An Interview with Brad Lancaster
B: We’re in the hottest part of the summer here in Tucson — with record-breaking temperatures — and soon the rains will come. How do you prepare for both this heat and the rains?
BL: It seems that every June, there are two weeks of really intense heat. But then rain is coming. During those two weeks, that’s when the saguaro fruit harvest really kicks in. And when the mesquite and other bean trees really ripen up for the pre-rain harvest. Yeah, it would be more comfortable if I could harvest these foods in 60-degree weather, but none of this would be happening if we were having 60- or 80-degree weather!
Right now, even in this record heat, I don’t find it oppressive. This is what’s supposed to be happening. This is good! I didn’t used to think that. I used to hate it.
How do I deal with this heat? I get up with the birds. They’re singing before the sun rises. It’s time to get up because that’s the coolest it’s going to get. It’s amazing to be with all that life. And there’s all this stuff I want to do.
The birds lead me to the best-tasting mesquite pods — you can tell the ones they like because they shred the sweet ones. I make sure to make sun tea the day before, using the intense heat of the sun. I do solar cooking outside so I don’t heat up the house.
So there’ s this crazy heat, but we can work with it. We can say, “Yeah! I’m scoring off this heat!”
B: You’re an expert in harvesting rainwater for local and municipal landscapes. What does it mean to harvest rainwater and what are the benefits?
BL: We’re going into a week of 117-degree weather now. As I said, this is normal for this region. But there’s also the larger issue of climate change. How can I help grow an oasis that doesn’t contribute to climate change, that doesn’t cause more destruction, but instead creates more regenerative life?
The goal is to create a thriving food forest living just off what is at hand and by turning waste into resources. By “waste” I mean passively harvested rainwater and grey water.
More rain falls on Tucson in a single year than all Tucson citizens consume of municipal water. But you’d never know it, because we build our infrastructure to get rid of that water as quickly as possible. We’re spending so much money importing more and more water importing from the Colorado River from 300 miles away.
Two years ago, I was getting really depressed in summer because I was striving to grow an edible landscape just with free, onsite water, not with any municipal water. Plants were suffering and stressed out. I began to notice this heat and drought stress all over town. The exotic trees I’d planted were dying. My cisterns were dry. The rains hadn’t come. So I could have just turned on the city water and water those pomegranates. But I thought, If I do that, am I helping anything? I’m just depleting groundwater and using Colorado River water. I went into this bad spiral.
How I snapped out of it was to challenge myself: Can I get rid of this pomegranate that’s dying back without water? What can I replace it with that’s a better producer and more suited to this reality? Well, I could plant apple cactus or dragon fruit cactus or nopal. Yeah! So what I ended up with was healthier plant with more fruit, but a different fruit. And I learned something.
At minimum, I recommend planting the rain before you plant any plants or plant the rain before you plant a plastic water pipe. By “plant the rain” I mean direct rainwater runoff from your roof or patio or street into an adjoining mulch and vegetative basin. So the living soil becomes the tank. Dig a basin. The roots and the plants become the living pumps. Then you can make that water available in the form of fruit trees, shade trees, wildlife habitat — all of that.
I found it works great especially when I’m directing that water to food-bearing native plants, which have adapted over millennia to survive here. But if you direct additional rainwater or runoff to them, they thrive. No plastic irrigation pipe needed. No imported Colorado River water needed. No purchased fertilizer needed. And you get shade and fruit and wildlife.
B: What are the best trees to plant in your backyard?
BL: Velvet mesquite, desert ironwood, and foothills palo verde are my three favorite trees, since they’re the most drought tolerant. With more runoff, I’ll add a canyon hackberry. Beyond that I’d refer people to the appendix of my book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, which shares a whole bunch of native plants suitable for this area.
And if you’re looking for fruit, bring in prickly pear and barrel cactus, or even exotic cacti like apple cactus. If want some edible flowers, let’s throw in chuparosa and oreganillo to spice up your dishes.
B: You’re not native to Tucson, yet you’ve come to love the Sonoran Desert as your own. What has the desert taught you about how to live and can you describe the adaptation you have undergone?
BL: I moved here when I was three. I loved to play in the desert. I knew stuff was eaten here because I came upon ruins sometimes. I’d always wonder, How did people here make it? Unfortunately my entire childhood I grew up surrounded by others who are not from here.
It wasn’t until after college that I met people like Stella Tucker and Clifford Pablo, O’odham friends who shared their stories and practice of how to see and harvest the bounty of the Sonoran Desert. There are over 400 native food plants in the Sonoran Desert — many that are really delicious and nutritious.
Also after college I took a permaculture class, which introduced me to more sustainable ways of growing foods and how to passively heat and cool your home. But it seemed the bulk of the teachings were about how you plant an organic garden and orchard of food plants from somewhere else. It didn’t fit with this place. I would visit people’s gardens that were amazingly productive and lush, but people were just pouring on municipal water. I remember thinking, This doesn’t feel right to me.
So I wanted to push an alternative. What can I grow just using free, onsite water that I collect in basins in the soil and maybe augment with rainwater in a tank or with grey water from my drain? I just started experimenting. I had a lot of successes and also failures. Like that pomegranate. I was sending grey water to too many areas. And the exotics took too much water. So I needed to replace higher water use food plants with lower water use plants.
We’re trained as kids to go to the store and buy an apple or a banana, to buy and eat all these foods from elsewhere. And yet there is an abundance of native foods growing all around us without any irrigation.
The challenge is that if your family is not from here, you don’t have a family story or practice for how to do this. You don’t even know something is edible let alone how to eat it.
To tap into all this abundance, I’ve really had to change me. This can be the biggest challenge, but also it’s most exciting. On one hand this is an easier task than changing the landscape and plant palette, but on the other hand, it’s harder.
It’s harder because at first you don’t always know how to find thing out. But I always say, just start somewhere. Start tasting things. Talk to people. Listen to their stories.
You start paying attention and seeking things out. Clifford Pablo, for example, taught me how to find the best tasting mesquite by tasting it before picking. Once I knew how to harvest the best mesquite pods, I had to figure out how to mill them into flour. Thankfully, in the 1990s Cascabel Conservation Association found an old hammer mill in a barn that no one had used. They jury-rigged it to be powered by a Suzuki 4×4 and held a milling event. It was so awesome.
But Cascabel is an hour and a half drive from Tucson. Still, I saw what was possible. I loved the community that came out for that, and I was motivated. In my neighborhood, we’d been planting native food-bearing plants for a number of years. With neighbors, I wrote a grant to buy a hammer mill we could put on a trailer and take to the people to make it more convenient.
Fifteen years later, I’m talking with Clifford Pablo again and walking around the land that he had farmed with his family, using no irrigation just traditional Ak-chin runoff. I was asking him how he learned that and in sharing, he told stories of grandparents who harvested palo verde seeds and pit roasted them. What? I knew about eating palo verde seeds, but I’ve never pit roasted them. I thought, I have to try this. So this year I’ve been harvesting palo verde.
So you learn from others. It’s traditional knowledge. I couldn’t go to a gardening book for this. I couldn’t go to a plant nursery for this. It’s all just from friendships with others, from people who have this in their family’s history or other newcomers who are likewise trying to figure out how to tap into vast native food bounty and the fading traditional practices of people here.
I had to change myself. I had to learn all this new stuff. That doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s really fun to learn this stuff. It’s fun to tap in and to connect with the place. Just like the idea of “Yeah, it’s hot” becoming “Right on! It’s hot! Because it’s hot we’re gonna get rain! Because it’s hot were gonna get saguaro fruit! Because it’s hot we’ll get mesquite pods!” People think I’m crazy but I actually find myself hoping the rains come later so I can extend the time for harvesting.
B: You helped start an organization called Desert Harvesters that helps teach people how to plant, harvest, and prepare native and wild desert foods. How have natural cycles informed that work?
BL: Desert Harvesters holds community mesquite milling events. In the past we used to do these events, along with mesquite pancake breakfasts or bake sales, in November because it was cool outside. But that choice had nothing to do with the ecological cycles of this place. We’ve changed that. We learned that it’s much healthier to harvest mesquite pods before the rains because then you don’t have the invisible mold growth that you can get post rain. So we changed the schedule of all our events.
We also realized that June is when the peak harvest is going on. All of these bean trees want to have their seed on the ground when the rains arrive to maximize their succession. It feels great to be in sync with natural cycles like that. It’s healthier, there’s more to harvest, and this is the traditional time for harvesting. Sweet!
It’s also important to communicate that we’re not advocating just going out to the desert and extracting food and bringing it home. We want to leave that primarily for wildlife. This is about planting the rain and then planting native food plants where you live work and play to create a thriving regenerative system where you are. Then it becomes a part of your daily system.
The other day I was leading harvest tours for Desert Harvesters and I saw people’s faces light up. They were all amazed. What? I can eat the green seeds of desert ironwood like edamame and the mature seeds like peanuts? I can eat palo verde seeds like peas or grind up the dried seed into flour? I can get sweet drinks from mesquite pods or grind them into flour to make baked goods?
Yes, you can!
What people previously saw as a moonscape they now see as a lush bounty-scape.
Basic steps for someone to follow if they want to start living more in tune with the natural cycles of the Sonoran Desert (BL suggestions follow):
- Get out with the rain and see where the water is flowing in your yard. Where is it coming from? Where is it going? Where is it collecting and infiltrating or where is it running off?
- Redirect that runoff to part of your property. Where can you capture and infiltrate that runoff to your landscape?
- Dig basins where you want or need a tree or other vegetation. Use my book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond for guidance.
- Plant seeds where the water goes.
- Become a member of Desert Harvesters. We’ll show you how to plant rain and seeds.
- Brad’s web site with links to his two volumes on rainwater harvesting.
- This video from American Oasis: Harvesting the Sky to Live in Dry Land features Brad Lancaster explaining how to “plant the rain.”
- Desert Harvesters web site features videos, recipes, and manuals on how to plant, harvest, and prepare wild and native foods in the Sonoran Desert.