Monday, October 22, 2007

My new house

The house move I talked about in my last post happened last week. Though there were some skeptics who never thought the house would make it here, it did make it in one piece and with only minor blemishes. Those crazy house movers Zimmerman's Excavating had told me earlier in the day that because of the rain storms we were expecting, they wouldn't be able to move it. It did rain a lot that day, and unable to do much I practiced piano in the common house. While I played, someone stuck their head in the door and asked if I knew my house was coming down the road. I said no and ran outside to find the house at the end of the drive.

I ran to get my camera and a crowd gathered to watch a house on a front-end loader coming up the drive.

As the loader eased its way in, the house swayed side to side with the uneven terrain. People kept thinking it would tip over.

They got the house in close to the spot where it would stand and began to dig the holes for the posts. The house would stand on the same Osage orange posts it was built on. Over on Red Earth Farms, where they moved the house from, they'd pulled up the posts after picking up the house. Osage orange is an extremely rot resistant wood and the tree grows everywhere here. The posts reach down below frost level so that the house will not shift over time with the frost heaving that can happen in a cold climate.

They didn't have time that day to finish getting the posts level so they left everything there for another day. When they came back, they lifted the house above the posts and bolted them on before lowering the house and posts down. Everything worked out, though getting the posts all set up took awhile. I figured it was better to spend the extra time to get it right so I wouldn't have to worry about it in the future.

Once the house was in place, they went and got the shed, which was considerably easier to move and put in place.

So now DR has a new residence, I have a new place to live, and I have a new storage shed on the warren of my future house. Now I will focus on insulating the house, getting a wood stove installed and making the new house ready for winter living.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Insulating my new house

I came to DR thinking I would build a small house I could practice learning natural building techniques on, but then my plans changed. I decided to build something a bit larger and more permanent. When I was originally planning on building something small and temporary, I thought I would live there until I finished a larger house, then rent it out for a little income. DR also needs more living space for people just moving here, so figured more houses here would be better. But then, after I'd changed my plans, I found out about this house at neighboring Red Earth Farms (kind of like DR, but for homesteaders).

The person who built it only lived there for a season and never fully finished the house, but the important parts were there-- the framing and sheeting, windows, door, wiring for electricity, roof and gutters. The house was for sale but there weren't really any takers because the person buying it would have to become a member of Red Earth, or rather, a Red Earth member would have to be interested in the house for it to get sold. There was a deadline for the house to be sold or the owner would have to come and take it down. I thought it would be a shame for it to be torn down after such a short life and with DR needing housing I thought of the possibility of moving it over here. I thought I could live in it while I build my other house, then rent it out and DR would have another housing option.

It seemed like a small house, but it was hard to find someone who could move it. Finally, I did and now I'm waiting for them to set up a time to come and do it. I was originally planning to start insulating it and getting it ready for winter (it is not insulated and has no heating system) after it was moved here. Then the other night I was wondering why I had to wait. Since I have no exact date when the movers will get a chance to move the house, why not begin getting it ready for winter. With the days getting chillier all the time, I have no time to lose. So I've begun the insulation.

I thought about doing blown cellulose in the walls but wanted at least some part of the house to demonstrate natural building methods. At Red Earth there are no restrictions on using new lumber, so the house was built with all new lumber and OSB (oriented strand board). I'm keeping with the DR covenant on new lumber by recycling the entire house, but I decided to insulate with something called light clay straw, or light straw clay as some people call it. This is basically a mixture of clay slip (clay and water mixture) and straw.

Forms are nailed onto the studs to enclose the wall and the space is filled with this straw clay mixture. It is packed into all the corners.

After a section is filled the form can be immediately removed and the packed straw clay holds its shape. It is then allowed to dry in place and is later plastered over with earthen plaster.

This insulation has an R-value of at least 10 and the clay coating on the straw retards fire apparently (I still would like to test this sometime). Anyway, Brian, one of the newer DR residents is helping me out during October and we've been doing this project together. It's actually pretty fun to mix the straw and clay and pack it in the walls. So if we can make some serious progress on insulating, maybe by the time the house is moved, we can start the plastering. We'll see.

If you want to hear about another house here that was insulated with light clay straw, check out the DR video blog at

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

This season's garden

One of the first things I did upon getting to DR was start a garden. People at Skyhouse let me use a few beds of their garden at first and then I added to my garden space by renting a piece of land next to the Skyhouse garden.

This area had not really been gardened for awhile so it was a tough job getting all the beds laid out.
I wound up with a huge pile of sod that I've been composting all season. Ananda came to visit me about a month after I arrived and helped me get this garden established.
I was able to begin planting in this new garden in June or so, a little late for this region. I've planted a lot of bean varieties, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, parsnip, basil, epazote, summer squash, muskmelons, watermelon, cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, onions, scallions, walking onions, Chinese cabbage, beets, cauliflower, corn, cilantro, garlic, and celery.

One thing I was really happy to be able to grow this season was corn. In Madison, if you plant corn it will get eaten by raccoons as soon as it gets close to being ripe, so there really was no point in growing it there. Here I was able to grow it, but the only things interfering with a good harvest were the soil and the rats. This new garden was not very fertile, so the corn grew, but didn't produce much. Only one variety really produced good sweet corn, and the popcorn did well. I planted pole beans with one flour corn variety, and this made the plants lush, green and productive, but then the rats were able to scale the beans to reach the grain and they ate it all. I'm going to have to figure out a better way, because I love corn.

These are pictures of the garden about a month after planting. After planting the garden, I needed to figure out some way to irrigate. I'd been used to gardening with a water spigot within a hose reach of my garden, but at DR there are no spigots. There was an old cistern that had been used in the past by a former gardener near the machine shed, and it wasn't collecting water anymore. I decided to have that moved over to a building closer to my garden and to other water-intensive activities.

I also installed a few rain barrels on the Skyhouse garden shed to collect water off that roof too. Unfortunately, the dry spell that lasted about two months this summer had already begun when I finished these water catchment systems, so I didn't really get to test them until later in the season. In the meantime, I used the Skyhouse and common house greywater system to irrigate. Wastewater from the kitchens and showers flows into a filter pond planted in water plants before it makes its way through a pipe to the cattail pond. We use biodegradable detergents and soaps, so the water is ok to put on the plants. In fact the part of the Skyhouse garden where the greywater used to drain is incredibly fertile.

I was able to overcome my mulching difficulties by getting newspaper from the local Memphis Democrat, which I spread between rows before covering it with hay and straw. In Madison, I'd always had access to leaf mulch, something not so abundant out here in the country.

I could water, and I didn't have to weed anymore, so I mostly spent my time watering and watching stuff grow. The harvest has been good, though there were some surprise pests and notable absences of pests gardening in a new region. There were strange new bean beetles, and blister beetles, that ate the leafy greens, along with the usual flea and cucumber beetles.

This is a pizza Brian and I made with nearly all garden and local ingredients. The basil, tomatoes, garlic, and onions came from our garden, the wheat (freshly milled) came from Sandhill, a nearby community, and the cheese (homemade mozzarella) came from milk from the organic dairy only about a mile down the road. One pizza was topped with homemade tofu I made with soybeans grown at Sandhill. The only non-local ingredients were oil, salt, and a few of the spices. It was probably the best pizza I've ever had. Next time I want to make it with cheddar cheese.

My garlic harvest was pretty good considering I planted it in the spring. I plan to plant a lot of it this fall and have a bumper crop next season. I've continued to fill in and plant more crops when I've harvested something. I planted cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli as fall crops and they are huge now and setting fruit, or rather setting vegetables.

I eat at Bobolink eating co-op and I'm able to count my gardening time towards my food bill. I've put in enough hours this season to offset my food bill entirely. I've also provided a lot of food for Bobolink.