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 terlinguasolar@gmail.com 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. You can buy online at the link above or call me at 432-371-2501 to get one. The hardware stores do not carry these valves and although Outwest Feed does, it will be the most expensive route.

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

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Let’s jump right in with parts buying at DripDepot.com 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 dripdepot.com 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.

Conclusion

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


Working with greywater sources

Greywater is defined as water that has already been used in a household water supply that does not come from the toilet. (Toilet water is blackwater) Water from sinks, showers and washing machines qualify as greywater. It is too dirty for people and pets to drink but not too dirty for plants to drink as the plants are able to filter out the nasty from the water and just use the good stuff. A properly designed greywater system in essence, is a biological filter for your home’s wastewater.

Creating a greywater distribution system can be very simple. A bucket under a handwashing sink catches the draining water, at the end of the day you take the bucket out and dump the water onto a tree. That’s it! The concept relies entirely upon redirecting the greywater that would have otherwise ended up in a wastewater system onto a secondary source such as a shade tree, that can then add further value to a home.

But it does not stop there, the concept can be refined and elaborated upon to create a system that works time and time again without any additional user input and requires minimal maintenance. These are the systems that I design and install and it just takes a little more information from the basics to get there.

Construction of wetland for cleaning and distributing high amounts of laundry water
Construction of wetland for cleaning and distributing high amounts of laundry water

Important Safety Considerations

First off, greywater is only one step away from blackwater, ie. poo poo water, so we need to address and understand some health and saftey concerns and state regulations before beginning the design. Texas is not a highly regulated state but there are in fact, state regulations regarding the distribution of greywater, mostly regarding spetic tank sizing. That should tell you something right there about the importance of a correct design. The State of New Mexico also has some additional regulations that are worth reading as they are more specific about the actual practices of using the greywater.

An interesting point to note about Texas and New Mexico regulations is that a common source of greywater, the kitchen sink, is NOT allowed in greywater reuse systems. Think for a minute about everything that might end up in a kitchen sink like animal blood, grease and larger pieces of vegetables. What if you just did an oil change on your car and you need to wash up? Having the kitchen sink drain to the septic helps keep potentially toxic water out of the greywater system and out of the biological filter that you are building in your greywater treatment plan.

Pro Tip

If you are happy to DIY then I highly recommend to buy this book by Art Ludwig, there is no better resource with regards to greywater technology. Create an Oasis with Greywater
Most of my designs are based entirely upon or modified slightly from the concepts in this book and Art’s decades of experience in greywater systems. For immediate satisfaction you can browse the site OasisDesign.net to dig deeper into the information.

First things to consider

The following are expectation checks for Terlingua greywater systems just to get you started before you start designing.

  • Designs are best before construction begins. A newly conceived outdoor shower or washroom is an excellent candidate for greywater reuse. An existing fully plumbed in-slab system that drains to septic is not.
  • If you leave your homestead for several months at a time, create a backup plan for the plants that depend on your greywater system. This could mean a neighbor using your clothes washer or a system designed only for annuals.
  • Our soil is salty and alkaline and greywater irrigation increases the salinity by the addition of pee, sweat and soaps (yes you do pee in the shower and almost all “natural” cleaners contain sodium laurel sulfate) Soil quality will degrade over time without periodic flushing of salts or replacement of all soil, only conceivable in a containerized bed.
  • Grewater is best if it infiltrates the soil immediately, holding onto greywater by draining into a holding tank or letting it pool at the surface is not good practice.

Should you grow food with greywater?

The chance of contamination from greywater goes up the less water is filtered and the closer it comes to your mouth. The best practice is to leave greywater for growing shade, not food. You should balace your risk tolerance on a scale of 1-10.
1 (least risk) = using greywater for sub surface watering of landscape plants
10 (most risk) = directly pouring greywater on lettuce plants and not washing the leaves before fixing a salad.
Somewhere in between is using greywater for an edible fruit tree such as a pomegranate– you must be the judge and I will make no claim that I told you either or.

garlic
Garlic grown with pure rainwater only

Conclusion

Data compiled by the EPA indicates that, as a national average, landscape irrigation is by far the largest single use of water at both residential and commercial sites, using 59% and 35% of water, respectively (EPA, 2013) In hot climates, outdoor use ranges from 59%-67% compared to 22-38% in cooler climates (AWWA, 1999). There is no doubt that water is our most precious resource so if we can use rainwater and use it twice then we can achieve a much greater efficiency in our landscapes. Using greywater to water roots, which then grows to provide shade to our living areas just makes perfect sense.

Things you should know when developing a piece of land in South Brewster County

desert hills and scrub

You bought a tract of land in South Brewster County and you want to make it your home, your get away, your hunt camp, your oasis, where do you start? Start by observing the land, it will answer so many of your questions if you take the time to listen and observe. How does the land roll, what are the differences in elevation changes? Are the Mesquite trees taller than you and have a mature canopy or are they spread out wide and close to the ground? Is there any grass, where does it grow? Are there places that water pools, did you find any tracks in deep hardened mud? Are there completely bare areas with no vegetation at all? Ok, I could go on forever with this line of questioning but the point is to learn your property by observation, and you will learn more than anyone can tell you about things.

Likely the first thing you will want to do is to create some sort of shade if you don’t have any already. Observe the land, try to determine where the water runs when it does rain. That tall Mesquite tree looks wonderful to use as shade but there is a reason it is so tall. Thick stands of grass can only mean one thing, the rain may collect there and may NOT be the spot where you would want to build anything.

When you are ready to develop, don’t assume that anyone takes the land as seriously as you or I do. Bull dozers will scrape the land clean, bury your landscaping plants. Welders will lay metal on your bushes. The telephone company will drive over your creosotes. Plan for destruction and act before it happens. Walk, observe and transplant any valuable plants into pots or away from your build site before doing anything else. And if you don’t know what to do, please call me before any heavy equipment arrives on site. Too many rare, special, incredibly old or valuable plants are killed every year by land clearning.

Preventing erosion of newly formed land features is pretty important too. A new road cuts the land differently than before, a new flat cut bank on a house site needs further attention so the vegetation can grow back and hold the soil in place. The more extensive the erosion the more costly the repair so it is important to act as soon as you can to correct any problems.

At this homesite we applied a base layer of a geotextile ground grid anchored with rebar to the side of a newly buried septic tank.

geotextile

The pockets in the ground grid were filled with a light growing medium and seeded with a native wildflower and grass mixture. We installed drip irrigation and covered the slope with rolled burlap and stone rip rap.

slope
burlap

In a few years, there should be many soil holding native plants putting roots out and further stabalizing the network of anchors.

rip rap

For whatever type of land restoration we are doing there will be plants involved. The plant roots are the binder that hold the soil together and so it is very important to choose the appropriate plants for the application and to focus on proper establishment of those plants so that they create healthy, extensive root systems and eventually thrive all on their own without supplemental irrigation. Drip Irrigation systems are ideal and most successful for this purpose but there are other methods that we can employ if drip irrigation is not feasable. Alternative Irrigation Systems for Arid Land Restoration.pdf explains several different ways to establish native desert plants including watering by hand.

The Soil

Soil is a product of climate, landscape, organisms, parent materials, and time. Generally we could say that our soil is going to be alkaline, heavy in clay and low in organic matter. What you might want to know next is the percentage and composition of soil components, the ratios of sand, silt and clay. There is a pretty easy and fun way to do a soil texture test and that is the mason jar test. Once you do the mason jar test you will have a better idea on what you have to start with.

Pro Tip

Don’t let silt fool you into thinking it is clay. Silt and clay are both extremely fine textured soils and it is very hard to determine with the naked eye which one is which. The mason jar test will make it apparent what your porportions are as the silt will settle out within 30 minutes but the clay will take much longer to settle.

Now you know the composition of your soil what do you do with it? Is it around 30% clay and a good ratio for making adobe brick, cob or earthen plaster? If it is not the perfect mix could you add more sand or straw or clay? Get your hands dirty and make a few test bricks, is this fun for you? If it is fun then you should keep exploring using the soil as a building material, if it is NOT fun then definitely move on because building with Earth is labor intensive and it is a big commitment.

Building soil for growing

All soils need more organic matter to support new life. Organic matter clusters the fine clay into crumbs, leaving more space for air and water. It acts as an underground sponge and holds onto water longer than the surrounding soil and increases the biological activity of the soil. Organic matter is the #1 additive to build your soil in just about any climate except for the rain forest. Go forth and find and collect organic matter!: leaves, hay, donkey poop, grass clippings, cardboard, potting soil, sawdust, tree bark shavings, shredded paper, coffee grounds, your neighbor’s coffee grounds.

Pro Tip

Do you know this ONE EASY TRICK to get FREE organic matter? It’s just lying there in the arroyos, creeks, and rivers.
I was able to collect 60 gallons of pure organic matter from this creek at a single location after a flood. When it floods again, it replenishes itself. Do not go onto land that is not yours without permission, that would be stealing, but look around your land and see if you can find some brown gold!

collecting organic matter from flood

Now that you have collected some free organic matter what do you do with it? There are some questions to ask yourself first:

  1. Is there any chance that this organic matter could be from a poisonous source?
    Is it from treated or painted wood? Does it contain datura, oleander, sago palm or any other plant know to be poisonous to animals?
    If yes, put it in the elimination pile and bury it. The elimination pile lives where there will never be any food grown and no domestic animals can get to it.
    If no, proceed to next question
  2. Are there any thorns, glochids or cactus spines in this organic matter?
    If yes, it goes into a pile that is designated for pokey things, this pile will sit for a long time before we finally do anything with it.
    If no, proceed to next question
  3. Does this organic matter contain poop from any domestic animal?
    If yes, it goes into the HOT COMPOST pile or gets directly buried in a planting hole for a non-edible perennial tree or shrub
    If no, proceed to next question
  4. Is there any chance that this organic matter contains invasive weed seeds?
    If yes, it goes into the HOT COMPOST pile or gets directly buried in a planting hole for any perennial tree or shrub.
    If no, it goes to the cold passive compost pile for later building the hot compost.

As you can imagine I have several different holding areas for organic matter because you never know when you are going to strike it rich with brown gold. These different holding areas I have placed specifically for future plans of certain garden areas or trees. So even though I am not ready to plant yet, I’m still working on building the soil where I want my future gardens to live.

For additional information on building soil, check out these two articles by John Cappadonna: Compost and Composting Hot or Not

True story: I happend to be in Alpine in the fall with a completely empty 15 passenger van, and happened to drive by the courthouse where they had stacked bags upon bags upon bags of leaves raked up from the lawn. Well it did not take long to find the person who told me YOU CAN TAKE ALL YOU WANT! So I stuffed the entire van full of bagged leaves, smooshing the bags into the doors as I shut them, there was only room left for me to drive. What a score that was! (and free trash bags to boot)

If you work at building your soil you can have some really beautiful gardens here. From native landscaping to veggie gardens, the soil is the most important part. It is a slow process and it takes some years before you can say you have truly changed the desert into a garden. However if you skip this step and plant things without building the soil it is like painting over duct tape, it may look okay for a while but it will never work long term. Take the opportunity to visit the Terlingua Community Garden in the Ghostown if you have not visited in a while. What was once a junkyard in 2006 has been turned into a food producing oasis simply by building the soil.

Things to avoid adding to your garden soil

  • Egg shells, increases the calcium levels of the soil
  • Lime, used to raise the pH of acidic soils, we don’t need it here
  • Wood Ash, same use as lime, we don’t need it
  • Table salt, sodium laurel sulfate based cleaners, increases sodium levels

Soil compaction

is also something we want to avoid, not only does it hurt your back, it hurts the plants too. Without getting into too much science here, compacted soil impedes gas flow from the soil leading to potentially toxic levels of CO2 gas locked underground. Plant roots need oxygen but they can’t get it because of the compacted soil and eventually the plant may die if the situation is not corrected.

Here is an example of this in real life. We put roads in on our property in 2012 and I made an effort to put the road in a place where we would not have to remove several mature ocotillos. I began to notice about 2 years ago that one right beside the road was not looking so great. It was not one of the oldest ones and should not be dying of old age just yet and I began to suspect that the soil compaction of the road, over the root zone of the ocotillo was making it die. Of course I could not convince my other half that we should move it. About a year later we had a severe storm with high winds and sure enough, it toppled to it’s complete death. Not only that, wow! we lost 3 ocotillos at the same time, all toppled by the wind and consequently, they were all right beside the road. Well now that I have made this mistake, you don’t have too.

Conclusion

Think about the impacts of development, erosion, compaction and soil fertility as you design your space. If there is a place where you want to plant a tree later, mark it off now so that no one drives there and compacts the soil. Put your collected organic matter in that spot and start building soil instead of decreasing soil fertiliy. It takes a while to build a homestead from raw desert land but the little bits of progress add up and eventually you will get there.