Water-Wise Oasis: A Tucson Desert Garden

Scant rainwater sustains a lush garden in urban Tucson.

| September/October 2005

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.

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