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.


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.

 

 


Right as Rain

Posted by Tao on January 26, 2014

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.

 

 

 


Home  |  Sustainability  |  Get Involved  |  Nature Preserve  |  Community