - but the results in your garden are worth it.

First, scrape your extra food bits into the compost and quickly rinse your dishes over the dishpan. Behold all that organic matter - cool! Schlep that water to your compost pile or a hungry plant. If there's a lot of organic matter in there and you care about the neighbors, best to do this on an out of the way plant. Me? I let the neighbors wonder why there's spaghetti on the ground for a day or two.

If you're a dedicated dishwasher user, you can load those dishes into the dishwasher now and be done with it.

If not, here you get choices. If you have a lot of dishes, fill your dishpan with a lot of hot soapy water and wash as normal. I tend to have only a few dishes, so go for nearly no water use and load up my sponge with soap and wash them without further water at this stage. Either way, you'll want to make sure you are using only a natural, biodegradable dish soap for this, and only as much as you need. When you're done with this stage, you'll need to load your dishes into a clean dishpan (or set them aside) and schlep the water our to an ornamental or your compost. This water is the trickiest to use direct on plants - a few caveats below on this.

Finally, rinse your dishes, capturing the rinse water in your dishpan, and schlep again.

You'll notice this is a high-schlep system. As a rule, my systems trade off labor for expense. We'll consider the extra exertion a benefit, in the form of exercise. (Not that you could tell from looking at me, but that's another matter!)

Where to put it

The compost or leaf mulch pile is the easiest candidate. Compost piles love the extra organic matter they get from the rinse water, and can most easily process extra bits of soap from washing. That said, you don't want your compost pile to be any wetter than a wrung-out sponge. If your pile is wet, it's time to go looking for a plant.

In choosing plants for greywater, a few rules of thumb:

  • Don't use greywater to water veggies or soft fruit. (Yes, I know - folks do it. But there are a lot of caveats to observe, it's risky if you don't know what you're doing, and I'm sure you have other plants that need the water. If you really want to do this, please go study a lot first. 'kay?)
  • Leave out the xeriscape plants. Usually these plants are habituated to seasonal dry spells, so watering them out of season can do more harm than good.
  • Leave out any extremely delicate plants. If you've worked hard to create the perfect PH balance for a specimen, this is the wrong time to mess it up with greywater.
  • Rotate your water use around the yard. This ensures that no one plant gets too much water, and also helps you from creating a soapy concentration in any one area.

And - that's it! Mostly. Greywater use is a big topic, and there's far too much to cover here. If you're interested in creating a large-scale, more schlep free system, do check out the Resources - there are some excellent books there that will get you off to the right start.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Permaculturist Picks a Peck of Pickled Peppers . . .

. . . and one horseradish root.

Okay, technically they're not pickled yet. But we're about to fix that. ;-)

Harvest Days . .. and Planting Days

Woke up a little past dawn this morning, which is sleeping in for me. On autumn weekdays I'm usually up an hour or two before sunlight to do my sitting practice and tend the garden in the pre-dawn before travelling into town for the day job. Sleeping past dawn worries the tabby, though - so weekends usually start with a cat paw nudging me in the face.

Lots to do in the garden today. It's interesting to read updates from northern gardeners, who are mostly putting the tools away and putting their beds to rest (if not securing their cold frames). Here in Zone 8 I'm just getting busy again. Today's garden agenda: aerate the compost, transition more beds from summer to winter, weed and thin the mesclun, harvest and preserve the bumper crop of peppers. Also - harvest and preserve the horseradish root (after replanting a bit for next year). Ah, look at it there, so unsuspecting . . .

Somewhere in there I may fit in some drafting - but if I get on a canning frenzy with the peppers and horseradish probably not.

Also on the list: taking a food storage inventory for the winter. Reading Casaubon's Book has me thinking strategically about the larder; having (and preserving) the garden's bounty contributes a lot to my food needs, but not everything. Even the very little ice storms we get in Austin can bring home exactly how well stocked the house is (or isn't). Lots to think about.

So, that's the day on the suburban homestead front. Which means, this slacker needs to pull herself away from the computer and get to it. If we're lucky, there shall be horseradish blogging later.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Crazy for Compost

I admit it. I am growing up to be The Crazy Lady Who Makes Compost. And I don't mean having a polite compost pile or two in the back yard (although I do). I mean the kind of behavior that gets people looking at you funny.

Of course I compost all the normal stuff - kitchen waste, young weeds, garden trimmings, my leaves - but that's hardly enough to keep my bins full.

To bulk up my carbon materials, I salvage cardboard toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms, scraps of old clothing, torn up bills. For nitrogeneous materials, I throw in clippings from the house plants, water from the fish tank, hair from my brush. My neighbor once accused me of brushing my cat just to get at the fur.

I've tried to convince my partner to pee in the compost pile for an extra dose of nitrogen. For some reason, he just looks at me funny.

My office managers save weeks worth of newspapers for my composting and sheet mulching (which tend to pile up in huge stacks by my desk until I finally take them home).

Some people take home doggie bags from dinner parties with friends? I've been known to take home compost bags with all the stuff discarded making dinner. (Years later, I still have mussel shells showing up in my soil from one of those. But oh! the minerals.)

The local Starbucks now recognizes me as the woman who never buys coffee, but always checks their Grounds for Your Garden bin.

And fall is the absolute best time of year - because people leave huge bags of leaves by the sidewalk. Just leave them there! Free for the taking! It's mindboggling how many bags of leaves there might be, even now. You know, I should probably go for a little drive around the neighborhood . . . just to see the morning, you know . . .

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

100 Ways to Conserve Water: #11: Aquarium Water

Just as I was pondering my next water conservation post, my girlfriend asked for help cleaning her fish tank.

I love fish tank cleaning day. Not so much the up and down the stairs with a bucket full of dirty water, but definitely the results.

Fresh water aquariums are an excellent source of free fertilizer which is naturally high in nitrogen and trace minerals. Many swear by it for houseplants, but the downside is - it smells. I prefer to use it outside, poured directly at the base of nitrogen-loving veggies or flowers, where the smell doesn't matter as much.

Given the high nitrogen content, it's also a great "green" material to kickstart a lagging compost pile into high gear - just pour it over the pile to moisten, and watch the pile heat up.

Schlepping dirty water downstairs? We'll call that my free exercise bonus. ;-)

Monday, October 12, 2009

100 Ways to Conserve Water: #10: Dig a Swale

Swales are a growing part of my water conservation strategy in my blackland prairie Austin garden.

A swale is basically a ditch, but laid on contour (perpendicular to the grade). Instead of channelling water from a higher place to a lower one, the level swale keeps water just where it is, so that it can slowly sink down into the soil.

Swales accomplish a few of my goals all at once. They slow water runoff and erosion - critical with the sudden downpours that bring most of Austin's rain - and bring that water deep into the soil where it's needed. When need to hand water, swales allow me to water deeply, storing moisture directly beneath the root level. By planting on the berms, I automatically create raised beds with looser soils, which the plants can penetrate more easily than the natural gumbo clay. As the plants reach down to find that water, they build much more robust root systems than they would searching for water at the beds' surfaces.

Digging a swale is extremely easy.

First - find your contours. Even a very small, and supposedly level, property will have some small grade, either naturally or man-made to facilitate needed water runoff. For a quick-and-dirty swale, you can eyeball this (and, if the water runs off, adjust!) or even use a carpenter's level for small spots. For the more precise among us, it's pretty easy to build a simple A-frame level or create a homemade water level to find the countour lines on a small property.

Then, dig your swales as needed along the contour lines, moving the earth to the side which is immediately lower to the swale to create a berm. Between your swale (which is now a few inches below the ground level) and the berm (which is now above it) you have created an effective resevoir to capture and store all that lovely water, rather than letting it run off your property.

A few cautionary notes are in order. You'll want to be mindful of the original grading of the house and ensure that water is allowed to flow aay from any buildings. For what are hopefully obvious reasons, you don't want to build swales close to a structures foundation. Bear in mind any existing drainage features and try to keep those intact.

With those caveats, swales are one of the quickest, easiest ways to make the most of the water that's already falling, right where it is. The plants I've moved from regular to swale beds have become much healthier, with robust root systems and far less water stress. (Mmmm, healthy basil!)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rainy Days

It's a drizzly cold day in Austin. The weather has been given to extremes this year - a brutally hot and dry summer followed by a quick shift to cold, rainy days. I want to say it's unusual, but the Hill Country topography puts Austin at the crossroads in many ways - Austin is where limestone outcroppings collide with blackland prairie clay gumbo, where northern cold fronts collide with warm Gulf Coast air. (Not to mention where Czech kolaches coexist with Tex-Mex tacos, and where the lines between rock, country, folk and blues pretty much dissolve.)

The overflowing rainbarrels remind me - again - to acquire and connect some new ones as soon as I can.

I'd planned to harvest the horseradish and fertilize today (John's Formula Organic Fertilizer, a pretty amazing local-made plant tonic) but there's no use if the rain goes from drizzle to proper downpour. Instead, it's been a morning for little admin tasks - planning the new home office, cleaning up and defragging this poor old computer, hard boiling the remaining chicken eggs, making a dish (deviled eggs?) to take to an afternoon potluck, and generally puttering.

Not a bad way to spend the morning, even if I'm gazing out the windows like a cooped-up dog.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A is for Artichoke, B is for Biomass, C is for Cardoon

Ah, the artichoke. Where do I begin in singing it a love song?

Like most permaculturists, I'm a huge fan of plants with more than one purpose. In that respect, the artichoke - and its kissing cousin, the cardoon - are among my favorites. Without straining, I can come up with a half-dozen reasons to love them.

For starters, they're perennials here in the South. Once they are in the ground, they need very little work. When it gets too hot, they die back to the ground; every fall, just when I'm ready to give up on them, they send up grey-green shoots.

Not only that, but they are prolific at reproducing. With a bit of subdividing, those original plants will soon populate most of my unused space, with nearly no cost and no work.

Probably most importantly for my purposes, they generate a ton of biomass. I can slash the leaves right in place for a quick large scale mulch, or haul the cuttings off to fill the compost heap. The leaves break down pretty quickly, adding much needed organic matter to my heavy clay soil.

They're gorgeous plants, too - that pretty grey green foliage making a lovely design foil for deep green rosemary and complementing my many salvias. The flowers, if allowed to open, are a very pretty purple and very unique.

And let's not forget, they are tasty and fun to eat. (At least the artichokes are; the cardoons are tasty enough, but it never seems like I get enough food to offset the work.)

Gratuitous Baby Plant Squee

For some folks, it's puppies.

For others, it's a baby panda sneezing.

I get the cute. But nothing makes me "Squee" more than to see the baby plants come up.

Yes, I realize this makes me a freak. ;-)

Friday, October 9, 2009

100 Ways to Conserve Water #9: Say "No Thanks"

While I'm on the subject of water glasses, there's also a Step 9 that anyone can do when eating or drinking out.

As part of Stage 2 water restrictions, the City of Austin finally joined a number of cities which require food servers to provide water only if customers request it.

Personally, I think this is long overdue. Tucson put in these types of restrictions two decades ago, and the payoff has been enormous. For every glass of water that is given to a patron, three glasses-worth of water are used - one to drink, and two to wash. When you consider how many glasses of water go untouched at a restaurant, it's mindboggling how much water is wasted.

So - turn down that water if you won't drink it. If you're in a city that brings water to you automatically, say "No thank you" to a glass you don't plan to drink. If you run a food service establishment in one of those cities, start asking if your patrons want water before just handing it out. The cumulative effect of that one small step could be enormous.

100 Ways to Conserve Water: #7 & #8: Pour Out That Glass

It's pouring rain outside this morning, so just a couple of little, easy steps this morning that anyone can do.

Step 7. Got houseplants? They would love the remanants of your water glass rather than you pouring it out the drain when you're done.

I confess: I wince when I see water poured into a drain. It doesn't look like it saves much, but just by doing this with my little half-cups of last night's drinking water each morning, my houseplants are always watered and I never need to run water for them.

Step 8. Got a compost bucket? It will happily accept donations of your black coffee and tea, which will in turn help keep that compost pile good and moist.

Other ideas abound for the exceedingly frugal, like freezing leftover bits of tea from the pot for iced tea ice cubes, or the last bits of soup stock in an ice cube tray for further meals.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

One Way Not to Save Water: Sink Water Woes

With all these ways to save bathroom water, I feel compelled to point out one of my nastiet, gnarliest, smelliest mistakes.

I was feeling inspired by H. C. Flores, whose book and website Food Not Lawns present a number of low-tech permaculture and edible landscaping solutions. To be clear - I credit her for inspiration, and blame her for none of my mistakes.

So, I got the bright idea to take out the plumbing under my sink and let all the grey water flow directly into a bucket. I knew I would not be able to set up a full scale greywater system for a while, but figured that even without one I could save the water and use it to flush the toilet in that bathroom. After all, there are those great space-age toilets with the handwashing station directly over the tank. And I'd already spent several weeks living in Jordan, where flushing toilets from a bucket was the norm. So - no problem. Get water. Flush toilet. Easy!

What I hadn't counted on was the way I use the sink. The problem is, I'm already of a mindset to use as little water as possible. I habitually turn off the water when washing my hands until it's time to rinse. Ditto with tooth brushing: Wet the brush, brush the teeth, spit, rinse the toothbrush.

And so - there I was. Bucket full of spit and extremely soapy water, and very little water to offset it. And ultimately not enough to flush with, even as infrequently as we do. I tried to soldier through, but after a couple of weeks, it was just too gross to handle (even for me) with no water savings to speak of.

I suspect those toilet designs could be useful, but probably for someone who tends to let the sink run more than I do. For those of us who are already on board with radical water solutions, a composting toilet is probably the better, and far less gross, option.

100 Ways to Conserve Water: #2-#6 Shower Water

If you're anything like me, you probably can't stand stepping straight into a cold shower in the mornings.

For those with a bit of money, step #2 could be to install a solar or 'flash' water heater. I used a shower with a tankless flash heater when travelling in the UK and they're frankly brilliant - they heat water nearly instantly when hot water is needed, and go into standby mode when they don't. They're touted as an energy saver, but for those of us who like our water warm enough*, they're also great water savers.

Not yet having the money or tools to install better water heating, I'll skip straight to step #3 - the rather low-tech technology of the bucket.

Depending on the season and what else is going on in my house, it takes about 1.5-2.5 gallons of water to bring shower water to a bearable temperature. For each bathroom, we now have a small watering can or bucket tucked between the bath and toilet. When starting the water, the bucket goes under the tap. Voila - 3-5 gallons of completely clean water saved each morning between the two bathrooms with no fuss, no muss.

What to do with the water?

If it's been dry out and the garden needs it, the water goes there first - poured directly into a swale or at the base of a tree, or sprinkled on a bed through the gardening can. If it's rained recently, but the rain barrels aren't completely full, the water gets poured into the rainbarrel that needs it most. If the barrels are all full, the water might go into watering the inside plants, fill the water pitcher, fill the cats' bowls, etc. If I really, really am full up on water (which rarely happens), the water can be used to flush a toilet old-school style and save a flush.

Shorter Gardenatrix? There's always something to do with the water.

Shower savings don't have to end there of course.

Step #4 is easy - get a low-flow shower head. Cheap to buy (if you even have to - often water programs and evemts give these out as freebies), easy to install, and cuts water use without you knowing it.

Step #5 is maybe harder, but worthwhile - stop the tap for a few minutes while you condition your hair, lather up, shave, or do other things where the water is in the way.

Step #6 is, of course, shower with a friend. Who said frugality couldn't be fun?

*Great. Now all I'll hear for the rest of the morning is "Is the water warm enough? Yes, Lisa." Because I am old.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

100 Ways to Conserve Water #1: Get Thee a Rainbarrel

This one is probably a no-brainer for most house-dwellers. Rainbarrels are relatively inexpensive, you can often get city rebates (like this nifty one from City of Austin) for buying them, and they can store a bunch of water.

How much water? Well, that depends on how you use them.

If you have gutters, you can collect oodles of rain. There are a number of handy calculators on the Web that will do the math for you. Running the numbers on mine, I find that I could collect up to 16,000 gallons a year assuming Austin's average rainfall, the size of my roof, and enough cistern volume to capture it all. (For more on large-scale water harvesting, the Texas Water Development Board literally wrote the book.

At this point in my homesteading, gutters are still part of the long-term plan. Some say you can't collect rain if you don't have gutters, but I respectfully disagree. All you need to do is position the rainbarrel under a corner where two roof sections meet to create a valley. That valley channels a vast amount of the water into one spot, and sends it straight down to your barrel. While this method doesn't collect nearly as much rain as a gutter system, this is enough to fill my two 55-gallon barrels with a good downpour - and could fill a few more barrels if I bought more and linked them up.

What if you're an apartment dweller without a dedicated roof line to draw from? If you have a porch and potted plants you might still benefit from a rain barrel. Over the next few weeks, I'll detail a number of ways you can save water around the house. As you implement them, that rain barrel can be a handy way to store what you've saved. (Stay tuned!)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

100 Ways to Conserve Water: Intro

Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about ways to conserve water in the house and garden.

The tips will cover a variety of types and scales, in no particular order. Some of these will apply mostly to large homesteads - unless you apartment dwellers can convince your property managers to install large scale water recycling systems. Others will be little steps that anyone, anywhere can take. Some save multiple gallons of water; others save a few cups here and there. All of them are important.

Net water in the world is a closed system, but it's within our power to keep as much water as possible potable and clean to support what's still a growing population. I hope you'll join me in taking the steps you can.

More on the fall garden

We're getting tons of blessed rain, which means sneaking out on those days when it's dry enough and transitioning the garden from summer to winter.

Yesterday's phase was to pull out most of the struggling kale - which I believe made it through from last winter's garden - and replace it with more mesclun, chard, and beets, with an edge of a bit more kohlrabi and broccoli raab beyond the exact spots where the kale had been.

Another score: Two huge bags of grass clippings from a local nursery - exactly what I needed to kick the compost piles into high gear. The bags were already hot when I put them on the piles. Go, compost, go!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

On water conservation (in a time of rain)

The Partner says to me today, in passing: "I wonder if people are going to question why we're in Stage 2 Water conservation, now that we're getting so much rain." He likened it to those who question global warming every time the weather gets cool.

Interestingly, I'd been planning to do a series in this blog on water conservation - something like "365 Ways to conserve water" - which would also be a nice way to challenge myself to keep up on the subject. It's a topic that's near and dear to my heart. But the thought had also occured to me - will anyone care as much, when there really is a bit of water around to save?

And so, before I start the series, a few reasons why water conservation is important - even when it seems to be abundant at the moment.

1. Water patterns are erratic. These sudden rains are no exception. In these parts (Texas Hill Country) we alternate brief, intense rainy seasons with long periods of drought. And so collecting that abundance, while we have it, seems a no brainer. Gani - a gentleman building a food forest not far from me - is able to collect about 3,000 gallons of water from a deep, soaking rain. In turn, that water holds through the long bits of drought to come. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

2. Erratic water patterns lead to soil which doesn't hold water well. Hill country soils are notoriously difficult to work with: caliche and rock to the west of Interstate 35, and deep Blackland Prairie clay to the west of it. Neither of these soils easily takes in the deep, hard rains that we've been getting - which instead runs over the soil surface, causing erosion and failing to replenish the aquifers. Good design and water conservation efforts can combat the runoff, and help rebuild longterm water stability for the region.

3. Not all rainfall is created equal. This blog about water conservation in Austin gives an excellent summary of how rainfall affects some key areas of the local ecosystem. Short version: even when a lot of water comes down, not all of it hits the vital areas which refresh the local aquifers - and not all of that can sink in during a rapid downpour. Like drinking water? Conserve use where you can.

4. Water may be everywhere - but potable water is limited, and sacred. A friend used to tell a story some of the native tribes in Arizona, when encountering the idea of indoor plumbing. "You want people to do what? In water?!" The idea of using fresh, potable water to carry away human waste was completely abhorrent, and with good reason, when you consider how limited it is in the desert. In today's modern culture, it's easy to forget that the majority of water on earth is salt water - and a fair amount of the fresh water is wasted for uses like flushing toilets and watering lawns, neither of which truly require potable water to do.

While some of these examples are specific to my local watersheds, the basic principles could apply anywhere.

Over the next several weeks - until I run completely dry (if you will) of ideas, I'll be blogging a number of suggestions for conserving water from the largest homesteads to the tiniest apartments. I hope you'll join me in taking some steps to reduce water consumption and save fresh water for where it's truly needed.