Category Archives: outdoors

Watershed Management Group brings composting toilets to Tucson!

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a composting toilet pilot project by Watershed Management Group (WMG).  This pilot project, Soil Stewards, began this summer by inviting some 25-30 homes, test sites, and organizational partners (such as the Community Food Bank) to construct and host a composting toilet system on their property.  The purpose of this pilot project was to test out two different types of home composting toilets, with the goal of lowering the cost of materials as well as simplifying the process for installation and permitting.  It is a two year project, in which we use, maintain, and monitor the composting systems in an effort to demonstrate the ease and accessibility of composting human waste in a safe and affordable way.

Below is a slideshow of the process of construction and installation for my composting system.  You will notice that I went perhaps a little overboard in building the privacy structure to house my outdoor, composting toilet.  You might also notice that it’s downright awesome.  It, along with the other numerous backyard features that focus on sustainability, will be part of WMG’s Second Annual Home-Scape Tour.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So you’re probably asking, how does all this all work?  Does it smell?  Or simply, are you serious?!?  So first of all let me say that David Omick (who designed the barrel system that I am using and is working with WMG), and Watershed Management Group probably explain things endlessly better than me.  David’s open-sourced details on the barrel composting system is here, and WMG’s Soil Stewards page has tons of information including this video.

But down to the nitty gritty details.  Because I know you have questions.  The process goes like this: you do your business, you use a squirt bottle of some sort to wet the toilet paper as it lies to aid with decomposition, and you cover everything with a layer of dry material such as wood shavings, mesquite duff (leaves), or even shredded paper.  The point is that the next person who uses it won’t see anything but dry cover material at the bottom of the barrel, as well as provide the necessary carbon to offset the nitrogen that is in human waste.  There are three barrels because once one is filled, it needs to sit and actually compost (or finish composting) without the addition of new material.  You need at least 4-6 months for this process to fully become useable compost and have killed any dangerous bacteria and other vectors (this has been tested and is indeed extremely safe).  So having three allows a continuous rotation that is both safe and requires minimal user contact with feces.  Smell?  I can honestly say that the only time there is any disagreeable smell is when I use the compost hand crank to turn the compost every couple times per week.  That process lasts about one minute (seriously), and even that is more ammonia-y than anything you might be imagining.  Bugs?  Well the design is a completely sealed one, minimizing any bugs that are able to make it in, but there is a very simple fly trap (the upsidedown mason jar you see in the pictures) where flies head towards the light and can’t use their bug brains to figure out how to get out.  Flies have been a non-issue for me the entire time.  In terms of using the finished compost, well I haven’t gotten that far.  People who have used this system for years, have it down well enough to know that they are safe to use it even on their vegetable gardens.  However it is recommended that one start with compost application on trees, shrubs, and other non-food items around the yard.

Now I get that at first glance this may sound like someone who is over the top with sustainability ideas and therefore making it sound much better and easier than the reality is.  I can tell you, I am not.  And that is the entire point of this pilot project – to find a system that is both affordable and easy to use for the average home-owner.  Which is why part of the project is a regular monitoring component that allows WMG to more effectively work with the ADEQ to move forward on making these systems available to anyone who is interested in them.


Go buy plants.

Looking for desert veggies that will do well here in the crazy oppressive wonderful heat of Tucson?  This Saturday, April 11, Native Seeds will be hosting a plant sale at their farm in Patagonia, AZ.  So hop in your car with some friends, fill your billfold with a few bucks, and make the beautiful drive down to Native Seed’s 60 acre farm where all the seed saving magic happens and where my brother works.  Here is how he describes the plant sale:

Haven’t planted your garden yet but want to?  Want plants that can actually stand the heat?  Want an excuse to get out of town and visit the Native Seeds/SEARCH Farm in Patagonia?  Want to spend some time talking with an extremely knowledgeable farmer, who can answer any and all of your growing questions and also happens to be a really nice guy?  (well the last part of that sentence is true anyway – I hope).  Then you should come buy plants at the plant sale!  There will be six different types of chiles, 5 types of tomatoes, two kinds of basil, and Epazote.  All native/acclimatized to the region and all looking to find a home in your garden.

When: Saturday April 11th
10am-12pm members only
12pm-2pm open to everyone

Where:  Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation farm
42 San Antonio Rd, Patagonia, AZ

Take I-10 East to Highway 83 (Exit 281 towards Sonoita/Patagonia)
Stay on 83 to Sonoita
At stop sign in Sonoita (the only one) take right on Hwy. 82 towards Patagonia
Travel ~ 11 miles until you are almost to Patagonia
After speed limit drops to 40mph, take your first left onto San Antonio Rd., which is directly across the street from the Welcome to Patagonia sign. (there will be a sign at the turn, and further signs directing you to parking)

Well there you have it.  Plants are going to be about $2 each and all proceeds go directly to Native Seeds.

The Inside Coop: Coyotes, chickens, and Spring veggies.

As promised, here is your long-awaited update of life in our backyard paradise of west Tucson.  Lots has happened with the onslaught of Spring here in the desert, at least in the 1/5 of an acre that I inhabit.  Most notably, I have had an overwhelming obsession with gardening and digging and compost and seeding plants.  It is so intense that it has almost become a problem at work, in that it has been really difficult to think about anything else but the next project, or if the seedlings have popped up yet, or when I will get to Sprinkler World with my brother to purchase irrigation supplies that I have long needed and will finally be sufficiently organized to have.  I have framed one existing and one new garden bed with wood edges in order to lessen erosion and in order to further define the beds themselves.  My brother and I also went all the way up to north of Tucson to visit our beloved Aribico Organics for a whole pickup load of sweet smelling warm compost made from maggot poop and pine shavings (all true), which we split, and I have promptly used nearly all of my share for the enriching of my newly framed garden beds and for a potting soil mix for seeding eventual transplants of mostly tomatoes, basil, and peppers, with the occasional eggplant, watermelon, and herb.  During one of my potting extravaganzas one Saturday in the middle of the afternoon I was visited by a coyote at the back fence, presumably in search of rabbits, field mice, and ground squirrels, though he did spend a good half minute staring through the fence at the chicken palace that holds eight very plump and well-nurished hens that would make a coyote quite happy and me quite devastated.  Though really, I think the potential danger is quite low given all that the coyote would have to go through to make off with one [fingers crossed].  Amid all this flurry of activity, both human, vegetable, and carnivorous, all eight of my hens are officially laying and on Monday, March 9, the chicken stars aligned and the bird gods conspired that all eight would lay an egg on the same day.  Nice.


Coyote visiting.


Coyote close-up.


Vegetables in training.


What eight (dirty) eggs in one day looks like.  (In the handmade chicken basket that my cousin gave me for my christmas this year.  Yay Andrea!!)


This is the never-been-used-and-newly-framed-in-garden-bed-with-plants-I-didn’t-seed-but-purchased-and-then-planted-because-I-have-a-problem-with-patience-and-needed-to-see-some-real-life-green-plants-already.

From top to bottom:  (Left row) green bell pepper, yellow bell pepper, (space for future plant), cucumber.  (Middle row) Thai hot pepper, jalepen(y)o pepper, Mrs. Burns’ Lemon Basil, Native Seeds basil.  (Right row) zuccini (x2).


My circle garden bed with Cherokee Purple tomats (cages), volunteer parlsey (forefront), I’itoi’s Onions (chive-like plants), sunflowers (right), and radishes (where it looks like there is currently nothing).

While it’s NOT…hotter than the inside of a live chicken!©…

…It is still pretty damn hot for February – EVEN in Tucson, Arizona.  So for all you global warming naysayers and skeptics, including those of you who flat out refuse to listen to anything that spills from the lips of Democrats regardless of how truthy it just may be, and no matter that they are simply the other side of the same useless coin…here is something along the lines of PROOF that is yes indeed it is getting hot in here:

Yes, it was warm, as in record-setting
by Tony Davis

Tucson’s weather broke a record Monday, with a 91-degree reading that felt more like late April or early May than February.
Monday was:
• The warmest Feb. 23 on record, compared with a previous record of 87 degrees in 1989. The mercury hit 91 at 2:24 p.m. and was at least 90 for three minutes. The normal high for this time of year is about 70 degrees.
• A day when the low temperature was also the highest minimum temperature on record for the day: 58, compared with the previous record of 54 in 1920.
• The second-earliest 90-degree day in February on record, after a 92-degree reading on Valentine’s Day 1957.
• The fourth 90-degree reading in February in Tucson since records started being kept in 1895.
• The second straight day in which Tucson had the warmest temperature in the country. On Sunday it was 83 degrees.
“It could be worse. It was 100 degrees in Hermosillo today,” National Weather Service meteorologist John Glueck said.
A strong high-pressure ridge over the Tucson area has pushed temperatures up and will keep them high all week.
Today, the high is expected to be a 90. It will cool to the mid-80s on Wednesday, and stick in the low to mid-80s for the rest of the week.

I want one.


If you do too, you can find out more at Technicians for Sustainability in Tucson, AZ.  (That’s where I borrowed the image from at least….)


The coyote was limping, just slightly, and one could barely tell when she sprinted straight at me, veering away and down the street.  I was standing about three house down from ours, just before I was leaving for work.  Mari had told me there was a coyote on our street, which was strange, even though we are between the Santa Cruz River and Tumamoc Hill.  The river being mostly a dried wash except in big rains, and Tumamoc being wide open and closed to people except for the road in the early mornings and evenings to walking and running.  Still, we were only a mile from downtown Tucson, and in my mind it was only a depressing omen that a coyote was on the streets.  After veering away from me, the coyote slowed to a trot and proceeded to the west of our house.  I watched until I could not see her anymore and then waited, not knowing why, but somehow feeling more of the intruder than she.

Two mornings ago I was standing at the back of my yard checking on my chickens and surveying the large empty lot behind the house that may one day be the sight of a new FBI building (oh joy), when I noticed a red tail hawk skimming the wild grasses in search of breakfast.  For a second it headed directly towards me in the fresh morning air, only to turn to my right and float up and over the mesquite trees that separate our houses from the open lot.  Evidently the lot was not serving breakfast.  I had little concern for my chickens, as even if the hawk did see them through the shade cloth, it would take some serious effort to break through into the chicken palace, not to mention hoist one of our well-fed hens up and out.  The hawk flew past my view to the south, eyes scanning for furry morsels in the paved reaches of Tucson.

When I first moved into my house, nearly two and a half years ago, there was a roadrunner that frequented the backyard, poaching lizards off the walls of my shed in the morning sun.  He once came within 5 feet of me, before deciding I had nothing juicy to offer and continued on.  While I haven’t seen my flightless friend in the backyard for some time it is not uncommon to see one or two in the wash down the road.

It is a mixture of blessing and sadness for me, these sightings so close to home.  When I saw the coyote on my street, I briefly thought the landscape of New York City in the movie “I am Legend” or the recent book, “The World Without Us”, both evoking a reality where nature takes over all the artificial landscaping we’ve been constructing for centuries and wildlife returns.  Having a special place in my movie-going-heart for zombie and end of the world flicks, I must admit there was a certain part of me that felt like I was seeing a flash of the future as the coyote disappeared around the corner.  Then it was gone.

Generally predators don’t find their way into cities unless their habitat is destroyed or severly encroached upon.  At the same time, there is probably something to be said about the intentional habitat building within city limits to make our neighborhoods and communities more in line with what naturally grows in the Sonoran desert, and more inviting to its longstanding inhabitants.  Though believing that Tucson has attained some level of ecological balance and friendliness is simply foolish, at least for the moment.  I certainly hope the coyotes can manage without scouring our cities, but on the other hand they are scavengers and what better place to scavenge than at back doors of our consumerist culture of waste and overabundance.  Either way, they are beautiful animals.  But they better stay away from my chickens.  I think that’s only fair.

%d bloggers like this: