Category Archives: Water

cistern block mortared walls

Summer 2015: Rainwater Cistern Construction

light-posts-comparisonBefore delving into the big project of the summer, the rainwater cistern, I decided to finally bury the electrical and network wiring running to the cabins in flexible conduit.  I also put in 4 cedar light posts that also act as junction boxes.  The lights are attached to a light activated timer that turns the path lights on for a couple hours after it gets dark.  There’s also now a light in the composting toilet that’s got a timer switch so it can’t be left on.

Eric helped a lot with digging the trenches for the conduit.  The project cost a lot more than I’d hoped.  Thick copper wiring and conduit are expensive.  They also get you with all of the connector pieces.  Outlets, junction boxes, a breaker box, breakers, etc. It all added up to a pretty penny.

cistern putAfter that it was on to dealing with gaping mud pit that the cistern hole had become after 3 years.  Last Fall we spent a lot of effort cleaning it up again only to have the monsoons this Spring deluge it and cause the sides to collapse.  Any hope I had for letting it dry out to make work easier evaporated unlike the water in the foot or more of clay mud at the bottom, so we sucked it up, pulled our shoes off and jumped into the muck.

It took Eric and I probably 2.5 weeks of hard work to get it all cleaned up and leveled out.  The next step was laying sub base gravel for underneath the concrete slab.  The cistern will hold almost exactly 4,000 gallons or 16 tons of water, not to mention the weight of the concrete-filled cinder block walls and wooden cap, so having a thick sub base and thick foundation slab were important.  We tamped down and leveled 8″ of 1″ minus gravel (~10 tons).

cistern leveled with sub baseNext week built a square form for the slab using 2x8s, bracing the corners and putting stakes in to hold the sides in place.  We had to get it pretty level for the concrete, and we also needed to leave as much space as we could around the outside to remove the frame and be able to maneuver.

We then used a couple of pipes and an angle grinder to cut and bend the 1/2″ rebar so that base and the walls would be tied tightly together. We used broken bricks and rocks to hold the rebar up off the ground so it would end up roughly in the middle of the slab.  We used wire to hold the rebar together where it crossed and held all of the ribs upright by laying down a piece of rebar on the ground with screws in it that we could tie each piece of rebar to.

pouring cistern slab concreteAt last it was time to call in the cement truck.  We had to drag a bunch of tables and other things out of the way and clear out some brush to make a path for the truck.  I believe I calculated that we’d need 3 yards and it turned out to be almost exactly right, with just a little left over to spare.

We let the slab set for a week or more before we started in on the block walls.  I should have gotten concrete blocks not cinder blocks since cinder blocks contain fly ash which is toxic, but I didn’t realize it until I’d already bought, hauled, and unloaded all of them.  To get around that I’ll be putting several more coats of potable cement coating than I’d planned and then do testing before I use the water.

cistern block mortared wallsI’d never mortared blocks before and Eric had only watched, so the first few courses were slow going.  Getting the right amount of mortar on the blocks to keep it level without too much overflowing, and also getting the mortar to be a good sticky consistency were the main tricks that we had to get worked out.  We used Type S mortar, which is essentially a mix of cement and hydrated lime.  It probably took us 3 weeks to do the walls.

Ultimately I believe we used about 8 90-lb bags of mortar mix and a pick-up load of masonry sand.  I believe we used about 300 cinder blocks altogether in the 12 courses of the wall.  We turned 2 half-blocks on their side, one a couple feet down which will allow the 3-inch PVC inlet pipe in and the other is in the top course for the 3-inch overflow pipe.  I also used a masonry bit and drilled about a 1-inch hole 2 feet down to run the outlet pipe from the cistern into the common house where it wouldn’t freeze.

cistern cement paintOnce the blocks were in place we filled in all of the block holes with concrete that we hand-mixed.  It took us 4 days to mix and fill all of the blocks.  We also placed some anchor bolts as we went to attach the wooden roof cap later.  I also went around the outside of the cistern and put 3 coats of potable cement paste on the outside of the cistern to minimize any toxins leaching out from the cinder blocks.

Next we back-filled dirt around the cistern to about 2 feet below the surface.  The frost line in our area is about 20 inches, so I want to make sure there’s good drainage down to that point to avoid wet soil freezing and pushing against the cistern, potentially cracking it.  Once we got the ground back-filled and tamped we made sure that it was all sloping down towards the lowest corner and then dug a trench from there downhill and put in a loop of 4-inch perforated drain tile around the cistern to collect water and then non-perforated drain tile to carry it from the lowest point out and away downhill.  At this point in the year Eric’s time was up so I carried on by myself for a few weeks.

cistern backfilled with insulation, gravel, and drain tileI used some 2″ extruded polystyrene boards that someone gave me to insulate the outside of the cistern from 2′ down and up to the top of the cistern.  This is to help keep the water from freezing.  After getting the insulation in place I back-filled with 1″ clean gravel on to the drain tile so water would drain down.  Once I got that tamped down to a little above ground level I put landscaping fabric down and then piled up dirt against the side of the cistern.

That’s as far as I got with it this summer.  I laid some boards across and then put plywood on top of that with an empty 55-gallon drum on it and then tarps laid over that so the rain and snow would run off.

The plan for next year is to build an insulated wooden roof cap over the top, which will essentially act as the floor of a gazebo.  I’ll put several cedar post timbers in and then a gable roof with galvanized steel roofing on it.  This will protect the roof cap and also provide a nice flat outdoor space for people to do yoga or other activities.  I’ll also add some retractable clotheslines.

After that I’ll need to add the system that filters the water coming off the roof by filtering out bigger debris like leaves and sticks, and then dumping the first 20 gallons, which is the dirtiest.  Then the water will go through a couple of fine screens before entering the cistern.  I’ll describe that system more in a future post.

 

 

Rocket stove barrel copper hot water heating coils

Fall 2014

This Fall was relatively uneventful, but I did get a few minor projects done that have made Winter much more pleasant.  Also, I hosted wine-making workshop, which didn’t draw as many people as I imagined it would.  My volunteers from Chicago left at the beginning of October heading to another farm in Georgia.  They took my long-term volunteer, Billy, with them and as far as I know he’s still at that farm.

Rocket stove flue extended through the roofFirewood

The volunteers helped me split a good bit of firewood before they headed out, and I spent most of the Fall preparing for Winter in one way or another.  After they left I hauled some more logs, split them, and stacked up about a chord of wood.  I also cut down a big oak tree that had died over the summer and was leaning precariously towards the shed.  I cut that up, split it, and stacked it to cure for next Winter.

Flue Extension

I also finally extended the common house rocket stove flue pipe up through the porch roof.  The exhaust from the stove had been getting hung up under the porch and the moisture was condensing on the rafters to the point it was practically raining underneath the porch.   I used a dremel to cut a precise hole for the flue and a butyl rubber to seal around it.  The draft on the rocket stove has improved and I haven’t seen it back-smoke at all since the improvement.

Rocket-Powered Hot Water!

Rocket stove barrel copper hot water heating coilsLast winter I combined a couple of ideas and came up with a plan to have hot water year-round.  I built the solar hot water heating panel and installed the hot and cold barrels earlier in the spring, but the panel will only work in above-freezing temperatures because the water would freeze in the panel and burst the pipes.

I came up with the idea of using the same thermosiphon principle that worked on the solar panel, but wrapping copper tubing around the rocket stove barrel compared to the sun heating up the water in the panel.  It was a little tricky getting the copper wound tightly around the barrel, but luckily when you buy large sections of copper tubing it comes in coils to begin with making it easier to avoid crinkling the pipe when I bent it around the barrel.

After running the stove the average 6-8 hours it takes to heat the common house up for several days the water in the 55 gallon hot water barrel will be upwards of 120F.  The mass of the water and insulation on the barrel keeps the water hot for a couple of days, so it holds the heat almost the same amount of time as the house does.

 

Summer 2014

tao-seph-fireWe kicked off Summer with a solstice party that I may try to do on a regular basis.

‘Midsummer Mayhem’ as I called it featured a large bonfire, a pickup truck pool, lawn games, garlands, and me in loin cloth and antlers for fun.

Plastered

duplex-back-plasteredThe major summer accomplishment was getting the 2nd layer of plaster done on all of the buildings.  The 2nd coat is the most labor-intensive coat, and involves sifting, mixing, and applying a large amount of plaster.   I owe a lot to my volunteers who put in a lot of sweat getting it done this year.

The finish coat won’t take nearly as much effort, though getting it nice and smooth will take a decent amount of time.  I’m excited to get it done at least in the common house next year, it’ll drastically lower the amount of dust that coats everything now.

Holy Shiitakes!

shiitake-harvest4I got a great harvest of shiitakes off of the mushroom logs from the 2012 workshop and a previous smaller batch of logs.  There are usually 2 big flushes of mushrooms each year, one in the spring and one in the fall.  I did some soaking of the logs prior to the logs fruiting to give them some extra moisture and I think it really paid off.

I think the mushrooms will be a pretty big piece of the puzzle when it comes to making Maya Creek financially sustainable.  I helped fund a kickstarter project to product a book called “Farming the Woods”, and I finally got my signed copy in the mail.  It looks to have some other great ideas on how to make a living off of non-timber products in a temperate forest environment.

The Garden Harvest

pasta-sauceFor the last couple months there’s been a weekly routine of harvesting the garden on Monday and then spending the next two days processing the harvest by canning or dehydrating it.  The sun hasn’t been cooperating too much this year as far dehydrating goes so a lot of it has been canned.

The tomato harvest was intense this year.  Despite getting off to a slow start I’ve ended up with 20-25 quarts of tomato sauce and probably another 6 quarts of salsa.  The amount of time and effort that go into it don’t make financial sense, but it’s hard to argue the quality of the end product.

Without my volunteers I’d be spending the vast majority of my time working in the garden and processing food.  I enjoy that work, and I hope that’s how I eventually spend my late summers, but for now I need to spend a lot of time earning money for construction and on the actual construction itself.

The Cistern Pit

cistern-hole-dugThe last part of the Summer was spent digging out the cistern hole. It was originally dug out in 2012, but because of too many things going on, it was covered up and left for the following year.  Unfortunately, the temporary roof collapsed and it filled with water, which then caused the walls to partially collapse in.

Sean, Caroline, Billy, and myself spent several hard days of digging and hauling out buckets of clay from the hole.  The original plan called for simply attaching mesh to the clay walls and spreading concrete on it directly and then building a thick frost barrier wall around the top.

Since the pit is now much larger, I’m planning on essentially building a below-grade concrete box, pouring a rebar-reinforced concrete slab, and the walls will be cinder blocks filled with rebar and concrete.  I’ll backfill outside of the cistern up to the frost line and then build the thick frost barrier wall and use that to help frame up the roof cap when I pour it.

Apple blossoms

Earth Day Update

Apple blossomsIt’s a beautiful sunny day out here at Maya Creek and it seemed like a nice time to update everyone on the goings on with it being Earth Day and all.

The Garden

I’m a little surprised to report that it looks like we may have had our last spring frost on the average last frost date for the area(April 15).  Given the erratic start to the year I’m not making any assumptions, but the weather has turned into really nice typical spring weather, sun interspersed with rain storms.

Many of the plants that were bashed by the large hail have bounced back, though the fruit trees may still be susceptible to disease from their wounds.  Still, they’ve leafed out and are flowering beautifully.

asparagus

The asparagus, which got set back slightly by the frost, is now back at good harvesting size.  The spinach that miraculously over-wintered and then battered by hail is exploding and ready for copious salads which we’ve been gearing up for (we’ve been using mixing bowls for personal salad bowls).

Billy and I have spent a lot of time the last couple of weeks in the garden taking out the first wave of weeds and generally cleaning things up.  I’ve pushed a bunch of brush back from the garden fence to stop plants from growing on it and through it into the garden.  I also reinforced the fence with some more fence posts.

potted plantsI also potted up some of the gooseberries, comfrey, elderberry, and thyme that had begun propagating themselves as I had several people express interest at a recent potluck I held out here.

Anyway, they’re ready now, so come and get them!  I can maybe drop them in CoMo too.  If you’ve got more small pots laying around I’ll definitely take those.  I’ve got quite a few gallon sizes ones already though.

tomato soil block startsThe soil block experimentation continues.  It turns out that the trays I planned to use to soak the blocks with are just a tiny bit too small.  I’m now thinking that I’ll just build a large tray to hold a number of the smaller trays and line it with some old billboard vinyl to make it water proof.  That way instead of taking out each tray and soaking it every day I can just pour some water in the one big tray and be done.

That aside, a number of the soil blocks have sprouted and though they’re a little behind where they’d ideally be since I started them a little late and didn’t keep them inside very much for germination, but they look healthy and had a good germination rate despite that.

billy making absorption finsSolar Hot Water System

Yesterday was the first day we’ve really worked on the solar hot water system in the last few weeks.  Billy cut up the aluminum flashing and bashed the metal into a form to make the heat absorption fins.  He also cut a number of thinner strips that go behind the copper tubing to help transfer the heat to the pipes and then to the water.

I attached the insulation to the back of the panel and got the copper manifold installed into the frame.  I also soldered on a valve to empty the panel so I can drain it when frosts are eminent and it won’t burst the copper pipes.  I also built the legs and attached the front ones.  I left them loose so we can adjust them as we position it.  The next step is going to be attaching the fins and painting it black.  Then I’m going to stain the outside, attach the polycarbonate glazing, and we should be just about ready to roll it out!

Jason water system barrel bulkheadls

Water System Taking Shape

Jason water system barrel bulkheadlsMy first volunteer of the season, Billy, arrived this past Thursday night from Louisiana.  I haven’t gotten the solar hot water collector or the rest of the basics of the common house water system up and running yet like I’d hoped.  I got a good a start on it, but I decided to do a bit of spring cleaning before people started arriving.  I also figured the volunteers would be interested in seeing the water system constructed, though perhaps not as interested in as I am.

Before I switched gears to cleaning, I procured and cut the lids off of what will be the gravity feed hot and cold water storage tanks.  With Jason’s help I got all of the bulkheads for the various inlets and outlets installed on them.  I built an overflow catchment tray above the shower where they’ll be housed in case of some kind of leak the water will now go down the shower drain and not into the battery/power room(yikes!).

solar-collector-copper-layoutI’ve gathered all of the parts and materials I need for the solar hot water collector and have gotten it configured how I want it.  Since this picture was taken I’ve also soldered the ends of the panel together(ie, the manafolds).  I also built and tested a form to mash aluminum flashing into “fins” which help redirect the heat into the copper tubing.

Next up is soldering the rest of the connections and testing to make sure it’s all water-tight. Then I’ll build the frame, stamp out the fins, install the insulation on the back and then build a stand for it in front of the common house.

Spring Cleaning

firepitI cleaned up a bunch of stuff at the small strawbale cabin I’m calling the “Pillbox”.  I finished constructing a closet rack with shelves in it, and generally cleaned up a bunch of down trees around it.  

I also jazzed up the main fire pit behind the common house and have been grudgingly pushing back all of the brush I’d piled up directly on the other side of the garden fence(mistake!) so that I can get at plants that are growing through the fence and shading out plants I actually want to grow.

cut-cedar-garden-tarpToday, with Billy’s help, we cut the tops off a couple of the cedar trees in the garden that support the rainwater catching garden tarp, but were block a lot of light.  We got the garden tarp hung and position to catch some of the forecasted rain, and we also finished pushing back the brush from the fence.  A lot of dirty sweaty work, but at least it was a beautiful day.

There’s still plenty to do in the garden, but I’ll start delegating some of that to the volunteers and get back to the solar hot water projects because there’s going to be plenty of dirty stinky volunteers wanting a hot shower soon enough.

 

Right as Rain

Hawai'iLife at Maya Creek has developed a seasonal rhythm and each has its pros and cons.  Despite the cold weather, winter has its perks.  It’s my vacation time, and I was lucky enough to miss out on the polar vortex during a month long trip to Hawai’i.  Also, since I work from home I don’t have to leave the warmth of the cabin very often as I would if I had to make a treacherous drive to work on a daily basis.  Cabin fever can become an issue, but I have good company and make a point to venture out for socializing regularly.

When winter first arrives I’m excited to take a break from all of the projects, but after just a month or two I start itching to get my game plan together for the coming year.  When your projects directly improve your quality of life there’s a lot of incentive to figure out good solutions that will improve your life the most quickly.  It’s been at the top of my list for awhile, but this year I’m finally going to tackle the water system.  That’s right, after 5 years I will finally have indoor hot showers on demand that don’t involve pots of hot water and a cup!

I’ve had a general idea of how I was going to do the water system, but after a lot of research and brain-storming I think I have a pretty good idea of how I’m going to deal with several of the problems I’d been mulling over.  I’d like to share what I’ve got planned so far.

I’ll be catching rainwater instead of digging a well.  There are a couple reasons for this.  Wells are expensive to dig and can cost ~$8,000 in this area.  Because of over-pumping for agriculture water tables are dropping world wide, so deeper and deeper wells are required with more powerful pumps needed to pump the water.  An old woman who lived at Maya Creek as a child recalled a spring on the property, which no longer exists because of the lower water tables.  Another reason for not wanting to use well water as the main water source is that well water in this area contain high levels of sulphur which is difficult to remove, can gunk up plumbing, and generally just stinks.

rainwater system

I will be catching rainwater off the 1,300 square foot galvanized steel roof.  Some people worry about increased levels of zinc from galvanized roofs, but according to this testing report on different roofing materials for rainwater collection, the elevated levels of zinc only occur in the first water off the roof in a rain event.  Because there is also a large amount of dust, bird poop, etc in the first water off the roof I will be using a roof flusher to divert the first 15 gallons(10 gallons/1,000 sq. ft. of roof). The gutters will have screens over them to prevent leaves and other large debris from getting into the system.  The downspouts will also have screens to filter out debris before directing the water through the 500 micron gravity water filter and finally into the underground cistern.

The cistern has to be underground to prevent it from freezing.  It will hold ~3,500 gallons of water.  We get about 46″ of rain per year on average, but very rarely do we get less than 25″ which is what I’ll use to show how much water can be caught.  For every inch of rainfall on a square foot of roof you catch .6 gallons of water.  So 1,360 sq. ft. of roof times 30″ of rain times .6 gallons would give 20,400 gallons of water per year as a minimum.  If we got  46″ it would be 37,536 gallons.

The next question is how much water is needed.  Based on my best estimates we’ve only been using a little over 3,000 gallons per year, of course I expect that to go up with longer showers and laundry(praise be!), so let’s say we end up using 10,000 gallons.  Given that an average 4-person American home with consumes 150,000 gallons per year.  One of the major reasons we use so much less water is because we have composting toilets instead of flush toilets.

Luckily our rainfall is pretty evenly distributed throughout the year, but given the 3,500 gallon storage space of the cistern we should be able to handle an inconceivably long 4-month drought at average consumption levels, but I’m sure we would adjust consumption accordingly in such a situation.

4bricks_fullThe hole for the cistern is already dug, though it needs to be significantly cleaned up.  Once it’s cleaned out, I’ll our a concrete floor, build the walls out of cinder blocks filled with rebar and concrete, and then build a wooden frame for the rebar reinforced concrete roof cap.  There will also be a 2′ wide x 2′ deep urbanite(reclaimed concrete chunk) wall mortared around the top of the cistern to protect it from cracking due to frost heave.  The frost depth in the area is about 20″.  The interior of the cistern will be coated with cement meant for holding potable water and will prevent the cistern from leaking.  I was lucky enough to find someone who had built a similar cistern though his is mostly above ground, and I will be pouring a concrete roof cap to avoid issues with the wood rotting.

From there a sump pump will pump the water into two 55 gallon barrels in the loft area of the common house, one for cold water and an insulated one for the hot water.  The water pressure in the house will come simply from gravity, which means it will have only a few PSI of pressure.  I have a shower head designed for the very low PSI, but the low PSI will help reduce water usage in general.

floatswitchBecause I won’t want to pump cold water from the cistern into the hot water tank in the middle of the day which would cool it down before it gets used I will put the sump pump on a timer and turn it on late at night.  The pump will pump water into the bottom of the cold water tank and an overflow from the cold water tank will take the warmest water from that tank and put it into the bottom of the hot water tank to preserve as much of the heat as possible.

In order to turn the pump off when the indoor tanks are full there will be a float switch at the top of the hot water tank which will control the electrical outlet that the pump is plugged into and turn it off once the hot water tank is full.  There will also be an overflow redirected to a drain in case the switch fails for some reason.

two_solar_hot-water_systems-1The hot water will be heated by a simple home-built hot water collector using the thermosiphon phenomenon to circulate the water rather than using a pump.  The idea is that hot water rises, so by placing the collector beneath the storage tank cold water is drawn into the panel from the bottom of the tank and the heated water from the panel rises up from the panel and into the top of the tank.

The collector will be set up so that if another panel is needed they can be easily set up next to each other.  It’s important that pipes are always sloping at least slightly upwards to prevent bubbles from forming and messing up the thermosiphon effect.

I will also be wrapping copper tubing around the rocket stove to heat water in the winter since I will likely have to stop using the solar collector in the winter to prevent water from freezing in it.  However, I’m planning on putting the collector inside of the greenhouse that will be attached to the front of the house to help prevent that and extend its usable season.

I’d been operating under the idea that I needed to finish the rainwater collection system and cistern before getting the solar hot water system working, but it occurred to me that I could actually set up the interior water tanks and hot water system first and simply pump the water in from the barrels of city water I’ve been trucking in.  That way we can go ahead and have hot showers and running sink water months sooner than I’d been planning.

 

 

 

Unglamorous Accomplishments

It’s been almost 5 months since my last blog entry.  Summing up so many months to a length that won’t drown you is the challenge now.  The reoccurring themes of this past summer seem to have been maintenance, preserving gains, and most recently, new friendships.

Tarped shed

I suppose the lack of blog posts has something to do with the unglamorous nature of maintenance work.  For instance, I did quite a lot of work on my car this year, but it’s not something that particularly lends itself to Maya Creek’s mission or the audience.  Still, vehicle repair is an act of self-reliance and I learned a lot about car repair.

Other unphotogenic progress was made in the shed. I laid billboard tarps around the outside of the shed, which Sydney covered with gravel.  That, along with the french drain I installed on the uphill side have stopped all water from seeping into the root cellar.

I also tightly wrapped the shed in two layers of billboard tarp as a temporary moisture barrier for all of the tools and materials inside of it.  That allowed Sydney and myself to build shelving and I began the unenviable task of organizing the mountain of odds and ends that have accumulated, and which is still far from being sorted.

Duplex with half a 2nd coat of exterior plasterWith some help I also put a sturdy temporary cap over the cistern pit that was slowly collapsing in on itself thanks to several feet of water in it.  I’ve since pumped it out and after several months it is now relatively dry and I should be able to start work on it early next year.

A second coat of earthen plaster made its way onto the first floor of the side of the duplex that didn’t have it yet, as well as the exterior on most of the other half.  There will be a lot of plastering to do next year, but by the end of it the common house should be ready for the finishing touches: interior shelving, counters, sinks, etc.  I certainly won’t miss all of the dust on everything!

Mom, Gary, Me new gateSydney and I felled a couple of large cedar trees that blocked a significant amount of sunlight on the solar panels.  We trimmed them up and peeled them, then a group of visiting AmeriCorps volunteers helped me haul them down to the end of the driveway where I’d dug two large holes for them.  A couple weeks later my mom and stepdad helped me raise and set the posts and attach a gate.  Eventually I’ll put a wooden cross piece attaching the posts with “Maya Creek” on it.

Screen doorEarly in the summer I took off the back door of the common house, added a dog/cat door, changed the side it opens on, and modified the door so I could put a regular door knob on it.  Now I can lock all of the buildings as well as lock the gate at the front.  So there were some major security improvements this year.

I built a custom screen door for the common house earlier in the summer which was great for opening up the place to cool it down at night without letting all of the bugs in.  Eventually the back porch will get screened in and we can leave the back door open too and get some cross ventilation.

paw-paw-harvest-taoIt was a good year for mushrooms.  We found several large patches of chanterelles, a number of oyster mushrooms, and few medicinal jelly ears late in the summer.  I’ve since found some lion’s mane, resinous polypore, and velvet foot mushrooms that have been quite tasty.  I also turned an excellent wild harvest of paws paws into some mead and wine, which is getting close to being ready now.

Sydney left at the end of September and a little while before she left I began to connect with more people in Columbia.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve met so many fun and interesting new people in such a short amount of time.  I hosted my first Taco Tuesday potluck-type event about a month ago, unfortunately by the time most people got here it was too late for a tour.  I’m excited and energized about becoming a part of the community and all the fun, collaboration, and mutual support it brings.

My Summer at Maya Creek

*Written by Sydney

My summer at Maya Creek is drawing to a close. The past three months have been an amazing opportunity to do things hands-on, experiment, and explore. I have had fun attempting a wide range of tasks at Maya Creek, and (of course) have had a similarly wide range of outcomes. Some projects have definitely turned out better than others.

Peeling a cedar trunk for a postOne of the more interesting projects I attempted was to tan a deer hide and then use the hide to make moccasins. I had this over-the-top vision of walking around in really cute moccasins, and when someone would ask me where I got them, I would casually say, “Oh, these? I just threw them together after curing and tanning the hide.” One of the early steps involved soaking the hide in a solution of wood ash to make the fur and outer layer of skin easier to scrape off. However, after soaking the hide for the allotted time, I found that not all of the hide was properly drenched and some of the fur wouldn’t come off. Even worse, some sections were overly-soaked, and those parts of the hide would basically disintegrate into a disgusting mush when touched. At this point, the hide was ruined. Tao had tried tanning a hide earlier, and had gotten similar results, making me think that the book that we both followed recommended using a solution that was much too strong. So, the super cute moccasins were not to be.

Another thing I have attempted, with much better results, was building a large shelf for the shed. Currently the shed is a huge jumble of different items, and as Tao isn’t sure where he wants to put everything, there is not a lot I can do to help. However, this shelf should help organize some of the smaller building supplies and tools. It was my first large construction project (its bigger than I am!) and I am pretty pleased with how it came out. It’s not perfect, but it should do the job.

Canned garden produceI have also been doing a tremendous amount of canning. Almost anything that the garden produces in a large enough quantity I have canned, and the canned produce should be a nice alternative to dried foods in the winter. So far, I’ve canned potatoes, tomatoes, tomato sauce, soy beans, green beans, and carrots. While I have been really careful to follow the directions exactly to avoid improper sealing or improper sterilization, the overall process is not too difficult.

The time I spend in the garden is particularly rewarding. While I arrived too late to do much of the early plantings, I have watered, weeded, and tended those plants throughout the summer. Each day brings subtle changes to the garden, and it is a really good feeling to be able to notice them. The constant rotation of what crop needs to be harvested, what bugs are currently doing damage and need to be killed, and what needs to be weeded keeps things interesting. Looking at the garden now, in the middle of September, is a very different sight from when I came here in the middle of June. Of all the things I have done at Maya Creek, I think it is the evenings spent listening to music and puttering around in the garden that I have enjoyed most.

Wild chanterelle and oyster mushroom harvestDuring my stay here, I also had the opportunity to visit two intentional communities, and soon I hope to visit a third. At the end of July, two friends and I went to the Possibility Alliance for an afternoon. We got to participate in a Sunday morning Quaker Meeting and took a wonderful tour of the place. A month later, I had the chance to stay at the East Winds community for three amazing days. Both of these communities are proof of what great things can be accomplished when people work together to meet their needs. While the two communities were very different, they were united in their general goals of living simply off the land, sharing and cooperating with others, being mindful, and empowering people to live outside of systems of violence.

Similarly, while Maya Creek is not a full-blown community like the Possibility Alliance or East Winds, it too shares these main goals. Visiting the intentional communities helped me see the bigger picture of what motivates Maya Creek. After coming back from those visits, particularly after coming back from East Winds (probably because I stayed there longer), I felt a renewed dedication towards Maya Creek’s goals and general inspiration towards living life in a positive way.

Overall, Maya Creek has been a really cool place to spend a summer. The lack of running water has been difficult at times, and the limited number of people around means it can get isolating (I just spent 10 days without seeing another human being!). However, I think these downsides have stretched my comfort zone in a way that makes me a stronger person. The idea behind Maya Creek is so powerful, and is physically realized in such a beautiful way, that I will leave this place in awe as to what people can do if they really put their minds to it.

Adventures in Homesteading

Cattle panel tomato supports with Sydney and KitaMy summer-long volunteer, Syndey, arrived last week.  She’s a Wisconsin native who has just finished an engineering degree in California.  She’ll mainly be focusing on the food situation, maintaining the garden, harvesting and preserving food, etc.  We’ve already spent a good amount of time familiarizing her with the garden, the plants, the pests, and the tasks to keep it on track.

Garden Observations

We just put up a few cattle panels with t-stakes to act as tomato supports.  So far I’ve tried tomato cages and last year I used t-stakes with rope tied between them as supports, but I can already tell that the cattle panels are going to be my favorite so far.  They are far more stable than the other two styles, and I think the clean up at the end of the year should be fairly minimal.

The squash bugs made their first appearance several days ago and we’ve been religiously checking for eggs and adults.  I think we caught it early and it seems to be under control.  I pulled off the straw mulch on the squash beds, so they’ll need to be watered more, but taking away the squash bug shelter is more important.  I’ve laid down some boards and pieces of granite in between the plants so we can flip them over in the morning and kill the adults that shelter there.  Another trick we’ve started doing is using duct tape to pull the eggs off rather than just pulling the section of the leaf off altogether.  It works reasonably well.Peaches ripening

A lot of things in the garden are doing well.  There’re loads of peaches on the trees, and there’s even  a handful of pears and apples ripening.  The blueberries are growing ever so slowly, but the gooseberries are loaded down and the thornless blackberries are finding their stride as well.  The potatoes are looking phenomenal, and most of the other annual vegetables seem to be kicking into high gear.

The goumi berry harvest has been completed.  This morning Sydney, Molly, and I got almost a gallon of berries off one bush.  I’d already picked the small goumi plant clean for fresh eating over the last couple weeks since it ripened first.  We made juice and fruit leather out of it.  I’ll be posting a step-by-step guide on how we did it since there wasn’t a whole lot of useful information, especially on how to separate the seed from the pulp.

I’m noticing that the birds are leaving the berries in the garden alone this year. I’m not sure if that’s because the glut of rain has made earthworms and other sources of food more accessible or if the looping mp3 of predator sounds is discouraging them from staying out in the open. There certainly seems to be fewer birds hanging around the garden. It’s probably some mix of the two.  I’ll post the MP3 of sounds I’ve made in the future when I’ve perfected it.

Rain Diversions

We had a week of very heavy rain since I last reported on the root cellar in the shed leaking and alas, significant amounts of water seeped in again.  I’ve finished half of a french drain on the uphill side of the shed, and I should finish the other half later this week.  I also put a rain diversion swale in the driveway to redirect water away from the shed as well as laying down some more tarps around the shed. We got .75″ of rain last night and so far nothing in the root cellar.

Eastern Hog Nose

Eastern hog nose snake,  aka "Puff Adder"

John came across a previously unseen species of snake out here recently.  It was right outside his cabin and scared him pretty good as it was an eastern hog nose snake, aka “spreading adder” or “puff adder” as it puffs out it’s neck like a cobra and hisses loudly. It’s not poisonous and will even play dead to avoid predators, but it’s certainly nothing I’d like to mess around with.

Carpenter Bees

I’ve also had the first serious run-in with carpenter bees. They started digging holes in the earthen plaster near the top of the gable wall on the common house. They’re typically good pollinators to have around, but I don’t want them digging holes in the walls so I’ve sprayed them with a pesticide which I loath using but don’t have a suitable recourse at this time.

I’m hopeful that once the finish coat of plaster goes on it will discourage them because it should be significantly smoother and harder. I’ve got my fingers crossed otherwise I’ll have to figure something else out.

Feist perched on the lip of a rain barrel

Balancing Act

I was on the phone making plans to visit my friend Daniel in Hawaii over the winter.  He just surfaced from a 7 month tour on a submarine, and we’re planning on doing some sailing around the islands there when I come for a month in December.  Anyway, I looked up and I saw Feist perched on the side of a rain barrel having a drink.  The lip has to be half an inch wide at most.  She sat there for a good 15-20 seconds after I noticed.

Pretty impressive.

 

 

May 2012 Newsletter

This past month we transitioned from clearing out and processing trees to actually breaking ground on our major projects.  Just today we finished up grading the foundation for the straw bale duplex.  Yesterday, we had the excavator dig out as much of the root cellar as he was able to and then graded the shed/workshop site.  That’s been the major hold up on our projects, and with that completed we’ll be splitting up somewhat and focusing on specific projects.

John and Tony are working on the shed/workshop/root cellar, and recently refined their roof plans.  They’ve already built a few roof trusses and we received the lumber to do the rest of them yesterday.  The root cellar is going to need quite a bit more digging, but they may wait until they get the shed roof up to do that.

Jesse is tasked with the duplex, although I’ll be helping him with the planning.  Now that the foundation is graded we’ll start in on building the timberframe.  Once it’s protected with the basic frame and roof we’ll start on the rubble trench, stem wall, and then the earthen floor.

I’ll be heading up the work on the common house and the rainwater catchment system and cistern.  Over the last several weeks we’ve put in a little less than half of the interior walls using rammed straw lightly coated with clay.  Because the forms won’t fit over things like light switches, outlets, and plumbing that sticks out of the wall we’re using cob to fill in around those spots.  We’re also using cob at the top of the walls since there’s no space to ram the straw down if you put the forms all the way to the top.  So far it seems to be working well.

We’re reclaiming some broken chunks of concrete (AKA urbanite) from an old patio that was being ripped out.  We’ll use that for the retaining wall on the cistern and whatever is left over we’ll use in the stem wall in the duplex.

We’ve also done some work on John’s cabin.  We’ve cobbed in the open areas in the roof except for a spot in the back where he’s putting in a flue for a small rocket stove.  We’ve also put the first coat of earthen plaster on the roof bales and started on the second coat of plaster, or infill coat, on the lower part of the cabin.

Clay is a hugely fundamental part of our building methods here, and so any innovation in our sifting technique that speeds it up or makes it easier help greatly.  We’ve begun layering the different sifting screens and placing wheelbarrows underneath them.  This means less bending and shoveling, and has increased our sifting rate by probably 33% or so.

Workshops

I applaud the people who bravely attended the humanure workshop.  It went well and we’ll post the video from the workshop when we have time to edit it together.  The next workshop will be the Primitive Skills Primer on June 16 taught by Justin McClain.

 Garden

So far all we’ve harvested from the garden has been lettuce and peas, although that should be changing in the near future.  Our squash plants have taken off and the tomatoes and potatoes are not far behind.  With the help of  Bobbie and Janis we’ve managed to stay on top of the weeds this year.  Also, we’ve discovered that s spray of just water and a small amount of Dr. Bronner’s soap will kill squash bugs.  It looks to be an epic year for squash, and with the dehydrator cooking away we should be able to preserve huge amounts of it when the time comes.

Unfortunately for the garden we haven’t gotten much rain in the last month, although that has certainly helped with our construction plans.  We’ve been watering sporadically the few plants that need it from our rainwater barrels by the solar shower, but unless the drought breaks soon we may be forced to truck in some city water.

Fundraiser

We’ve raised $4,700 towards our fundraising goal of $8,000!  Thank you to everyone who has contributed!

Photos

We’ve got more pictures posted in our photo gallery for those who are interested.