Small Batch Garden

Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Years at Rivenwood - A Spring Photorama!

Let's start with Easter...

This is Tyson.  He was a gift from some new friends just a day or two before he met his demise...

This is also Tyson, a couple of days later.  He was a really fat turkey, but made fantastic stock.

This has nothing to do with Tyson.  These are chicken eggs being dyed for Easter with natural vegetable dyes, these with boiled onion skins.  I traded a couple dozen strawberry crowns for a pile of white eggs from some homesteading friends nearby.  We normally don't have white eggs, so the timing was perfect.

Here's the finished product.  What great variation compared to the FD&C-approved version!  The red-brown ones are the onion skin dyed eggs, the purple ones were done with beets, the blue with purple cabbage, and the gold with turmeric.  All in a grapevine basket made by my grandfather.  The variation within one color was due to trying a brown egg with each dye, and the botanical prints were just random things collected from the kitchen garden held fast with pantyhose.

First spinach thinnings of the season were combined with early wild spring greens and edible flowers to round out our dinner offerings to the potluck with friends.  (Forgot to take a picture of the finished product unfortunately...)  That Grandfather sure makes some nice baskets!  And the young spinach was top shelf.

Wide overview of the developing kitchen garden.

Asian pear, rabbiteye blueberry, rhubarb, horseradish, and comfrey polyculture below the bath house.  Strawberries would probably match up well here too, as a groundcover, but the terrain is too steep for the tedious picking involved.

A view to the south-southwest through the woods.  The chicken tractor has been picking its way along new paths all winter, and will hopefully arrive on the other end of the kitchen garden just in time to join the new spring pullets in an as-yet-unbuilt coop and yard when the latter are big enough to defend themselves against the old broads!

View through the Asain pear-blueberry polyculture back across the bottom of the kitchen garden.  White flowers in the background are native dogwoods toward the end of their bloom. We are fortunate to have lots of them. 

New white-fleshed peach polyculture under development on the near end of a strawberry-rhubarb patch.

Trusty old low tunnel hoops that will be packed up for the season by the next post.  The Swiss chard in the middle of this bed made it through a pretty harsh winter undercover.  The near greens are the remaining spring spinach seedlings that didn't get pulled for Easter potluck.  To the left is another peach-centered polyculture, this one planted last spring.

My favorite!  Dinosaur kale.  Or Tuscan kale...or Lacinato kale...whatever you want to call it.

A nectarine polyculture holding down the north end of the strawberry-rhubarb bed.  So far I've companion-planted my Prunus species fruit with comfrey, valerian, sweet mint, lemon balm, sage, self-heal, and perennial onions around the base to repel voles.  Left to add this season are yarrow, bee balm, Fanny's aster, and black-eyed Susans.  You can see the first comfrey tops of the season cut and laid down as a fertilizing mulch to the right of the rocked off area.  We'll get much larger dressings of comfrey later this season.  I just wanted to remove flowering tops for now, until they get bigger.

More of last spring's peaches and plums, with spring pullets in the little tractor in the middle ground, and pink native azaleas in the background outside the kitchen garden.

The new girls.  They are the first stage of any new garden bed 'round here.

My doe rabbit trio in the process of building a new large bed above this Asian plum.

A new Euro plum whip backed by those pretty native azaleas I mentioned earlier.  We now have quite a collection of colorful plums, and I'm just getting started...

You gotta have nuts too.  I mean, in the garden.  (Or to do what we did in the tent.  Either way.)  This is a Chinese chestnut holding down the hillside above the near-future chicken yard.  I'll be adding in some blight-resistant American chestnuts soon, a pair of pecans and an almond or two to try out in this climate, a bunch of hazelnuts, and nut pines in the dry spots. 

Bridging kitchen garden and big garden tours, I've included one shot of hard structural changes.  We added in a 120 gallon propane tank last fall that supplies a gas cooktop and a space heater to back up the old wood cookstove (which worked brilliantly all winter, by the way, for heating and cooking).  I also moved the water tank from below the house to this spot above the house, trying to get more pressure to garden hoses (and potentially a kitchen sink).  It's now ready to be plumbed into the near side of the roof for rainwater collection, which should happen pretty soon.

Picture's a little shaky, sorry, but you've seen this garden before.  Only, each year it moves more toward perennial fruit and herb production, and away from veggies.

Elephant garlic, old raspberries, comfrey, new raspberries, and a whole bunch of garlic (and a few vagrant broccolis that didn't get the message about the fruit/herb thing).

35' of raspberries in their third season.  Should get a full yield this year, and last year's wasn't bad...raspberry jam for Christmas anyone?  To go with the blueberry and blackberry of last year?

This is 35' of new raspberries planted last fall out of the other bed.  (Recently weeded, so a bit ugly, sorry.)  This will give us a summer raspberry snack while they get established.  We hacked the old crop back to get one big fall crop out of this primocane variety, instead of the summer crop it bears on old wood and fall crop on primocanes.

We're slowly building up stocks of the herbs we use most, and comfrey deserves its spot at the top of that list.  Despite recent FDA propaganda (don't worry, if you haven't heard the new slander of comfrey from the establishment, give it time), comfrey is one of the most useful plants on Earth, and one of the brightest stars in our herbal lineup from Small Batch Garden.  Lavender, garlic maybe, few plants should be loved more.  I hate the FDA.  With all my heart.

Speaking of garlic!  I'm growing a whole bunch of 3 varieties this year.  More than I probably should, considering my limited space.  But we should have an ample supply for my garlic-loving household to eat (children included), to plant next year, and to sell some for seed stock.  Funny thing, I planted exactly 365 cloves.  Accidentally.  

Big sweet blackberries coming along nicely, already in flower.  I should be doubling or tripling them this season.

Lots of great blueberries.  But this is not the big crop!  This is the snack aisle...
There's a long mound of strawberries to the right, and a long mound of asparagus to the right of that.

Aren't these pretty?  Just some native woodland irises.

View of the 'stead from down the hill.  We haven't made a real impression on the landscape yet, but we're getting there.

And that's a wrap!
I got mono a month ago - worst thing ever - and it set me back hard on spring preparations.  One more reason to focus on perennial food crops!!  I'm just now beginning to feel better, but I have every intention of kicking a lot of ass the rest of this year.  So much to do, so I better get to it.  But I'll stop back by and catch you up again as soon as I can.

Happy Spring!  Enjoy those gardens.
Tripp out.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Outlier Generation

Never was there a stranger time and place to live than the United States of America between 1940 and the present.  Failure to understand this simple sentence lies at the heart of most of the modern world's biggest problems and predicaments.  For obvious reasons, we've always called them the "baby boomers," but from now on I'm going to start referring to them as "the outlier generation," because, let's be honest, they're a pretty odd bunch.  Let me show you just HOW odd they are:

All things begin with energy, and so this discussion will too.  Between 1930 and 2005, a mere 75 years, roughly the average life expectancy of one human in the U.S.A. today, fully HALF of the planet's stores of fossil fuels were dug out of the ground and burnt.  Wait.  Back up for a second.  I know that must seem like a whole lot of black stuff at first glance, but let's break it down a little more thoroughly.  What we're talking about here is approximately half a billion years of ancient sunlight, fossilized solar power, laid down, submitted to the awesome span of geologic time and pressurized by an immeasurable overburden, until Earth's most stable, most portable, most energetically-dense resources emerged on the near side of the fossil fuel revolution about 300 years ago.  At least that's when we began learning how to put the stuff to work.  Although petroleum didn't really make its debut until about 1850, and didn't hit its stride, in return-on-investment (ROI) terms, for almost another century.  It was just peaking, just really coming into its own, when the baby boomers - er, that is, the outliers - got their first spankings.  This was the energy reality into which they were born.  History's greatest energy gift of all time was laid at their feet like so much gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

It's no wonder they think energy grows on trees.  Nor is it surprising that such opulence might foster the attitudes about energy so prevalent in their minds today.  No amount of monkeying around with amorphous silicon plates, giant wind turbines, hydro-electric dams, nuclear fission, ocean currents (please), hydrogen (snicker), ethanol (guffaw), or any other more or less esteemed member of the vaporware club, will EVER replace half a billion years of conveniently portable, and energetically super-dense ancient sunlight.  Not even close.  What it will do is give them a lot to chatter about, those monkeys, some poo to throw around in self-important ways, and lots of monkey biscuits for slick articles to be written about for publishing in slick monkey magazines.  That level of natural-born affluence makes for a helluva lot of hubris, and that's a character quality the outliers possess in spades.

So what's after energy?  Other natural resources?  Good.  Let's go there next.  Americans, lead by the outlier generation of course, "only" use 25% of the world's annual energy budget (that's 5% of the global population, mind you), but fully 1/3 of its natural resources and industrial product.  Apparently, energy isn't the ONLY thing that grows on trees.  Trees also grow on trees, and I guess they all belong to the outlier generation.  Which I suppose is OK; I mean, it's not like we need them for rain or oxygen or to prevent topsoil erosion or anything important like that.  How many of the world's houses do you figure this one generation owns?  I wonder.  You know, I'm going to go out on a limb and say roughly the same percentage as the amount of Earth's fossil fuels they feel entitled to.  Roughly half.  Half of all Earthling homes are owned by the outliers.  [I don't really care if I'm talking out of my backside at this point - my snarkiness is in free-range mode now and it has to fly.  Besides, I bet I'm not that far off...].  

What else?  Oh yeah, from my last post, rock phosphate is in terminal decline after 75 years of outlier amok-running.  There goes industrial ag!  Copper is all but gone in any sort of useful concentration outside of the recycling bin.  Iron ain't far behind.  Coal is currently peaking. There goes industrial everything else!  Fresh water is in red-line.  The very air is tainted and toxic.  Estuaries are dead and bloated.  So much for seafood!  I'm glad nobody outside the outlier generation likes lobster and crab, or tuna; that makes this less painful.  And what's left is priced so high that only they can afford it.  Which is good, because it all belongs to them, right?  Thousands upon thousands of the world's life forms have gone extinct during their tenure.  More humans are enslaved than ever before to bring them their pie at discount prices.  The list is exhausting.  I thought this would be a bright spot after energy.  Let's move on.

What's next?  We now see that fresh water is something we've been graciously afforded a whiff of by its owners.  Mmmm.  I liked it.  Water.  Shhh.  Don't tell the Californians that we have a little left here in Georgia.  Quick, change the subject!  How about food.  Food?  Nah, we're gonna need to convert it all to fuel for the masters' cars once the remaining garbage oil gets too hard to extract.  Too bad there's no actual net energy yield from the ethanol-making process.  Ah well, we can't be bothered with pedestrian interests like thermodynamics at this point!  To the moon!!  There's a lot of corn out there that hasn't realized its full potential yet.  Feeding 3rd world Gen Xers is hardly a noble vision when the outliers haven't quite attained their foot-propped Jetson's fantasy of full automation just yet.  Never mind the legions of unemployed that could really use one of those jobs they're still trying to automate.  They control the unemployment statistics, so it's not actually a problem.  On the upside, there'll be plenty of corn liquor to take our minds off things, available via nothing more complicated than a decent gas tank siphon, once we've fracked the last of the drinking-quality water into oblivion.  [I joke here, but the truly sad part is that another generation of water flushing toilet users would be all it takes to finish off that pesky fresh water business.  No, seriously.  Attention, Outlier grandparents, be sure to finish what you started!  Teach those grandkids how to waste precious resources appropriately!  We don't want future generations getting all uppity, thinking they can be Outliers too...]  I didn't actually get into the real crazy of the outliers' anomalous food traditions, but it's probably worth an entire post of its own anyway...

Whew.  OK.  We've covered the extreme anomalies of outlier existence in the realms of energy and natural resources, and water and food.  How about medicine?  Why not.  I'm an herbalist, like 99 out of 100 humans who came before me, and who will come after me, after the influence of the outlier generation has lost its luster.  Or feasibility.  Or mesmerizing effects.  Or corporate sponsorship.  However you want to look at it.  Look, we KNOW that using "silver bullet" medicine creates a favorable environment for microbial resistance to evolve rapidly.  Plant medicine does not.  We KNOW that dozens of diseases and infirmities are rampant today that were hardly a passing concern before the outlier generation.  Things like diabetes, especially Type II, cancer, heart disease, auto-immune dysfunction, autism, ADHD, BSE, AIDS, MRSA.  On and on and on.  Plant medicine didn't create these problems.  But plant medicine will eventually come to the rescue.  It's the only approach that can.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, and the outliers are as crazy as they come.  They attempt to fix the problems of technology with more technology.  They attempt to ameliorate the modern world's mountain of medical problems with the same medicine that created them.  They generally assume that hard limits are a problem for shallow minds, and that simplicity can be bought and sold, and isn't it a cute fad?  And why not?  They've been able to buy any other solution they wanted.  It makes sense.  And it's not really their fault.  Winning the lottery at every turn has surprisingly predictable results.  Probably doesn't help their attitude to call them predictable, but hey, there it is.  They're very different from the rest of us.  They're outliers, by nurture, not by some flaw in their nature.  They lived during the most anomalous age in human history; they're bound to be different.  Unfortunately, they control the world's political machinery, its news media, its guns, and the lion's share of its property and money.  They can be whoever they want to be, through force and coercion.  

But they aren't completely resigned to their fate.  There are plenty of boomers out there who recognize the predicament of our age, who are hell-bent on being a real part of the solution, instead of perpetuating the problem that they had a big part in creating.  But those real solutions don't reside in Congress or the White House.  They don't respond to throwing good money after bad.  They don't come out of research universities.  They come from using less.  They come from slowing down and being still, not from traveling to poor countries to hand out medicine, or visit indigenous shamans.  They come from recognizing that business as usual is suicidal, homicidal really, considering that most of them will be dead and gone before the stuff really makes contact with the fan.  They came, they saw, they used it all up, and now they're doing their level best to figure out how to keep the carousel spinning.  And of course they did, and are.  We would have, and would be too, given the same circumstances.  But that wasn't our lot, and the rest of us will be left with the task of sorting through the rubble of the industrial age and trying to figure out what works and what doesn't.  

Most of what the Outliers think is normal will fall into the latter category.  I actually pity them.

Tripp out.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Composting Toilet - I Know, But You Have To...

I've used one for so long now that I dislike using the "standard" water- and fertility-wasting version that Americans everywhere use.  But it wasn't that long ago that I too found the idea, well, dirty.  Bring up the subject among the uninitiated and before the dialogue goes very far at all you'd better be prepared to field wrinkled faces, upturned noses, and 5 year old arguments, like,


Yep, that's the standard logic.  You do what??  Compost our wastes, yes, you heard me.  And not just kitchen scraps, leaves, and livestock poo, either.  Our own human wastes.  Number 1 and number 2.

"You mean, kind of like a kitty litter box?"

Yeah, sort of, except that we don't scratch around in it once it's been used, it gets dumped the second  it's full, and it doesn't stink to high heavens.  Doesn't stink at all actually.  And it's much cuter.

And here's the thing.  It's dang near impossible for me to come up with one single easier change you could make in your life that would have a more positive impact on the planet's health (or the persistence of humanity).

Think about it.  Fresh water is both a finite commodity on this planet - the only planet we'll ever live on, by the way - and the single most important resource in our lives, excepting perhaps oxygen.  And how do we treat it with standard flush toilets?  Like shit.  Literally.  It's like pulling down your pants and taking a dump on your mother.  We take a gallon and a half of this most precious substance - drinking quality water - and flush it down the toilet every time we wish to rid our homes of a pint of piss.  Piss that, I might add, is loaded with nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace minerals.  Dilute it, at least 10:1,  and you have an excellent liquid fertilizer (that also repels deer).

Ever heard of peak phosphorus?  If not, it's time you did.  See, industrial agriculture relies heavily on rock phosphate to fertilize our major food crops, and when you do anything on the scale that industrial agriculture does things, you need a pretty large amount of pretty high quality material to fit your production scheme.  And, as with all finite resources on finite planets, both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality decline with use over time.  Rock phosphate supplies have already peaked and are in decline.  There is no debate raging over the subject.  High quality rock phosphate supplies are on their way out for good.  And get this: we also make herbicides out of the stuff!  That's right, we take a major nutrient, vital for plant growth, whose supplies are in terminal decline, and warp and twist it into chemicals that KILL plants!  Oh, sweet irony...

But wait, there's an upside, too.  Peak phosphorus and declining rock phosphate quantity and quality only matter if you get your food from the industrial food supply that relies on it!  It isn't a problem for all of us who grow our food organically, at home, and recycle all of our bodily wastes back into the soil.  So you're all set, right?  I thought so.  There are a dozen ways to collect phosphorus from your surroundings, every day, and composting toilets are right up there at the top of the list.  Easy peasy.

So now that you've started using a composting toilet, you're NOT wasting tens of thousands of gallons of drinking quality water every year, water that won't find its way back into your aquifer within your or your grandchildren's lifetime, nor are you flushing away vital nutrients, nutrients that are in increasingly short supply globally every year, in such a cavalier way, as if the nutrient fairy will just show up with a fresh supply when you run low.

And no, there is no danger from pathogens.  Gut microbes like E. coli live in very specialized, temperature controlled environments, like, well, your gut, and compost piles are a very hostile place for them.  They don't stand a chance in there.  That objection you're waving your hand about right now is simply part of your cultural programming (the 5 year old part).  Cultural programming that, I might add, is currently destroying humankind's ability to continue enjoying this fine little planet we call home.  But don't worry about it too much, I'm sure another planet will show up when we need one.  Or the Rapture.  Or the Singularity.  Or the...

Welcome to the composting toilet day...when you grow up.

Tripp out.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Inflection Point

Not just a moment, but a blinding flash of mental clarity overtook me 6 years ago when I was sitting at my computer listening to an interview with David Holmgren.  A couple of days ago I celebrated that milestone and took the opportunity to reflect on what exactly that experience meant.  And here's what I've come up with:

"Epiphanies" are amazing moments.  When you have one, it elevates and excites you, gives you a sense of renewed purpose, makes you feel in command of your relationship to the world around you.  And then, if it was a true epiphany, the work begins.  I mistook that flash of light 6 years ago as "enlightenment," when what it really was was an inflection point.  It didn't impart some superior knowledge to me, all at once, that would help me navigate the world in fine fashion.  And it didn't make me luminous, nor give me the ability to travel through time.

What it DID do was redirect my focus.  It gave me a brand new starting point, a new foundation, from which to explore the world and my relationship to it.  I was already an ecologist before that moment - it wasn't like I had to start from the angle of, say, a derivatives trader - but this was revolutionary, even to an ecologist.  My relationship with the universe would never again bear any resemblance to the form it took before January 21st, 2009.

Since that time, however, the nitty gritty of living that new vision, day-to-day, has formed the backbone and supervisor of my new ideology.  Several times I wanted to give it up, take a regular job, pay a mortgage and car payment for a normal house and nicer car, put the dishes in the dishwasher, take a hot shower the very second I wanted one, nuke some leftovers, adjust the thermostat and sit down to veg on some TV.

My life is nothing like that.  And it takes a not-insignificant amount of willpower to keep it that way.

The planet is groaning under the weight of fossil-fueled excess.  Swimming in embarrassing seas of garbage placed out of sight and out of mind.  Warming steadily, and yes, made worse by our sheer population and level of activity, whatever the background oscillation might look like.  Rising seas are not an issue to be addressed at some later, more convenient date, but something that is already displacing and destroying one island and coastal population after another.  Within a century sea levels will have displaced potentially half of the global population.  Where will they go?  What will become of New Orleans? Venice?  Miami?  Amsterdam?  Will those people move to north Georgia? The French countryside?  Utah?

A lot of those upland locales will be suffering from their own problems.  Increasing immigration and resource shortfalls notwithstanding.  In the southwest and mountain west of the United States, a tiny, and much hardier, fraction of the current population will get by in crispy desert conditions.  I'd be surprised if anyone is still even faking a plush green lawn.  Rain belts will continue to shift, making formerly reliable agricultural zones a lot less reliable.  Topsoil erosion will continue apace as farmers try to squeeze every calorie possible from their land to feed a slightly larger, if not slimmer, population, before human numbers begin to decline again.  The obese should already be morbidly embarrassed for their gluttony in the face of so much, again current, poverty and malnourishment.  Undernourished populations aren't something that technology and science are going to "fix."  It's an unfortunate state of affairs that will spread gradually across the planet for a long time to come.  This is already happening.  People need to wake up to the daylight reality of petroleum's decline, a global economy circling the drain, currencies on the verge of collapse, geopolitical upheaval, and a whole bunch of commodities that define the industrial way of life approaching a forced redefinition as "non-resources."  After all, if you get less out than you put in, eventually you're going to stop investing.  May take some stupifyingly long periods of time to sink in, but eventually it'll get tossed.  Ethanol comes to mind.

Again, I hope my language (and emphasis) makes the point that the decline we're dealing with is not some beast to slay off in the future.  The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the pace of global shipping, fell from 2200 to 800 last year.  Whatever the units, that's a steep year-over-year decline.  And it's not a glut of oil; it's demand destruction.  The average human on Earth is considerably poorer than they were a year ago.  They aren't buying as much stuff.  Industrial decline is inevitable following the peaking of global oil production, a predicament to be adapted to, not a problem to be fixed.  All the shiny alternatives rely on cheap oil.  Nuclear doesn't exist without an enormous government subsidy.  I'll let you ponder why any government would go to such expense.  Technologies like Oceanic Thermal, salt fusion, and so forth, currently being trotted out as new energy saviors, have been on the "Not Thermodynamically Possible" shelf for decades.  As John Michael Greer basically said in his post last week, let's at least come up with something novel if we're going to trot it out to bamboozle the masses for a little while.

But one thing that seems certain to me is that most people will come up with a darn good reason not to take any of this seriously.  We can blame it on the Russians, or the Ukrainians, or the Saudis, or the Chinese, or the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the "brown" people, or the "devil," or the referees at the Seahawks game.  Anybody, ANYBODY, so long as we don't have to bring our own lives under scrutiny.  We'll make up plenty of cloak and dagger stories about the "end times," and, to be honest, there's no lack of that excuse being utilized among the non-religious set, too.  "It'll be over soon, so it's not really my problem."  "We're special, so our apocalypse will be special too."  Yeah, and it'll probably be the end of the world as we know it, right?

Right.  Except that we'll still be here.  And energy will still be harder to come by every generation.  And still less food will make it onto the average Earthling's plate, regardless of address.  And still the climate will continue destabilizing.  It is OUR problem.  There's no easy way out, no quick and painless option, no rescue, nor rescuer.  But again, I'd bet my last dollar that most people won't listen, and fewer will act.  And that's why I keep doing what I'm doing.  It's not all going to fall apart tomorrow, or this year, or this decade, but the long slow collapse is already underway, and we need to have models of radically-lower energy households out there to observe and critique.  And we need the next gen innovators to live even LOWER energy lives.  I want people out there who make ME feel like an energy hog.  We need to be making mistakes now, while we can afford them, and sharing what we've learned.  And fortunately for all of us, there are countless people out there doing it already.  But we need more variety.  We need tons of different strategies, and approaches, and philosophies, and technologies, and folks willing to be weird.  This isn't a time for herding.  We need cellular adaptation - this works here on a small scale, let's try it next door, or the next county over.  Or this really isn't working, and I need to chuck it no matter how much I've invested in it.

What we definitely DON'T need is great master plans, or more government largesse, or singularities, or new world orders, or salvation from the great god Technology, or daydreams about population and affluence rising in lockstep, or this gadget saving the day, or this vaporware making the nightmare go away.

We just need to be still.  We need to stop doing so much.  Stop spending so much.  Stop making up excuses to stay comfy and ignorant.  The planet is already in the process of scratching off its fleas.  Don't tickle.  Don't bite.  Just be still.

Rant off.
Tripp out.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Tribute

For everyone who has helped us out this year, and anyone who visits my little blog...I hope you enjoy this performance masterpiece engineered by my 11-year-old niece (cause heaven knows I couldn't have done it!).  Cheers.  And have a wonderful new year.  ;o)Tripp


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Promises, Promises

What a dirty stinking liar I am!  Not only did I not get back to my blog "soon," but my absence was even longer than the last time I had to apologize for!  Yikes.  And the crazy part is, we have an internet connection at home now.  My wife got us a little tablet with service carried by a company that actually maintains some coverage in our area, unlike the T-Mobile smart phone we arrived with from south Georgia, that usually managed to connect by the time we hit town 7 miles know, when the Earth's EM fields were behaving normally.

Man, high tech around here these days...but unfortunately, I don't get to use much of the battery charge we scrounge here and there before the kids get ahold of the computer for such important tasks as watching "Nanny McPhee Returns" for the 18th time.  Not every day, mind you, but then we don't have a charge on the computer every day...HOWEVER, I am going to do my level best to commandeer my own computer just a little more often to knock out a post about our crazy life.

And by crazy I mean great.  I think.  I'm still waiting for enough time to sit down and take a good hard look at it, but by my best estimate, life's been extremely productive and rewarding, and increasingly comfortable 'round here of late.  Our tiny house is all but fully insulated, with just the little kitchen area left to stuff and floor.  Most of the interior walls are up and the loft built, thanks to a HUGE gift from local friend Isaac, who donated about 1800 s.f. of 1970s era 1x6 barn wood to the cause. Thanks, buddy.

The first 19th century piece of today's tour, this hoosier cupboard was inherited from my late step-grandfather.  I believe it went back at least as far as his grandmother.  It was the cornerstone of our tent-based kitchen setups for the last two years.  Glad to have it.
Looks like a rustic cabin, and I think it's dynamite.  The new bookshelves are bigger than the footprint of the bath house at 9' wide by 8' tall, 4 vertical sections, 28 shelves total, and eerily close to capacity already.  Great to see our books after a couple years of storage!  And of course we keep adding to them.  My wife is a librarian and we consider this project to be an important one.  

We have a Christmas tree (Solstice tree!) up for the first time since we've been here, art on the walls, rugs on the floor, and windows to let the world in in winter (although I do miss the amazing ambient light of the tent).  But the star of the show in the last month has been the "new" wood stove.  And by new I mean really old.  Old as in, it belonged to my great-great-great grandmother, who died in 1954, when the stove most likely went out of use.  It was a pile of rusty cast iron pieces when I pulled it out of storage, but check it out now:

My 3G-Grandmother was born in 1871, married in 1891, and best we can tell the stove dates from 1881.  It's hard to tell for sure, and there isn't much information available about these Birmingham Stove and Range Co. stoves, but we know this model was made from the 1850s until the 1930s.  Whatever the legitimate date, the origin makes this a seventh generation wood stove for my children, who are already learning to tend it.

Here's the wider view.  The legs were broken off and I don't know how to fix them, so I just built a masonry pedestal for it, hoping to hold some extra heat with the extra thermal mass.  But as far as I can tell, it doesn't produce enough heat underneath to really register.

What kept me from using this stove sooner was the tiny firebox, but my fears were unfounded: it keeps our little cottage nice and toasty.  When the oven isn't doing duty as an on-deck wood dryer, it has been turning out some fine biscuits, fruit breads, and most recently panettone, a la Crescent Dragonwagon of Dairy Hollow House Inn in the Arkansas Ozarks.  It was very good. Coincidentally, she is also a children's author that I read growing up, stacking history as well as functions.
OK, I might as well admit it now, I busted that old rocket mass stove up into pieces and hauled it out of the house.  We wanted to do something different with the layout of the house, and honestly, I think we suffered through one too many smoke-backs in that bitterly cold winter last year.  It was a fun and interesting project, and I will build another one, I'm almost positive.  But when I do, it will be on-grade in a different kind of room or building.  Just too heavy on a raised platform.  With the rocket mass out, we were able to put the stairs on this side of the house and the library on the other, and build a more gracious closet for the composting toilet, plus another closet for us.  Or will soon.

 One of the very next things to do is build a short wall up against the stairs on the bed side.  That will give us a truly private sleeping nook (finally!), and provide more safety for sleepy children going up and down a steep staircase.  And some desperately needed art space.

As always there's dirty work to do as well.  I'm in the process of digging a French drain on the uphill side of the house through soil that I've determined to be more or less 1/3 root, 1/3 rock, and 1/3 coarse mineral soil, with a telephone line and a propane service line thrown across for good measure.  Oh, and the 14" red oak stump closer in than the photo will be fun to dig out by hand, too.  Once excavated I'll lay a perforated drain pipe to daylight, cover with coarse drain rock, top with some sort of geotextile to keep the soil out of the drain rock, then top with onsite gravel to make a level path.

BUT, as any permie worth his salt knows, we should never do just one job at a time!  So we throw in a fun project to absorb the negativity of digging ditches.  Level ground is hard to come by around here, so I've used the spoil from the French drain digging to level up a couple of terraces around an awesome new fire pit:

Plenary council anyone?  It is mid-winter's day after all.  Hope you've enjoyed it.

Tripp out.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Six Months of Construction

Man, it's been a while since I posted, but that's not because nothing has happened!  Finding enough time to sit and work out a post, on the other hand, has been a real problem.

I found some good pictures of the rocket mass heater (RMH) build to post, as promised, and have plenty to share for the house build as well.  And since heaven knows when I'll have another couple of hours to myself, let's just dive right in, shall we?

Starting last November when we high-tailed it out of Psycho-ville and parked ourselves comfortably back in the woods at our place, we'll begin with the RMH construction (any relevant advice will be included in the caption area of individual photos):

We used 3 thick 24x16 pavers raised on bricks for the base plate of this unit.  Make sure to seal up any cracks in the masonry before proceeding.  The two pavers to the right are under the steel barrel heat riser, and caused the RMH to leak, smoking out of the bottom, and seriously affected the initial performance of the heater.  This would have been much easier and more effective to seal up tight at this stage than it was to troubleshoot down the road.

Building a mock-up of your J-tube before mixing mortar is always a good idea.

You can use cheaper bricks, often lying around any homestead, in areas that aren't directly exposed to the thermal stress of a stove like this.  But remember to lay bricks in a running bond pattern.  We probably cost ourselves some structural integrity by not paying more attention to this detail.

Had we poured the concrete completely around all parts of the J-tube, and not left the inside of the aluminum feed chamber open for mineral insulant, the lack of a running bond in our brickwork probably wouldn't have been an issue, but I wanted a faster heat up, something that I had seen recommended by other builders.  And after a hard winter of burning, the bricks of the feed tube have come somewhat loose.  Any thoughts from experienced RMH operators regarding the wisdom of removing the insulant surrounding the feed tube and filling it with masonry (concrete or cob?), or perhaps just cleaning it out and re-mortaring, would be appreciated!

You can see the previously mentioned issue with the crack between the pavers from this angle, down below the burn chamber.  A good coating of clay-rich mud in the bottom of the barrel took care of it, thought it was a bit more challenging to fix on the manifold side.

An active burn helps speed the drying of your masonry, whether it's concrete, cob, clay-perlite, or whatever.

Winter squashes bake nicely in a hot feed barrel!

We also built a little "bath house," which is actually an outhouse permitted by the county under the fancy name of "pit privy."

And added a new chicken tractor to the arsenal.  This one is now at the kids' Montessori school with a dozen new pullets in it.  In a couple of weeks we'll build them a new and easier-to-use model, leave half of the chickens at school, and bring this one and my new birds home.  In January, a pair of unsavory pit bulls broke into this tractor through the roof (which has now been upgraded - the sides have always been stout rabbit wire) and killed my 5 actively laying hens:(  The photo below the new tractor shows the downgrade in egg quality these dogs cost my family.  And the egg on the right is supposed to be a GOOD ORGANIC egg from the supermarket!  Ugh.  The dogs' owner actually challenged the animal control department about it before the magistrate, where I had to show up to testify, and not only didn't offer to make amends, she never even apologized to me!  Just kept making excuses...

The last of the good eggs, and the first sorry excuse for an egg...sigh.

A few shots of the family and homestead in winter:  (The only thing coming out of the flue stack behind the tent is CO2 and water vapor - virtually complete combustion from the RMH!  When the weather was dry you could barely tell it was burning, even when the rocket was roaring inside.)

April rolls around and it's time to build a little house:

Neighbors start showing up to see what's afoot:

My poor market chair...

Some of them are even helpful;o) (See below)
Quick word of warning: trees built into decks are cute, and sometimes even useful in a small space (we hung a mirror and solar shower bag on the oak pictured here early on), but they sure do present a logistical issue if you ever decide to convert the deck into indoor space...

This was a mighty loblolly pine, and had nothing resembling a promising lean to it.  My neighbor, Leroy, (with me  above) brought his heavy-duty come-alongs and helped me make a perfect drop, right down the slot:

The old tent is coming down, after two years of "trusty" service:

At least the internal metal framework is still useful!  I'll rebuild it soon and strap the rainfly back over it for a tool shed and semi-dry work space.  I'm going to try to grow oyster mushrooms on the old ratty tent to sequester and breakdown the primer I painted the inside with.  Any resulting mushrooms will likely be discarded.

Nothing but floor and rocket mass, which, ahem, really got in the [expletive deleted] way during the build...
Couple of thoughts about tent living before we move on:

1) If you can avoid it, don't do it.
2) If you can't, it's really not that bad, but just don't expect a canvas structure to hold up for very long, especially in a damp and/or humid climate.  Tents probably perform a lot better in the desert.  Ours was shredded by rain, wind, and mildew within two years.  "Inside" and "outside" were very relative terms by April of this year.
3) At all costs avoid puncturing the roof.  A wood stove is almost a necessity for tent life, but run the flue horizontally - figure out a way.  That's where the RMH really shined.  Don't order a stove jack with your tent; buy a solid, continuous rainfly, and make sure you get the overhang for a dry porch area outside.
4) If you're going to build a RMH in a tent (or tipi), you'll need all the thermal mass you can muster, and make sure any and all beds are lying on thermal mass as well, preferably with a mattress made for absorbing heat, for example, a tick stuffed with buckwheat hulls.
5) Probably best to have a gas heater backup.  In a small structure like this, a gas/propane stove is enough to do the trick, but simple wall or floor heater systems aren't terribly expensive or complicated, and of course gas is always cheaper in bulk.
6) Gas light was the highest quality light we tried - far superior to oil lamps or candles - but if you can manage some electric light, even better.  Battery-powered lamps never really seemed to cut it.  Experiment with and diversify your lighting options.  And have a few flashlights handy, including a powerful Mag-light, or other spotlight.
7) It's a lot cheaper to set up your tent on grade, even including bulldozer rental, than it is to build a big deck platform, and setting up a tent on grade keeps the local building department out of your business.  In our county, decks over 120 s.f. fall under regulatory jurisdiction, but tents aren't regulated at all.  We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by calling a bulldozer out to flatten a spot for us, and then built a raised wood floor inside the tent.  A wooden platform on level ground could also be built with smaller dimensional lumber, saving more money while getting the same look, and the concrete could be avoided altogether.

Just my .02.  Moving on!

The build begins...after a little squaring up...

Atlanta friend, Lisa, spent all day Friday cutting gables.

Yours truly, still sporting the winter scruff.

My "brother" Andrew (he's really my uncle, but he's 6 years younger than me so more like a brother - it's a complicated family tree...) really did the bulk of the planning, organizing, tooling, and project management duties.  We can't thank you enough, Andrew.

Mrs. Small Batch Garden's expression, seeing everything that happened while she was at work, says it all...

Our first bed in the kitchen garden by the house.  Not enough sunlight available before this season.

Lunch!  Even the littlies helped out wherever they could.

It's a pretty conventional build, but we recycled a lot of the components, bought lumber from a small local lumber yard, and hey, it's only 480 square feet.  And this wasn't really my cobbing crew.  These were weekend warriors, many driving a fair distance to be there, camping out in the yard, and wanting to knock this thing out quickly and get us out of that rotting tent.  Now that we have a roof that keeps the rain out, we can slow down again and get back to our normal ways.

My sister's boyfriend, Adam, thankfully volunteered for roof duty.  I sure didn't want to get up there.

My best bud, Aaron, being the asset he always is.

Even Andrew's old pal Liz came up to help out!

And Andrew's wife, Lisa (in the middle).

This is about as high as I like to go.  This was a free, last-minute window donated by a neighbor when we found out we were one window short.  Community love!

My grandparents bought the materials for this project, and couldn't wait to check out the progress!  Thanks again!

Welcome home, us!

If you look carefully, you can just make out our PV "array" at the top corner of the roof!  All 11.8 watts of it.  We have no plans to add any significant amount of electrical power on the drawing board.

Next will be a little finish trim, caulk, and paint, a new porch out over the water tank, and some gutters to fill said tank.

Thank you neighbor Mary for loaning us your little cabin for a month while we shuffled, built, and shuffled again!

Thank you neighbor Cathy for lending me your sunny patch for my growies the last two years!

And your well to keep us hydrated until we could get a water-harvesting roof built!

Such a wonderful little place.  Thank you everyone for all your love and support, tools and hard labor, and camaraderie!  Thanks Aaron, Will, Lisa C., Lisa T., Liz, Jodi, Chris, Julie and Adam, Abby, the crew of admirers from Pleasant Hills Montessori School in Ellijay, GA, and neighbors Leroy and Helen, Randy, Richard, Jason, Cathy, and Mary.

A special thank you to Andrew, for all the countless ways you've helped us pull this adventure together!

And a double thank you to my mom, Carole, and grandparents, G.W. and Christine, for their generous financial support.  We love you all.

I promise my next post won't be so long in the making.  There's still a spring garden tour - of home and school - to attend to, and some pretty incredible projects on the short list, including cobbing the dragon, finishing the interior of this cottage, a Mike Oehler-style earth-sheltered greenhouse at school and new chicken tractor, hugelkultur, mushroom project expansion, bug hotel, and lots more gardening season to go.

Till next time, cheers!
Tripp out.