Maya Creek

Education in Sustainability

Sustainability

The idea behind sustainability is that you are creating system that does not degrade its foundations and the resources it requires so that the system can continue indefinitely.  It suggests a sort of equilibrium, but really what is needed is a system that is regenerative, that continually reinforces its foundations and increases its resources or becomes more efficient at their use and reuse.   Nature does exactly that, it improves the soil tilth with continual growth and decay of plant material.  Roots slowly breakdown bed rock and clay into soluble nutrients replacing nutrients lost to erosion and leaching.  Evolution is the process of finding ways to become more efficient.

To think that we can create an independent system as elegant or as tried and true as the natural system that created us in the first place is arrogant and naive.  Our goal at Maya Creek is to observe the natural system around us and discover ways that we can fit our own needs, activities, products, and waste as seamlessly as possible into a symbiotic relationship with it.  We hope to do more than sustain our existence.  We intend to thrive.


Spring 2014

Posted by Tao on July 21, 2014

The day after my last post we planted potatoes. Last week we harvested those potatoes.  That’s how erratic my blogging has become so I’m not going to go into detail about the almost 3 months in between, but I’ll try to summarize.

solar-hot-water-collectorHot Showers!

Not long after my last post I finished up the solar hot water collector and the associated insulated hot water barrel.  I made sure to leave space next to the collector in case I needed to build another one.  That turned out to be unnecessary as the collector easily heats the 55 gallons of water to scalding temperatures within a day, and then holds it there even on cloudy days.

It feels so much more civilized out here now.  Sure, it’s still really dusty in most of the buildings, and there’s still plenty of work to do before we have real sinks or a washing machine, but at least now we’re just a bunch of mildly-dirty hippies instead of filthy ones!

 Workshops

plaster-workshop-2So far I’ve held a shiitake mushroom log workshop, wild edible foray, and an earthen plaster workshop, all of which have gone well.  There was plenty of good networking going on between people with mutual interests, knowledge was shared, skills were learned, and I got a nice pile of inoculated shiitake logs growing their way towards deliciousness.

One side note on the shiitake logs that I’m kind of excited about.  I cut more mushroom logs than I had spore plugs for, and I decided to take some of the mushroom logs that already producing and stack them interspersed with the uninoculated extra logs.  I have strong hope that the mycelium will grow into the other logs or that spores will fall on them and they’ll begin producing as well.  I’ve had the mycelium grow between the logs and from the logs into the pallets I stack them on, and have had mushrooms pop out of the pallet itself so it’s not far fetched.  If so, I may be able to seriously ratchet up my shiitake production for a fraction of the effort I put in now.

The Garden

garden-6-18-14The garden has done really well this year.  We’ve gotten an above average amount of rain and only had to water occasionally mainly to get seeds started and transplants settled.  All of the extra rain made construction projects difficult, so the volunteers spent an above average amount of time in the garden; weeding, fighting bugs, harvesting, etc and we’re now reaping the benefits.  The dehydrator is constantly full and anything we can’t dry we’ve been canning.

It now seems clear that I can grow almost all of my own food, and probably trade excess for the things I can’t grow.  The volunteers have been a big help, but I could do it all on my own if I didn’t have construction projects to deal with too.  Maybe in a couple years I’ll try a year of total food self-sufficiency and see how it goes.

Construction Projects

earth-tube-trench-billy-diggingI originally planned on working on getting the inside of the common house finished, but after more detailed planning I saw that I needed a lot of carpentry work first that wouldn’t be easy to use volunteer help on so instead we’ve been working on getting the 2nd, and most labor/material intensive, coat of plaster on the cabins.  The small single cabin now has it’s 2nd coat completed and we’re well on our way to getting the duplex coat on.

We’ve also been digging a 100′ long 2′ deep trench to lay some PVC pipe in and use as a very simple geothermal cooling/heating system called an earth tube.  I’m mostly concerned with the cooling side of it, though it should decrease the already small amount of firewood I need in the winter.

According to what I could find on the internet I believe the air coming into the duplex even at the hottest part of the summer should be 70F or less and be significantly less humid.  A small CPU fan will pull the air and as it cools in the pipe the moisture should condense and drain out.  Another CPU fan attached to a pipe going through the highest point of the roof will blow the hot air out.  The fans may not be needed all of the time since natural convection should move the air, but they certainly won’t hurt.

The rainwater cistern is the next big project and we should be starting on that in August.  The pit is still wet from all of the rain this year, but the storms seem to be dropping less and less water and I think it’ll dry out enough to work on within the next month or so.

Volunteers

manu-billy-mulchRight now I’ve got a full house with 3 volunteers.  Billy, my full-summer volunteer is turning into a real asset now that he’s gotten the feel for things.  The other 2 volunteers are Emmanuel, from France, and Daniel, from Utah.  Both of them have been hard workers with good senses of humor and pleasant dispositions.  I’ve also had a couple of volunteers from Pennsylvania and London earlier in the Spring.


Earth Day Update

Posted by Tao on April 22, 2014

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!


Water System Taking Shape

Posted by Tao on March 30, 2014

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.

 


Sputtering towards Spring

Posted by Tao on February 26, 2014

Organized workshop

In between the unusual arctic blasts that continue to pummel the area I’ve been quietly preparing for the inevitable coming thaw. We’re now back in another round of near record-low temperatures, but before that happened I got some much needed clean-up done as well as set up a really simple coldframe/mini-greenhouse for seed starting.

Ever since I brought my first load of stuff out to the property there’s essentially been an amorphous pile of stuff including everything from private affects and clothes to tools and materials all piled together with little rhyme or reason. It was under tarps strung between trees for the first 3 years, and then about a year ago it moved underneath the protection of the new shed.

Organized shed

Well, I finally went through ALL of the boxes of stuff and organized at least roughly. I can’t tell you how many things I found that I’d spent crazy amounts of time looking for.

The shed is a long way from done, and I’ll have to move some of the stuff again to work on the root cellar, but it’s so wonderful to easily find the tools and materials for projects and then know exactly where they go when I’m done. There’s an actual place for that kind of object now!  Also, I finally have space to pull in a vehicle to work on it when I need to.  Will wonders never cease!

Simple Coldframe

Hay and straw bale cold frame mini-greenhouseI made a rectangle from 8 old hay bales someone gave me and then stacked another 3 bales on the north wall of it.  Then I put down about 6″ of straw within a rectangle to insulate the floor and then draped a clear plastic drop cloth over a few 2×2 boards.  I secured the drop cloth with some of the scrap chunks of granite I have for various projects, mainly the footing around the straw bale buildings.

I also put a couple of the bigger dark pieces of granite inside of it, propped up against the back wall.  These chunks of granite are thermal mass that moderate the temperature, absorbing heat and keeping it from getting too hot during the day, and then re-radiating that heat back out at night.

Opened coldframe with onion trays

Today the outside temperature topped out at 26F, but inside the bale greenhouse it was 80F.  I’ve been bringing the seedlings inside at night since it’s been getting into the single digits and it gets below freezing inside the greenhouse, but soon it’ll protect against mild frosts and I can start getting tomato and pepper soil blocks started in there along with the onion trays I’ve already got growing.

Eventually there will be a greenhouse attached to the front of the common house and I won’t need to set a variation of this up every year.

 


Starting Onions from Seed

Posted by Tao on February 16, 2014

*UPDATED: 2/26/14

DISCLAIMER: I’ve never actually tried to start seeds this exact way. I’ll update this post when I see how effective it turns out to be.

Seed starting materialsIt’s February 15, exactly 8 weeks before the average last frost in this part of Missouri, April 15, so it’s time to start onions!

I’ve found that watering from the bottom keeps the soil evenly moist, uses less water, and disturbs the seeds less. Before I was using some donated peat pots and setting those in a baking tray with water for them to soak it up. That works ok, but they dry out pretty quickly and I’d like to have a method that doesn’t rely on a supply of peat pots.

The idea is that I drill holes in the bottom of the tray that will contain the soil and seedlings and set it in another bus tray holding water and allow the top tray to soak up as much water as it wants from the lower tray and then remove it. If I let it sit in there continually it would likely drown the seedlings. One thing potential issue might be overfilling the bottom tray and having it spill over when I put the top tray in to soak.

I’m starting 2 trays of onions this year. So I drilled 1/4″ holes a couple inches apart in the bottom of 2 trays.

Trays, one with 1/4" holes

Next I mixed up my seed starting mix. Ideally I would just use some compost, but the pile I set aside for this isn’t finished yet. Instead, I’m using equal parts vermiculite, peat moss, and some “potting” soil that appears to be much more top soil with compost than the fluffy potting soil I’m aiming at.

Mixing materials

I used a 1 gallon bucket as a measuring cup. I used 1 bucket of each ingredient and mixed them dry with a rake and broke up the bigger clods of the soil.

Soil mixing

Set aside maybe 1/4 of a bucket of the dry mix per tray for covering the seeds later.

Then I stirred in about a gallon of water for those 3 buckets of material and worked it until the mix was saturated.  In this case I used melted snow as water, but if you use tap water make sure to let it off gas for a day or more so that no chlorine kills the beneficial microorganisms in the compost.

Adding water

Then I filled each tray up about 2.5-3″ with the wet seed starting mix.

Filling the trays with wet soil mix

I repeated for the second tray, but really could have done both at the same time if I’d known how much each tray was going to take.

Next, I labeled the two trays with masking tape and put the variety, type of plant, and the date on it. These seeds are intermediate-day length varieties I’ve had success with here, Bronze D’amposta and Australian Brown.

Tray labels and seed packets

I tear the tops off and hold the package horizontal so the torn edge makes a wider mouth for the seeds to fall off and then shake it side to side. I feel I get a good distribution this way. I put a packet and a half of each type of seed(~450/seeds per tray). I have another packet and a half remaining of each in case this batch fails I can try again.

Broadcasting onion seeds

I then sprinkled on maybe a 1/4″ of the dry mix I reserved earlier and tried to get break or get rid of any bigger chunks in it before sprinkling.

Covering seeds with the dry mix

Next I used a mister and wetted down the dry mix and seeds. I shouldn’t have to water from the top again, but it’s important that you get everything completely wet the first time so that the capillary effect, which soaks up the moisture, will be effective.

Wetting the dry material and seeds

Now it’s just a matter of putting them somewhere relatively warm (70-75F is ideal). I’m setting them on my rocket stove’s thermal mass bench which is about 80F right now.

Trays on rocket stove bench

They should germinate in about 2 weeks. I’ll update shortly after that to record how it’s working out.

 Update 2/26/14

Bronze D'amposta onion sproutsThe onions began germinating in only 4 days! Since that was so far off from the 10-14 day estimate I’d seen in 2 places I looked some more and found that under optimum conditions they can germinate in 4 days, so I guess the temperature on the rocket stove bench was good for them.

It’s now 11 days since I sowed them and I’ve been making sure they get at least indirect sunlight as much as I can.   Despite the recent bout of well-below average temperatures the cold frame I set up a few days ago is getting into the 80′s even though the highs have only been in the mid-20′s outside so I’ve been setting the trays out during the sunny part of the day.

 

 


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