DesignStorm WaterWaterWater Conservation

Dryland Harvesting Home Hacks Sun, Rain, Food & Surroundings

When Brad Lancaster and his brother bought their home in downtown Tucson, the streetscape was a dusty place, devoid of trees or any vegetation. In 1996 Lancaster and his neighbors started an annual tree planting project, which up till now has resulted in over 1,400 native food-bearing trees being planted (usually with water-harvesting earthworks) in the neighborhood. In 2004, Lancaster augmented the street tree planting by using a 14-inch, gas powered circular saw to cut away part of his curb to divert street runoff into his street-side tree basins. When the walkway in front of his home sprouted with life- mesquite and palo verde trees- many of his neighbors wanted to cut their curbs as well. Lancaster approached the city to convince them to make his water harvesting technique legal. It took three years for the city to change the rules. Today, three quarters of the neighbors on his block are harvesting rainwater.

Tucson receives just 11 inches of rainwater per year, but Brad argues this is enough. “Tuscon has over a 4,000 year history of continuous farming despite this being a drylands desert community. People thrived creating crops, domesticating crops that are uniquely adapted to this climate, but in less than 100 years we almost wiped it out by becoming reliant on very extractive pumps, extracting the groundwater, diverting the river to the extent that we actually killed our river, we dropped our groundwater table over 300 feet so we didn’t want to plug into that paradigm.”

Today, Lancaster’s downtown Tucson neighborhood (Dunbar/Spring) is alive with drought-tolerant, food-bearing trees and residents harvest from the barrel cactus (chutneys, hair conditioner from fruit), the prickly pear (juice, syrup & natural sweeteners from fruit), the ironwood tree (peanut-flavored nuts, processed like edamame), jojoba (oil, coffee substitute), mesquite (“native carob”, flour) and sweets from the “iconic Saguaro cactus”.

Courtesy of Youtube, Kirsten Dirksen

Lancaster’s experimentation continues on his property: he calls the eighth of an acre site that he shares with his brother’s family, his “living laboratory”. Here he plants around the greywater from his outdoor shower, bathtub and washing machine. He captures 100,000 gallons of rainwater per year on the 1/8th-acre property and surrounding public right-of-way. He cooks with a solar oven and heats his water using a 2 salvaged, conventional gas heaters hacked (stripped of insulation, painted black, and put in an insulated box with glass facing south to collect the sun’s rays.

Lancaster converted the old garage on the property into his 200-square-foot “garottage” (garage + cottage) or “shondo” (shed + condo). Nearly all the wood and materials are salvaged. The garage’s original cinder block walls weren’t insulated so he added 2 inches of foam insulation on the exterior to create “ex-sulation”. Lancaster relies mostly on passive solar to heat and cool his home, though he uses an evaporative cooler (swamp cooler) on hotter evenings. His kitchen is outside: a rainwater-plumbed sink, a hacked chest-freezer-turned-refrigerator and a propane camping stove.

His toilet is another experiment. “You can currently get a compost toilet that is manufactured and NSF approved, but it costs $3000 or more. So we wanted to try making some site-built models that only cost $300 for which we got experimental permits.” His models include a urine-diverting barrel compost toilet (the urine is diluted to water plants and the fecal matter sits and composts for a year or more before being used as fertilizer) and a water-less standing urinal.

Further Viewing

Brad Lancaster, dry lands water harvesting expert, speaks at the Tenth International Permaculture Conference (IPC10) about water harvesting need and potential.

Geoff Lawton explores the urban streetscapes Brad Lancaster designed.

Further Reading

Please see Brad’s author profile here.

The Permaculture Research Insitute

PRI Zaytuna Farm functions as a model farm (in development) and permaculture training facility. Geoff and Nadia Lawton, world-renowned permaculture educators and consultants, lead the project. Much of Geoff and Nadia’s time over the last few years has been spent away from the Institute, consulting and helping set up projects in diverse locales around the world. Seeing the worldwide demand for knowledgeable permaculture consultants and teachers increase exponentially, as fuel and fertiliser prices skyrocket and the effects of climate change, soil depletion and water shortages begin to hit hard, priority and focus is now shifting back to the Institute, where growing the training program will increase the output of quality teachers to help fill the growing need for them.


  1. Northern Tasmania isn’t all that far behind (although with the soggy winter we just had…) summer seems to last forever down here and we get very little rainfall in the summer months. This information is relevant to we Aussies as much as it is to our American rellies. Cheers for sharing this :)

  2. I live in Tucson. Citrus trees aren’t native but do well. Generally people stick to drought resistant crops, or use tactics to reduce water use such as planting in shallow holes, mulching, recycling water, etc. We use recycled sewage water for grass at schools, apartments and businesses. I tend to stick with sun loving herbs like rosemary and sage because they do well in the clay soils, drought and sun. Only experienced individuals grow lush crops well… Tomatoes, peppers, things like that need much assistance here.

  3. Before the Spanish colonized, Tucson (Tsuk Shon, dark-changing water), had a water table so high, the Spanish couldn’t put in cellars. By the time Americans arrived, herding cattle to California for the China trade, they needed deeper wells. Now, the Santa Clara River is a joke, dusty and dry where once people fished for golden trout and enjoyed the water on hot days. as more people move to Baja Arizona, the level continues to drop. Water is ‘borrowed’ from the Native American reservations and returned by finally allowing water to leave the dams on the rivers. Why are ranchers still raising outsider crops? Local from Native American seed savers is the answer. Honey mesquite is a crop for the future, but not so long as the USDA continues it’s kill policy rather than help develop markets. Agave and other local produce are no less tasty than those raised in Mexico.

    1. Fred Dean But, Tucson gets the perfect amount of rain fall, less than 24 inches :) I’m pretty sure we couldn’t raise kumquats there, dates, and so on. Word is, you get snow, too. Nasty, especially the yellow stuff. :)

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