Progress and a Measure of Success in Land Restoration

Before and after photographs, or repeat photography, are useful tools for measuring success of any prescription applied as an intervention in landscape restoration.  In the case of the area around the rustic cabin the first prescription applied was fencing.  The 240 acres encompassing the cabin and the river bottom were fenced to exclude grazers and create a seed reservoir for existing grasses to reseed the surrounding landscape, both on and off the estate.  Later topsoil restoration barriers were added to benches above the west side of the riverbed where only clay hard pan subsoil was present as a result of poor range management practices.  After 2 seasons plants are not only growing on the subsoil but the areas surrounding the hard pan have more plants.  While there are some native grasses, woody shrubs also are also present.  This is in contrast to early descriptions of the San Simon Valley describing a "luxuriant growth of grasses, affording excellent pasturage for all kinds of stock."  It is clear that a variety of factors combined to significantly alter the landscape and recovering the original grasslands presents a number of problems.  Since the soil types above the riverbed are sandy/gravelly loam, decaying biomass is essential to building healthy new topsoil and the first step is any plant that creates biomass and prevents further erosion, grasses or shrubs.  The conversion of soil minerals into useful Biomass provides a home to soil microbes and nematodes which will benefit the next plants (ideally only grasses) in a succession of species that leads back to a productive landscape. It should be noted that this plant growth is especially encouraging since the area has received less than 6" of rain this year (PRISM climate model average rainfall for the estate is 12.17").

Initial view with topsoil restoration barriers installed at the Rustic Cabin.  This is after fencing.  Note
the large area without subsoil or plant life.

Two seasons later and the return of plant life.  Especially noteworthy are plants growing in the hard pan subsoil
creating biomass for new topsoil.

topsoil restoration barrier

The same topsoil restoration barrier after 2 seasons.

Some online references:
1.  http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_p003/rmrs_p003_306_311.pdf
2.  http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MANUSCRIPTS/arizona/sansimonareaAZ1924/sansimonareaAZ1924.pdf
3.  http://www.malpaiborderlandsgroup.org/?section=conservation-action
4.  https://sites.google.com/site/sansimonassessment/actions-participants
5.  Slides from a landscape restoration talk presented at the the 2015 Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days - https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9IXOUCL-_hoSTRQd3N0bWU1dGc/view?usp=sharing


Recycling a most Important Resource

Water is the life blood of the desert and a precious resource.  Making wise use of the rains and pumped ground water only makes sense.  While the estate does irrigate, the Painted Pony Resort also makes use of waste water. 

The Painted Pony Resort is rural and relies on septic tanks for waste.  Waste is fed into septic tanks associated with each building with drainage fields for each.  The location of the drainage field for the main house runs the length of the front garden. Although the drainage field is deep it does provide a layer of moisture under the garden making better use of irrigation water.

In addition to septic drain fields the estate also makes use of gray water.  The guest laundry room in the guest house has a separate drain, not connected to the septic system, and instead drains out 175' north of the laundry room.  Originally planted with some small trees which quickly died, I decided to resurrect the area with more appropriate desert plants to take advantage of this periodic water source.  I initially settled on Agave, primarily because I had grown several specimens which were ready for transplanting and Agave can tolerate irregular watering, grow large, and would provide another species of plant on the estate.  Once the Agave starts growing additional plants can be added to the area to create more color.

Agave planted downhill from laundry room gray water drain


Got It

It is a slow process trying to identify the plants around here, especially in the front garden.  Over time, I have added to the diversity of plant species growing in the garden area and have identified many of the species already present, but several species have eluded my attempts at identification.  Well, I was finally able to generate a tentative identification of one of the hardier species that grows in the front garden.  A wildlife (deer) resistant species that likes full sun, little water, it is a perennial that produces volunteer seedlings easily.  Producing stems small yellow flowers along a spike like raceme, it attracts bees and butterflies before producing elongated seed pods.  The velvet leafed senna, Senna lindheimeriana, is particularly rugged and well adapted growing about 6' in height and should make a nice addition to the other areas of the estate.

Since it meets the standards established for planting on the estate I have planted seed and transplanted a number of volunteer seedlings into buckets in hopes of growing specimens along the curve in the driveway where topsoil barriers have been in place for several years.  This area was originally all hard pan clay subsoil but is slowly regaining soil, pants, and biomass.  It is not irrigated and requires plant species that are well adapted to the high desert and little rain.  In addition, I have planted seed for the Desert bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia gilliesii, as well as Sacred Datura, Datura wrightii, for the owners wife.  Commonly known as Jimson weed, sacred datura is hardy perennial species, grows low and produces a fair amount of biomass which should assist in the areas restoration.  While the bird of paradise also requires little water, it should also do well in this restoration area.

The goal is to fill in this area with grass and perennials for guests staying at the Painted Pony Resort.

Aerial view of the corner with topsoil restoration barriers at the corner of the drive

Ground view of topsoil restoration barriers with new grass and plant growth
Velvet leaf senna (Lindheimers senna).

Desert bird of paradise


Gardening with a 1%er

I'm not a gardener, nor do I have a green thumb, but persistence seems to be the key to growing plants.  Living in the high desert with little yearly rainfall and working with an overgrazed landscape doesn't help, but again persistence.  I had a success with a barrel cactus I moved this spring into the front garden and it is now blooming, but trying to germinate plants from seed proves to be much more difficult, at least for me.  I have constructed a pallet garden filled with soil from the river bottom and with several layers of rabbit protection have tried again to start plants from seed.  As a result, I have started to develop a list of requirements for plant species I will try to grow on the estate.

1.  Extreme drought tolerance.  The irrigation system on the estate is taxed and new plantings do not receive irrigation so their growth has to rely on the yearly rains once established.

2.  Perennials.  If I go to all the trouble of growing a plant from seed and manage to get something I can transplant I want to come back year after year.

3.  Nice flower displays.  The goal is to create an inviting landscape.  So nice flowers with a variety of colors makes for an area with lots of hummingbirds, butterflies, and native bees.

4.  Unappetizing to mammals.  Rabbits, Deer, and Javelina can do a number on plants especially during times of drought when there is little feed and mammals have destroyed a number of projects.  Deer love Crepe Myrtle and have damaged several young pines I had ready for planting, rabbits love spineless Prickly Pear, and Javilena will dig up Red Yucca with a vengeance.

5.  Germinates easily.  Plant species that meet the above requirements must also germinate easily.  I generally average a germination rate of about 0.0001% for many plants, so a species that germinates easily and grows rapidly is always a plus in my book.  I have tried oaks a number of times, both germinating from seed as well as cloning, without success.  I currently have a single oak that has sprouted in the pallet garden and hope it survives.  One mechanism used to identify species that germinate easily is to look for volunteers.  Plants like Lantana produce lots of seed and have volunteered in a number of places around the estate.  Mexican Bird of Paradise is another easily germinated species.  So I harvest the volunteers as well as seed for planting in other areas.

At the suggestion of the owners wife I constructed a pallet garden for seed collected from around the estate as well as some herbs and peppers.  Because of the poor soil conditions, soil from the riverbed was transported and used for the planting beds.  Planting garlic, hatch chilies, bell peppers, and a variety of collected seed like roses, things have started to sprout.  Protection from rabbits is key to getting anything to grow.  At the back of the garden are a series of buckets with spineless prickly pear, all eaten by rabbits, but within the protection of the pallet garden they are beginning to recover producing new pads.

Pallet garden with 2 layers of rabbit protection. For sprouting seeds in a protected environment  
Transplanted and recovering plants in individual buckets.

Transplanted Barrel Cactus in bloom.

Volunteer Mexican Bird of Paradise in the front garden.


Monsoon Weather

This 2016 monsoon so far is slow in bringing needed water to the high desert.  The  Painted Pony Resort is at about 2.8" so far (for a yearly total of about 4.5").  Yesterday though the Painted Pony Resort received its' first traditional monsoon storm.  A gully washer, a chunk-floater, a fence lifter, a frog strangler, or a trash mover (1).  In other words lots of rain in a short period of time.  Although only delivering 0.3" it had some small hail embedded which made it all the more monsoon like.  After the storm was past I went back out, after drying off, and saw a dust storm moving south on the other side of the valley, completely obscuring the Chiricahua Mountains.  This was followed by rain according to a friend who lives across the valley, so the Arizona side of the valley also received moisture.  I have seen this phenomena before, but in terms of extremes the photographs below show how the weather can be radically different across the 9 mile width of the valley.

Weather radar screen capture of monsoon storm that delivered 0.3" of rain.   

The view before the dust storm moved down the west side of the valley.

The dust storm a short time later.
1.  https://dare.news.wisc.edu/same-thing-different-words-synonyms-by-region/


Sights and Sounds

Some experiments with sights and sounds from the Painted Pony Resort.  I'm interested in "how people see" and sights and sounds can make a big impression so I've been exploring different ways of seeing and hearing.  Since it all about ideas and concepts and not people and personalities, the ability to present what I see and hear every day may have a positive impact on others.

The image is of a Crepe Myrtle from the from the front garden.  Using Fyuse which creates a 3D rotating view of a subject it creates an interesting presentation and coupled with recordings of bird songs captured in the mornings it provides a different way experiencing the Painted Pony Resort online.

If viewed from a smartphone, just rotate the phone to rotate the image, if viewed on a tablet or desktop computer just click and drag.


UV Fluorescence in the High Desert

The other day while out attending to chores about a mile and a half from the main buildings on the estate I came across an interesting piece of chalcedony out in the desert.  Tucked up next to a mesquite bush this unusually shaped piece of chalcedony looked more like a cartoon mouth or a rock shaped box that formed when the the quartz was liquid and flowing creating a shape I'd never seen before.  Finishing my chores, I shoved it in my pocket and continued walking back out of the desert.  Back at the estate one of the first things I checked after cleaning the stone was it fluorescence.  Using a short wave UV light, which I use to check bedding at the Painted Pony Resort, the specimen fluoresced green. A previous post about fluorescence shows both yellow and green fluorescent chalcedony found around the estate and this specimen gets added to the pile of big and little specimens that when illuminated with short wave UV light re-emit light at a visible wavelength. 

I use a 395-410 nm UV light to illuminate the desert and look for a variety of fluorescent plants such as lichens, animals, and rocks at night.

Chalcedony specimen under normal lighting.

Chalcedony specimen with short wave UV light fluorescing green.
Chalcedony found around the Painted Pony Resort.


When it Rains, it Pours

When it rains, it pours, but not the weather related rain rather the occurrence of equipment failures on the estate.  I've been running constantly repairing broken equipment and have had little time for blogging or anything else.

First it was the pool cover.  The cover is vital to keeping pool clean and during cooler weather keeping the temperature up.  But the UV out here is hard on any plastic material and the pool cover finally gave up the ghost.  A new replacement cover arrived and I've spent time getting it installed.  A 20' by 40' pool cover weighs about 100 lbs. and it took some time to maneuver it down to the pool and get it into place.  I'm on the last bit of the installation just need to get the ropes connected to the hydraulic system.

The next item was the dishwasher.  The motor bearings have been making noise and cleaning and lubricating only temporarily resolved the problem so a replacement was ordered.  Of course the connections to the water supply were not the same requiring switching the the old inlet valve with the one on the new dishwasher to allow installation.

Then the air conditioning went out while guests were in residence.  It turns out a capacitor went bad on one unit and half the main house was warm.  Fortunately the other heat pump helped maintain a reasonable indoor temperature but with 20 guests it was pushed to its' limits.  I got the system fixed and back running within 24 hours which made the guests happy.

Of course then the Direct TV system went on the fritz in 2 buildings.  A combination of tree growth blocking signal solved the problem in one building while understanding how unattended toddlers like to push buttons on equipment allowed me to finally figure out the other problem.

Finally the owners wife requested a garden planting bed for herbs and peppers.  Because of poor soil from erosion I tasked an old pallet for a new raised planting bed.  Wrapped in black plastic it is filled with dirt from the river bottom and should provide a useful planting area for raising young plants.

Just to show that it has not been all repair work while I'm running around making the place inviting for guests I still managed to get a couple of interesting cloud images.  The Monsoon is starting and the skies are generating nice cloudscapes some of which were extremely picturesque.

Installing the new pool cover

Inoperative heat pump

Bad capacitor on heat pump

New planting bed for the owner

Wispy clouds at the edge of a storm

Monsoon cloud build up over the The Chiricahua Mountains


Rain, after 4 Months of Waiting and Watering

Finally some rain.  Spring was a bust and the desert is parched.  Everything is brown and it has been a hard time for the wildlife.  The promised El Nino did not materialize and the irrigation could not keep up with dry weather.  I struggled to get the front garden area at the Painted Pony Resort looking presentable for guests partly the result of irrigation and partly because of a major pruning last winter where 15 yards of materiel was removed.  Expecting good El Nino rains I heavily pruned all the plants and was relying on the rains to kick start the garden and allow new growth which would cover any pruning errors.  But the rains never materialized here in the valley and I have been watering the plants by hand to supplement the irrigation.  The yearly rainfall total currently stands at 1.33", not good for the first 6 months of the year but if the rain continues and the monsoons are strong this hardy landscape will recover.

The next day while writing the draft post clouds started to build again.  A large buildup resulting in the last photograph which dissipated with some rain in the Chiricahua Mountains but none on the estate.  A second buildup after sunset did deliver another 0.17" on the estate.  Good news for the dry conditions in the valley.

Rainfall from CoCoRaHS for the Painted Pony Resort
Rain with the setting sun over the Chiricahua Mountains
Panorama of the front garden after the rain
Storm clouds the next day which yielded another 0.17" of rain

One more photograph of the big buildup over the valley.

Brush Strokes.  The edge of a large dissipating cumulus cloud formation.


Working on the Solar System

Not NASA's nor ESA's work exploring the solar system but rather the solar collectors used in heating the pool at the Painted Pony Resort.  To put it bluntly I made a mistake and as a result damaged 2 panels.  The system had a leak last year and after digging up the lines and cleaning out the lost fluid I could not locate the apparent leak.  I recharged the system with water and left it alone to see if time would show the leak.  The system ran fine all season never losing pressure.  So in the fall I reburied the lines and continued to run the system.  Of course once buried I began to lose pressure indicating a leak.  I kept the system running but at one point during the cold weather shut the system down and had a freeze.  So I began the process of pulling the 4' x 8' panels and exploring options.  I found ruptured pipes inside 2 of the panels and began the repair process.  I realized that while I could cut out and replace end connections any split pipes required brazing.  So I set off to learn how to braze copper pipe and after learning the fundamentals of brazing I repaired the ruptured tubes.  Then it was a reversed process of replacing the repaired panels back into the system.  After getting the repaired panels installed and recharging the system, I brought it online and started bringing the pool back up to 85 degrees.  Using the geothermal system I built was able to maintain the pool at about 70 degrees but the goal is 85.  Currently, the pool is back above 80 using only the solar system and is ready for guests.

water inside solar panel

Removing a solar panel