Tag Archives: Earthen Plaster

Spring 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!


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.


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.

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.

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.



Battening the Hatches: September/October 2012 Newsletter

September was spent doing a lot of earthen plastering on the strawbale duplex. We managed to finish the 1st coat on the exterior and interior and got the 2nd, much more time consuming coat, on the interior of my(Tao) side of the duplex.

It would have been nice to finish the interior of both sides, and especially nice to get the finish plaster and floor in so that we wouldn’t have to move out to do that next year, but since the 2nd coat of interior plaster is still drying on my side there’s no way that was possible.  It’s been exactly a month and the 2nd coat is almost dry.

Anyway, that’s where we decided to cease major construction for the year and give ourselves a healthy amount of time to prep for winter. Prepping for winter includes taking down all of the tarps, tents, the pop-up camper, cleaning out the garden, spreading compost, and generally cleaning up and battening the hatches to stay warm.

The Common House

Yesterday I built some shelves for the pantry, and it’s actually being used for pantry-like functions for the first time in its existence. Having our food spread out in an easy to see and accessible way is probably more novel than it should be. I feel like I’m standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open.

Moving the kitchen in and out has become one of the dreaded spring/fall tasks. Until we finish the walls and the floor of the common house we have to move everything out to work on it. We were hoping this would be the last year we’d have to move it in and out, but we’ll have to do it all again next year as well.

We’re prioritizing the finish work on the common house for next year. The water system(hot indoor on-demand showers!) is the driving force. It’s also getting old explaining to every visitor that no, the common house isn’t done yet. We want to have at least one nice finished place to show as an example of what can be done using these sustainable techniques as soon as possible.

Rocket Stoves!

We’ve also been working on heating for the winter. I just finished work on the rocket stove in my side of the duplex. Jesse has the first phases of his complete, and John is gathering materials for his slightly more complex design.

The only thing I would do different on mine so far is to use 5″ flue pipe instead of 4″. Still though, it works remarkably well, and since it basically just burns twigs and small branches I can collect enough wood to burn for 4-6 hours in just a few minutes and I don’t even have to chop anything!

The draft created by the chimney effect and the insulated burn chamber are really exceptional. The sound it makes reminds me of the sound the space shuttles made(past-tense boo!) when they were taking off.  I find it very soothing.

I set mine up with a small cooking area as well as a platform to keep things hot.  I’ve cooked a couple batches of ramen(don’t judge me) on it so far, but I see a lot of tea being brewed in the future.

Harvest Festival

The harvest festival went well, although we’re contemplating moving it later in the year and using it as a time to celebrate our accomplishments for the year and to essentially close out the building season. We had a good turnout of friends and neighbors though, and I believe everyone had a good time.  The homemade hard lemonade certainly didn’t hurt!

Adventures in E. Coli

Many of our neighbors are hesitant to eat anything we’ve grown since word is out that we use humanure to grow our food. With that in mind I ran some tests for e.coli(Thanks to Sarah for acquiring the tests!) just to make sure we’re doing things correctly.

I tested our garden soil that I hadn’t added humanure to, some that I added humanure to last year, straight 1 year old humanure, and 1 year old composted alpaca manure. The results are in! The alpaca manure showed 4 e. coli colonies on the 2 tests, which is within safe limits, there was 1 e. coli colony on 1 of the tests that just had plain garden soil and there were no e.coli colonies found on any of the 7 tests that were done on straight humanure or soil amended with humanure.

Let me repeat that, despite doing more tests on the humanure compost and humanure-amended soil than on the other samples, we were unable to find a single cell of e. coli.  In other words, our humanure compost is totally safe!

We believe the alpaca manure didn’t compost as thoroughly because of how compacted it was.  The manure came from cleaning out the alpaca stalls in the spring and had been tromped on all winter.

While that should put everyone’s mind at ease I doubt the fecalphobes, ie most of society, will be too reassured. In order to utilize our humanure while still compromising with the fecalphobes we’re now only applying the humanure to the fruit trees and using alpaca manure on the veggie beds, despite it showing higher levels of e. coli than the humanure, although still within safe levels.

Winter Goals

We’re organizing ourselves for winter projects. Those include working on organizational aspects such as becoming a non-profit organization, restructuring our volunteer program, and getting training as meeting facilitators. I personally plan on doing more introspective work, meditating, reading, taking long walks, etc.  Oh, and I’ll also be working on editing together the video footage we shot this year into something presentable.


August 2012 Newsletter: It’s Liveable!

The heat wave broke in mid-August and our energy levels went up along with a noticeable improvement in everyone’s spirits.

We’ve continued to re-evaluate what is possible with the remainder of the year, and have begun prioritizing.  The duplex topped the list, followed by finishing the root cellar so that we can move all of our tools and materials out of our makeshift tool tent.  The last thing we’d like to accomplish is put the finish coats of plaster and floor in the common house to keep the dust down this winter.

That said, the last few weeks we’ve almost solely focused on the duplex.  We’ve gotten better at stacking bales so that the corners are more square.  The key is not to stuff the spaces around the corner bales to tightly or it’ll push them out.  Apart from stacking the bales, stuffing the gaps, and trimming them we’ve also put in several electrical outlets connected to our off-grid grid.

To put the outlets in we nail the outlet boxes to plywood stakes, cut out space for the box in a bale with a chainsaw and then drive the stake/outlet box into the wall.  The electrical wire is just tucked in between the bales.

For the roof we installed two pieces of tarp as interior liner and used trim to secure it to the roof rafters.  Then we packed in scrap alpaca wool to fill in the space made by the liners and the 2×12 rafters.  We sprayed the wool with a borax solution to keep pests out and help with fire resistance, though wool is naturally fire retardant and straw bales coated in earthen plaster won’t burn.



Next, we put another tarp over the alpaca fiber to keep critters out of it and to act as secondary barrier like tar paper in case the metal roof ever leaks.  Lastly we put on the metal roof.  The only thing left to do on the roof is to put the gutters on.

Apart from putting in a couple more wine bottles in our walls to let more light in we’re ready to start plastering.  Earthen plastering is a very labor-intensive part of straw bale construction, though we generally find it to be satisfying work.  We hope those who joined our August 18th workshop felt the same way!  Luckily we’ve got a couple of new volunteers showing up early next week.  They’re well aware that we’ve got a bunch of plastering for them and so that should speed us along.

Our goal for the year is to get the base coat of plaster(it’s one of three coats) on the interior and exterior, and then to at least get the second coat or infill coat of plaster on the exterior, but hopefully the interior as well.  We’d like to build our rocket stoves before winter too, but we may have to make due with kerosene heaters if time doesn’t permit it.

The Drought

We managed to get all of 1/2″ of rain last weekend, and it looks like hurricane Isaac may deliver us some more hopefully.  The problem is that’s all the rain we’ve gotten this month.  Out average rainfall for August is typically 4.25″.  I have no idea what kind deficit we’re running for the year, but we may have gotten 2″ since the end of April. Even the wild trees are dying.  It seems contained to dogwoods and maples at the moment, although you can tell the oaks and other big trees are stressed too.

Apart from the tomatoes, peppers, and a few other plants we’ve essentially given up on the garden for the year.  You can’t win them all.

1st Annual Harvest Festival – September 29th

In other news, we’ll be holding our first ever harvest festival.  There will be a wine making workshop, archery, disc golf tournament, hiking, swimming(weather permitting), home-brew tasting, a potluck dinner, and camping. Everyone is invited, just please RSVP especially if you plan on camping and/or want to stay in one of our guest tents.


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.


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.


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.


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


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



April 2012 Newsletter

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.

Fundraiser Progress

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.

Frost Setbacks

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.


Earth Day

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.

Project Progress

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.


If you’d like to get updates whenever we post a blog, pictures, videos, or when we just have something small and quick to announce or discuss please join our facebook group.


Workshops Posted

Update: The date for the Primitive Skills Primer is actually June 16, NOT June 19.

We’ve finally settled on the workshops and the dates that we’ll be holding them this year.  We chose these based on how much experience and success we’d had with each of these topics.

All of the workshops are free, but we do ask that you register ahead of time so we know how many people are coming.  We doubt that we will have too many, but you never know.

We’ll be hanging flyers around the area, specifically in Columbia.  Although if anyone wants to print some out and hang them around their areas we can either give you some or you can print your own from this pdf.

Looking forward to seeing some of you there!


Plaster, Compost, and the beginnings of a Forest Garden

Since my last post Dakota, Emily, and I have finished the discovery and infill coats of earthen plaster on the house.  Others participated in various plaster parties and I’d like to thank them all graciously, but I especially want to thank Dakota and Emily.  The infill coat was a herculean task, and took just over a month to complete.  I’d guess we mixed a couple hundred batches of plaster in the cement mixer altogether, but the really time consuming part was smearing it on the walls and smoothing it out.  The walls look relatively flat and it just generally made it look like a serious building.  Tom Mudd, a local housing contractor, came by earlier today and told me it was “professional”.

There’s still a thin coat of lime plaster to put on before the walls are totally complete, but that’s going to wait until after the granite chunk footing goes around the very bottom of the walls.  I’ve been picking up loads of free granite chunks from a counter top maker in town and I’m going to mortar the chunks together with a lime mortar.  Functionally, it protects the gravel-filled bags that make up the stem wall from degrading in UV.  It also acts as a splash guard and a moisture barrier for the bales and clay plaster.  Aesthetically, I think it’s going to make it look kick ass.

We’ve also set up a basic tarp storage area outside the house to get all of the tools and supplies out of the house so work can start on the earthen floor.  There are a couple of things that need to be done inside before the floor can start being poured, but that should begin within the next few weeks.

The garden is in decline.  I knew it at the time, but I really should have done succession planting so I wouldn’t be swamped with different crops all at once.  The tomatoes have come and gone, and without a solar dehydrator many of them either rotted or were given away.  Emily is working on an Appalachian style solar dehydrator, which ought to be completed in relatively near future.  Many of the turnips and beets went bad before they could be eaten as well, so food preservation and succession planting are the name of the game for next year.

I spent this last week weeding and working on the garden.  It had been badly neglected because of all the work on the house.  The flowers I’d planted had overtaken large swathes of the beds, and so had inadvertently become a kind of weed and so were trimmed back hard.  I also put a bunch of compost and mulch around the fruit trees and berry bushes, as well as laying down some paths.  I’m essentially going to sheet mulch 3/4 of the area around the vegetable beds and plant a whole range of useful plants in the under-story of the fruit and berry bushes.  I did roughly 1/8 of what needed to be done, but it’s certainly a start and it felt good to improve the garden after all the neglect.

The majority of the work in improving the soil involves importing organic material.  I’ve used compost and manure from a number of sources, some were good and some weren’t.  Right now my main source is William Woods University’s horse stalls.  The fine people there load me up for free, and it’s only a 15 minute drive away.  The food forest section that I sheet mulched used basically two truck loads of material.  Once all of the soil has been improved though, I won’t need to be trucking in material any longer as long as there’s a closed nutrient cycle and all of the waste and humanure is composted and returned to the soil.

I also spent this last week making two large compost piles, improving on my previous straw bale system.  The original pile I made didn’t get compost in the very core of the pile.  It just wasn’t wet at all because the mound shape had hardened and redirected all of the water to the sides.  My new piles were slightly rectangular to handle the full truck load and be flat on top so the water would soak in more evenly.  Also, I layered the horse manure/bedding with weeds and other garden wastes which are high in nitrogen.  Horse manure by itself has the perfect C:N (Carbon to Nitrogen) ratio for composting, but with the wood shaving bedding material added it puts more carbon in the mix, so the greens help to balance that out somewhat.

I also sprinkled a shovelful of finished compost on each manure layer and wetted it down thoroughly.  Then I topped the whole thing off with several inches of straw to stop it from forming that hardened surface and to hold the moisture in better.   I stuck my soil thermometer in one of the piles and by the 3rd day it had reached 140F.  It’s cooled a little since then, but I think that’s because it didn’t have enough water.  Because it got so hot I decided to build the 2nd pile with humanure in the core to sterilize it.  If a compost pile spends 24 hours above 121F it will kill all the harmful pathogens in the poop.

The two piles should give me enough compost to give the vegetable beds a good layer and re-energize them for another productive year.  I’ll continue expanding the sheet-mulching of the food forest as I have time and available helpers.

I’ve got 4 new guineas in the guinea house and I’ve moved the lone chicken up by my camper as a personal tick guard.  I’m going to go get her a friend soon though.  I think she’s starting to go a little crazy by herself.  The guineas should provide excellent tick clearance, but really I haven’t even so much as seen a tick in more than a month now.

As far as community goes, Justin has begun work on a tipi he plans on trying overwinter in.  He had originally planned on making a type of yurt but has scaled back his plans as winter looms.  He’s cleared out a space in the main community field and has already collected the majority of poles he needs from the surrounding woods.  He’ll use the billboard tarps to make the covering.  He’s also discovered a vein of paint rock, basically a type of mineral ocher that can be used as a paint, such as on a lime plaster to make a type of fresco.

Patrick has downgraded his plans as well and is going to make a simplified geodesic dome assuming he has time.  He’s also cleared out a space in the central community field.  He’s had some transportation issues that have been slowing him down, along with other projects he already has in the works.

Dakota and Emily left last week for a 2 week trip to visit Emily’s friends and family in Columbus, OH, but they’ll be back this next week.  Dakota will probably be leaving a week or so after they get back, but Emily plans on staying until the weather heads south.

A new work exchanger, Joanie, should be arriving this coming weekend for several weeks to help out.  Also, Jessica, who’s actually from Fulton has been camping out in her van for a few days.  She’ll be leaving for California in a few weeks, but is hanging out until then.

The weather has been getting progressively nicer.   It’s not as hot or humid, and there have been plenty of blue skies filling up the battery banks.  It’s actually been kind of nice needing to use a blanket on some nights.

I know I’m missing a lot of different things that have happened, but I’m going to make it a priority to post once a month. So stay tuned, and check out the flickr feed for more pics.

A Gravity All Its Own

There have been a lot of great developments at Maya Creek in the 6 weeks since my last blog post.  I’ll start with the oldest and work my way up to the present.

The roof has been completely insulated.  Dakota and I spent 2 days blowing insulation into the roof space we’d created between the rafters with used billboard tarps.  The inside of the roof isn’t the prettiest, but I’m planning on getting some kind of fabric or saris, and hanging them up over the tarp to make it prettier and to add some character.  Even without doors or windows it’s noticeably cooler and less humid inside the house.

After the roof was finished we started preparing the walls for the earthen plaster.  That mainly involved stuffing cracks and spaces with straw slip, essentially straw dipped in a clay/water mix about the consistency of cream. We also taped off some parts that we wanted to protect from the plaster.  Afterwards we made a gritty adhesion coat out of flour paste, sand, and clay.  The adhesion coat was smeared on all of the non-straw surfaces that were going to get plastered such as wood, parts of the gravel bag stem wall, and the metal compression wires.  We also stuffed some of the spaces between the gravel bags with cob to minimize the amount of plaster that would have go in there to even it out.

Next we rented an air compressor and stucco gun and blasted the straw bale walls with clay slip, the clay/water mixture about the consistency of heavy cream.  At that point I bought a cement mixer and generator to help with the mixing and it has already been incredibly helpful in mixing the plaster as well.  While I could see mixing plaster by hand for a small project, the cement mixer has probably doubled the speed at which we’re plastering both with the time it takes to actually mix and the energy saved and used on applying the plaster.

The 4th of July: Get Plastered weekend event was a resounding success as far as I was concerned.  14 people showed up at one point or another and there were a dozen that helped with the actual plastering.  It was extremely gratifying for me to see my old friends getting along so well with my new friends.  It took us a good 6 hours to get 3 of the outside walls done and we finished up the last wall in a couple hours on the 2nd day.  Dakota and I built a dock at the lake just in the time for the party and the bonfire was quite impressive, seen here with flames only half as high as they got to be.

It sounds cliche, but it really is hard for me to put into words how grateful I am to everyone who has helped me along the way so far, not just the people at the plaster party, but all the support I have gotten with the ecovillage project.  It is fueling the progress here, not to mention giving fire to my determination to see this through.  Without it, this simply would not be possible and so I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I have an optimism about the future that I have never experienced before as an adult.

Whew, now that I’ve let that wave of emotion sweep over me let me get back to the business at hand.  I have a new work exchanger, Emily.  She arrived from Ohio a day or so before the plaster party.  She’s inquisitive and hard-working and we seem to get along well.  Dakota was planning on leaving after the plaster party, but seems to find it harder and harder to leave.  This place seems to be developing a type of gravity all its own because he’s not the only one.

Over the plaster party weekend I talked with Justin and Melainia and they wanted to start construction on a DIY yurt.  I’ve already seen some of the initial plans on it and it seems fantastic.  They’re wanting to start some time this summer and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  They’re already good friends to me and I welcome them whole-heartedly as the first community members apart from myself.  The construction of a small dwelling in the actual ecovillage area fits in exactly with that I’d envisioned for the first phase of the main ecovillage area construction.

I’d only met Patrick once before early this spring.  I liked him after that one encounter, but after the plaster party weekend he’s already entered the ranks as a good friend as well.  He’s been building a geodesic dome about an hour or so from here and hung around an extra day after the plaster party weekend.  He seemed to be at home here and I was sad to see him leave.  I’d already been conspiring on how I could get him more involved here when he e-mailed me and said that he had to be a part of Maya Creek sooner rather than later and wants to build a small dome here this summer.

There’s this sense that the pieces are starting to fall into place and that my “start building it and they will come and help you” strategy is working.  I feel like I’ve been able to attract exactly the kind of people I’d been hoping to find.  The ecovillage seems to be well on it’s way to becoming an actual village and not just a wild man in the woods.

So, getting back to the more hum-drum ecovillage news.  The plaster is still going up.  Dakota, Emily, and I have already significantly improved our plastering methods and are moving much quicker than I had thought possible judging by how much we got done at the plaster party.  It’s quite a relief since it was beginning to look like a herculean feet to finish the next 2 coats, especially since the next coat involves 3-4 times more plaster than the discovery coat we’re still applying does.

I’d like to put out an open invitation for a plaster party this Saturday, July 17 as well as one on Saturday, July 31.  Everyone is welcome to camp for the weekend.  There are a number of tents already set up on raised platforms with protective tarps.  A few of them have mattresses, and I’m looking for a couple of double mattresses to throw in two of them.  If you’re coming out remember to bring clothes that you don’t care about since clay can stain clothing.

In non-housing related news the garden has exploded in productivity and lushness.  Many of the companion planted flowers are blooming, tomatoes are ripening, zucchini, squash, and cucumbers are growing faster than I can pick them, and my only regret is that I can’t spend more time there examining bugs, growth patterns, and generally just poking around.  A couple raccoons got in one night and ravaged the sweet corn, but it’s recovered fairly well and I’ve since trapped and relocated the rascals about 20 miles away.

A couple fruit trees have died, and some are struggling.  A few seem to be doing really well though, which is I suppose to be expected in essentially unimproved clay soil.  Next year I’m really going to kick my compost-making operation into high gear and make it so that I can grow pretty much any plant the climate will allow.  I have the sources for material and means of delivery, just not the time to do it right now.

Sadly I’ve lost two of the three laying hens I bought this year.  The first one happened when the chickens accidentally got locked out of their coop one night and nested in a tree.  I could hear it screaming as something attacked it and ran down and scared away whatever was attacking it, but it was mortally wounded and I had to put it out if it’s misery.  The other was mortally wounded by some dogs and was likewise mercy killed.  It’s really pretty depressing, and I’ve begun to wonder if the act of butchering these animals is worth the meat.  I’m almost to the point of burying them in the garden and using them as fertilizer.  It seems right since that’s essentially what I want done with my own body, except in the forest, not the garden.  Jason is raising some guineas for the both of us, and so I should have 4 or so of them running around tick-hunting in a couple months.

Maya Creek is also now solar-powered.  The wind generator doesn’t reliably produce very much power.  The turbine needs to be higher above the trees, but I’m hoping that in the winter when the leaves are down and the winds are generally stronger and more sustained I’ll see more production out of it.  If not I have a plan to raise it another 5-10′ and possibly trim some tree tops.

The 90W of amorphous silicon solar panels are doing the trick on these hot sunny summer days.  The battery bank had been consistently topped off, but as more people have arrived and the weather has gotten cloudier, they may not be enough for what we’ve been demanding.  I’ve got 2 new LED lighbulbs that put off a nice omni-directional warm light that only use 5 watts each.  Over the winter I’m also going to be looking at getting a new super-efficient laptop.

In more recent news, I’ve lost my dumpster diving cherry.  I spent most of the time laughing at the incredible amount of perfectly good food thrown out.  I didn’t even notice a smell in most of the dumpsters and within the course of an hour or two the car was packed to the brim with a huge array of food and goodies, including a perfectly fine step ladder, which had been on my list of things to get for plastering.  If I had to estimate what it would have cost to buy the stuff we got, I’d put it somewhere in the area of $200-300, if not more.

We did all of that on the way back from St. Louis where we went to an event remembering the 1877 general strike in St. Louis.  The main reason we went was to see David Rovics.  I designed David’s site about 5 years ago and had never met him until yesterday.  He introduced me to some extremely interesting people in the St. Louis area and I’m really looking forward to getting to know them better.