archive, November - December 2004

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Idea -- 4 November 04 -- So I'm definitely not going back to the land until spring, and I'm nervous about what the unfriendly locals are going to do. I left a big cooler full of glass bottles under a tree, and I'm half expecting to go back in April and find them all smashed, and half a dozen trees cut down, and my log barrier moved. [Didn't happen.] I can only hope that, as hostile as they are, they'll be too lazy to move all those logs so they can drive their truck close to the trees just like parking at the mall, and too lazy to park behind the barrier and haul the firewood 100 feet back to it.

But I learned something useful when I compulsively spent all of August troubleshooting old computers. I gained the experience of solving extremely difficult problems by sheer persistence, trying one thing after another after another and finally succeeding. The real world works the same way -- it just takes more imagination. Today I went for a barefoot run, worried about the barbarians, and then got in problem-solving mode, and then got an inspiration:

The biggest weakness of my land is that it's not remote enough. It would be totally cool if the road in was just a trail, if you had to walk a few hundred feet through dense woods to even get to the edge of the property. That would certainly deter the tree-killers, and probably the building inspector too. But I can do that! The last few hundred feet of the road is not used by anyone but me. I don't have to wipe out the road (and it probably wouldn't be legal). All I have to do is not maintain it, not dig those channels to keep the rains from ruining it, not trim the spotted knapweed and thistles growing on it, not clear the fallen branches and rocks. In a year or two, it will be undriveable, and in ten years it won't even look like a road. [Spring 2007, still totally driveable!]

Only two obstacles: First, I have to make the mental adjustment that anything heavy, like a 300 pound wood stove or a bunch of plywood, will have to be hauled in on foot the last few hundred feet. No problem! Second, and trickier, I'll have to arrange with the neighbors to park one or two vehicles almost permanently on their property, assuming I can find some friends to move to the land and one or two of us have vehicles. They'll probably agree, and if necessary I can pay them like $50 a year for a "parking spot."

Building Research -- 10 November 04 -- I'm back in Seattle, and just talked to my friend Adam. He went to a cob building workshop this summer, and he and a few of his friends from the workshop want to come help me build a cob house! I like to complain that green living classes are super-expensive when they should be free if the instructors were really trying to save the world... but now I'm seeing the benefits. If people normally have to pay a lot to practice building a cob house, then practicing for free on my house seems like a bargain.

Cob is a mixture of sand, clay, and straw. I'm told that wheat straw is the best, and they grow lots of wheat in eastern Washington, so I should be able to find a source. I've got plenty of sand and clay on the land. Before spring I'll have to buy and read The Cob Builders Handbook. Basically you build big thick walls of the stuff, in whatever shape you want, and it insulates OK, has huge thermal mass, and is strong enough to hold up the roof by itself.

I still have an enormous amount to learn. Building is a huge, intimidating subject. I've been reading all the posts on the Yahoo Tiny Houses group, and it all seems way over my head: tongue and groove, 6 mil polyethylene vapor barriers, 16 inch center framing, cellulose, vermiculite, torx-drive screws... and they haven't even got into foundations and roofs yet! For the roof, I plan to put native timbers on the cob, plywood on the timbers, one or two layers of pond liner (where do I get pond liner? how do I attach it?) and then eight inches of soil and let the grass grow. Cob walls last centuries if you can keep them dry.

Also, if I'm hosting helpers, I'll have to maintain the road, and I'd better put up some kind of temporary shelter, and I also need a tool shed, and I also need some way to keep the future firewood out of the rain so it can dry out. And all this without a truck! Damn! I suppose I can borrow or rent a truck, bring up a load of plywood, and build a couple of rickety uninsulated dirt-floor shacks, just to get through the summer. How about some old tents?

Plant Research -- 20 November 04 -- So I got the Raintree Nursery catalog a few weeks ago and I've been obsessively looking through it, picking out fruits and nuts and berries to plant on the land. But I want everything! So really, I've been picking which ones not to plant, at least not in 2005. At first I was going to get ten walnut trees (they're cheap and 40% off if you get ten), ten black locust trees as companions (also dirt cheap), a filbert hedge, three apple trees, two pie cherry trees, a bunch of blueberry and some elderberry.

Then the other day I stopped by Left Bank Books and looked through a couple permaculture magazines, and saw a review of Plants for a Future, which everyone says is incredibly good. So I ordered a used copy online, and then I discovered the Plants for a Future web site.

The site focuses on usefulness, and ranks every plant on a scale of 1 to 5. For no good reason they give pie cherry only a 1, and some of the "unusual" plants in the catalog, which I had ignored, and some of the common ones that I had rejected, rank a 5. The latter include strawberries and grapes, and the former, ginkgos, goumis, and an impressive plant called sea buckthorn, or seaberry. It produces loads of berries, has several medicinal uses, can make a hedge, has hard strong wood, is extremely cold-hardy and easy to grow, and fixes nitrogen.

After I added the new plants to the list (counting strawberry which comes in bundles of 25), I had 70 plants. I can afford that many, but I can't plant them, let alone protect the seedlings from being eaten by deer. So I'm going to have to slash the list and put off many for buying next winter and planting in 2006. I hope I have that much time!

Black Locust -- 21 November 04 -- Quick entry: I'm trying to decide whether to plant a bunch of black locust trees. I can get seedlings for $2 each, they grow fast, they fix nitrogen, they stop erosion, they're great for firewood, bees love them, and best of all, they have incredible wood, harder than hickory and more rot-resistant than cedar! But they can also be terribly invasive, with thorny shoots coming up everywhere. I'm leaning toward planting them anyway. The nice thing about having ten acres is I've got wide margins. I can plant them along the open edges of the land as windbreaks, and they won't be a long-term threat because they're short-lived. Also, permaculture people seem to like black locust and not be worried about the invasiveness.

Overwhelmed -- 28 November 04 -- Still researching plants. I finally got around to seeing if there are any good nurseries other than Raintree, and I found one called Burnt Ridge, oddly only a few miles from Raintree. They lack the wonderful catalog, but they have a better selection of almost everything, and much better prices -- sometimes because they sell smaller seedlings or unnamed varieties. Now I can get pecans, hickories, and pinyon pines, so I can eat loads of pine nuts when I'm 65 years old. (They grow very slowly!)

Also, I've been looking through my permaculture bible (Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future, same book as Designers Manual), and the more I research, the less I know. Now I feel totally unqualified to figure out what fruit trees to plant where. I think I'm not going to plant anything in the core of my land the first year, because I'll do it all wrong. At first I'll just focus on the edges. This is part of a larger strategy to cope with being overwhelmed with all I have to do. I need about ten people up there, not just workers but building specialists, permaculturists, and someone with a truck. I have to build a tool shed, a firewood shelter, a house, a toilet, a kitchen, a root cellar, a greenhouse, a garden, an orchard, compost piles, bat houses, duck houses, elaborate stream courses, reed beds, ditches, ponds, terraces, hedges, fences, windbreaks... and integrate it all. I have to buy shovels, picks, axes, nails, wire mesh, pruning shears, oil and chains for my chainsaw, a wheelbarrow, a wood stove, a grinder, maybe a gun, a froe, pond liner for the roof, and I have to find big stones and straw bales and 5-gallon buckets, and haul it all up there without being able to afford insurance on a vehicle.

Alone, all that stuff would take me about 25 years. So as long as it's just me and two or three short-term helpers, I have to scale way back. Now I think I'll just plant some pioneer trees, black locust and red alder, to hold the soil and fix nitrogen and slow the wind, and maybe some sea buckthorn and some native berries. I'll get cheap seedlings, so I don't have to put fences around them, and whatever the deer eat, I'll only be out a little money, and in 2006 I'll plant more of what the deer didn't eat, and not plant the nice stuff until I have the time and materials to make fences.

The first spring and summer I'll just try to get some sloppy cob walls up and put on a crappy roof, which is probably all I'll have time for, just enough so when I come back in spring of 2006 I'll have a place to get halfway warm and dry to save my energy to begin to work on all the other stuff.

From a distance, moving to the land didn't look this difficult. Buying it looked like the hardest part. Now that I've bought it, I understand why everyone else is staying in the city or suburbs, getting a distracting job, playing on the computer, eating at the supermarket, and hoping it can all be sustained for their normal lifespan. Even if it can't, it's easy to just have a good time and then kill yourself when the food stops coming into the city. What keeps me going is, I want more than anything to live in the world after the crash. More on that in a future post.

Cattails! -- 3 December 04 -- I finally got around to researching cattails, and discovered that they're hardy to zone 3, and apparently allied to ducks. The species native to my region is Typha latifolia. I already knew some stuff about the value of cattails: lots of edible pollen and roots, seed fluff can be used like down, young stems are edible, and several uses for the leaves. But here's something I didn't know: "Yields are fantastic. Marsh discovered he could harvest 140 tons of rhizomes per acre near Wolcott, NY. That represents something more than 10 times the average yield per acre of potatoes."

I was going to try ducks and rice, or wild rice. The hell with rice! I can make a few shallow ponds and do ducks and cattails. In fact, the seeds I scattered in October might already be sprouting in the spring. Another nice thing about cattails is the roots are available in winter and early spring, perfectly filling the gap between the fall harvest and the first berries. The big question: is there enough flow to keep standing water on the land through the hot dry summers? I think I can do it! A thousand square feet (one 400th of the land) would be plenty big enough -- even if the above numbers are off by a factor of ten, I'd still get 700 pounds of roots.

The Hedge -- 9 December 04 -- I've been spending hour after hour reading about plants. I'm starting to pick up the latin names, and every time I learn something new I change my plans. Here's where they are now:

In 2005 I'm going to focus completely on planting an edible hedge around my land -- or actually, on the barren parts where the deer come in, the north ridge and the east-facing south boundary. The north ridge is sunny and dry, so I've picked out plants that like full sun and tolerate dryness: sea buckthorn, goumi, aronia, and rosa rugosa, the best rose variety for eating the hips. On the shadier wetter south boundary, I'll put blue elderberrry, serviceberry, thimbleberry, filbert, and black currant. For black currant, I need white pine blister rust resistant varieties, and two varieties for good pollination. I picked Consort and Minaj Smyriou. Also, behind the north hedge and higher up on the south line, I'm still planning on putting in some black locust as windbreaks.

... But my plan of getting only cheap seedlings has collided with reality: I discovered in some posts on the GardenWeb forum that you get what you pay for: Two different people said they got the same $2 sea buckthorn seedlings I was going to get, and there were no flowers or fruits even after eight years! So I'm going to upgrade to larger plants, clones of a named variety, for $13.50. Likewise, for serviceberries I'll go from $3.50 to $9.50, and for aronia from $3.50 to $16!

The total price is now pushing $400. This means I can't afford to let deer eat my plants. But I also don't have the money and time to fence off 200 feet of hedges. So I've researched deer repellents. You can make your own out of rotten eggs and hot peppers, and there's a highly-recommended product called Deer Out, based on mint, which deer hate. (Who knew?) Also I hear coyote urine works, so I'll look for a source. But they say if deer get hungry enough, nothing works! Of course, if they're that hungry it means there are too many of them and they need to killed and eaten -- one more thing I know nothing about.

Windbreaks -- 14 December 04 -- In the end I decided not to plant black locust. There's too much risk that I'd have to do a ton of work, year after year, to stop it from invading my neighbors. So I went looking for native plants I could use as a windbreak on top of the dry north ridge. I did a google search and found a list, on which I saw... Duh! As I already knew, the most drought tolerant of all large trees is ponderosa pine, and there are already seedlings all over the north slope, and even more near my mom's house in Spokane, that need thinning anyway. I did another search and made sure they don't mind being transplanted. All I have to do is wait until fall, and dig up about 40 of them and replant them on the north line.

The north windbreak is only for the cold north winds. Mostly the wind comes from the west side, above which there is already a forested ridge, or the south. The south line is wetter and alder might work. It's a great pioneer plant, but the alleged best kind, red alder, isn't cold hardy enough. Sitka alder and mountain alder will work, and sitka seems to need less water. I found a cheap nearby source, Plants of the Wild, and I'll probably get some. I can't find any mention of it as a hedge or windbreak, but I think that's because the eco-hedgers are mostly in Britain, where they use italian alder and don't know much about sitka. Sitka is bushier than italian and should work even better. Funny -- if you focus your attention, you don't have to go very far in any direction before you know something the experts don't.

As I looked through the various lists -- drought, shade, wind, hedge, deer-resistant, native -- one other plant kept popping up. It's amelanchier alnifolia -- serviceberry or saskatoon. I was already planning on three or four expensive clones, but now I think I'll get another 10 or 20 cheap seedlings.

Rocket Stove -- 19 December 04 -- This weekend I ordered six books. From [later driven out of business by Amazon], I got two cob books, The Cob Builder's Handbook and The Hand-Sculpted House, and D.C. Beard's classic Shelters Shacks and Shanties, and Patrick Whitefield's How to Make a Forest Garden, and Mark Elbroch's Bird Tracks and Sign.

And directly from the publisher I ordered a little book on rocket stoves. I've heard of small ones for camping, but this is a big one for your house. If you click to that site you'll see an odd setup with two barrels and a bench. The first barrel is open, and you build a fire in it -- an open fire inside your house! But the design makes the fire burn downward, and the heat and smoke pass up through the sealed second barrel, which gets as hot as a wood stove. Then the air passes under the long bench and up the chimney, and I'm told that when it comes out, it's barely warm and doesn't even smell like smoke -- the rocket stove burns with nearly 100% efficiency! Also you can burn sticks in it, which, in the woods, are a lot easier to get than nice-shaped pieces of firewood.

So after months of trying and failing to find a small, highly-efficient wood stove for under $500, I'm giving up on the wood stove. All I need are a couple barrels and some stovepipe, and some time.

Also, the latest on the plants. I made my order from Raintree. I had a bad feeling about the filbert bushes, so I didn't order them, and instead I plan to get some oregon grape, and a few red osier dogwood, a great hedge with lousy berries -- I hope to make a deal with the birds that they can have all of them if they eat less of the other stuff. I'll wait until spring to order from Burnt Ridge, but my latest plan is a total of 58 plants, all berry bushes!

Beginning Housebuilding -- 28 December 04 -- I got that rocket stove book and read most of it, and it's not as easy as I thought. In addition to the barrels, I need about 30 feet of 8-inch stovepipe, about 70 good bricks, some perlite or vermiculite, and five tons of stone/cement and cob to absorb the heat. Also, rocket stoves do need "real" firewood -- though not nearly as much of it -- and they need extra maintenance.

Last week I spent many hours sketching tiny house plans. I figured the inside would be about 9 feet by 14 feet, with the stove-heated bench along the back wall, a kitchen counter on one side, and a sleeping loft on the other side. I sketched a slanted plywood roof, with the back wall over the bench about 5 feet high, and the front sunward wall almost 10 feet.

Then I remembered the toilet. In the cold winters, I want it inside the house. So I drew a little square room on one side. Then I noticed it would be easier just to extend the whole edge into two new rooms. Also, the extra room could have a door to the outside and to the inside, giving me a double entrance, a heat lock for winter. And I could use it to store whatever tools and firewood would fit in a 4 foot square. Then I reversed the layout of the stove to put the firewood pile and burner next to that door. Then I noticed that the loft support would get in the way of the door, so I moved the loft from the side to the front, going all along the tall edge. And then I mirror-imaged the whole thing to move the sink to the side I expected the water to come from.

Today I got the cob house books and read more. The Cob Builder's Handbook has excellent information on the different roof options, and now I'm leaning against the plywood-and-pond-liner living roof. Both are slightly toxic, and plywood requires a truck rental, and pond liner doesn't breathe. Also a dirt roof is super-heavy and not such a good insulator when it's wet, which it would be in winter. I'm leaning toward a thatched roof, which would be almost free, made out of indigenous materials, and could have an organic shape instead of the perfect square flatness of plywood-and-pond-liner at my skill level. And if the roof can have a funny shape, so can the building.

The disadvantage of thatching is that it takes about twenty times as long. But then, The Hand-Sculpted House has a story about site selection, in which pre-industrial farmers would spend 30 years deciding where their son's house would be. And permaculturists say you should live on the land for a year before you do any major work. And I was already feeling stressed by all I have to do. So here's my latest plan: In 2005, I'll build some temporary shelter out of sticks and bark, just to get some people and firewood and tools out of the rain. If cob helpers come, they can practice gathering clay and sand and grass (straw bales require truck rental), and digging holes to investigate building spots, and maybe we can build an igloo-sized dome or something. Then the land will be much more prepared to build a real cob house in 2006. [Ha ha!]

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