Water-Wise Oasis: A Tucson Desert Garden

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An adobe oven is framed by low-water-use native vegetation.
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Brad’s winter garden is located within sunken, mulched, water-harvesting basins. Brad’s property is home to more than a dozen varieties of edible cacti, from which he harvests fruit, flower buds, and pads. This diversity of low-water-use cacti provides food throughout the year and delights with diverse flavors including some similar to papaya, honeydew melons, artichoke hearts, and strawberries.
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Brad, right, and his brother, Rodd, harvest 15 to 20 percent of their food from their rainwater-nourished garden.
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Brad’s neighbor Christine and her daughter, Jasmine, walk along a footpath in the public right-of-way adjoining the property. This area used to be devoid of all vegetation and drained rainwater and topsoil to the street. Now, sunken, mulched basins next to the raised path harvest rainfall and grow abundant native vegetation that makes attractive habitat for songbirds.
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Brad harvests sun as well as water: Eight solar panels provide all the home’s electricity, two batch-style hot water heaters provide the hot water, a solar oven keeps cooking heat outside in the summer, and south-facing windows create passive solar heating and light in winter.
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Brad picks a fresh, tasty salad grown entirely with harvested rainwater.
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East- and west-facing exterior sun screens help cool Brad and Rodd’s home and enable them to live without water- and electricity-consuming evaporative coolers or air conditioners. Below: A chalkboard posts the bounty of Brad’s rainwater harvest.
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A bee alights on one of the garden’s many sunflowers. Bees increase the garden’s production with their polination services and provide Brad and Rodd with organic honey and wax.
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Queen’s Wreath vine (Antigonon leptopus) is a winter deciduous vine that provides Brad with summer shade and cooling, while letting the full sun in his south-facing windows in winter for passive heating and light. The flowers are beautiful and attract many beneficial pollinators, including honeybees.
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Brad picks a fresh, tasty salad grown entirely with harvested rainwater.
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Brad harvests over 100,000 gallons of rainwater a year on a 1/8-acre urban lot and adjoining right-of-way.
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The cool season garden is planted within sunken mulched basins. Brad and Rodd harvest a large salad bowl of greens and veggies a day, grown entirely from rain harvested in the soil and from the 1,200 gallon pre-cast concrete tank that harvests water from half of their metal roof.

Not far from downtown Tucson, at the home of permaculture teacher Brad Lancaster, sun-baked sidewalks disappear into the feathery green foliage of a thriving oasis. Even more surprising than this welcome change of scenery, however, is the source of its sustenance. In one of the country’s most arid climates, this lush garden is irrigated entirely with harvested rainwater and graywater.

Brad transformed a barren yard on a blistering city block into an award-winning showcase for sustainable home horticulture through simple, inexpensive, low-tech strategies that can be effectively applied anywhere. He implements his philosophy—“just get the rainwater into the soil”—using basins, swales, berms, sunken beds, raised pathways and other water-harvesting earthworks to “plant water before you plant plants.”

Brad directs natural runoff to the roots of native plants such as cholla and saguaro cacti, chuparosa, white thorn acacia, desert willow, condalia, desert hackberry, greythorn, and wolfberry instead of into streets and storm drains. At the house he shares with his brother Rodd, he tore out the asphalt driveway, exposing more square feet of thirsty earth to absorb rainwater into his garden rather than sending it into the street. He added berms to transform the driveway area into a catch basin and has converted every unplanted surface into catchment that drains into a planted area. Now instead of a sidewalk, an earthen path meanders through a forest of mesquite, desert ironwood, and palo verde.

Brad and Rodd, the field manager for the Audubon Society’s Simpson Farm restoration site, harvest more than 100,000 gallons of rainwater a year on their one-eighth-acre urban lot and adjoining right-of-way by employing a combination of water-wise strategies that store the majority of the water in earthworks as well as collecting roof runoff in a 1,200-gallon homemade cistern. This harvested rain waters food-bearing shade trees, abundant gardens, and a thriving landscape incorporating wildlife habitat, native songbirds, edible and medicinal plants.

The sheltering landscape cools buildings by 20 degrees, reducing water and energy bills. Now, thanks to the two brothers, the beauty of the Sonora desert thrives in the urban core. Their efforts have been honored with three awards from the Arizona Department of Water Resources/Tohono Chul Park 2005 Xeriscape Contest: Best Water Harvesting Landscape, Best Homeowner Designed and Built Landscape under $10,000, and the J.D. DiMeglio award for Artistry in Landscaping.

In one of the country’s most arid climates, this lush garden is irrigated entirely with harvested rainwater and graywater.

Garden of Eden

Brad learned many of the principles he practices from a “water farmer” in one of the world’s most arid regions. After taking a permaculture course, Brad was disillusioned with Tucson’s wasteful water-management policies, so he traveled to Africa in search of sustainable farms. In Zimbabwe, he met Zeph­ania Phiri Maseko, whom he describes as “one of the happiest people I ever met.”

Phiri’s political activism against the white Rhodesian government got him fired from his job and blacklisted in the 1960s, so he set out to provide for his family of eight with the only resources he had: his land and the Bible. “By reading the story of Adam and Eve, Phiri saw his answer,” Brad relates. “He said, ‘Adam and Eve had everything they needed in the Garden of Eden, so all I need to do is create the Garden of Eden.’ Then he read a little more and realized, ‘Adam and Eve had the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. I don’t even have an ephemeral creek, so the first thing I have to do is create a river.’”

Phiri taught himself how to harvest rainwater. On the bare bedrock at the top of his watershed, he built low, dry-stacked stone walls to slow sheet runoff and capture topsoil. On lower parts of the land, within drainages, he created a series of porous, stone check dams to mitigate drainage and allow soil and organic matter to settle into sand tanks that quickly infiltrate water and slowly release it. This strategy prevents evaporation and allows water to be stored beneath the surface. He captures even more water with a complex system of basins and swales.

Eventually, Phiri’s land began to absorb more water than his plants needed, resulting in a localized aquifer that he taps with hand-dug wells. At the bottom of his land are a banana patch and three reservoirs where he practices aquaculture. Now the Zimbabwe man makes his living selling his surplus crops including lumber, basketry grasses, thatch, edibles, and livestock. “I just could not believe he attained this,” Brad says. “Phiri showed me what one person, one family, could do.”

Brad returned to Tucson, set his roots, and followed suit. “It all starts at home,” he says. “If we can shift our own water management so we’re in sustainable balance with our local resources, then we can help others do it in the neighborhood, the workplace, and with public policy.”

Food from the desert

Brad and Rodd Lancaster harvest 15 to 20 percent of their food from their rainwater-nourished garden—including a bounty from native plants. They eat cholla cactus buds that taste like artichoke hearts and enjoy the sweet fruit of the Sonora desert’s iconic saguaro cactus. They grind the pods of mesquite trees into flour called pinole, which was a staple Native American food. Because mesquite needs nothing but rainfall to survive, Brad and Rodd are encouraging revived interest in this food source by organizing milling events at community centers during the harvest season. See Desert Harvesters for details.

Brad Lancaster is the author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands: How to Welcome Rain into your Life and Landscape (Rainsource Press), available at HarvestingRainwater.com.

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