A Tale of Two Yards

The two houses in these photos are located just a couple doors down from one another. Both houses are right on the beach. They literally have the beach in their backyards! The owners of the home in the top photo have a typical lawn. The owners of the home in the bottom photo chose to leave the existing trees and shrubs in place rather than clear the lot.

These houses front onto a busy highway. The house with the trees gets a free privacy buffer and noise buffer. Interestingly enough, although the lawn obviously has a much lower volume of vegetation, the lawn people probably have to water their yard more than the tree people do. The tree people might not have to water at all! (Actually this lawn doesn’t look too extremely green, like those you see sometimes whose uncannily green color is maintained by massive inputs of water and fertilizer and weed-killer. It looks fairly low-maintenance as lawns go. Still, the trees win hands-down in terms of beauty and functionality!)

Another benefit: The trees to the west shield the house from the fierce afternoon sun, which probably means the tree people don’t need to spend as much money to cool their house as the lawn people do.

Smart people, those tree folks! So much else to do with their time other than maintain a clipped lawn. After all, the beach beckons! … Or the library, or the fishing pier, or the art museum …

They may or may not realize it, but the tree people aren’t just benefiting personally from their landscaping choices; they are also helping to reduce the load on the stormwater infrastructure and protect the land from wind and water erosion. And they are creating a cool moist microclimate which provides habitat for beneficial wildlife as well as making life more comfortable for humans.

A fine example of stacking functions, as we say in permaculture design.

More On Water Woes, and Simple Solutions

In my town (and possibly yours too), we’ve got a water crisis. Sometimes our stormwater infrastructure is overloaded by flooding. Other times we’ve got drought. Interesting how everywhere I’ve lived, from deserts to rainy subtropical areas, the situation seems to be pretty much the same, alternating between these extremes.

If that’s not bad enough, our waterways here in Florida are polluted by toxic bacteria and algae which is killing the wildlife and even in some places making it difficult for humans to breathe.

Some of the best solutions to our big water woes are the simplest.

One, conservation. Quite simply, use less water and encourage others by your positive example. When friends and neighbors hear how low your water bill is, or see your pretty yard that requires no fuss because it’s all locally adapted, hardy, drought-tolerant plants, they will take notice.

Two, harvest rainwater. Rainwater harvesting is not just cisterns; it’s also doing things that help the soil hold onto water longer, and help trees and other plants sustain themselves through periods without rain so they don’t need constant daily watering. Examples include mulching (fallen leaves aren’t trash; they’re treasure!); adding compost to the soil; planting (or allowing to remain in place) coastal grasses and shrubs that help reduce runoff from a site; creating berms and swales to do the same. And of course, rainwater collection does include rainbarrels too.

Three, composting. Keep your kitchen scraps out of your trash, and compost them. If you currently use a garbage disposal, you can save a lot of water by composting instead of throwing food down the drain. Food scraps aren’t trash; they’re treasure! Even apartment-dwellers can compost; there are many compact units on the market designed for indoor use.

And, very important, urge your local government to implement all of the above on a city-wide or county-wide level. Many cities have composting programs already. New York City is one! Here’s a municipal compost bin at my cousin’s apartment complex.

Ask your city to institute low-mow or no-mow landscaping practices, such as retaining a buffer of wild vegetation along all waterfront areas, and transitioning to a more natural mix of vegetation in road medians.

My city is on the verge of requesting the state to have its allotment of water increased. And we’re about to embark on a fancy and expensive wastewater-treatment experiment. Unless we first do a lot more in the way of conservation, this is outrageous, morally bankrupt really. We could probably cut our usage almost in half without breaking a sweat! The simplest thing is always to cut back and use less. Costs nothing, and can even put quite a bit of money in our wallets, not to mention creating a kinder and more beautiful world.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Although the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” — Bill Mollison

Recommended Resource:
Visit this rainwater harvesting calculator to find out how much free fresh water you can collect from your roof! You input your roof’s square footage and the annual rainfall for your area, and get an instant answer. I was amazed to find I could potentially collect up to 2,500 gallons a year just from my little 10-foot-by-10-foot porch roof! Innovative Water Solutions is based in Austin, TX, a place I myself lived for many years, and a place that knows all about flooding and droughts!

Oak Tree and Palm Tree: Interdependency

Trees in a forest grow in guilds, rather than in isolation. Oftentimes their branches end up encircling one another or even intertwined. Here in Florida, a common sight is a palm tree growing up into the branches of an oak. This beautiful duo in my neighborhood offer a nice visual metaphor for human interdependency also.

So did the palm tree nurse the baby oak seedling, or was the palm tree seedling nursed by the tall leafy oak? I imagine the latter, as the oak tree looks to be of a stately age, and palm trees don’t offer much shade. But it could have been a different scenario entirely. These trees sit on an empty, mostly grass lot which at one time was probably densely forested with a much wider variety of tree and shrub species.

While googling for an answer (I haven’t found one yet), I stumbled on this article, A Miami Emblem Is Sacrificed for Shade, about how the city of Miami realized it needed to start planting oak trees again. (Truly, there should be no sacrifice required; it should not be an either-or. The palm tree growing within the branches of the oak offers a memorable reminder.)

The article was published back in 2006 but it caught my eye because my city seems to be cutting down a lot of oak trees, as well as palmettos and other native scrub, from public lands, leaving little except wide expanses of buzzcut turf grass and palm trees. A lot of homeowners seem to be doing this as well. It makes for a rather desolate, not to mention hot and relentlessly sun-scoured, landscape.

Further Reading:

Botanical Nursing: From deserts to shorelines, nurse effects are receiving renewed attention: paper in BioScience journal. Fascinating overview of the various aspects of botanical nursing, and how the benefits tend to be mutual rather than one-sided. Key takeaway: “One plant’s reliance on another for its survival and growth has clear implications for conservation: Namely, saving a species dependent on nurse plants requires saving the nurse plants and endangerment of a nurse species endangers plants that depend on it.” Something for cities (and homeowners) to keep in mind as they remove seemingly “extraneous” or “undesirable” vegetation. Also: “Just as nurse plants are important to preservation, they can also be useful in restoration. … [W]ork on denuded ski runs in the Swiss Alps has focused on creating ‘safety islands’ — patches of diverse vegetation that provide numerous sites in which seedlings can safely establish.”

Edible Gardening is IN!

Actually, edible gardening has been on the upswing for years, and its growing popularity has been making the mainstream media for quite some time. It’s gotten extensive coverage by the New York Times among other major publications.

But this wonderful article by Ken Wells in the Wall Street Journal, “The New American Garden Is Edible,” particularly strikes my fancy because it introduces the general public to a specific kind of edible garden known as a “food forest,” which is a layered landscape of trees, shrubs, vines, and veggie plants. Mimicking the layered structure of a naturally occurring forest, a food forest of edible and/or native plants provides food for humans, as well as forage for pollinators and other beneficial species.

A food forest, once established, is much less labor-intensive and more resilient than a conventional vegetable garden where the veggies are cultivated in rows in bare soil. In a food forest, use of vertical space is maximized, and the plants shelter each other and share nutrients and other resources.

Edible gardening addresses multiple needs at once: One, it conserves water (according to some estimates, edible gardens use up to 66% less water than lawns — for more about that, see my “Further Reading” section at the end of this post). It also builds the soil, reduces erosion, builds drought-resilience, and boosts local food self-reliance. It brings neighbors together, and it gives families a productive and enjoyable activity to share.

Besides these benefits of edible gardening in general, food forests have the additional benefits of providing shade, habitat, and privacy. A food forest can even reduce your energy bill and make your home more comfortable, by mitigating temperature extremes.

Obtaining multiple yields in this manner is the hallmark of good design. The old saying is “killing two birds with one stone,” but I prefer to say “feeding two birds with one scone“! In permaculture design, we call it “stacking functions.” And the minute you start dedicating yourself to this approach (not just in your yard but in any other areas of your life), you will start saving lots of money, and have more time and energy for the things that really matter to you.

My photos for you today bring good news. The seeds I planted from a dragonfruit I ate the other day (thanks Ro for the yummy fruit!) have sprouted! And my papaya babies have taken off; look at the difference over just about three weeks. I’ve thinned out the plants over time (they seem to do better with thinning than with transplanting — the few I tried transplanting look a bit peaked). The papaya plants are starting to look like real trees! (Photo #3, at the bottom, is the “Before” pic of the papaya seedlings; the photo in the middle was just taken yesterday.)

Further Reading:
“Edible Gardens vs. Lawns” article by Urban Plantations, describing the extremely important water-conservation angle of food gardens. Did you know that a food garden consumes as little as ONE-THIRD as much water, or less, as a lawn? (And of course you’re also obtaining a yield: fresh delicious food!) Urban Plantations, based in San Diego, is an organization whose website I strongly suggest you bookmark regardless of where you call home. As more and more of us nowadays find our regions affected by the alternating drought-and-flood cycle, and extreme weather in general, it behooves us to listen and learn from our desert-dwelling brothers and sisters who have always known such extremes.

In-depth article by David the Good, on food forests and how to build one. Although the food forest described in this article is located in central Florida, a subtropical region, you can tailor the specifics to your region with a bit of research and trips to your local nursery. Other sources of information: your local permaculture guild or bioregionalist group; your own direct observations of naturally occurring clumps of shrubs and trees in your area. Even if you don’t feel ready to build a food forest, this article with illustrations and photos is a delight to read. And after reading it, you might feel more ready! David the Good has authored multiple books, and his website thesurvivalgardener.com is a gold mine of highly expert yet accessible information.

Creative Upcycling: From Disposable Pen To Reusable Straw!

What a fantastic upcycle! Reusable straws (made of glass, bamboo, or stainless steel) are becoming more popular as we’ve come to realize that disposable plastic straws harm wildlife and our environment.

But my highly creative and very DEEP GREEN friend Roseanna takes the reusable straw to an even greener height, by upcycling one from a used pen! Added benefit of the pen: The pen-point is great for straining pulp, if you prefer to have a non-pulpy drink experience.

Great one, Ro! Thanks for sharing.

Recommended Resources:

Strawless Ocean: “Plastic straws are really bad for the ocean. We use over 500 million every day in America, and most of those end up in our oceans, polluting the water and killing marine life. We want to encourage people to stop using plastic straws for good. If we don’t act now, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”

Surfrider Foundation: nonprofit dedicated to protecting beaches and oceans. “Straws suck” — and you can take action via their website to reduce the use of straws.

Water Woes, and Simple Solutions

An umbrella group of neighborhood associations in my city has its regular monthly meeting this evening. On “tap” for tonight’s meeting, someone from the city utilities department will be fielding questions about a proposed new water treatment program that has become (un)popularly known as “toilet to tap.”

I’ve lived in many places, and in most or not all of those places, water from toilets goes to the same place as all other water; gets treated at a treatment plant and sent back out as “fresh water.” It’s been going on for a long time; it’s disgusting and needless; but I guess I had become resigned to it.

In Daytona Beach, Florida, where I live now, we apparently have never done this before but are maybe about to start. Here, it seems exceptionally senseless as we get 49 inches of rainfall per year (far more than in any place I’ve ever lived). We seem to waste a lot of water here. And so I came up with some questions for fellow residents of my city to ask themselves. Maybe some of these are relevant to your area also.

Here’s what I posted on some local citizens’ forums online:

It’ll be good to have the opportunity at tonight’s meeting to ask questions about this “toilet to tap” plan. It’s also a good opportunity to ask OURSELVES some questions about our water usage and priorities.

• Why do we keep buying bottled water, and why do we keep allowing corporations to plunder our aquifer and sell it back to us in plastic bottles?
• Why do we not have more respect for native/waterwise landscaping, why do we glorify manicured turf landscaping even on the beachside?
• Why do we (=as a city) keep clear-cutting trees and native scrub, leaving a moonscape that is basically a desert even with all the rain we get?
• Why aren’t more of us collecting rainwater, and why doesn’t the city promote rainwater harvesting, and harvest rainwater at its own facilities?
• Why are we planting so many high-maintenance, resource-intensive palm trees?)

And possibly, this “toilet to tap” threat could be an opportunity for introducing compost toilets! Compost toilets are super easy to use, and offer an alternative to crapping into fresh water. By the way, many cities across the nation have been doing “toilet to tap” for a long time. In our city we are fortunate not to have this yet, and, with some basic conservation measures like those I mentioned above, we could possibly avoid it.

In my post to fellow residents I didn’t mention voluntary austerity; radical conservation. But here on this blog, of course, it’s the main menu item. Household-level, voluntary, radical conservation. If a significant percentage of households were catching at least some rainwater, and phasing out water-hungry landscaping, it would go a long way toward making “toilet to tap” unnecessary anywhere. And then there is the holy grail of water conservation: widespread legalization and popularization of compost toilets. If we did that, we’d not only cut out a lot of our water woes, but, by turning “waste” into compost, vastly increase the health of our soils.

You, who choose to read this blog and believe in the power of household-level daily actions, are the heroes in the war on waste, pollution, land degradation, wildlife extinction, poverty, weather extremes, and climate change. Thank you for being here. Your footprint-reduction efforts matter! Keep going, and share your successes. (And if you want a handy, succinct yet highly readable guide to low-footprint living, get yourself a copy of my book DEEP GREEN!)

Recommended Resources & Food for Thought:
• Rainwater catchment calculator: Incredible! Even my little 100-square-foot patio roof has the potential to collect 2,500 gallons of rainwater a year! When I’m in ruthless water-miser mode, that can easily meet my personal water consumption needs. And then there’s the roof of my 988-square-foot house, which has the capacity to collect almost 25,000 gallons of water a year! Holy cannoli. That’d be more than enough even for outdoor irrigation of fruits and veggies through the drought phases.
• Brad Lancaster Water Harvesting channel on YouTube: In addition to being a “fountain” of knowledge on water harvesting, Brad is incredibly enjoyable to watch and listen to. One of the most powerful things I learned from Brad’s talks is that “Most deserts are manmade.” For starters I recommend Rainwater Harvesting Basics (1) (a 9-minute video); and “Overview of Lancaster Homestead Water Harvesting Strategies (12 minutes). Or just dive into the delightful 52-minute “Dryland Harvesting Home Hacks Sun, Rain, Food, & Surroundings.”
• “Greening the Desert” 5-minute video with permaculturist Geoff Lawton – just incredible.
• Compost toilets, humanure — Joseph Jenkins “Loveable Loo Overview”: “The Loveable Loo is an eco-toilet that requires no water, plumbing, pipes, vents, drains, electricity, or urine separation. It’s a toilet that makes gardens. It’s designed to collect toilet material for composting in a separate location. This 11 minute video provides a brief overview on the toilet and the processes.”

On Treasure and Clutter; “Stuff” and Soul

Check out this old-school lighter bearing a bas relief image of Mount Rushmore. I bought this a few months ago. What a beautiful lighter. So retro America. So evocative of my childhood. (Even though we never visited Mount Rushmore, we got to visit so many other parks and monuments. So any classic monument/park/Route 66 memorabilia always brings back memories of rich, magical times growing up in a family that took multiple cross-country car trips.)

Yes, a beautiful lighter indeed. And purchased at a local shop. I have loved this lighter for the months I’ve owned it. The only problem is, it doesn’t work properly. It doesn’t hold a fill. So, having unsuccessfully tried to figure out a fix, I am taking this lighter back to the shop owner, not for a refund but so he can put it in the display case and use it to sell other lighters. (You know how it is in a shop: The greater the variety of items, the easier it is to sell one.)

Now, this lighter is small. It’t not BIG clutter. But for me, after a while, it became annoying clutter, because every time I saw it, I’d think about how it doesn’t work, and what a shame that this purchase didn’t accomplish my objective of having a refillable “old school” lighter. So it’s time to let it go.

Now, if you are in possession of a beautiful but non-functional item, you may not consider it clutter and may choose to keep it. And that’d be fine too. Low-footprint life doesn’t mean feeling obligated to get rid of all your stuff. Even a minimalist lifestyle (if you choose to practice that) doesn’t mean getting rid of all your stuff. You want to keep the good pretty things that feed your artistic soul (because really we ARE all artists — artists of living); the things that make your heart smile. Selective minimalism, I call it!

Actually sometimes I call my lifestyle “ornate minimalism.” At one point I owned about 20 pairs of platform shoes, while living in a 19-foot travel trailer lined with colorful Indian print silk curtains and pillows. There were a lot of things I did NOT own, such as an iron and a washer/dryer and any stove other than a single burner. But I owned everything I wanted to own, and that continues to be the case, though I’ve let go of some items and acquired others as the flow of life invites.

Nice synchronicity with the theme of this post: Today’s email newsletter from DailyOM has a great little article by Madisyn Taylor, “Honoring Daily Life.” She talks about the human tendency to try to save things for “special occasions.” For example, buying an item of clothing and never wearing it; saving it for a special occasion that never comes. And meanwhile the item goes out of style!

Something similar happened to me, back when I was living in my little travel trailer, as a matter of fact. I had two beautiful leather jackets. One of them I NEVER ended up wearing, and one day when I finally decided to wear it, I pulled it out of the closet only to see that it had become mildewed to the point of being unwearable. I was touched with sadness at the waste, and vowed to avoid doing that again.

From Madisyn’s piece in DailyOM: “It’s interesting to think of what it would mean to us if we let ourselves wear our nicest clothes and eat off the good china on a daily basis. We might be sending ourselves the message that every day we are alive is a special day and a cause for celebration, and that we are worth it.”

That is one thing I’ve been doing: using my grandmother’s china as my daily dishes. I even bring them out for potlucks. And I always know my grandmother is smiling down from heaven. But what if one breaks, some people might say. Actually, a few teacups DID break, some years back. But look how many there still are! And the plates — I mean, SIXTEEN plates!

As a bonus, using Grandma’s china as my everyday dishes means I don’t need a whole separate set of “everyday” dishes, which would require more cabinet space and also mental energy to keep track of. I do have a couple of sturdier bowls and plates acquired from a friend who was downsizing, but there are only a couple, and I DO use the china regularly even when it’s just me alone.

All of which is to say, I hope you enjoy your deliberate acquisitions, don’t be afraid to let something go when it no longer serves you (even if it’s pretty). But don’t feel obligated to let go of things you treasure. And, finally, don’t be afraid to use your “good stuff” for everyday. Wear your best jewelry; put on that fancy jacket just to go to the store if you feel like it. Every single day is a magnificent occasion, and you deserve it.

This kind of selectivity and refinement in everyday life ends up supporting a low-footprint lifestyle, so it’s a win for the planet as well as for you.