Map Guide to Water Harvesting at Los Angeles Eco-Village, 2008 - written and drawn by me, Joe Linton - click for larger image, link below for pdf of full booklet

Here’s a slightly out of date, but still mostly ok, map/guide to some water harvesting features at Los Angeles Eco-Village. This is part of an 8-page booklet (pdf) I made for the Landscape Rainwater Harvesting workshop where we started building las trincheras. The booklet owes a great deal to lessons I’ve learned from Brad Lancaster’s Rainwater Harvesting books.


This oak and others could buried any day now - unless you act to support it! Photo by permission of EcoToneStudios - All rights reserved

The story has been covered well by Josh Link at L.A. Creek Freak, Barbara Eisenstein at Weeding Wild Suburbia, and elsewhere, but I want to weigh in briefly on the threatened native oak woodlands site in Arcadia, which Los Angeles County Public Works department plans to bury with sediment.

The San Gabriel Mountains gradually wear down, through rain fall. Mountain streams carry sediment down steep hills and deposit sediment on flatter alluvial plains. This is a natural process;  it’s what created the alluvial places where nearly all Southern California residents live.

At a site along Highland Oaks Drive in the city of Arcadia, sediment from the Santa Anita Wash (an eastern tributary of the Rio Hondo and the Los Angeles River) has built up and now the county wants to deposit that wash sediment on top of an adjacent grove of oak trees. Sadly, the county sees this sediment – rich, wonderful soil – as a problem to get rid of – not as a resource. (more…)

Check out these videos about an apparently controversial Australian farmer who uses weeds and leaky contour check-dams to restore water to parched landscapes. Peter Andrews’ technique is called Natural Sequence Farming.


I recommend a couple of videos that I think are really inspiring for gardeners and farmers to grow our food in harmony with nature. They’re both from a site called which features lots of really informative talks about science, technology, creativity, brains, art…

Eduardo Sousa and his Geese

Eduardo Sousa and his Geese

The first talk is by a chef named Dan Barber. It’s all about a Spanish farmer named Eduardo Sousa. Sousa produces foie gras (French for “fat liver”)  a substance that I was unfamiliar with until I heard this talk. Foie gras a delicacy made from goose liver. Sousa farms in such a natural way that wild geese come to stay and live with his domesticated geese. The talk is about permaculture, slow food, history, and the joy of great food as the “expression of nature.” Barber’s excellent talk includes a quote I really liked – from Jonas Salk: “If all the insects disappear, life on earth as we know it would disappear within fifty years. If human beings disappeared, life on earth as we know it would flourish.”  

The second talk is  by Michael Pollan, who should be familiar with readers of this blog from this earlier post. His talk is sort of a  whirlwind tour of many of the themes his book The Botany of Desire. He suggests that we could see much of humanity as a vast conspiracy of “corn’s scheme for world domination.” The talk concludes with a great profile of Joel Salatin’s permaculture farm in Virginia which is “well beyond organic agriculture.” 

Don’t spend tooooo much time on, but check out these two talks, and let them inspire you to get out and garden!

Well, maybe it should be called mining urbanite? Urbanite is what we call the chunks of broken concrete that we use to build terraced garden bed projects like las trincheras. I didn’t coin the name urbanite… some visitor to eco-village many years ago called it that, and it stuck. I am a big proponent of urbanite and use lots of it in my garden.

LA Conservation Corps crew breaking up concrete for tree wells on Vermont Avenue.  Note my hand truck loaded up with urbanite in the foreground.

LA Conservation Corps crew breaking up concrete for tree wells on Vermont Avenue. Note my hand truck loaded up with urbanite in the foreground.

This week I was bicycling up Vermont Avenue, and, in front of the Rite-Aid just below 3rd Street I came upon a Los Angeles Conservation Corps crew. They were using a jackhammer to bust up concrete and create holes where street trees will be planted. There was a pile of rubble in their truck. I asked one of the crew if I could take some pieces. On my bike I could only take two pieces, which I carried under one arm.

I am really happy when I can get broken concrete within a mile or so of eco-village (during the shared street construction on our block each night I’d carry as much as I could,) that way I can harvest it without using fossil fuels. It’s great to be able to use waste where it’s generated. Sometimes, though, I across a big stash and then borrow a car or truck to haul it. Sometimes, I’ve been able to get folks to drop it off. They generally will need to pay a tipping fee to dump it at a landfill, so giving it to us saves them money.

When I got to eco-village I grabbed our hand truck and walked the two blocks back down to the site. I loaded it up with the nicest biggest pieces I could find. My general recommendation is that the really useful pieces are ones that are the size of a brick or larger. The bigger the better, as it’s easy to break pieces down, but impossible to put them back together.

The second, and somewhat heavier, load of urbanite, in front of the bicycle gate behind the Bimini Terrace

The second, and somewhat heavier, load of urbanite, in front of the bicycle gate behind the Bimini Terrace

I brought two loads of urbanite back to the village. The first load wasn’t so heavy, so then I proceeded to really load up the second time. It got too heavy to lift at that point, so I had to push it along the ground on four wheels. Thanks to Brad who I encountered waiting for the bus and who helped me get it up the curb ramp at 3rd and Vermont.

One urban permaculture strategy is to harvest the immense waste streams generated by our cities. Of course, nature is really good at this; the output from any natural process serves as the input for another. From trash to rainwater to sewage, we city folks generate and discard a lot of stuff that is really useful. If we’re going to live sustainably, then we need to close these loops; to use our outputs as input.

Clearly I can’t make a serious dent in the massive urban waste streams that are generated by the sprawling urbanity that is Los Angeles, but nonetheless, I am happy when I can divert some of our castaway things into good uses.

Nick, the security guard from the Taste and Style Plaza strip mall looks through the branches of the pomegranate at my haul of urbanite

Nick, the security guard from the Taste and Style Plaza strip mall, looks jealously through the bike gate and the branches of the pomegranate at my haul of urbanite!

I wanted to share this photo to show how the Bimini Terrace used to look before the bulb-out went in during the Spring of 2008.

This is the Bimini Terrace new terraced garden made with urbanite in 2006, before the bulb-out went in during the spring of 2008

This is the Bimini Terrace new terraced garden made with urbanite in 2006, before the bulb-out went in during the spring of 2008. Notice the street painting in the forefront which was part of the City Repair Project completed in 2005. The street paintings were covered up during the City's street construction program in 2008, so it was all newly asphalted. But-t-t-t, we hope to have another intersection repair project with all you great artists out there soon.

Las Trincheras - Passive Rainwater Harvesting Terraces at Los Angeles Eco-Village

Las Trincheras - Passive Rainwater Harvesting Terraces at Los Angeles Eco-Village

Like a proud parent, I want to show off pictures of “Las Trincheras” – the stepped terraces that harvest rainwater in my front yard. These are inspired by Brad Lancaster, the water harvestologist from Tucson Arizona, whose books include excellent instructions for creating simple gravity-fed earthworks that detain and infiltrate rainwater.

I live at Los Angeles Eco-Village – an intentional community located in Koreatown in Los Angeles. The first terraces were begun as part of a hands-on urban permaculture course I taught here in the summer of 2008.

Sloped Grassy Area prior to Building Terraces

Sloped Grassy Area prior to Building Las Trincheras

Here’s a photo of what the area looked like in early June 2008. The sloped grassy surface ushered water off onto the sidewalk, and into the street. From there the water heads through a storm drain and into Ballona Creek and the Santa Monica Bay. We decided that we’d rather slow down these raindrops, and invite them to soak into the ground, where they can help sustain plants and trees. On a small scale, This prevents flooding and pollution and augments local groundwater supplies. Indirectly, to the extent that it can offset use of imported water that is pumped here at great cost, it also saves energy which helps curb global warming, resource wars, and more.

The first step was to weed the site as thoroughly as possible. This takes a lot of time, but if you don’t do it you’ll get a lot of hard-to-pull weeds growing up throughout your terraces.

Also prior to the worshop I obtained a stash of broken concrete, which we call “urbanite.” I had been gathering this from various construction projects I would bike past in my neighborhood, but, for this larger project, I did recruit a truck to get larger quantities. Most crews will have to pay to dispose this stuff, so they’ll give it to you for free, if you’ll take it off their hands. If they don’t want to give it to you, try coming by their site at a little after 5pm and you should be able to harvest it. I’ve found that the most useful pieces are those at least larger than a brick.

In addition to the urbanite, we arranged for a truckload of chipped tree-trimmings to use as mulch. This is another resource that’s generally available for free, as tree-trimmers will pay to dispose of it. They’ll ususally drop it off, but our contacts will only drop off full truck loads. We have them dump it in the street, then we haul it off and use it for mulching paths, courtyards, etc.

Las Trincheras at the End of the Water Harvesting Workshop

Las Trincheras at the End of the Water Harvesting Workshop (with lots of mulch piled on)

This photo shows the extent of the project completed at the ten-person workshop – it takes a while to weed and to set each level, so after a 1-day workshop (about half of which was actual building work), all we’d finished was one low terrace – as well as the stairs on the right. Thanks to my friend/neighbor and co-workshop leader Federico who took charge of constructing the stairs. You might notice that the stairs drain slightly to the left, into the beds and away from the cob lizard bench.

As Lancaster’s book tells, one important component for successful rainwater harvesting is to keep these retaining walls level – the terrace follows the contour of the landscape. Level terraces spread water out laterally along the contour, instead of allowing it to run off downhill. Use a level (tool) to make sure – a nice 6′ foot level is best, but you can make do with smaller. The sidewalk at the bottom of the photo (actually permeable pavement from a city of Los Angeles pedestrianization project) is sloped to the left. The top of the terrace wall is level. The wall serves multiple purposes (permaculture principles call this “stacking functions”) – it serves as a retaining wall for the garden bed and is also just the right height for sitting on, so it also serves as a bench. I am happy to say that it sees plenty of use, especially during class breaks at the adult school at the end of the block.

Las Trincheras this week

Las Trincheras this week

Here’s another picture of the trincheras today.

One mistake that I made in building them was to add too much mulch to to the soil. It’s definitely very good to mulch on top of the soil – especially after young plants have become established. Mulch itself is a water harvesting feature – it acts like a kind of one-way valve for water. The water soaks into the soil through the mulch, but the mulch shades the soil which blocks the sun from drying it out. It’s difficult to get seeds to start in mulched areas (which is another good thing about mulch – it prevents weeds from getting started.) I wanted to get more organic matter into the soil, so we added compost – which is a great amendment, but we also added mulch into the soil. Don’t try this at home. As chunks of wood break down in the soil, the process fixes some nutrients. This makes some of the soil nutrients less available to plants. When I planted corn and beans, immediately after building the terraces, the plants turned a relatively pale yellowish green and their growth was stunted. I gave them compost tea and they yielded some, but, still, overall, they didn’t do as well as I expected. Over time, the wood does break down and releases the nutrients back into the soil. While doing all this, the bed actually grows quite a bit of mushrooms… perhaps I should have taken advantage of this and planted good edible fungi?

Just lately we’ve had some of our first significant rains, and the greens, chard, strawberries, onions, mizuna, arrugula, and artichokes I’ve planted there seem to be fairly well. The morning after recent rains, the terraces were very much saturated with rainwater they’d absorbed.

The New Trincheras made of Cinder Blocks

The Other Newer Trincheras made of Cinder Blocks

I also created this second group of terraces a couple weeks ago. I didn’t have enough broken concrete, so I used some cinder blocks that were lying around unused. I filled the blocks with soil and planted in them. I am hoping that the plants grow out nicely and soften the somewhat linear gray lines of the blocks.

If LA Eco-Village garden readers are interested in reading more about about water harvesting and other local water issues (with an emphasis on river restoration and revitalization) you may want to check out the L.A. Creek Freak Blog, where I’ve cross posted this.