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West Texas home gardener makes personal mark in oil patch

Emmy Ulmschneider grows dwarf pomegranates, olives, almonds, artichokes, black-eyed peas, bananas and more than 40 other edible plants. She collects rainwater in a 500-gallon tank, cooks in a solar-powered oven and raises chickens — all within Midland city limits.

The Midland Reporter-Telegram reports the secret, she said, is knowledge.

A former science teacher at Carver Center, Ulmschneider has been a Texas Master Gardener since 2004. She said she learned gardening from her mother but found the West Texas climate temperamental when she moved to Midland in 1981.

"When I moved down here, I couldn't grow a thing," she said. "I just was so frustrated, so I joined master gardeners."

The advice she would give to anyone wanting to start their own garden, whether for plants or crops, would be to do their homework. Ulmschneider started with two beds of native plants, or plants accustomed to the region and its desert climate.

Native plants attract native bees and other pollinators, which are in a global decline. Beekeepers in the United States reported hive losses up to 40% in 2014, according to a report from the University of Maryland.

Ulmschneider said Midland does little to combat the pollinator problem.

"If you were a bee or a butterfly flying over, all you'd see is essentially lawn that doesn't provide any value, food, water or shelter," she said.

After the native beds, Ulmschneider began growing fruits, vegetables and herbs, such as sour cherries, goji berries, Brussel sprouts, carrots, peppers and asparagus. She has vegetable gardens in her front yard, backyard and the alleyway behind her house in north Midland.

She said she's able to balance native plants and crops with "transplants," or non-natives, by attracting local pollinators.

"Our native bees provide the bulk of pollination for our food crops," she said. "A lot of people tell me 'Well, I can't grow tomatoes, or I can't grow this,' and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, that's probably right — because you don't have any pollinators.'"

Another factor in attracting pollinators is providing shelter for them, Ulmschneider said. She uses bee boxes to provide habitats for them, as well as twig bundles she ties together with electrical wire and hangs for bees to burrow into.

Ulmschneider spends only a couple hours a week maintaining her gardens, she said. Occasionally there are more intense periods that require more work, such as in February, when she clears out dead growth, which can take up to 20 hours because of the size of her yard, she said.

An added benefit of native plants, she said, is that they require very little water to maintain because they've adapted to the environment. Ulmschneider said she rarely waters her native plants and they'll go dormant over the winter season.

For the plants that do require water, she uses a variety of methods to collect water rather than use the tap.

Ulmschneider collects rainwater in a 500-gallon tank linked to her gutters, which then feeds through a drip irrigation system back to the plants that need it. She also collects the condensation from her air conditioning unit with a tube attached to it.

She recently installed a system that sends the "grey water," or used water, from her washing machine beneath the land's surface to mulch basins in her backyard, where the water collects and gets distributed to those plant beds.

Besides collecting water manually, she uses the earth as a sponge. Ulmschneider said she uses organic soil that she composts in the backyard to absorb water. And in the front yard, she designed her patio to be porous and collect stormwater runoff.

She said she makes such an effort to reduce her water footprint because it's a misconception that water is an unlimited resource.

"Water to us is invisible," she said. "We have no idea how much we use, and it's extremely cheap. At our current water rates, we could buy 74 half-liter bottles for a nickel."

There are also incorrect assumptions about what can be done at the individual level to reduce water consumption, she said.

"If all you're going to teach kids about water or water conservation is you should turn off the tap while you brush your teeth, you haven't done anything," Ulmschneider said. "Seventy percent of your water bill is put out on a lawn."

She also reduces her electrical usage by using solar power. There are 16 solar panels on her roof that have reduced the electricity she uses from the power grid to virtually nothing, except in the summer when her electricity bill is at most $80 a month.

On her back patio, Ulmschneider has a solar-powered oven she equates to a crock pot. She said she can place her meals inside and let them cook all day — the temperature goes up to 150 degrees to 200 degrees, so the food never burns.

Ulmschneider said she thinks some people are discouraged from installing solar panels because of the high upfront cost. Her panels cost about $24,000, she said.

"I won't see the return on my money unless I stay in the house more than, well — depending on the cost of electricity — 10 to 12 years," she said. "Which a lot of people don't plan on doing because we have a very short mindset."

Ulmschneider started raising chickens in 2013. Midlanders are permitted to have four chickens in city limits — her current bunch are named Esther, Eula, Stevie and Phil.

She said it has been a learning curve.

"When I got them, I thought, 'I'm just going to let them free range everywhere,'" she said. "'It's going to be wonderful. We're all going to hold wings and sing 'Kumbaya.'"

In reality, she said she had to fence them off in a particular section of the yard to protect her plants and crops from getting torn up.

She also learned that eggs are a seasonal product and chickens produce fewer eggs in the winter when there's fewer daylight hours. She said she averages about two eggs a day.

Ulmschneider said she rarely goes to the grocery store because she eats the produce she grows seasonally. She doesn't usually eat meat and she bakes her own bread.

"I decide what I'm going to eat, I go out and I see what looks good," she said.

Ulmschneider gave a presentation on sustainability to the Midland City Council in 2010. It was part of Midland Vision 2020, which was meant to provide a 10-year plan of objectives for the city.

"Boy, I might as well have had green horns sticking out of my head," she said of the experience.

The council did not implement her suggestions, which included adding more open green expanses and capitalizing on the region's natural assets, such as sun and wind. Ulmschneider said renewable energy is a "dirty word" in the fossil fuel-dependent Permian Basin.

She said she believes part of the reluctance in moving toward more sustainable practices is that most Midlanders don't plan to live here longer than a few years and are more concerned with immediate obstacles, such as roads and housing.

"When people come to Midland, they're just focused on being here short-term and then out of here," she said. "And they don't understand these larger issues.

"There's so many things that could be done and done in a much better way than what Midland is doing. But it takes, I think, the trust and desire to do that."

She said since then, she'd focused on what she can do on an individual level.

"The only thing that I can influence is my own individual space," Ulmschneider said. "And hopefully I can provide an example that maybe might touch some people's lives. I think that's the only thing that one can do."

Ulmschneider compared species of plants and animals dying off worldwide to rivets coming off an airplane wing. When a couple of rivets come off the wings, we think it'll be fine, she said — but the more rivets come off, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

"Those are species because it's that variety of individual species and ecosystems that keeps those systems intact," she said. "And we don't know how much is enough to unravel things."

She said she doesn't believe change will come from "shaking a finger," or telling people how much money they'll save growing their own food and reducing their water and electricity bills.

"The moment we put a dollar amount on it, it turns people off," Ulmschneider said. "The only thing that might move people to saving and preserving these ecosystems which preserve our lives is the fact that we find joy in it. It's not the head values - those monetary things - it's the heart values.

"There is no dollar amount that you can put on some of the things that I've seen in my yard."

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Information from: Midland Reporter-Telegram, http://www.mywesttexas.com

This is an AP Weekend Member Exchange shared by the Midland Reporter-Telegram

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