Friday, November 27, 2009

Attacking the Biomass

Quite a few years ago, the thought came to me:  "If you've got it, flaunt it."  "It" being in this case, plenty of water.  So I turned my place into a jungle.  I planted trees, vines, and shrubs, and before long my homestead became very un-desertlike.  Once some visitors told me that my place reminded them of Hawaii.  This was just the effect I had been aiming for, but eventually I discovered that things had gotten out of hand.
We have a shallow water table here, so plant roots can easily tap into unlimited groundwater.  This allows them to grow uncontrollably.  The first plants I had to remove were the Rio Grande willows I had planted along the river side of the house.  They turned our yard into a wonderful shady refuge from the hot sun, but their heavy branches were growing out over the house.  When I started cutting them back, I discovered that a single firewood-length piece was almost too heavy to lift.  I calculated that each branch weighed a ton or more, and would crush my roof if they were ever blown down by the wind.

That was my first major biomass removal project.  I couldn't reach many of the branches, so I hired a tree service to take down the rest of the trees.  That was early '06.  Last winter I hired a crew to cut down the cane along the river, and a Russian Olive hedge growing north of the house.  This winter we'll be attacking the vines.  I learned that if you give them unlimited water, vines will grow rampantly, and will soon become a fire hazard.  I'm much more paranoid about fire since the big fire two winters ago that destroyed a neighbor's house.  One thing about fire:  the danger isn't just from proximity to the fire itself, but also from falling embers that can be carried quite some distance from the fire.  So from a fire-prevention point of view, the vines have got to go.

First, here's a picture showing how vines can be sculpted into magical hobbit-hole passageways.  Vines can be way cool if you don't have to worry about fire:

Here's a before/after series from the northeast corner of the papercrete office.  I had planted a jasmine vine in 2000, and since then it had taken over two sides of the office, and half the roof.  If it wasn't for the fire hazard aspect, the vine would be very useful for welcome relief from the hot desert sun:


After.  Laura did this by herself on Tuesday while I nailed the rafters for the tool shed. 

Here's another set, taken from the southeast corner:

Before.  Perennial vines put on a layer of new growth each summer, leaving a thatch of dried twigs and leaves inside.  After 10 years, this vine was about 18" thick.

After.  There's a building under there!  Notice the ivy growing up the wall.  With unlimited sunlight, the ivy will now take over if I let it.  Ivy is a whole other post.  On the right side of the picture is a clump of honeysuckle growing alongside the house.  The jasmine and honeysuckle bloomed at the same time, so we had "dueling fragrances" each spring.  We'll be taking down the honeysuckle later this winter, but will allow it to regrow.  The jasmine will be Roundupped into oblivion.  Sometimes Roundup is the most realistic biomass management tool.

"Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" as they say.  I just didn't wish for a jungle, I worked very hard to make it happen.  Yet another of dozens of "live and learn" experiences.  Stay tuned for further biomass adventures!