• Not in Anyone’s Backyard! Critical Public Hearing 6/9

    The Santa Fe City Council will vote June 9 on a proposed telecommu-nications law. If it passes, the ordinance will authorize hundreds of antennae towers to be built all over town. The problem is that if your house happens to be near a new cell tower, the signal will be so strong that your health could be negatively impacted. These would not be the kind of low-grade signals that emanate from your typical Wi-Fi. The waves associated with the system will have to travel to your distant neighbor’s home at the other end of your street many blocks away. Do Santa Feans really want to risk the health of our entire community in a Guinea-pig style test? If you question the antenna-tower approach in the same way that you wonder if we trust our technology too much (in light of, say, the Gulf oil disaster), please attend this hearing.




    Please also call your city councilors before the hearing, and let your concerns be made known. I will make my calls but will be unable to attend the hearing. For more information contact:

    Arthur Firstenberg
    PO Box 6216]
    Santa Fe, NM 87502
    (505) 471-0129


  • Sorrel Tortillas Make Perfect Home-Grown Burritos!

    Stepping out of our back door, the first thing you might see is a huge patch of sorrel, the leafy green that most people have no idea what to do with. On line, you’ll find lots of recipes for sorrel soup and sorrel punch (a favorite Caribbean rum drink), but its too strong to put large quantities into a salad. Steamed-green dishes featuring sorrel can be incredibly tasty, but in too-large doses its simply overwhelming. A great substitute for both salt and vinegar, sorrel has a lemony taste that quickly makes your mouth pucker if you eat too much of it.


    One of the best uses of sorrel is as the tortilla part of a burrito (or for all ya’all on the other side of the Mississippi, the wrap part of a wrap). This week, I been making scrambled egg burritos, pinto bean burritos, and farmers-market-beef-mushroom-garlic-red-chile burritos. They’ve all been wheat free, full of minerals, perfectly flavorful, and wrapped in a delicious dark-green package from just outside the kitchen door.

  • Dog Bites Me. (Is It Hubris to Be a Talking Mime?)

    Almost anyone who has had me as a landscape consultant knows that I have a tendency to pretend to be a future tree, bush, rock, pathway, or any number of physical objects.  Picture a much-too-talkative pantomime. I do this to help people visualize what they will get when we are “done” with the project. (Picasso said, “to say a work of art is ‘done’ is to kill it,” and I say this is even more true outdoors than in a studio.)


    But there I was yesterday, minding my new clients’ business. Dogs were barking behind a tall iron fence. The clients were calmly telling them to be quiet. I’d seen it before. Having been introduced to Apollo and Max, lovingly I said, “Hello,” to them, but then quickly ignored the two pooches and started consulting about the desperate need for shade trees in the area. The thought of being able to use their kitchen patio in the daytime—not just morning and night—made my clients’ eyes light up, so I soon transitioned into how a vine against the fence would help make the dogs more comfortable, too.


    Turning quickly, as I often do in talking-pantomime mode, I wagged my ass just a little to show how a trumpet vine (with flowers as big as my branched-out hands) might wiggle up a post. Suddenly Apollo, the German Sheppard bit my right butt-cheek, dead center. Although no blood excreted from my fatty flesh, and even though I was able to finish the consultation and bike back from my clients’ home not far from Lone Butte, my cheek is still swore as I write this the next morning.


    My clients apologized profusely and said they were surprised because he’d never done that before. When they later said they almost never entertain people in their backyard and certainly not near the dog fence, I started to take the offense less personally. But still one has to ask? Was the universe trying to send me some message? Is is wrong to make a living as a talking pantomime?

  • For Bike Safety & Sake of Ocean: Take to the Streets!

    Since I often bike my kids to school, Little Earth, where Keenan goes, asked me to speak to the student body about “Bike Safety for Kids.” As one would in a “Bike Safety for Adults” class, we went over the critical themes: be aware, be visible, be equipped, be careful. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the big difference is that people 9 and under are typically safer on the sidewalk, while people 10 and up should ride on the street. This, of course, depends on the child, the neighborhood, and sometimes even the time of day, but it’s very true that almost every cyclist should take to the streets. As driveways pop out behind bushes and concrete slabs get lifted up by tree roots, sidewalks translate into danger. The biggest problem is that no one is expecting fast-moving humans on the sidewalk. If you wear bright colors, out on the street everyone can see you, instantly judge your speed, and be sure to stay away. For more information on kids safety and the sidewalk/street debate, here’s a good place to get started:




    I wrapped up my talk by asking the kids, “Why is it a good idea to ride a bicycle?” Three answers quickly came from the raised hands in the crowd: It’s fun, great exercise, and it helps save the world. That about sums it up, but it also provides kids with a sense of independence that is very important given their now-sheltered lives that are too often scheduled to the minute by grown ups.


    On a recent ride down Don Gaspar Avenue, Keenan screamed from the tag-along bike that he sits on (firmly attached to mine), “We’re Ocean Savers, Dad!” I liked that very much…By riding our bikes this kid—not knowing at all how far away the ocean is or how essential it will prove to be in his lifetime—knew that for at least a little while we were doing our part to protect the ocean from all of that nastiness he’s heard about in the Gulf. For him, the act of biking became even more than mere independence. It became a kind of moral empowerment that makes an eco-freak daddy like me proud.

  • Synergy Pervades a Journey Home in Oshara Village

    It couldn’t have happened to anybody, but it happened to my friend Diego Mulligan at a new-urbanist village called “Oshara.” One minute he’s on a backhoe excavating a two-foot-deep footer for his solar dream home. The next minute he’s digging a nine-foot-deep hole for the ceremonial kiva that he’s always wanted.


    So what if such a diversion wasn’t on the plans?


    A kiva is a cylindrical hole in the ground with a roof on it. Used by Pueblo Indians of the Southwest for centuries, you typically enter and exit a kiva via a ladder.  Embedded within the Earth, a good kiva will exude healing powers while providing spiritual strength to those who enter.


    Getting final approval for the addendum to his plans cost Diego countless hours of sweat equity, but in the end he and his wife Jen were able to have their kiva for a mere $10 per square foot. I had a wonderful experience touring their unfinished house and kiva the other day. Down in the hole, you feel a profound vibe. The acoustics are remarkably soothing, gentle and powerful at the same time. Then, in the quiet, calm protection of the place, my soul suddenly felt grounded and clear in a way that’s mostly unfamiliar to me.


    The couple named their future home The Synergy House because it is designed so that every component serves multiple functions. From the solarium and the root cellar to the composting toilet and the cistern, this affordable home may be one of the most ecological structures I’ve ever seen (and as an ecological landscape designer, I see lots of structures). Perhaps more importantly, it looks as if the house might become one of the most comfortable structures that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.


    When their home is complete, Diego and Jen will broadcast their popular afternoon drive-time radio show from a circular studio located directly over the kiva. “The Journey Home” can be found at www.ksfr.org or from 5:00pm to 6:00pm on the FM dial (at 101.1 anywhere between Taos and Albuquerque). I’m sure it will be a challenging journey for both of them as their building site evolves into a famous eco-home, but now that their kiva is complete, their personal journey home will have a reasonably dependable fountainhead of inspiration—thanks to a bolt of creative confidence and the strength to follow through.

  • Army Gets Permaculture Training before Deployment

    I had an inspiring chat with a national guardswoman this morning at the farmers’ market. Specialist Kennedy was taking a permaculture class at Camino de Paz School and Farm (CPSF), and she would soon be deployed to Afghanistan for 11 or 12 months. Unlike the unfunny joke about the soldier who meets interesting people in far-out places and kills them, Kennedy was planning to do the opposite.

    Today, she was helping out behind CPSF’s booth at the market. Tomorrow, she’ll be feeding chickens, weeding crops, spinning wool, making soap out of goat’s milk, and doing whatever it is women in dry, mountainous places do in order to survive. The plan is to send in Kennedy and her team of 14 agricultural specialists to rebuild communities that have been in a state of war for the better part of three decades.

    I was no fan of President Obama’s decision to increase troop sizes in such a challenging theater, but our commander in chief’s choice of Kennedy and her team seems like the best one he could have made given the historic failures of foreign invaders in the area. It could have even been the first-ever example of military intelligence but for one small detail: We ought to be doing the same thing here in the United States, and we are nowhere near doing so.

    Compared to the average Afghani, very few people in our modern culture have a clue as to how to grow our own food and produce our own energy. Fortunately, we are slowly pulling our heads out of the sand on the issue, but our situation is as precarious as they come, and most people are decades away from fully getting it.

    The good news is that those of us doing sustainability-based work in the “civilized” world do not need an additional 50 people in our team to serve as security forces for our socioecological missions. On average, Kennedy said, her agricultural colleagues and she get four bodyguards a piece to keep the peace on the farm/battlefield.

    I didn’t ask Kennedy her age, but my guess is that she is easily 20 years younger than I. I didn’t ask her weight, but she was easily 60 pounds lighter than I. She must be strong because including body armor, she’ll often be carrying about 70 pounds of gear. Me? Tomorrow when I hop into the garden to finish a drip irrigation project, I’ll be burdened by about five to seven pounds of tools, materials, and clothes (depending on if I choose shoes or work boots).

    When the sun gets hot tomorrow around mid morning, and I think I’ve had enough time out in the backyard, I hope the thought of Kennedy—her worthy mission, her dangerous surroundings, and her 70 pounds of stuff—comes to mind. Maybe then I’ll be motivated to push even harder toward a more digestible backyard.

  • Getting Outside = First Step toward Gradual Greening

    My former neighbor Mari Hahn just sent me this helpful question coupled with a gradual-greening update from lovely, wet, and green Indiana:


    Hi Nate,

    Is this where I write my 10 minutes of green stuff?

    Today I hauled all my neglected houseplants outside to repot and trim and fertilize and water. They will spend the summer out on the deck, literally greening our space out there.

    Hope you’re well!



    Dear Mari:

    Glad you found the “Share Here” button! I know it’s odd to be happily bouncing around a colorful blog only to realize that to “Share Here” means to send a decidedly unglamorous email. Sorry!


    YES! Yours is probably the most fundamental of all gradual-greening activities, namely, drawing people out into their backyards, side yards, or front yards. We must start by simply enjoying the world as it is, without the protection of shelter and climate control and without the meaningless distractions we get from television, YouTube, facebook, and most corners of the blogosphere.


    Especially during this growing season, I hope you, Doug, and the kids get to enjoy many magical moments out on your deck and that you bring your friends and neighbors into the abundance of your life outside the four walls of your home. I remember your veggie garden when you braved the challenging soils of Santa Fe. Are you planning to harvest some edibles this year?


    Thanks for sharing!


  • Saturday Mourning and the Peace of Wild Things

    Melissa waltzed right by the Kleenex boxes sitting on a music stand in the middle of the aisle. I hesitated. She had her hanky, but all I had was a day full of gardening and feeling pretty darn brave about Gail Ryba’s death. A brilliant, energetic, and highly effective clean-energy activist departed this world too soon, leaving behind a loving husband and a wonderful young daughter. She grew edibles in her garden; she kept bees and chickens; she even made possible the bike trail that Melissa and I had just ridden to get to her memorial service.


    “Nah,” I thought as I walked on. “Tissues are for sissies.”


    Unfortunately, I forgot to consider how inspiring the story of Gail’s life would be. We heard from a best friend, two close colleagues, and her two brothers. In his or her own way, each described the urgent need to intensify our struggle for a world of more bikes, solar panels, and windmills, and no more desecrations like the one going on and on and on in the Gulf of Mexico. I think I first started getting the sniffles when I realized that Gail went into hospice about the time that revolting sea-bottom oil-spew began. Gail had fought long and hard for a year-and-a-half with a very rare form of cancer, and I guess I wished she didn't have to live to see the day of such hideousness.


    The spew started around the 40th Earth Day, and this will likely elevate the day’s importance during the years to come, but it might also drive some of us to despair. That’s why, it seemed to me, her brother Dave summed up the service with this poem by Wendell Berry:


    The Peace of Wild Things

    When despair for the world grows in me
    and I wake in the night at the least sound
    in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
    I go and lie down where the wood drake
    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
    I come into the peace of wild things
    who do not tax their lives with forethought
    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
    And I feel above me the day-blind stars
    waiting with their light. For a time
    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


    We can use sad times to our benefit. Grief has a purpose. Despair can provide unexplainable opportunity to cherish life. Gail would want us to understand this benefit in these tough times, to find this grace of purpose and to discover the freedom that comes with the opportunity to try to live up to her high standard.

  • Black Box Dept.: What Might the Gulf Spill Reveal?


    My friend Steve Schmidt sent me this story he wrote for Roll Call magazine. He figured out that there should be more data (evidence) as to what went on just before the catastrophe in the Gulf. Supposedly, real-time or close to real-time information exists, and the question becomes who is hiding it and why?




    Thanks to Steve’s investigative reporting, a media frenzy will hopefully ensue and we will soon know a lot more. In the meantime, it’s off to the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, backpack on my back, bike tires full of air, and heart full of hope that this outrageous disaster prompts much better regulation and monitoring of oil and gas wells under the sea and below the surface of the Earth (where they often pollute underground sources of freshwater with much less fanfare than what we are seeing today in the Gulf).

  • As Newspapers Struggle, “Green Fire Times” Thrives

    I’ve been impressed with Santa Fe’s newest eco-periodical since it sprouted up a year ago, and the current issue is a total gem. It simply overflows with inspirational information and positive solutions. You can read a PDF here http://greenfiretimes.com/ or pick up a physical copy in the Santa Fe area. Here’s a list of some of the topics found in this, its first-anniversary issue:


    Water is Life

    2010 Sustainable Santa Fe Awards

    The Potential of a Green, Local Economy

    Protect Our Public Lands

    Touring a Green School

    Why Use Green Building Materials?

    Affordable Housing

    Dig and Eat Local

    Only Healthy Soil Grows Healthy Plants


    My favorite is Where does your food come from? Produced by a group called Dreaming New Mexico, it’s a sharp piece that envisions a time when “Every New Mexico citizen and elected official knows, and every school teaches “Where does your food come from?” which agro-ecoregion they live within. They know its weather, soils, sources of water, five agro-ecoregional crops and the best dates for planting and harvesting. They learn the specific constraints on crops, and a few cultivars custom designed for an eco-regional and eco-friendly agriculture.”


    I agree, and the good news is that serious political will is constantly building toward these ends. Usually, I’m pretty abreast of elections and the candidates running, but this year I’ve let those interests lapse a little. Please feel free to tell us about candidates you are supporting, especially if he/she/they have any agro-ecoregional thoughts (i.e. slow-food goals, permacultural plans, or any ties to small-scale agriculture, edible gardening, local energy, sustainability, etc.). Who knows? Readers of Backyard Digest might be in need of some timely guidance toward your political perspective or persuasion.

  • Preventing Future Oil Spills 1 Big Backpack at a Time

    They, the cashiers at the Feed Bin, said it couldn’t be done. “NO WAY” could I shove a fifty pound bag of chicken feed into my backpack and bike away. I would have to buy my lay pellets in one-pound-bag increments, they told me emphatically. They were wrong. On my second attempt, I was able to slide the clumsy sack into my super-sized “bike bag.” Years ago, I’d stuck an entire case of beer in the thing, so I fully expected the feed to squeeze in somehow or other.


    “Now, what’s gonna happen when you gotta turn?” asked one of the still-skeptical cashiers as she eyed the bag-within-in-a-bag protruding 6 or 8 inches out of the top of my wide-open satchel.


    “It’s not goin’ anywhere,” I replied as I attempted to prove my point by swinging my shoulders back and forth. By her quizzical gaze, I instantly realized that she wasn’t worried about me spilling 50 lbs. of lay pellets in the middle of St. Francis Drive. She was worried about me losing control of the excess weight on my back and spilling my ass over my elbow in the middle of St. Francis Drive. “Don’t worry about us. We'll be fine,” I smiled, headed for the door, and barked, “Let’s go Liam!”


    Fortunately, we were fine and made it back with my son riding bravely along side. The only time we had to hop off of our bikes was on the last steep stretch of dirt road right around the corner from home. When we got to the top and turned, it was a thrill to see our newly replanted “We Support Bike-to-Work Week” banner that the late Gail Ryba had given us years ago. (We typically leave it up for two weeks before and after bike-to-work week.)


    Sure, our chicken feed came to Santa Fe by truck from 450 miles away but at least we got our lay pellets home without the aid of fossil fuels. Hopefully, Gail is looking down at us with pride tonight because (as I said a post or two ago) her successful work on bike issues was a major motivating factor in getting us out on our gas-free and Gulf friendly vehicles today.

  • Historic Potato Chip Bag Feeds Worms, Builds Soil

    Thanks to our friend Jobyl, our compost pile currently contains, according to Sun Chips, “The world’s first 100% compostable chip bag of its kind.” If we’re not home, Jobyl, who lives in a downtown apartment with no room to park, let alone compost, sometimes leaves leftover salad and moldy bread at our door. The other day we were home, so she hand delivered the aforementioned bag. While turning my pile today, I came across the two-day old experiment and almost detected a slightly lackluster sheen off the thing.


    Although our entire food system is currently placed in the dangerous hands of companies that own crap like Sun Chips, I must say I was delighted and inspired by Jobyl’s gift. Sun Chips even says they’ll teach you how to compost if you go to their website. In my upcoming book, Harvest the Rain, you’ll find a chapter about composting, but in the meantime, I’d encourage you to get this kind of info wherever you can. Composting is great fun and great exercise, too! But don’t forget to check back for reasonably regular reports on the decaying process of the bag.

  • Thank You, Gail! We’ll Miss You!

    I took to the streets thanks to Gail Ryba. If it had not been for her, I might never have gotten off of my ass and into my bike. Today, when there isn’t a foot of snow on the calles and by ways of Santa Fe, I ride to work, stores, schools, potlucks, and pretty much anything this side of Pojoaque. I love taking the bike on the train to Albuquerque, hopping off, getting in a quick ride, doing a landscape consultation, and then turning right around and making it back up to Santa Fe in the same day. (Someday, I’ll have to relate my epic trip to Atlanta by bike, train, bus, plane, train, bike, and back, but now is not the day.)


    Without Gail, who worked in Albuquerque and lived in Santa Fe, this would never have happened. Without her, I’d probably be 20 pounds heavier and 20% less happy. Did you know that biking to any place where you would normally drive is not only fun and exhilarating, it’s also spiritually enlightening? Why not get into it in honor of Gail, who died yesterday after a tough bout with cancer. Survived by her husband Tom Robey, their young daughter, Lynn, her mother, and three siblings, Gail was 47.

  • “Ask Nate” Feature Continues with Cistern Query

    Nate --

    I just got back from southern Arizona where I saw those tall, 3' wide, metal, spiraled, water "barrels" that I had also seen in slides from Brad Lancaster's presentation (also AZ). Does anyone use those here? If so, do you know who makes them? Should we be worried about freezing at this elevation?

    Thanks so much.

    Christi Newhall


    Thanks for asking, Christi! I’ve never tried the vertical culvert trick, but I’m aware of success stories as well as legendary failures. The basic problem is the seam created at the bottom of the culvert. Cisterns function best if they are made of one seamless material. The majority of successful culvert systems will probably prove to be those that have a plastic bladder inside of them. The problem is that these mega water balloons leach out many more toxins than their more popular hard-plastic relatives.


    You do have to worry about freeze/thaw effects at the bond between culvert and concrete slab. If you bury the thing to reduce these negative effects, you run the risk of a leak that you don’t notice for a long time and then the prospect of having to remove a failed water storage tank. I’ve never had to do this, and I hope I never will. I’ve heard of culvert-style cistern systems lasting a long time underground when a waterproof coating has been liberally slapped along the seam between culvert and  concrete base. Unfortunately, my friend who swore by these tanks is no longer with us, so I can no longer vouch for their longevity.


    My knee-jerk reaction has always been to avoid culverts for water storage. I’m all for innovation, but I’m not into experimenting with thousands of gallons of water in some nice client’s backyard. Unless you are working with a research grant, better to go with proven and tested materials when it comes to storing something as heavy and pervasive as water.

  • HGTV’s Bang for Your Buck: Take 3

    The fun part about HGTV’s Bang for Your Buck is the third part when the contestants (in this case Melissa and me) get to rebut the criticisms of the “talent.” We were very lucky insofar as one of the expert critics was from Australia, and the other was from Boulder. Both really understood the importance of water conservation, backyard chicken tending, and sustainability in general. Jamie Durie, the Aussie, even raved about how our bunny lives elevated above our compost pile, so his poops can land right where we want them. Fontella, the dynamic real-estate agent, was pretty concerned about whether or not we will ever recoup our investment in our underground cistern, but with every season of a homegrown veggies in the desert, we believe the question is almost moot.


    Stay tuned! When they tell us when the show will air (in about 8 weeks, they said), we’ll let you know!

  • HGTV Play-By-Play: Take 2

    I ‘m sitting out on the front porch chatting with Josh, a production assistant with Bang for Your Buck. Melissa is inside getting made up, while the talent is out in the backyard planning their critique. Ooops, gotta go get made up now. ... WOW! Melissa looks GREAT! Let’s see what Candace can do with my age spots! …. SHEEESH! She’s GOOD. Melissa says I look 10 years younger… Now it’s show time, the part where we watch our critics criticize us. I’ll let you know how that went tomorrow.

  • Snow in Garden Television (HGTV): Take 1

    When the crew from Home and Garden Television (HGTV) showed up yesterday afternoon, it had already snowed three times, but due to our high and dry climate and the fact that it was May, the white stuff only stuck around for about 15 minutes in between each minor onslaught. Just when we were all set to get started, a bigger epicycle of light, puffy hail (or was it sleet?) rained down on us. The way the little balls bounced off our ersatz-grass lawn, if they had filmed the event, people would have thought it was a lame Hollywood attempt at making fake snow. But it was real, and unlike the other events of the day, it kept coming, so they took some fun family-in-action shots of the four of us eating a backyard-egg breakfast, but soon everyone realized that we were going to run of daylight for the shoot.


    Fortunately, with plenty of sunshine in the forecast, HGTV (or should it now be SGTV for “Snow in Garden Television”?) are scheduled to come back today for another take. This is great for us because with no cold fronts in the 10-day and our last frost date coming up in 12 days, we’ll get out and plant more (and more diverse) eye candy for the camera!


The final frontier.

These are the musings of an engaging enterprise.
Its thirty-year mission:

To create a greener planet.

To seek a better life in our lumbering civilization, and

to slowly go where we are all are headed anyway.


Is an unproven system for generating wide-spread sustainability.

it asks for 10 minutes a day for a year. At the end of the year, it asks for 10 more.

So in the second year, you spend just 20 minutes a day, in the third year, 30 minutes.

If you keep up this pattern, 27 years later you spend over 4 hours per day being extremely green.

Share Here!
Describe your attempts At a sustainable life.