First-year swale photos!

The Pistachio Swale

Digging the "pistachio swale"

The beginning of the “pistachio swale”

Adding a deep layer of mulch.

Adding a deep layer of mulch.

My helper showing off our work. The pistachio swale extends all the way to the road.

My helper showing off our work. The pistachio swale extends all the way to the road.

Pistachio swale where it connects to the road.

Pistachio swale where it connects to the road.

Adding organic matter and mulch.

Mulch and woody debris.

Mulch and woody debris.

Digging, mulching and phase-one planting on pistachio swale completed.

Digging, mulching and phase-one planting on pistachio swale completed.


The Driveway Swale

We had a great work-party with our friends one late afternoon in May to get started on the "driveway swale".  It was very compacted digging because it literally was a driveway. Now it will harvest water and grow trees!

We had a great work-party with our friends one late afternoon in May to get started on the “driveway swale”. It was very compacted digging because it literally was a driveway, but soon it will harvest water and grow trees!

Digging the driveway swale.

Digging the driveway swale.


Shaping the driveway swale.

More shaping.

More shaping.

More shaping.

More shaping.

Driveway swale. Ready to start planting!

West side of driveway swale. Ready to start planting!


Flagging out locations for phase-one tree planting.

First tree planted on the driveway swale!

First tree planted on the driveway swale!


Young trees–Screwbean, Velvet, and Chilean Mesquites varieties along with Museum, and Mexican Palo Verde varieties.

The Jujube Swale

The "jujube swale" named after the eight year old trees that this swale is wrapped around.

The “jujube swale” named after the eight-year-old fruit-bearing trees that this swale is wrapped around.

Experimental plantings in the swale-trench bottom.

Experimental plantings in the swale-trench bottom.

The Jujube swale with eight-year-old Asian Pear in foreground.

The Jujube swale with eight-year-old Asian Pear in foreground.


Our Permaculture Design 2.0

These new drawings incorporate the changes I’ve made to the design over the course of the last year. (News of our progress, and pics coming soon!)

DDESIGN wtitles


The new, simplified Zone Map that fits our small 1.25 acre site much better.


New Water Harvesting Map. (New swales have been added, and some have been removed).

(P.S. I am switching to the more commonly used north-up orientation with my maps. I do love them facing sun-side up, but imagine it will cause too much confusion here in the northern hemisphere.)

Plant Lists

To be clear, this is not a list of what we have planted already, but a list of plants we are interested in and will likely experiment with as we move forward with the project. We will post more information about what we’ve actually planted and how it is doing in the future.


Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)(food, N-fixer)

Screw Bean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescensi)(food, N-fixer)

Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutinai)(food, N-fixer)

Foothills Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphyllum)(food, N-fixer)

Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florid)(food, N-fixer)

Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

Smoke Tree (Psorothamnus spinosas)(N-fixer, native)

Littleleaf Leucaena/Wahoo Tree (Leucaena retusa)(fast growing, medium term, N-fixer, coppice and forage)

Leucaena leucocephela

Persian Silktree/Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)(N-fixer)

Lebbeck Tree/Woman’s Tongue Tree (Albizia lebbeck)(Slow growing, large, long term N-fixer)

Sesbania sesban (fast growing, short term N-fixer)

Cat Claw acacia (Acacia greggii)(food, N-fixer, native)

Whitethorn acacia (Acacia constricta)(N-fixer)

Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia) (evergreen)(food, N-fixer)

Green Wattle (Acacia decurrens)(evergreen)(N-fixer)

Sweet Acacia/Huisache (Acacia farnesiana)(N-fixer)

Wiry Wattle (Acacia coriacea) (food and N-fixer)

New Mexico Locust (Robinia neomexicana)(N-fixer)

Mescal Bean (Sophora secundiflora)(N-fixer)(poisonous beans)

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)((food, N-fixer)

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)(N-fixer)(poisonous pods)

Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa)(fast growing deciduous tree with big leaves and excellent wood) 

Casuarina torulosa (fast growing N-fixer, good wind break, firewood)

River She-Oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana)(evergreen)(N-fixer, wood, wind block)

She Oak (Casuarina littorals)(N-fixer, wood)

Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis)(food, wood) Bur Oak (Quercus microcarpa)

Desert Willow (Chilopsis liners)(medicine, shade, beauty, basketry)


Desert Grape (Vitis girdiana)(food, shade, tolerates heat and flooding)

Anderson’s Boxthorn (Lycium andersonii) (edible berries)

Pale Wolfberry(Lycium pallidum – Miers.)

Desert Thorn (Lycium fremontii)

Nopales (Opuntia ficus-indica)

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis – L.)

Desert Hackberry (Celtis pallida) 

Canyon Hackberry/Paloblanco (Celtis reticulata) 

Quail-brush (Atriplex lentiformis)

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens)(native) 

Giant Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia)

Nuttall’s Saltbush (Atriplex nuttallii)

Atriplex halimus (great forage)

Spanish Broom (hardy nitrogen fixer)

White Sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) (medicine, food)

Oreganillo (Aloysia wrightii)

Fremont’s Indigo Bush (Psorothamnus freemontii) (N-fixer, native, beautiful purple flowers)

Chiltepine (Capsicum annum)

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

Narrow-Leaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) medicinal, and food for monarch butterflies

Desert Senna (Senna armata) (though this beautiful native shrub is in the legume family, it is apparently  not a Nitrogen fixer)

Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)

saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii)

Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmanii)

Century Plant (Agave parry)

Agave sisilana (awesome fiber plant)

Agave deserti

Agave utahensis

Hesperoyucca whipplei

Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata)

Yucca filiamentosa

Soap-Tree Yucca (Yucca elata)

Soapweed Yucca (Yucca glauca)

Yucca Schidegera


Olive (Olea europaea) 

Persimmon (Diospyros kaki)

Fig (Ficus carica)

Mulberry (Morus nigra, M. alba, M. rubra)

Apricot (Prunus armeniaca)

Carob (Ceratonia siliqua)

Chinese Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba)

Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

Desert Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera)

Grape (Vitis spp.)(Thomson Seedless variety)

Peach (Prunus persica) (Florida Prince Variety)

Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) (Western Schley variety)

Quince (Cydonia oblonga) (Sonoran Membrillo variety)

Sweet Acacia (Acacia smallii)

Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii)(red) (beautiful chop and drop support species) Jujube (Ziziphus jujube)(food)

Pistachio (Pistacia Vera)(food)

Pomegranite (Punica granatum)

Littleleaf Leucaena/Wahoo Tree (Leucaena retusa)(N-fixer)

Persian Silktree/Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)(N-fixer)

Lebbeck Tree/Woman’s Tongue Tree (Albizia lebbeck)(N-fixer)

Drumstick Tree (Moringa oleifera)(food, N-fixer)(frost sensitive-plant as an annual)

New Mexico Locust (Robinia neomexicana)(N-fixer)

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)((food, N-fixer)

Sydney Golden Wattle (Acacia longifolia) (evergreen)(food, N-fixer)

Banana Yucca -Yucca baccata

Aloe vera (Aloe vera)

Trebizond Date (Elaeagnus orientalis)(food, N-Fixer)

Goji Berry/Chinese Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum)



Pueraria montana lobata – (Willd.) Sanjappa & Pradeep.(Kudzu Vine)

Cucurbita foetidissima – Kunth. (Buffalo Gourd)

Humulus lupulus – L. (Hops)

Clematis drummondi (Virgin’s Bower)

Cucurbita digitata A. Gray (fingerleaf gourd)

Passiflora arizonica (Arizona Passionflower


Lathyrus latifolius

Pueraria Montan chinensis–Maesen &S.M. Almeida

GROUND COVERS: Hottentot Fig (Corpobrotus edulis)(tough succulent, edible fruits)


(more to come)


Tepary Beans (Pheseolus acutifolias)

Cow Pea (Vigna unguiculata)

Drumstick Tree (Moringa oleifera)




Jerusalem Artichokes






MAIN CROP POSSIBILITIES:(For Human, Rabbit and Chicken food)

Desert Chia (Salvia columbariae)

White Sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) (medicine, food)

Indian Ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoidesi)

Desert Needle Grass (Achnatherum speciosum)


Fringed Amaranth, (our local native amaranth!) (Amaranthus fimbriatus)

Amaranth (Tampala, Mayo and Red Stripe Leaf varieties)

Sorghum -Sorghum bicolor Millet Teff (A.L. White variety)

Tepary Beans (W.D Hood’s white and brown Sonoran varieties)

Cow Pea (Vigna unguiculata)

black eyed peas Field peas (Six Weeks Browneye variety)

Cucumbers (Dekah)

Mustards (Florida Broad Leaf and Giant Red varieties)

Orach (Red)

Squash/Pumpkin (Lebanese Light Green, White Bush Marrow varieties

Volga Wild Rye (Leymus racemosus)

Red Spiderling (Boerhaavia coccinea)


Desert Plantain/Blond Psillium (Plantago ovata)

Six-Weeks Gramma Grass (Bouteloua barbata)

Winter Fat (Krascheninikovia lanata)

Clover species

Yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus)

Summer Savory (Satureja hortensis)

Spanish Broom (hardy nitrogen fixer)

Hottentot Fig (Corpobrotus edulis)(hardy succulent ground cover)


FIRE RETARDANT SPECIES: Figs, Oaks, Mulberries, Apricots.

Food for Animals and Poultry

The design calls for chickens, rabbits, honey bees, pigeons, and possibly a small breed of goats like the Nigerian Dwarf variety (quail and ducks are also under consideration). All but the bees and pigeons will be rotated around the property in mobile pens to help fertilize the areas where main crops are to be sown (see the Zone 2 description in the post entitled “The Zones”). The intention is to find ways to feed these animals and poultry from the land (or at least from the local Joshua Tree area). It is essential that we not be reliant on fossil-fuel-saturated, annual monocrops to feed them, so here is a hopeful list of possible food sources:


-Leguminous tree beans: mesquite, palo verde, acacia.

-food scraps from the kitchen.

-worms from the worm farm.

Chickens AND Rabbits:

-Cut forage from leafy perennials like the fruitless mulberries that were previously planted on the site as well as mesquites, mimosas and fourwing saltbush.

-Greens and grains from the annual main crops  grown in the swale alleys (plants like      Amaranth, Desert Chia, Sorghum, Millet, Teff, and native grasses).

-Cactus pads and fruits

Goats will only be brought into the system if we are producing enough surplus tree forage to provide the bulk of their diet.

(The pigeons and bees can feed themselves!)


The Zones


Zone 1

The area around the house will feature an outdoor kitchen, a group meeting space, a large vegetable garden, rainwater storage tanks and a greywater-fed oasis zone on the west side.

Zone 2

Most of the site is “Zone 2”. In this zone, contour swales are being put in to slow, spread and sink rainwater across the property during our brief, but sometimes torrential summer rains. The trenches of the swales will have a thick layer of organic mulch to hold onto that moisture as long as possible and to build soil. These will be planted with a diverse mixture of very hardy food-producing trees, shrubs and cacti (along with dense plantings of nitrogen-fixing support species). Once the plantings on these swale systems are well-established, it is intended that they be gradually weaned off of any groundwater irrigation over a period of years. This mixture of mesquites and other unconventional food trees are designed to provide the main bulk staple foods produced on site.

The swales are narrowly spaced throughout zone 2 in order to create corridors of shaded, wind-sheltered productive space. Moving among these relatively narrow swale “alleys” will be a moveable chicken system, and rabbit hutch, and perhaps eventually one or two picketed, milking goats. These animal systems will be carefully managed to add fertility to the land and prepare small areas for main-crop planting.

Main crops of fast-cycle, drought-tolerant annuals will be sown immediately following adequate rain events in the spaces between swales. All main crops will be planted in long-lineage rows, on contour.  Deep mulching, cover crops, compost, compost tea, and bio-fertilizers will be utilized in these areas in order to build natural soil fertility, decrease evaporation, and increase water retention.

Honeybees will be kept on the outskirts zone 2 as well.

Zone 4

This is a small, more wild area on the site which will be lightly tended, but mostly just protected and restored as much as possible.

The Water Situation and Strategies


Water is by far the most limiting factor when designing for long-term, ecologically harmonious, self-reliant living in Joshua Tree. Few places on earth have as little average yearly rainfall (and yet, a gorgeous diversity of wildlife lives and thrives in this seemingly inhospitable climate). The groundwater is hundreds of feet underground, (a remnant of the last ice age!) and these reserves are being depleted by about one foot per year, with very little natural recharge taking place. For this reason, human settlement as we know it has only been a part of this desert ecosystem for a matter of decades—an experiment made possible by the era of cheap, abundant oil and industrial agriculture. For as long as the village of Joshua Tree has existed, all of the food and other human necessities have been trucked in from hundreds, and often thousands, of miles away meaning there is, at present, no local food culture alive here. Fortunately, as of the creation of this design, work is in progress to start importing water via the California Aquaduct from the Sacramento Delta, 600 miles to the northwest.  And while that precious lifeline is deeply honored and appreciated, what this experiment seeks to find out is, can we, through design and appropriate technology, learn to live well and even thrive on the actual water budget that nature gives us? Towards this end, the central and primary strategy of this design is to try to capture, and wisely use (reuse, and then use again) every drop of water that finds its way onto this piece of land. This will be done in the following ways:


-Rainwater will be captured from all rooftops to be stored and kept clean in three large tanks around the property for drinking. It is conservatively estimated that once renovations are completed this system will yield 3,400 gallons of drinking water per average year of rainfall.

-All pumped groundwater that is used on the property (wastewater, cooking water, and evaporative cooler water) will be re-used appropriately as many times as possible before being lost to the system. This will be the primary source of irrigation for all zone 1 elements.

-The kitchen garden will utilize water-efficient wicking beds as well as sunken, in-ground beds that will be deeply mulched above, and lined with plastic or clay below to slow water loss (both to evaporation and also to rapid infiltration down through the course sandy soil). The zone 1 food forest (this will be described later) will also be located in a large sunken infiltration basin. Both of these elements will be further sheltered from evaporation by trellises, with deciduous vines shading them in the summertime.

-Every drop of rain that falls on the land will be encouraged to sink into the ground rather than running immediately off the property, and each small wash (wadi) that runs close enough to the land will be captured, and put to use by the system. This will be accomplished by the extensive use of swales, which are perfectly level trenches that follow the natural contours of the land. All of these swales will be deeply mulched and densely planted, holding moisture within the root zones of the plants for as long as possible.

-Sponge Swales will be installed next to many of the trees. These are short trenches and holes that are packed with absorbent, durable organic matter such as cardboard, paper and woody debris. When saturated with water, they retain moisture for a very long time, allowing the roots of plants nearby to sip from them.

-Each tree and shrub will also be planted with a deep watering tube, which allows irrigation to happen below the surface of the soil, reducing evaporation and encouraging deep root systems.

-As the main living systems in the design mature, it is intended that less and less irrigation will be needed, eventually achieving maximum productivity with only a modest and sustainable draw upon ground water reserves. It is our intention to begin to slowly wean all plants and trees off of ground-water irrigation once they are well established in (except for those within our greywater-fed “oasis zone” area in zone 1).

Here is a drawing of the way contour swales are designed to slow, spread and sink rainwater across the property during a rare, but torrential downpour: WATERHARVEST


Here is a Picture of where our site is in relation to the rest of southern California:SoCal

You can see from the satellite image how dry this place is. Note the rainshadow effect created by The San Bernardino Mountains to the west of us. The only similar climate analog I’ve been able to find on earth with the same latitude, proximity to the west coast of a large land mass, similar altitude and rain shadow effect is Damascus, Syria.