My 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!).
I’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.
I 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.
Today, 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.
We set the cedar posts for the duplex today. It’s a good feeling seeing it rise above ground level. At every step we get a little clearer sense of the space. Even if it just looks like something they set up for monkeys to play on at the zoo right now, it’s a little more believable that Jesse and I will actually have private quarters this winter.
Working with round rough cut posts isn’t the easiest thing. Assuming that the post isn’t warped, it inevitably tapers and so it’s only really possible to get one edge relatively straight. On the corners we do our best, and then we use string as a guide to line the other intermediate posts up.
Although it’s not exactly sustainable, we cemented in the posts. We’ll also likely use cement to set the granite footing around the base. Altogether though we’ll probably only use 2 bags of cement for the whole structure.
It’s been months since our last general newsletter update. I’ll try to hit a few of the big older things we may not have talked about in other posts and try to sum up our last month here at Maya Creek.
We’ve got a small family of wwoofers who have been helping us out since mid-March. They’ll be here for most of the summer as our extended-stay volunteers. It’s amazing how quickly things can get done with more hands, but it also means we run into planning, materials, and organizational barriers quickly. We’re going to start holding weekly meetings to help plan out the coming week, discuss projects, and just generally check in with everyone.
It looks as though we ‘re almost fully booked for the rest of this visitor session ending May 26. We still have space the last half of June and the last week and a half of our 3rd visitor session from September 4-15. The 4th visitor session from September 29-November 10 is still wide open. Find out more about visiting here.
So far we’ve raised $1,400 of the $8,000 we need to complete this year’s infrastructure projects. We’ll be throwing more of our own money into the pot as we earn it. We’ve also managed to decrease our costs by salvaging the majority of lumber we needed this year and we’ll add that as a donation when we figure out how much it saved us. We also found a cheaper backhoe to rent and operator willing to barter for some of our labor. All in all, we’re probably closer to 40% of the way to our goal. If you’re interested in helping us out check out our fundraising page, it’s got more information as well as a list of gifts we’re offering for funding us.
After such an incredibly warm March and the early forecast for April looked good I took a gamble and transplanted and seeded a number of plants. Unfortunately, we got 2 nights of hard frost in mid-April and then another light frost a week later. We managed to save many of the plants by covering them with mulch the first night, but the 2nd night wiped out many of them.
It appears that the garden can get significantly lower(8 degrees) than the forecasted low in Fulton, above and beyond any minor heat island effect Fulton would have over us. We’re not sure why that is, but if you have an idea let us know. Topographically the garden is at a high point on the property so it shouldn’t be a frost pocket, although it is surrounded by trees which we thought would help give it protection from the wind but seen from canopy level the garden would be a low spot. We’ve replanted everything and there is more than enough growing season left for everything to mature just fine.
It appeared we were going to get a large amount of fruit this year, but the frosts seemed to have knocked much of the developing fruits down and bugs have done some damage as well. The main paw paw patch down along the creek looked like it was set for a massive fruiting year as well, but all of the blossoms were wiped out and much of the leaves burned during the hard frosts. A couple years ago I girdled some trees in the paw paw patch to let in more light, but by doing so I also gave them less frost protection. Now the situation seems to be one of feast or famine. A lot of the gooseberries were likewise developing loads of berries, but 90% or so of them have since fallen off unripe.
Shiitake Cultivation Workshop
We held our very first official workshop on April 21. Since we’re all new to much of this including teaching workshops it was a little rough around the edges, but everyone seemed to walk away from it satisfied. I suppose it didn’t hurt that they were all carrying away a freshly made shiitake log of their own The event was sponsored by Kittie Kong for donating $250 to our fundraiser, and we intend for all of our workshops to be free to the public. If you’re interested in learning about the other workshops we have schedule please visit our workshop page and remember to register for those that you would like to attend. We’ve compiled a video of the workshop below.
We had a wonderful time at Earth Day in Columbia last Sunday. We took in our solar dehydrator and oven loaded with goodies despite the fact that the sun was mostly a no-show. We met a lot of great people and were told by many of them to keep it up, and we certainly will! Earth Day is a great time to network and introduce people to a lot of different ways that are available to live a more healthy, connected, and sustainable life. Each time I heard, “Oh, that’s a cool idea.” was like another tiny step towards moving us all in a better direction.
We’ve gathered a lot of the materials that we’ll need for our projects this year. We’ve cut and peeled almost 40 cedar posts, salvaged lumber, and gathered scrap granite. The construction areas are all cleared out, and all of the trees we had to take out have been processed for firewood, mushroom logs, or are awaiting a turn at the chainsaw mill to be turned into beautiful boards. We now have enough firewood set aside for 3 or 4 full winters here thanks to our efficient rocket stove and super-insulated straw bale housing. As if that weren’t enough, we also cleverly stacked it
Our main hold up at the moment is getting a backhoe out here and digging the cistern, root cellar, greywater pond, and duplex foundation. We now know where we’re renting the equipment from and have an operator who can do it starting next week, we just need it to quit raining. Over the last 48 hours here we’ve gotten 4.25″ of rain, more than 1/10 of our average annual rainfall. We even got some nice sized hail that luckily didn’t do much damage in the garden or anywhere else.
While we wait for the excavation to begin we’re working on gathering more materials like sand and billboard tarps. We’re also going to start on the interior straw slip walls in the common house as early as tomorrow and begin plastering again on John’s small straw bale cabin.
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It’s not fun to cut down trees, for the trees or for us. No one likes using a tool as noisy, smelly, and dangerous as a chainsaw, but this last month has been packed with tree felling and processing. We’re clearing out our construction sites for this year, and turning the trees into firewood, mushroom logs, and we’ll be milling some of the trunks into lumber.
We’re also culling some cedars, trimming them up, and peeling them for use as posts in the shed and strawbale duplex. They’re rot resistant, beautiful, and plentiful here.
In exchange for harvesting some trees we’re taking on the responsibility of protecting the other trees on the property and providing for their survival.
It’s turned into something of a running joke here at MC that just about any problem can be solved with rocks, wood, or clay. Andrew and John made replacement stove knobs from pieces of wood, and I built a replacement starter for it from clay. We also cleared a path along the creek, and to deal with all the creek crossing and drainage we either used rocks as stepping stones, or logs for steps or water diversions. We planned on making a wooden bridge, but opted for redirecting the path and using stepping stones instead.
John, Jesse, and I finished putting in the base layer of the earthen floor last week(clay and rock). It will probably take a month to dry, and so during that time we’ll be working on the porch area. The wall on that side is not well protected from the weather until it gets built so it’s a priority. We’ve already done some prep work, prepared the back wall and cut and cleaned the cedar support posts.
Straw Bale Cabins
The straw bale house has performed amazingly with all of the above-average hot weather. So much so that we’ve started dreaming up a small ultra-cheap and easy one-room straw bale cabin design. Our current cost estimates put it at about $300 for ~80 square feet. If it performs anything like the main straw bale house it may be all-season housing. We’ll probably begin on that later this week.
All of my new garden beds have been quite a disappointment. The new beds have some severe nitrogen deficiency. I noticed that there is quite a bit of wood chunks mixed in the compost I get from Columbia. I think that it’s not finished composting, and when I mix it up by spreading it onto the beds it’s like turning a compost which reinvorgates the decomposition process and locks up the nitrogen for months.
I’ve added blood meal and urine to the beds and it has certainly helped, but some of my crops have died and others are stunted and will likely be delayed significantly. I think the key to using that compost is to make the beds in the fall so they’ll be ready in the spring.
As far as inhabitants of MC go, John has been here for about a month now. Tom arrived from Canada via 31 hour bus ride last week and will be here for a month or so. Andrew from St. Louis spent 10 days out here helping on the creek path. Jesse spent the last week out here and I think he plans on spending this coming week as well.