Greener than green

Remember back when talk of green building was cause for deep-seated suspicion? Remember when President Reagan removed the solar panels from the roof of the White House? Well we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

I ran into some old friends this weekend, and they we’re telling me all about their passive solar home in the hills of rural Sonoma County. Every aspect of the home’s design was intended to integrate with the surrounding forest, conserve energy and minimize environmental impact. They built it all themselves, and the pictures were beautiful.

Consistent with their desire to exalt all things renewable and sustainable, they even planted several varieties of bamboo on the property. “We expected this huge forest of bamboo,” they told me, and then went on to describe their meager results.

True enough, bamboo is considered to be about the fastest growing plant on the planet (surpassed only be a couple types of seaweed). So where did they go wrong?

Well, it’s hard to know exactly without some closer examination, but when it comes to gardening, there’s nothing “greener” than native landscaping. Native plants have co-evolved for the best match to the soil and the climate; they have established relationships with local birds, insects and other wildlife; and they will not attract invasive, non-native pests and predators.

When it comes to sustainable resources, you can’t get much greener than bamboo, but it is certainly not a native California grass. Looking again at these photos of the Sonoma County countryside, I noticed something. There’s gold in them hills! Golden-brown, that is. An obviously arid landscape. Not the kind of place where tropical, Asian grasses will thrive.

OK, I don’t know if they planted tropical varieties or not, for there are some 1500 species of bamboo. But in any case, bamboo is a grass, and it does like regular water. But it doesn’t need good, clean water; in fact, dirty, brackish water is just fine. And that makes it a perfect candidate for planting around the grey water outfall. Of course, a home just isn’t green without a good grey water recycling system, pumping the dirty, used water from the sinks, baths and appliances (but not the toilets) right into the garden.

Ideally, unless the property is all perfectly flat, the grey water should come out onto a slope, so that it can run downhill and cover the most territory, rather than pooling all in one spot. Now bamboo makes a pretty good filter of dirty water, not that your dishwater would need filtering before it hits your lettuce, but it couldn’t hurt. Furthermore, bamboo’s got pretty shallow roots — extensive and convoluted, but not particularly deep. So the grey water could run past the bamboo, keeping it happy and moist, and still provide thorough irrigation to the the veggies.

On the other hand, if you’d rather keep your veggies within sight, and then run a privacy hedge of bamboo on the outer perimeter, that would work just as well. It all comes down to personal preferences and the specific terrain of the property you’re planting on.

Statistics indicate that about 70% of household water could be classified as grey water and reused for irrigation. That’s an awful lot of water that would otherwise go to waste and end up at your friendly neighborhood sewage treatment facility, when you could be beautifying your landscape and growing your own food instead. It’s as easy as this.

For more info, stop by Bambu Batu and check some of our books on green building or just come in and talk to Fred about gardening.

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