The Ocotillo and its Many Uses

ocotillo with leaves

The first time I ever saw an ocotillo I was in Arizona in the Sonoran Desert during the monsoon season. They were these untamed stiff canes sticking into the air with thorns and little green leaves all over them and I just thought These plants are crazy nuts and I love them!  Later on our way to West Texas we saw more and they had no leaves so I assumed they were dead. “Oh, it’s so sad! I wonder how they all died? It must have been a chemical spill on the road because we are not in a drought.” I expressed my sorrow to my traveling partner. Such a pity. I found out later that’s just what they do, they are not always lush with green leaves! That was the beginning of learning about the ocotillo and what a fascinating book of knowledge this interesting plant writes. 

With no leaves they certainly look dead, like skeletons. How are they not dead? I wonder but also draw my attention much closer to investigate. Looking intently at the cane, just at the base of the thorn, I find the small streaks of greenish-yellow where they photosynthesize when they don’t have leaves. Desert adaptations, playing dead. The birds know all about this. A big fat white winged dove will land on an ocotillo branch and bend it fully down to the ground, too risky to not know if that plant is dead or only playing dead. If you want to know whether a plant is dead or playing dead, as a few of them are in fact dead, be the big fat dove, bend the cane all the way over in a big arc and let it go. It will either break or bounce back to life, then you will know.

An ocotillo branch is an excellent place for birds to perch while waiting for the feeder and they absolutely prefer them over most any other plant. Particular plants are of a certain placement or size to host most of the waiting birds, its hard for us to say exactly why. Like we just know a good sitting rock when we see it, these birds know the best ocotillos. The fat doves are there first and call the rest over to the congress: too soon to tell, too soon to tell. A pyrrhuloxia takes the podium: what-cheer, what-cheer. Clear the stage for the sparrows: tyew-tyew, tyew-tyew. The finch has the floor and he decrees that the cats are up to no good.

In addition to the preferred bird perch, the ocotillo can be used as incense, tea, fencing, or just appreciated as a groovy desert plant. Also know as ‘Coach Whip,’ no one around here calls it coach whip but you will see it called that in some books. If you think about it, the name coach whip really brings you back to the classic image of the wild west. I wasn’t there but the ocotillo was.

Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens
Photograph by Amber Harrison, all rights reserved


At one time I was told by someone who didn’t know any better that the ocotillo was a member of the sandalwood family and I repeated that nonsense for years because I didn’t know any better (this was before we had encyclopedia volumes in our pockets.) Well, it is not a member of the sandalwood family. A true sandalwood tree would be located on an island in the South Pacific and not in a West Texas desert. Instead it is a member of the Fouquieriaceae family (literally ocotillo family) which is a small but strange family of only 1 genus and 11 species of arid-adapted plants residing in North America. I learned this finally when I was offering the “raw sandalwood” up to a group of artisan incense makers as a material to try and work with. Whoops, not the first misinformation I have repeated but this is also how I learned differently. I still don’t know how to turn it into stick incense though.

If you have them in your backyard, try a little olfactory experiment. Look out across the desert and find a big fat ocotillo and walk over to it. Give it a little chat to see if it likes you and ask if you can try a piece. It won’t talk back to you in English, ocotillos have their own language, you know. You will need to listen to the language for a good while before you understand it, but if it’s answer is “no,” you will certainly find out soon enough. I was harvesting canes one time and found a really tall fellow and chatted him up but forgot to actually ask permission to harvest and the cane I lopped off stabbed me so hard and swift and perfectly square in the middle of my forehead so that blood ran down my nose. The answer this tall fellow gave me was obviously “no.” 

Once you are past the cordialities, look on the base of the plant, the short stalk in between the ground and all the branches, and you should find flakes of bark or skin that look yellow and smooth, like thick waxed paper.  Grab a nice piece that is shiny and consistently colored and tug it away from the plant. You obviously don’t want to pick the base clean and make it naked and risk harming the whole thing, but a small piece off the backside shouldn’t hurt. (The backside is the North side.)  I also harvest sheets of bark from the elders after they fall, the oil in the bark is retained for many months after life has ceased.

Now take a lighter to the end of your waxed-paper-looking ocotillo skin and watch how the flame slowly crawls up the piece towards your fingers. Slowly burning, nice and steady and evenly distributed, so controlled that it’s not a fearful act to continue to hold it.  Let it burn for a bit and then blow it out and watch the smoke billow from the tiny bit of hot resin that has pooled up at the edge of the flame. Smell it. The smell resembles sandalwood incense and this is where the misinformation initiated, but of course it’s different and should be described as such. Oh, how to describe a smell? It is soft and earthy, distinctly smoky without being overwhelming, like browned leaves and amber. Not fresh and new but something much older than a human lifespan. It’s a smell that holds a lot of secrets, the secrets that can’t be told because people didn’t see them. Does this description help you smell it?


They bloom in April or May, without fail, even in dry years. Mary Jane always says “the ocotillos are getting their lips” because the blooms are these short stalks of bright red that slice the blue sky open like fire sticks. You can harvest the flowers and add them to tea although I don’t because I would rather leave them to be enjoyed by the hummingbirds and carpenter bees and the eyeballs and also to be pollinated and make seeds that fall and spread down the rocky hillsides to start new baby ocotillos. I have never tried to grow them from seed but it sure would be fun to try, the babies are just adorable!

Some of them, ten percent maybe, will bloom again in the fall, October-ish. I have noticed no indication of which ones will bloom again or for what specific purpose. I have spent many years chatting with ocotillos but I still cannot understand what they say about blooming a second time in this later season. It’s quite the human mystery.

n316_w1150 by BioDivLibrary is licensed under CC-PDM 1.0

The Ethics of Wild Harvesting

Wild harvesting of plants to propagate and use personally can be accomplished in a legal and sustainable manner. It is legal in some cases to forage seeds, berries, leaves, cones or mushrooms for personal use from public lands such as any land administered by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife or the lands designated as Parques Nacionales in Mexico but you should first contact the respective park service to ask specifics and or obtain permits.
–Do not collect plants or plant parts from public lands without the proper procedures in place.
–Never collect endangered, protected or sensitive species even on your own property.
–Do not enter private lands for any purpose if you do not have permission to do so.
–Harvest first from areas that will be disturbed by development.
–Make sure you know your plant and can make a positive identification.
–Never harvest the first plant you see, find the healthiest population that does not appear to have been harvested.
–Never take more than ten percent or more than you need
–Always ask the plant if it wants to go with you first. Yes, really.
–Fill holes, spread the seeds of collected plants and return to the area later to monitor the effects of your harvest.


I have built a few ocotillo fences and I don’t want to do it anymore because of the sacrifice required of such a unique plant. If you set out to build a fence you will need a butt load of canes which means you need access to an ever bigger butt load of plants. The goal is to not take more than 3 to 5 canes from each plant, you’ll need around 10 canes per foot and not every plant has harvestable canes so you will need to walk a lot to collect enough canes to have a decent amount of fence. Its honestly easy to overharvest and to hurt what you love. Somewhere around fifteen percent of the canes will root to become part of the living fence. I’ve thrown my book of tricks at this and I can’t get enough “living” for my own satisfaction.

The last time I was asked to build an ocotillo fence I was lining up where to harvest the canes and was ready to build the panels. Then I played the tape forward and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it so I wrote a nice email to the potential client respectfully declining. It felt alot like the years I kept saltwater fish tanks. After so many attempts at playing god in miniature all I saw was a big accumulation of death and a product that didn’t satisfy my soul like i thought it would when I started.

I will no longer build ocotillo fences and instead I will just love the plant itself. Pictured below is my nicely photographed reference photo for a service I no longer provide. In the name of sustainability, (and it is in the name after all), we give up! Oh well, I sleep so good at night anyway.

Ocotillo fence at the Buzzard's Roost, Terlingua TX

Groovy Desert Plant

Such a magnificent beauty it reminds me of a plant that should be under the sea just like those perfect salt water scenes I was trying to create years ago with my fish tanks. This country is like that– memories of water, now it is all dried up, fossilized shells, limestone, the compacted skeletons of billions of former sea creatures. Crystal Albright does paintings that capture this concept, the sea without water, fish swim the air. She has her paintings, drawings and photographs on display somewhere.

Artwork by Crystal Albright, all rights reserved

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Artwork by Amber Harrison and Crystal Albright is licensed under a copyright All Rights Reserved

Changing Out a Valve on a Water Tank

[Two Plumbers in Overalls]

Do you find yourself frustrated with a leaky valve now that your rainwater tank is full of water? Do you feel bad about “wasting” the water that will inevitably be lost to this error?

How much time have you spent worrying about the planning, time and resources it will take to fix this mistake?

If the answer is more time than I would like, then today’s video is for you. I am covering how to quickly and easily switch out the valve with no big water transfer pumps or complicated Rube Goldberg machines, just you and a helper.

In this video (6:34) I am dealing with a very common tank, a polyethylene plastic tank. These exact tanks are Wylie storage tanks (the black ones) and are trucked in locally by All Energies 432-244-7656 The tank comes from the manufacturer with a 2 inch bulkhead and it needs a 2 inch valve. A pvc valve is a false economy. Pvc exposed to sunlight breaks down, becomes brittle and is much more susceptible to breakage in addition to also forming carcinogens which leach into the water. Instead install a poly plastic Banjo valve on each tank which is what I am using here to replace the old leaky pvc valve.

I do not keep Banjo valves in stock. Keeping inventory requires spare money and storage that I don’t have. Maybe one day? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Financial Incentives

The state of Texas encourages rainwater collection by making it sales tax exempt. Section 151.355 of the Texas tax Code exempts all rainwater harvesting equipment and supplies from state sales tax. To claim this exemption, the purchaser must furnish a Tax Exemption Form 01-339 to the supplier at the time of purchase.

Click HERE to fill out your sales tax exemption form

If you feel like you need help building your system I’m here to help! Please schedule a call

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On Burros and Buckeyes

Post-Thanksgiving and we continue our very slow but steady march through the changing of summer into fall. Technically measuring by the sun, moon and stars, we are well into the season which we call fall or autumn, but here in the desert things tend to linger in their previous state for quite some time before they actually get motivated to get up and move on. I and many others have been accused of lingering like this on those lazy hot afternoons, no need to be alarmed, it’s just an indicator of the geography. 

We have yet to drop below 32 degrees for a freeze which can be typical in a lot of years or not, depends on the year. One thing not freezing yet differentiates is the ability for frost tender plants to continue to grow and thrive, like my basil and jalapeno pepper plants, still hanging on to the summer vibes. 2022 was quite a shitty summer for growing vegetables anyway so all the better that we have an unknown length of extended bit of summer growing left. I am prepared for a freeze to happen any day now so that affords me the absolute luxury of adorning my breakfast salads every morning with fresh basil.

I took a walk with Pancho down canyon over some slickrock and past a tinaja. We walk this way only occasionally as the slickrock is challenging for hooved creatures like a donkey and it requires great patience of me to walk him through the course. A technical walk like this is not possible if I have any scheduled events later to attend. Water crossing are similar challenges, it is a trust building exercise though and is important to stir the pot sometimes. I want to keep walking with him without the control of a lead rope (and on this day without halter as well.) I want to keep developing this skill because I enjoy his presence more as a friend and companion than a subordinate so we just have to walk the more difficult route occasionally.

We made it over the slick rock just fine. Pancho took a route that was more of a steep drop down off the side into the tinaja and it was all I could do not to freak out just watching him walk that path. Culture has taught me well though, externally I speak words of encouragement and smile as internally visions in my head play of broken legs and which gun I would use to shoot him in the head to put him out of his misery after the fall. I am not my thoughts, my ego is always so dramatic. Pancho’s tail whip swishes constantly back and forth as he finds a premium clump of grass to chew. I can sense he is proud of what we just accomplished.

Harbored in the protective alcove of a creek bend and short canyon wall just beyond the slick rock and tinaja there was this wonderful Mexican Buckeye specimen, Ungnadia speciosa. When I saw it I was delighted as I always am when I see this species. Mexican Buckeye are not exactly rare but certainly not something I would call common either, it is a tree after all so just in general trees in the Chihuahuan Desert can be considered ‘not common.’ A Mexican Buckeye being even a less common occurance among those considered trees, much less common than mesquite, desert willow, white-thorn and catclaw acacias and even cottonwoods, when I find a Mexican Buckeye it always feels special, like I located a hidden treasure chest and I am allowed to unpack and admire the contents for a while without jeopardizing the secret. 

I remembered after a moment though that I have met this tree before. Of course I have been past this creek bend before, but not on a day that the little tree flashed so vibrant yellow, up and out of it’s quiet alcove, it was in spectacular fall color! The Mexican Buckeye is certainly one of my favorite natives and it stands out from the rest by the spring flower display, the buds breaking before the leaves push out. The leaves are also not common for a desert native in that they are broadleaf and deciduous. Now that I have met the Mexican Buckeye in this time of year I can add that it stands out from the rest for its fall colors too.

Barton Warnock provides us with a good short description in his book Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas
“Ungnadia speciosa, Beautiful clusters of purplish-pink fragrant flowers appear before this much branched shrub develops its leaves; plants normally 4-10 ft. tall; the brownish pods, about 2 in. across, hang empty on the shrubs for 2-3 years. Seeds are shining, brownish-black and considered poisonous; excellent honey-bee plant and desirable ornamental, [flowering] March to June.”

I thank the little tree for the visit as I always have conversations with the things around me, living or not. “Thanks for the fall cheer little canyon tree, my donkey and I will come here again but for now we need to go gather the courage to travel back up the slick rock and around the tinaja and walk back home.”

You can, of course, grow Mexican Buckeye from seed and I highly recommend it as a practice. The seed is fairly large for a seed, about ¾ inch diameter. It is dark brown, shiny and feels smooth and nice to hold in your hand, easy to collect and enticing to carry in your pocket as a token of some fantastic place where you found the mother plant. The first Mexican Buckeyes I grew from seed started on a river trip through Santa Elena Canyon. We were hiking in Fern Canyon, the wonderful little Mexican tributary of the main canyon that is as narrow and deep as a proper slot canyon should be. I collected a few seeds and three of them ended up in a #5 pot of soil that same fall. The pot of soil gets a drink everyday. It is an act of hope, hope that the water and soil and temperature are correct, hope that the seed is an easy one to sprout and hope that if it does sprout the roots will take hold and provide that sense of grounding that we are all needing when we plant trees. Many times that pot of soil is just that and a bit of hope that turns into nothing more. In the case of the three seeds from Fern Canyon, to my utter surprise, two of the seeds sprouted and grew into two short little tree seedlings. My friends and I kept the little trees alive for two more years in the pot as we passed it around to whomever was still in Terlingua at the time who could keep the hope alive and give it a drink every few days.

Mexican Buckeye, Ungnadia speciosa fruits, photo courtesy Leslie Landrum

We moved out to our property in 2014 and we brought that pot of hope with us from the protection of our former rental in the ghost town to the undeveloped and wild spot in Dark Canyon where we built our home. Our spot is on the edge of wilderness. The story of keeping our little homestead going is a story which includes a lot of losses of chickens, cats, trees and other plants, even that one poor goat. I did the best that I could with those little Buckeyes, I did the most work to the soil as I had ever done and those little tree seedlings got planted and anchored themselves in. Hope lies in the sense of grounding from planting baby tree seedlings on a newly acquired desert homestead.

Not ironically, the site I selected to plant the 2 seedlings in no way resembled the protected alcoves of fern canyon and the baby Mexican Buckeyes were doomed from the start. One spring the leaves of one of the seedlings never emerged. I waited many months with hope and then finally decided to bend the stem to check for a pulse and it predictably snapped off in my hand. Dead. Thinning the planting it would be considered if the act had been intentional. It’s sad to lose a life but overall not a bad thing, less competition for scarce resources. The surviving tree is living. There is still hope.

Of course the requisite fate of the surviving seedling was an early death too, but no need to dawdle, get on with it. Pancho came to live with us that same year. 

We don’t even remember why it all happened. The question comes up every now and then especially with new acquaintances, “Why did you get a donkey?” Well we actually have no idea why, I don’t think there was an option of not getting a donkey once the situation started playing itself out so maybe that’s why. Anna and I had been discussing a business idea where we could have a ‘burro bar hop.’ Tim was working with Titi on the maintenance crew at Far Flung Outdoor Center.  One afternoon Tim asks “Hey Titi, you know where we can get a donkey?” and Titi responds, “Of course, I have one you can get.” Simple enough. “Ok, how much do you want for him?” the next obvious question was asked and Titi responds “Oh, you can have him. He’s free” I was there for this conversation and I remember vividly Titi’s words, and I laugh and laugh about them now. Oh yeah, here, have a donkey, he is free.  But so we did just that. We had to fast track building a barn and a paddock and then about two months after that conversation Pancho came to live with us. He was 2 years old and had already been castrated, thank goodness, because we really knew nothing about getting that done. From the time that he first arrived we let him out to walk around and also socialize with us every day. It wasn’t too long before we figured out where the other fences needed to be, mainly one around our house to keep Pancho from wandering in and eating everything. He has been caught in my kitchen delicately investigating the items on the counter. He knows what he does is wrong, it is worth it though according to a curious donkey.

Pancho entering the tipi, circa 2018

It only took one bite for the little Buckeye seedling to succumb to its ultimate fate, death in the jaws of a curious donkey. Same as the Barbie head, multiple t-shirts, boots and shoes, the rear-view mirrors on the jeep, handlebar grips, tool handles or anything else within the reach of a donkey neck over a fence, chewed up and either swallowed or discarded.

These days I work with native plants from a differing perspective. I don’t need to plant my own seeds in a pot anymore to appreciate the species. Although I would like to have my own Mexican Buckeye planted at my house that I can care for and admire, I know the conditions here just aren’t right. Ultimately what I want for the species is to see it thrive where it needs to thrive in the region, sometimes that is at people’s houses and sometimes it’s not. In practice this means first and foremost being an advocate for the native plants and their kin. That is what this writing is about, sharing stories and information. Second to education and actively, I take more care to get the seed in the ground in a not too dissimilar environment from where the mother plant is growing and I do it with hopelessness, no expectations or desires, just a helping hand. Downstream the seeds are distributed naturally but upstream they must be taken by birds or humans or other critters. So that’s what I do now, when I find a Mexican Buckeye, I collect some seeds and then plant them during the wet periods upstream of where I found the mother trees. I have no idea if any of them have ever sprouted but I would bet that some have, they sprout so easy.

You can of course start you own Mexican Buckeye from seed, and I highly recommend it as a practice. Seek the mother trees in rocky canyons and ridges, in quiet alcoves protected from full sun and places that would have damp soil in many circumstances. Seasonal creeks are a great place to look. I have found them in limestone soil such as in Fern Canyon and in volcanic soil such as the specimen featured here. The seeds should be shiny, hard and almost black; there are three seeds per pod, just enough to get you started.


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Mexican Buckeye fruits photo by Leslie Landrum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)


Warnock, Barton. Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas. Alpine, Texas. Sul Ross State University. 1970

How to Winterize your Outdoor Water Systems

The freezing point of water is 0℃ or 32℉. It is the point at which liquid H2O turns to a solid which we then call ice. Water expands as it turns into ice, therefore can cause damage to pipes and other items which are exposed to freezing temperatures. Depending on your local winter temperature, you may need to consider winterizing your outdoor irrigation before freezing temperature approaches.

Lets examine the winterizing procedure of each component of your outdoor irrigation system, starting with the timers.

The Link-Tap system and the Netro system are both wi-fi connected smart timers that are virtually identical in function and composition and so the winterization process is the same.

To winterize your water timer, first power off the device and turn off the faucet, remove the irrigation pipe or hose from the timer, then remove the timer from the faucet. Clean any debris on the gasket if necessary. Gently shake the device to remove the water inside. Lastly, store the water timer indoors to avoid freezing temperatures that may damage the device. In addition, if the water timer will not be used for over 5 months, it is best to remove the batteries to prevent battery leakage from damaging the timer.

Please note that there is no need to unplug the flow meter connector from the main unit or to delete all watering schedules from your user account when winterizing your water timer.

All the watering schedules and configurations have been saved in the cloud server. When next spring comes, you just need to log into the app, reconnect your hose timer to the faucet, then your system is ready to go

LinkTap Pty., Ltd., Australia, Frequently Asked Questions

Drip tubing and emitters are almost always safe from damage due to freezing temperatures. The tubing is buried underground and also meant to drain after each watering cycle so it is okay to leave it all in place. Some systems have a blowout valve at the far end of the tube and if so, you can leave this valve open during freezing temperatures for extra assurance.

Outdoor faucets also called hose bibbs which are connected to the main plumbing can be protected by several different methods. Scientifically speaking, running water will freeze at a lower temperature than still water and so you can let a faucet drip overnight to prevent freezing. Of course here in the desert we really don’t like to let water just run out with no specific purpose so adding insulation is preferable. Pipe insulation sold specifically for this task is available at the hardware stores but you can also use old t-shirts, towels or blankets. Exposed outdoor pipes can also be wrapped with electrified heating wrap.

Hoses should be disconnected from faucets, rolled up to be cleared of water and stored in a protected area.

Water tanks generally do not freeze solid in our mild winters although the single-digit freeze we had in 2011 put this statement to the test. It is the valves on the water tanks which are susceptible to freezing. This is an important thing to protect as a break in a valve can empty an entire tank. For the greatest protection, close any valves and disconnect any hoses then insulate your valves with old towels, blankets or even an old cooler. PVC valves and associated pvc plumbing are most susceptible to freeze so be extra vigilant in protecting those components.

An insulated valve cover made from an old cooler

We typically get our average first freeze of the season mid-November. This year we a right on time for that scheduling. In true Texas weather fashion we could have highs back into the eighties next week and some plants may want water again. It is up to you to determine whether to go back through the process of un-winterizing your outdoor water components when the heat rises again. Mid-March is the average last frost and it is the time we can assume that we are finally in the clear again as far as freezing temperatures go. The four months of “could be winter” in between are always up to individual preference and determination. It’s one of those things that keeps Terlingua living exciting.

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LinkTap Pty., Ltd., Australia, Frequently Asked Questions, 2015-2022,!/, All Rights Reserved

Southbound Sandhill Cranes

I love this game! It is usually sometime around Thanksgiving that I hear the distant sound of the honks. Stop.
What is that noise?
Look in the sky, they can be difficult to spot against the blue.
An unmistakable V-shaped formation. It is the Sandhill Cranes.
Consider the date, November 5th. Is that early this year and does that mean a cold winter?

Getting in the Fall Spirit

This time of year we are all well aware that the season is changing. The days are getting shorter, the North wind is pushing it’s way into town with a coolness not felt for months, and there is a stream of cars driving South on highway 118 as the transient souls who live out the summer months in far away Northern climes return to re-claim their own patch of the dirt lot. It is fall in Terlingua and the chili cook-off posters are up in the store windows. (There are two chili cook-offs, both claiming to be the original, one and only, international championship….a story I need not delve into, you can google it and come up with a few different variations as to why two?) Regardless, the chili cook-offs (along with Shelby Mustangs) are what put the modern version of Terlingua on the map and hence, one of the reasons each and every one of those transient souls including myself and possibly your own self too eventually made it down to claim our own patch of the dirt lot. These facts are Terlingua ancestry, just as much as cinnabar mining and State or National Parks.

What autumn in Terlingua is certainly not well known for is leaf-peeping, the term for loading up the car and taking the scenic route in order to admire the natural display of color from the leaves of trees. There are some very valid reasons for this, they are:

  1. The chili cook-offs invite TX DPS to patrol the roads vehemently and we locals aren’t always on our best behavior when it comes to complying with all known vehicle rules and regulations
  2. Lol, not many trees

We are not completely out of luck though because we do have some decidedly terrific things working in our favor if we wanted to do some autumn leaf-peeping, they are:

  1. Scenic drives, some of the best in the country and an almost endless amount of miles to choose from.
  2. Trees in specific places
  3. Other plants that are not trees that also have leaves or other displays of fall color
    ocotillo with leaves
    Ocotillos with leaves will create fall color, Photo by Angela Linda

    Where to drive and what to see

    When I lived in North Carolina as a younger adult, leaf-peeping season was so popular that the traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway would fill the roads until it was almost not enjoyable to participate. Luckily I knew how to enjoy the season by getting off the main drag and onto the backroads. Here we don’t have this headache to worry about as the traffic even on a busy day is never too bad (yet!) so stick with the most popular routes in the State or National Parks.

    Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive down to Cottonwood campground and go hug a tree, a big cottonwood that will drop yellow leaves on you. Maybe you should bring a rake and try to make a pile or at the very least there should be enough leaves to lie down and make a leaf angel.

    close up photo of yellow leaves
    Aspen leaves, photo by Ruslan Sikunov on

    If you plan to drive around from Thursday to Saturday of the first weekend of November make sure you have all of your i’s dotted and t’s crossed on your vehicle to (hopefully) avoid getting pulled over by law enforcement. License plate lights out is a very common reason for citation and absolutely do not drive if you have been drinking alcohol.

    When you are finished lying around under the giants continue on down to the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon and see what the large stands of Coyote Willow have to offer. Even if your timing is off, spending an afternoon in the quiet shade of Santa Elena Canyon is never a disappointing affair. The Basin road is also perfect for an afternoon toodaloo and oh yeah there are lots of trees up there. If you want to get up close and personal with the slick hues of the Quaking Aspen, Madrone or Bigtooth Maples you will need to hike up one of the trails to the top, they are steep, rocky and not for strolling so prepare appropriately for a big hike ahead of time. However if leisure is more your style you can walk the very short and very sidewalked Window View trail to admire the bowl of fruity pebbles that is autumn in the Chisos Basin, absolutely no judgement from me for not being a bad-ass rim hiker.

    Chisos fall colors, photo by Joe Blowe

    Headed in the other direction, if you drive across the Terlingua Creek bridge then continue on FM 170 along the River Road to Presidio you can spot some large cottonwood and willow trees in Terlingua Creek and at Panther Canyon without the need to get out of your car. The River Road is also a good bet for thick stands of ocotillo and leatherstem which provide their own miniature display of fall leaf-peeping but you may want to walk around to enjoy the color close up.

    Ocotillo leaves turning red, photo by Brad Sutton/NPS

    What is it all for?

    We will not be putting leaf-peeping on the list as one of Brewster County’s top attractions but who cares, not everything you enjoy has to be the best you’ve ever had. Sometimes we need to stop and take a step back to remember why we are here on the Earth and to enjoy the small little pleasures and fall in Big Bend is certainly one of them. I am sure there is a good and valid reason you spend your time here reader and I emplore you to enjoy yourself. If taking a scenic drive and leaf-peeping is valuable to you and you are enjoying your time here on the planet then it is valuable to us all.


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    Fishhook Barrel Cactus

    Fishook Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus hamatacanthus

    Ferocactus hamatacanthus is know locally as a Fishhook Barrel Cactus because of the shape of the curved spines. It is one of the largest native cactus we have locally and many times grows in groups of 2 or more. They will bloom a vibrant yellow flower during the monsoon summer, mostly later than the other cactus species. They usually put off a cluster of blooms and have the ability to bloom more than once if the conditions are wet enough. Sweet redish fruits favored by desert critters follow the flowers.

    Their habitat includes a wide range in the Trans-Pecos but they are not extremely common. You may find one growing in a crevice of rock but may not find another in the same area. They don’t distinguish between volcanic or limestone soils though. The other large west Texas barrel cactus, Ferocactus wislizeni is a similar species but this is not it’s native range so should only be found in landscapes. Propagation by seed would be worth the effort as these cactus are not very abundant. Transplanting the smaller members of a group is possible as well.

    The Ethics of Wild Harvesting

    Wild harvesting of plants to propagate and use personally can be accomplished in a legal and sustainable manner. It is legal in some cases to forage seeds, berries, leaves, cones or mushrooms for personal use from public lands such as any land administered by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife or the lands designated as Parques Nacionales in Mexico but you should first contact the respective park service to ask specifics and or obtain permits.
    –Do not collect plants or plant parts from public lands without the proper procedures in place.
    –Never collect endangered, protected or sensitive species even on your own property.
    –Do not enter private lands for any purpose if you do not have permission to do so.
    –Harvest first from areas that will be disturbed by development.
    –Make sure you know your plant and can make a positive identification.
    –Never harvest the first plant you see, find the healthiest population that does not appear to have been harvested.
    –Never take more than ten percent or more than you need
    –Always ask the plant if it wants to go with you first. Yes, really.
    –Fill holes, spread the seeds of collected plants and return to the area later to monitor the effects of your harvest.

    Due Diligence When Buying Plants Online

    You will likely find some of these species for sale if you do a quick internet search. While there are many reputable sellers out there, unfortunately the plant trade can be quite a profitable endeavor for bad actors. There are laws that prevent harvesting of natural resources from public lands but poachers can often hide from law enforcement. On private lands, the practice of wild harvesting all of the plants in an area, leaving none to support future generations is not entirely illegal. International sales are difficult to monitor. Desert plants are especially vulnerable because they tend to be slow growers and may be marked as rare or exotic species, factors which influence higher prices.

    You should know where the plants you buy come from and how they were grown or harvested. Speak with the seller, a reputable seller will be able to provide you with an origin story. Avoiding wild harvested species all together is certainly an option but wild harvesting can also be accomplished sustainably. Ask the seller to explain to you their wild harvesting practices. You can also look for plants labeled field grown, seed grown, or propagated from cutting to be sure the plants were propagated ethically. As a consumer, you have more power to influence sustainable practices than any other agency on the planet.

    Attribution & Citation

    All content by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License unless otherwise noted.

    Powell, A.M., Powell, S.A, & Weedin, J.F. (2008) Cacti of Texas a Field Guide. Texas Tech University Press.


    Leatherstem, Jatropha dioica

    You may notice the naked brown “leather stems” of this shin high, clumping plant after the first frost or you may notice the green staghorn shaped leaves throughout the spring, summer and fall. The leaves under perfect conditions some years will turn lovely autumn colors before dropping off for dormancy. Jatropha dioica is known locally as leather stem but you may also hear it referred to as Sangre de Drago. When cut, these stems and roots drip a red dye that is reminiscent of blood. The sap has historically been used to “stop the flow of blood from slight wounds” (Warnock, 1970) and as an anesthetic especially for toothaches.

    Leatherstem, Jatropha dioica
    Leatherstem, Jatropha dioica

    The flowers are tiny and short lived, you may never notice when Leatherstem is in flower during the summer. The flower is followed by a fat green seed pod that contains a large seed which is easy to handle. White winged doves feed on these seeds (Warnock, 1970) I have had success propagating these seeds they don’t seem to need much special treatment.

    I have also had very good success transplanting the clumps of stems. This high success is probably due to the thick fleshy roots as those characteristics will almost always transplant better than woody roots. You can find leatherstem growing commonly around Lajitas and on the mountainsides of Terlingua Ranch. It seems to grow taller in rocky volcanic soil but is also found to grow in rocky limestone soils. I find it commonly along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park where in some instances the clumps of stems grow to above my knees.

    The Ethics of Wild Harvesting

    Wild harvesting of plants to propagate and use personally can be accomplished in a legal and sustainable manner. It is legal in some cases to forage seeds, berries, leaves, cones or mushrooms for personal use from public lands such as any land administered by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife or the lands designated as Parques Nacionales in Mexico but you should first contact the respective park service to ask specifics and or obtain permits.
    –Do not collect plants or plant parts from public lands without the proper procedures in place.
    –Never collect endangered, protected or sensitive species even on your own property.
    –Do not enter private lands for any purpose if you do not have permission to do so.
    –Harvest first from areas that will be disturbed by development.
    –Make sure you know your plant and can make a positive identification.
    –Never harvest the first plant you see, find the healthiest population that does not appear to have been harvested.
    –Never take more than ten percent or more than you need
    –Always ask the plant if it wants to go with you first. Yes, really.
    –Fill holes, spread the seeds of collected plants and return to the area later to monitor the effects of your harvest.


    All content by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License unless otherwise noted.


    Warnock, B. (1970). Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas. Sul Ross State University.

    A Guide to Using Rainwater for a Water Source

    rainstorm in Big Bend

    The single biggest mistake when harvesting rainwater is to NOT do it at all. If you don’t harvest rainwater, you are missing an opportunity to collect a vital resource that is being delivered to your house for FREE. Even if you are on city water or have a well, harvest rainwater too and water your plants with it because it is higher quality water! If you have no other source of water on your site, you must harvest rainwater so please read on.

    The Design Process

    Let’s start here with these videos. Both households depend exclusively on rainwater as their only water source and both guys do a great job at walking through their systems and explaining how the components work. Roofs, gutters, debris excluders, tanks, valves, pipes, filters, pressure components and final treatment are links in a chain of the whole system that brings water to our homesteads.

    The following guidelines when designing or upgrading your water catchment system will help to keep the chain connected and the water flowing:

    • Collect the highest quality water. Follow the Treatment Train to keep contaminates out: prevention, exclusion, sequestration, filtration, inactivation
    • If you plan to use your rainwater as a back up to Study Butte or Lajitas water there are specific regulations to consider up front.
    • Yes, you can drink rainwater if you keep it clean and filter it, it tastes wonderful.
    • Plan for future expansion
    • Gravity is energy free and works! Pumping water uphill is wasteful of energy and will reduce the lifespan of your pressure components.
    rainwater collection tanks and plumbing

    This 9,000 gallon system uses metal gutters to collect rainwater from the roof and is stored in 3- 3,000 gallon Wylie tanks each with an independent overflow. Outflow plumbing consists of Banjo Valves, PP reducing fittings, compression fittings, hdpe pipe and brass components for longevity. This piping is later buried. A top side hose bib allows for access to water at the tank as well as complete drainage of lines. Each tank can be isolated for maintenance without draining the entire system.

    Financial Incentives

    The state of Texas encourages rainwater collection by making it sales tax exempt. Section 151.355 of the Texas tax Code exempts all rainwater harvesting equipment and supplies from state sales tax. To claim this exemption, the purchaser must furnish a Tax Exemption Form 01-339 to the supplier at the time of purchase.

    Click HERE to fill out your sales tax exemption form

    Building Your System

    For the DIY, all of the materials you need for a long-term, low maintenance system can be purchased locally or online.

    You can’t throw a rock out here without hitting a welder so your collection structure should be easy enough to get built by a local. The size of your collection surface determines your storage capacity. Square footage of roof x .62 = gallons per inch of rain. Familiarize yourself with local rainfall: Rainfall Patterns in Terlingua Texas.pdf

    Wylie storage tanks (the black ones) are trucked in locally by All Energies 432-244-7656 or you can also purchase Enduraplas tanks (the tan ones) from Outwest Feed and Supply in Alpine. Water cubes or any other white or clear plastic tanks used for long term storage will grow algae and they will not last many years but they can be used for garden water if kept seperate from your house system.

    You need a solid base for your tank that is level, compacted and free from pokey things. It does not have to be concrete but can be. Most tanks will be just fine on the native compacted soil after raking or removing the rocks and sticks. If you need more material to create the base, A word of caution here on ordering a truck load of sand for your base. There are local sand dunes that are mined primarily for use as a masonry additive. It is a fine, clean, dark grey sand that is easy to get and when dumped out looks like a superior product and it is for a lot of cases. However, it has been deposited over millennia by being blown by the wind and that means it does not compact into a sturdy base. If you need to get material hauled in, there are better choices like road base or creek bed sand. Talk to the person hauling your material about what you don’t want (ie. no stucco sand aka. black sand)

    If you feel like you need help building your system I’m here to help! Please schedule a call

    On your tank you will have a 2 inch bulkhead and it needs a 2 inch Banjo valve on each tank. No PVC here! This is the first and most important link in the chain! Banjo valves are more expensive than PVC but they are built to last and the seals can be replaced when needed.

    Protect the system from freezing.

    If you have exposed pvc or copper pipes they will freeze and break, guaranteed. Insulate those pipes!
    Use a valve cover and the rest of the pipes can be buried. 6 inches of dirt is all you need for your pipes to survive a “normal” desert freeze.
    In case of exceptional freeze (ahem, 2011) here’s a tip from Dan P:
    “If you have the electrical capability, wrapping the outflow valves and any other exposed pipe surface in heat tape, followed by insulation, provides peace of mind, although there’s always the possibility that the power will go out.”

    Beyond the valve you have several options. PVC is an available and economical choice but since these components are susceptible to breakage from freezing and uv degredation, not adaptable over time and are environmentally toxic to manufacture, I personally go as far as we can beyond the valve to avoid it’s use.

    My preferred pipe material is HDPE pipe (a.k.a fast line) for the superior quality and longevity of the material, no plastic can beat it. Buy pipe from Outwest Feed and Supply in Alpine and fittings from HDPE Supply. Compression fittings first, they are more expensive than locally available barb and hose clamp fittings but they also are extremely reliable. Watch the video below to see how to use these fitttings.

    Another option for connecting fast line is socket welding. The welded pipe is the most secure attatchment for hdpe pipe. Outwest Feed and Supply in Alpine sells the weld fittings and has a welder available for rental for a very reasonable daily price if you want to go that route. I can also weld hpde pipe.

    A few more things to note about putting all of this pipe together

    • Draw your system out and count all of the elbows and tees you will need
    • Where the valve connects to the pipe, use a removable fitting such as a compression fitting or union so each tank or valve can be removed and serviced without disrupting the rest of the system.
    • A good idea is to add a hose bibb connection on the top side and bottom side so you have hose conections for a drip system, or moving water from one place to another, or shutting the system down and evacuating the line if needed.

    Pump, pressure tank, filtration and treatment are the final links in the chain. There are many different factors to consider in choosing these components and the depth of that topic will be covered in future articles. If you feel like you need professional help building your system I’m here to help! Please schedule a call or you can also call Keen Contracting on the finishing components and interior plumbing.

    Drip Irrigation

    Compared to surface irrigation which is 60% effecient and sprinklers at 75% effeciency, drip irrigation boasts a 90% effeciency rating. If that doesn’t get you excited consider that drip irrigation is also the slowest method to apply irrigation and in heavy clay soils like we have around here that means the deepest penetration of moisture into the soil, not to be wasted to evaporation into the atmosphere. Setting up a drip irrigation system in Terlingua is 100% the best way to water!

    Drip irrigation systems can seem complex to the uninitiated but they really are not if you know a few design details ahead of time but let’s get one BIG issue out of the way first:

    If you install drip irrigation correctly, you may never SEE the water that your plants are drinking and this may be a hard concept to embrace.

    We humans have lived our whole lives training our subconsious to derive satisfaction from watching droplets of water fly through the air and onto plant’s leaves, the soil, the mulch, and sometimes the sidewalk. Ah, the smell of rain or the sprinkle from a hose is so lovely and cooling that the plant must love it too! But the truth is the plant can’t smell, it only wants to drink, and all that water flying through the air is for human enjoyment only. When you drip irrigate, you cannot SEE the water. Your subconscious will fight you and tell you that it is not working, that your plants are not getting the water they need!!! You have to fight your subconscious back and watch the behaviour of your plants to know if your watering schedule is correct. This is hands down, the hardest part of drip irrigation, trusting the process.

    Now onto the important design considerations to start with:

    • Water source must be clean, first time use water, not greywater. (Check out Working with Greywater Sources for more info)
    • Drip Irrigation requires backflow prevention. If you click on that link I promise you will learn everything needed to know about backflow prevention. You can skip learning and just read on about what to buy, but you must promise me that you will use backflow prevention.
    • Pressurized water is the easiest to implement although gravity fed systems will work too with some differing considerations. The two sections below address differences in pressurized vs. gravity fed systems.
    • Thirsty desert critters will try and sometimes succeed to get to the water in your lines so it is important to protect and occasionally check your lines and it’s also nice to put out a shallow drinking dish for the critters too.

    What about soaker hoses aren’t they just as good? No–they work for a while (maybe 2 years) and then you will toss them in the trash, they clog up, they split open and are not as effecient as the pinpoint accuracy of drip irrigation.

    Basics of an irrigation system:
    A hard piped irrigation system that uses a hardwired multi-zone controller, 24v solenoid valves, underground piping, laterals, risers, and heads is a yard disturbing and expensive system to install and is most often used for lawn sprinklers. They can also run drip irrigation but the cost is complete overkill for the benefits, plus no one should have a lawn out here anyway. These systems are ultimately wasteful of resources and it really doesn’t fit into context in Terlingua. There are only a few of these systems in existence in South County, most of them in Lajitas (makes since right?)
    Most households will be interested in the cheaper and easier to install irrigation system that starts with an outdoor hose bibb. All of the remaining information assumes we are building the system off of an outdoor hose bibb. No hose bibbs? Contact your local plumber Josh Keenan and he will hook some up for you.

    Building the system: Pressurized Systems

    Sustainable Terlingua is locally run and reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. But you don’t have to buy anything to support more local content like this, you can also leave a tip. We appreciate ya!

    Let’s jump right in with parts buying at I buy my main supplies from them, they are consistant, quick to ship and send you candy. (plus they sell kits) In addition, there are informative how-to videos and tutorials on their site if you need to learn more.

    If you would rather shop in an actual store, Rain Bird parts can be purchased at True Value Garden Center in Alpine. Most pieces are essentially the same but I don’t like the Rain Bird connectors as much because they can be almost impossible to reuse. I have certainly stabbed myself in the hand trying to cut a tube piece out of a $1 connector, not worth it! However, an actual store is especially convenient when you need to grab a few pieces quickly.

    For the main connection to the hose bibb you will need these parts in order, clicking the links will take you to the exact part.

    Any discussion needed on these parts? Why of course, yes! let’s start with timers.

    The cheapest solution of all, the manual timer, based on the mechanics of the dial and spring, they run about $10. I’m happy to report that they work as intended until the plastic eventually breaks down in the sun but at least failure should not lead to catastrophic water or plant losses. You do have to turn the dial to make it come on but the good news is that you don’t have to remember to turn it off, it ticks along until the spring turns back to 0 and the door closes and the water shuts off. There is still room for error from freezing or general breakdown but if you have to walk over and turn the thing on, then you are likely to walk around and admire your plants and then more likely to check your emitters too which needs to happen occasionally and then you are just as likely to notice a total breakdown in your $10 timer as well. So this is my most recommended timer, the cheap yet reliable one. This recommendation only applies if you are living at your house full time. If you leave for the summer, you need to pick a different option.

    The next level of timers are automatic timers that run from $20 to $70 depending on options. There are a plethora of different brands but most are based on the same type of actuator. Some have a solar panel for recharging the battery, which I like a lot. Most have an LCD display for setting your watering time and frequency and are pretty easy to set up and use. I have used many, many different types because every one of them has broken or malfunctioned and then I switch to a new brand to see if maybe this one will last longer. So far, I cannot recommend one over the other as I have never had one last for more than 2 edit: 3 years. In the worst case scenario, the electronic malfunction kept resetting the time so that the water never turned off! causing flooding across the road and a high water bill for the owner. (ok, I’ll say it, It was an ORBIT timer that did this!) What I can recommend is that if you use one of these “automatic” timers, consistantly check to make sure it is coming on and going off as it is supposed to. Wow, not so automatic then but it will do when you need to leave town for a vacation.

    Powered by the sun, this wi-fi connected timer is insanely feature rich. I have been using these for my clients that have second homes (ie. they do not manage the lanscape, I do.) I now have 8 of them running and it is so far so good. I’m talking about the Netro Pixie, btw. Everything is controlled through the free app which means I can change watering schedules without setting foot on the property. Plus the settings are highly configurable, much more so than the not so smart timers. The watering schedules change based on the local weather so in many ways they are just set it and forget it timers, check in on the app occasionally and make sure everything is rolling well.

    Speaking of checking in, the biggest problem I have had with these timers is a that low wi-fi signal knocks them offline and then they do not water if they cannot connect. Bummer, just be sure you can really get a strong wi-fi signal at your hose bibb before investing in one of these.

    Moving along, WHY A pressure regulator only for Study Butte or Lajitas water? Because realistically, that water system is the only one capable of creating enough pressure to damage your water system and blow your fittings apart. If you are on a well or off grid, you are likely safe from this problem, but you can add a pressure regulator if it makes you feel better.

    You should definitely use a screen filter before the water goes into the tube, and a flush valve at the end of the tube, even if you have a filter on your water already, this is extra protection for the emitters. There is no advantage in skipping these parts and letting the emitters clog up with gunk. The screen filter is cleanable and there is nothing more to buy later so just add it.

    Tubes and emitters

    I am going to tell you what I use and don’t use with a little bit of the why.
    I use a 3/4 inch mainline and branch off to 1/2 inch drip line with 0.5 gph emitters built in at 24 inch spacing. This is a one size fits all solution that works in almost every situation. 3/4 line has a maximum run of 400 feet and 1/2 line has a maximum run of 200 feet so theoretically I can cover an area around 80,000 square feet off of one hose bibb with this combination. (number of emitters contingent of course) You could use only 1/2 inch but the reasons that I don’t are: A) 3/4 matches the size of the hose bibb connections and allows for a higher flow rate throughout the whole system. B) I use a barb takeoff connector to connect the 1/2 to the 3/4. The barb takeoff uses a large punch and easily snaps right into the larger mainline. I like this system for speed and ease of putting it together.

    I rarely use any smaller line like 1/4 inch because it is much harder to work with all the tiny line and the tiny connetions AND the bunnies eat it.

    drip line withe emitter built in whooch can be buried
    Drip Line with emitters built in which can be buried underground (Photograph courtesy USDA)

    24 inch spacing for emitters?? Yes, counterintuitive to what may be rational thinking that this is the desert and the spacing should be closer together, since we have such high clay soils, the water travels much further laterally than in sandy soil. 24 inch is just a general spacing though. Loose soil needs closer spaced emitters so if you have a raised garden bed with a lovely amended loam you might want to space emitters closer together. You can get the same pre-built drip line in other configurations such as 1.0 gph at 12 inch spacing.

    Having the emitters built into the line is just another speed, versatility and convenience preference. I buy pressure compensating drip line so it can be used on flat or hilly ground and can also be buried. The individual emitters that you punch in the line should never be buried and hence are not as protected from the world.

    Don’t forget the various elbows, tees, couplings and maybe more that you will need to put the pipes together. Perma-loc fittings are my go to for ease of use and reuse, but you can get cheaper ones. You can do what ever you like!

    A lot of these choices come down to personal preference, experiment and find what works for you. Drip irrigation systems save so much water and time that the effort and money spent is completely worth it so just do it!

    I buy my drip irrigation supplies from I have been doing business with them since 2019.

    DIY Irrigation Supplies

    Building the system: Gravity Feed Systems

    Now most of the basics are the same but we have to take our shopping list and modify it slightly, clicking the links will take you to the exact part.

    Let us begin again with the discussion of timers. Err… the one timer that you can use.

    You have very limited options and the reason for this is all in the type of valve. Most timers require at least 20 psi for the valve to operate properly and most peole have pressurized water so it is no big deal. It took a company to make a completely different valve mechanism to make gravity flow timers work. The Irritec Zero Pressure Timer uses a motorized ball valve that physically opens a hole to let water through. It works with zero pressure! Well it wouldn’t actually work with zero pressure but close enough.

    After the timer, obviously don’t need the pressure regulator and we can eliminate the filter to preserve flow rate. But I already said the filter is needed to keep the emitters from clogging up! Don’t worry, we aren’t using the same emitters for gravity feed. Eliminate that elbow too, keep all the runs as straight and as short as possible to preserve flow rate.

    Tubes and Emitters

    3/4 mainline is the way to go here, the more water in the line the more pressure behind it. This is one of the few instances where I will use small tube. The best emitter for this system is an adjustable emitter which can help restrict the flow down to a drip. If it clogs you can unscrew the top and clear the line. You will need a small punch tool for attaching a barb and 1/4 inch tubing to the mainline. All other emitters create too much resistance and you won’t get any water out.

    Drip irrigation used on vineyards in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico (Photo by Jeff Vanuga, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)

    It will take some adjustments to get all of this right as gravity flow is sensitive to even tiny elevation changes. Just keep working on the details and adjusting to get exactly what you want. Don’t forget the goof plugs if you need to change a line’s location.


    Drip Irrigation is a very effecient way of watering and can save a lot of water over the long run so it is worth the investment. There are several different ways to set up the systems so it is wise to draw out a diagram and make a parts list before you buy. If you just love to read and want to read some more about gravity feed irrigation click the following link and open up a wormhole into an even more extensive discussion of all things irrigation, starting with gravity feed systems. ***Irrigation Tutorials*** If you need additional help with outdoor plumbing call our local plumber Josh Keenan and he can help you. If you have any questions or want to talk more with Jenny about drip irrigation you can schedule a call.

    Post featured image of drip irrigation and carrots by Matthew.kowal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License