Green Homes

Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

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The most recent figures reveal that the U.S. releases the most CO2 emissions in the world after China. Texas is the most polluting state, with 2011 figures stating that their annual CO2 emissions total a significant 656 million metric tons, despite California having a larger population than Texas.

The U.S. has already increased efforts to improve their carbon footprint and to become a more environmentally friendly country, with figures revealing that the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy fell 12 percent between 2005 and 2012. However, 2013 figures showed that U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions from energy sources increased back up by 2 percent. Although this means that energy related carbon emissions are still 10 per cent below 2005 levels, which is a significant improvement, efforts need to be increased further in order to make the nation more green. President Obama has already set a goal of achieving 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

In order to reach this goal, more needs to be done to improve the efficiency of U.S. homes. A 2011 study revealed that the average U.S household’s carbon footprint was as much as 48 tons per year with 13 tons being from housing. According to Flir, heat loss can account for up to 50% of total energy consumption in a building with causes ranging from air leakage through chimneys, attics, windows and through lack of insulation.

Using a Thermal Imaging Camera

A thermal imaging camera can be used to detect just how much energy is lost from a home, highlighting the most problematic areas where energy is being lost. For example, there is a new program that has started in Connecticut in which a car with a thermal imaging camera goes around towns and captures pictures of individual homes to see how efficient they are. The program is helping residents to become more energy efficient as when homeowners log in to the company website, they are able to see a thermal imaging photograph of their home. There is no obligation for them to do anything but there is an option for home owners to choose to get a home energy assessment for less than $100.

Not only is the energy that is being lost through housing harmful to our environment, but also to household’s wallets. Many U.S. citizens are overspending on energy bills because they are either losing heat or struggling to keep their home cool because their homes are so poorly insulated. Many people are put off insulating their home, because they associate these solutions with high costs. However, what people need to realise is that in the long term, insulating a home will save homeowners a significant amount of money and is a worthwhile investment. Below are just a few long term solutions to insulate a home that homeowners should consider in order to save money and reduce their carbon footprint.

Wall Insulation

According to figures, roughly 33 percent of energy and heat is lost through walls. Therefore, getting cavity wall insulation is one of the most cost effective energy saving measures that homeowners can carry out. This is supported by research that has found that every square meter of cavity wall insulation will save more than a tonne of CO2 over the average lifetime of a building.

Loft and Roof Insulation

Loft Insulation. Photo credit:moppet65535

It is also very important to insulate the roof and loft of a home as up to quarter of a home’s heat can be lost through the roof. Loft and roof insulation is certainly a worthwhile investment because it is low cost and can last up to 40 years and will repeatedly pay for itself during that time.

Triple Glazing

Double or triple glazing is a great way to trap any energy in and reduce the amount being lost into the atmosphere. Although double or triple glazing can be a little more pricey solution (especially triple glazing which is up to 30-40% more expensive than double glazing), when compared with loft insulation for example, many consider it to be worth the extra expense. Not only will it reduce the amount of air leaking out of the home, but will also will increase security levels of a home and the amount of outside noise.

Underfloor Heating

Underfloor heating has become an increasingly popular choice to improve efficiency of homes. Roughly 8 per cent of heat is lost through floors. Underfloor heating is essentially like having a giant radiator under the floor, creating extreme levels of comfort whilst at the same time significantly contributes to reducing household’s carbon footprint. Obviously investing in an underfloor heating system will depend on where about homeowners live in the U.S. – but for those that live in colder states, it is certainly an investment worth considering. RA Brown a company that specializes in underfloor heating and Ground Source Heat Pumps in Suffolk explains how an underfloor system is eco-friendly – it can depend on natural energy sources and doesn’t emit any harmful gases. And whilst the initial cost of installation may be a high, the running costs are very low.

If more U.S. citizens implemented some of these long-term solutions to improve the efficiency of their homes, we could see a dramatic reduction in the amount of CO2 emissions released by the nation. And for those where the initial costs of installing some of these long term insulation solutions may be too high, in the long term it is worth the investment and will save homeowners money over time. Plus there are funding schemes available to help homeowners pay for insulation solutions.


When it comes to household goods, the drumbeat of a sustainable lifestyle is longevity; the longer you use an item, the longer it stays out of the landfill, and the longer before a new purchase requires the use of virgin resources. However, there's one item you shouldn't try to push past its natural life cycle for the good of the planet: your refrigerator. When it comes to that most essential of all modern appliances, the best way to be eco-friendly is to stick with the tried and true three R's: reduce, reuse or recycle.

Recycle An Old Refrigerator


Reducing the energy use of your refrigerator is one of the single most effective "green" steps you can take in your home. As we all know, reducing energy demand results in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, and a fridge uses a lot of energy. That food chiller is responsible for an average 13 percent of your household energy use. And that's a modern refrigerator, full of super thin, highly efficient insulation. If your fridge is clocking in at a decade or two, that figure skyrockets.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, replacing an inefficient, 20-year-old refrigerator with an Energy Star-rated appliance saves 700 kWh/year or more. For tips on picking the most energy-efficient fridge for your needs, read this article I wrote for


Once you've upgraded to an energy-sipping Energy Star refrigerator, you must decide what to do with your old one. Ideally, you want to keep that energy guzzler off the power grid. Yes, I know a second fridge in the garage sounds awfully handy, but not only does that convenience come with a hefty environmental price tag (sucking an extra 1,200 kWh/year), it will also cost you about $120 each year it chills that extra six pack and gallon or two of milk.

Of the 200 million refrigerators and freezers in the United States, the EPA estimates that over 20 million are secondary units sitting in basements or garages. Imagine if all of these were unplugged. The reduction in energy demand, ozone depletion and global climate impacts would be astounding.

But how are you going to reuse a refrigerator if you don't refrigerate things in it? Consider "up-cycling." Try one of these surprisingly useful reuses for your old fridge and its parts, all of which are less deleterious to the planet than actual refrigeration:

1. By its nature, a fridge is an excellent storage space. Unplug it, clean it out, remove the door and place it in your pantry, garage or kitchen for extra dry goods storage, dish storage or as a tool shelf. Then use that door as a wall shelf in your pantry to store the unopened versions of things that, once opened, end up in the fridge door. If you don't have a convenient place in your kitchen for a refrigerator wall shelf, it also works well as an indoor or outdoor wet bar accompaniment.

2.  The properties that make a fridge airtight also make it surprisingly watertight and dirt-resistant. Consider taking your old fridge outdoors and turning it into a pond, a root cellar or an ice-chest. It also makes an ingenious, if a bit extravagant pet shelter, as this stray Chuichui in China discovered.

3.  A particularly ingenious use for an old fridge was dreamed up by Mother Earth News staff members over 30 years ago. Read this article from the archives on repurposing your refrigerator into a solar water heater.

4.  For my own upcycling project, I took a refrigerator I found for $10 at a yard sale and turned it into a unique storage space for my son's growing gaming habit and my penchant for gadgets. The fridge will look perfectly at home in our den, without adding to the clutter, and provides much easier access to these everyday essentials than storing things in boxes or drawers. Plus, it's such fun to watch guests reach for a beverage and come away with a Wii remote.

With any up-cycling project, it's important to safely remove any and all working parts of the refrigerator and responsibly recycle them. Also be sure to either remove or secure the door to make sure children and pets don't become trapped inside and suffocate.


If up-cycling is outside of your comfort zone, then recycling is the next best thing. Older fridges probably contain ozone-depleting refrigerants, foam-blowing agents and greenhouse gas-producing substances. Proper recycling prevents these from getting into the atmosphere and limits the potential release of PCBs, mercury and used oil, while also saving landfill space and energy by recycling the plastic, glass and approximately 120 pounds of steel in your typical "vintage" fridge. This in turn reduces energy consumption by eliminating the need to produce virgin materials.

When you recycle your fridge, you need to make sure it is actually recycled and not re-sold as an inefficient, second-hand unit (which currently happens to over 40 percent of "recycled" appliances). One way to do this is to buy your new Energy Star model from a retailer that partners with the EPA's Responsible Appliance Disposal program. By taking this route, you can be sure that your old appliance will be responsibly recycled and not put back into use.

If that's not an option, check with your local utility company or waste management company. Some utility companies offer cash incentives or utility bill credits in exchange for recycling your old appliances, and many municipalities offer heavy trash pick-up and recycling programs for appliances. Just be sure to ask exactly how the appliance is recycled before letting them cart it off into the sunset.

Have you seen an ingenious use for an old fridge? If so, do share it with us in the comments section below.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about appliances and green homes for Home Depot. Jennifer focuses on providing tips to homeowners on energy consumption and recycling of appliances including washers, dryers and refrigerators. A complete selection of refrigerators, including top energy savers, can be viewed on the Home Depot website.

Photo by Jennifer Tuohy. Give an old refrigerator new life with one of these ingenious ideas for up-cycling your appliance.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Mobile Home

Between 2011 and 2013, roughly 10,000 baby boomers retired, and by 2030, it is estimated that there will be around 72.1 million older people, making up 19% of the population. With the US population aging, the problems with housing the millions of retiring baby boomers continues to increase, not to mention in an environmentally friendly way.

According to figures, 6.4% of the US housing sector is made up of mobile homes, with an average 20 million Americans living in them. South Caroline has the highest number of mobile homes, making up roughly 18% of homes within the state. Furthermore, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute, about 23% of the heads of mobile home households are retired. While these figures may already seem high, in reality, the figures could be much higher and it has raised the question whether more mobile homes could be the solution to house the thousands of retiring baby boomers within the US. After all, there is still plenty of space throughout the US to build more mobile home and more importantly, mobile housing is one of the most environmentally friendly types of housing.

The US produces an estimated 30% of the world’s waste, therefore efforts need to be increased to reduce carbon emissions and become more environmentally friendly. Mobile housing is an excellent way to help reduce the U.S environmental impact because the new generations of mobile homes and park homes are much more energy efficient. Research carried out by the U.S Department of Energy discovered that this type of manufactured housing can save 55% of energy when compared to a house without energy efficient materials and appliances.

Mobile homes are built to reduce the potential environmental impact of people’s activities and to avoid any damage to the environment. For instance, Omar Homes offer park homes and mobile homes for sale that are built with already installed air to water heat pumps, solar photovoltaic panels and ground source heat pumps.

However, while mobile homes might be an environmentally friendly solution for housing millions of retiring baby boomers, mobile homes have a huge image problem in the US, where many associate mobile homes with working class and underprivileged people giving them the name “trailer trash”. When actually this is certainly no longer the case in many circumstances. Mobile homes no longer look like ‘trailers’ – they are spacious with fully equipped living and kitchen area, often with 2-3 bedrooms, whilst still being affordable. In addition, mobile homes are located in pleasant, safe areas, with a sense of community which is ideal for retirees.

If more of these types of mobile home communities were available for the older generation, the negative connotation that citizens associate with mobile homes will decrease, but more importantly will help to resolve the problem of housing the millions of retirees as the US population continues to age.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Growing Tomatoes In Drought

Western Oklahoma is, and has been, in a serious drought for several years now and even with some rain over the last few weeks, the outlook is bleak. The farm ponds and large lakes are functionally dry, diminished crop yields, and native grasses are challenged to grow enough to keep the cattle herds fed.

Drought Pod In Arid Climate

Vegetable gardening has suffered severely in this rural community, both from disinterest and the challenges of gardening in a drought. My brother, Rick, has tried to grow a few select vegetables over the last few years, but he has given up due to an inability to keep the garden wet. His garden area is mostly sand, making gardening even more difficult due to lack of rain and lack of organic matter in the soil.

The original Drought Pod I designed and built was for him. My goal was to create an organic mass system that was easy to maintain by providing both moisture and nutrients to his vegetables via this totally passive system. Tomatoes are his main crop of choice.

In my opinion, if one can be successful at growing tomatoes, then you are a real gardener.  It is an indication that soil, nutrients, and moisture are well balanced. Growing any other vegetable will be then easy.

Using available materials from my brothers farm, I created a Drought Pod using a round bale feeder, horse manure, cow manure, spoiled alfalfa and wheat straw hay.

Organic mass is the key to my Drought Pod system. The bigger the organic mass the daily watering requirements are minimized, and all the nutrients are provided from within the organic mass.

How We Built the Original Drought PodTomato Growing With Drought Pod

In Rick's garden we positioned the round bale feeder for easy access around the feeder. We soaked the ground thoroughly with well water before adding organic materials.

Using a Bobcat with a front end loader, I dug out two large loads of muck from the horse corral and two loads from the cow pens where hay has been fed in round bale feeders for years, so it is deep, aged, wet from urine more than rain and very rich.  On top of these 4 loads I added an entire large square bale of spoiled, deteriorating alfalfa hay to act as mulch and more organic material as the bale composts along with the  manure.  

I want this entire organic mass to be thoroughly wet during the construction phase. Ironically, even though they've had minimal rain for the past few years, when I dug into both the horse and cow lots, under this thick packed layer, it was very wet, reinforcing my theory about heavy mulch and moisture accumulation. The animal urine is rich in nitrogen, so that type moisture is a double bonus for the Drought Pod. It speeds up composting process while adding nitrogen for the plants.

At this point the 6 loads of organic material is over the top of the feeder.  I know this wet pile is about to start composting, and that is the goal.  Eventually all the materials inside the round bale feeder will be super rich compost.  To recharge the Drought Pod, just add more loads of manure, old hay, and whatever organic materials are available. Think lasagna gardening.

Planting the Feeder AreaUpdated Drought Pod For Gardening

With the drought pod, the planting area is around the outside of the organic mass, and not in the mass, as it will be too hot.  We used a pitch fork and hand tilled in more spoiled alfalfa into the sand around the feeder to use as the planting area. To that we added about 12" of old wheat straw as much for the planting area once the tomatoes are in the ground.


Drought pod constructed on March 15, 2014

Tomatoes planted about April 23, 2014.  No rain, but plants were watered in with garden hose.

April 30, 2014 Rick reported the rabbits had eaten the tomatoes off, so he was about to give up.  At this point the plants had received no supplemental water, other than the day they were planted on March 15.

Now it is the end of May and Rick reports that the tomatoes, WITH NO CARE, had made a miraculous recovery and were actually about 12" tall and vibrant.  I sent my niece to take pictures as proof on June 6, 2014.

Fresh Garden Tomatoes Sliced

Rick says, "I can't believe it".  It works as it's intended:  No care, minimal water after construction with maximum growth.

June 13, I travel to Western Oklahoma for a cattle drive and to see Rick's Drought Pod tomatoes for myself.

While there, I made a 20 gallon batch of very rich compost tea and gave each plant about 1 gallon of tea for a nutrient boost.

By planting directly beside the organic mass, the tomato roots intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients, and both are found in abundance from inside the organic mass inside the Drought Pod.

Through observation of my urban Drought Pod, which is much different in design because of available materials, and use of a moisture probe, I've learned that the ideal soil moisture outside the Drought Pod is low to medium, while the moisture content inside the pod is wet.  The tomatoes never have wet feet, but can get increased moisture and nutrients as they desire by tapping into the organic mass inside the Drought Pod.  I believe that all plant roots are smart like that.

My urban Drought pod tomatoes at 55 days, and I ate my first tomato at 55 days.

My next blog will be about my version of compost tea.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Cordwood Home in Michigan sold in a few months

Question: What is the best time to sell a cordwood home?  Or any natural home?

Answer:  Before it is built!

One of the most naturally neglected characteristics of an owner/built home is planning for eventual "Re-Sale."  While most DIYers are too overwhelmed with finding land, obtaining capital, getting code approval, gathering materials and working within a timeline, to consider that they may have to, one day, sell the beloved "creation of their own hands." 

Having been involved in and provided consultation to owner/builders for 35 years and having been mortgaged, mortgage-lean and mortgage-free,  there are some simple, cost-benefit concepts that will guard against that day when,  the home must be sold and no buyers are to be had.

Here is a photo of a lovely cordwood home in SW Michigan that sold a few years ago.  The buyers paid the "asking price" and stated afterward that the well-done cordwood walls added to the allure of the homestead.   The seller told me that his wife had made certain they had kept within a concept that would allow the home to be attractive to potential buyers.

Cordwood Home in Michigan full panorama

How To Prepare to Sell a Cordwood Home

The first thing to be aware of is the natural homes market is a small but growing "niche market." That is, it will take a certain type of person to appreciate your cordwood, cob, strawbale or earthship home.   What can you do to make your natural home more sale-able?

This is the full panorama of the exterior of the home.  The attention to detail and the use of Energy Star guidelines helped to make this attractive home more sale worthy:

 1. Build code compliant.   Most banks, home inspection agencies and zoning officials will want to know if the home was built "to the code." 

 2. Build with as much attention to detail, care and professionalism as possible.  If you are a DIY-er, be certain to include a professional when a critical component is being installed (foundation, plumbing, electrical, roof system, etc.)

 3. Build with amenities that are highly prized in your locale:  For example: AC in the south, effective heating system in the north. 

 4. Use standard installs as much as possible.  While you can make your kitchen cabinets or have them custom made, they need to fit broad general parameters for style  Closets are also important to include in your design.  We didn't buy a home at one point, simply because there were no closets. 

 5. If possible, follow Energy Star Guidelines:  use good windows and doors, buy appliances that are Energy Star rated, use additional insulation, invest in a good heating/cooling system and seal out any air infiltration. 

 6. Accessibility: Your home will have more appeal if it is on one floor, has an open concept, has access to first floor laundry, shower, etc.

 7. Pay attention to the number of rooms.  Most homes for resale have at least two bedrooms, some folks like three.  Bathrooms are the same way: one is fine, two is better.

Cordwood in Wisconsin exterior

Homes That Have Sold

While there are a relatively small cordwood homes in North America, there are still a number that are offered for sale every year.  I get calls from real estate agents, sellers, buyers and construction companies wanting to know, how to best market a cordwood home

Designed and built by an engineer, this lovely curved front, post and beam framed cordwood home, not only had beautiful Northern White Cedar cordwood walls, but it had beautiful design features.   Energy Star appliances, a fireplace, radiant in floor heat, custom made kitchen cabinets and an effective heating and cooling system made this home a relatively easy sell. 

Sometimes there is a cordwood outbuilding included in the property.  This must also be built with care and with code compliance.  Here is a fine example of an estate that sold with a beautiful cordwood barn.

Cordwood barn

Here is a Cordwood home that is currently for sale near Wilburton, Oklahoma.
Cordwood in Wisconsin interior

Cordwood in Oklahoma exterior

Cordwood in Oklahoma interior

All the details are at this link.

 Note: The author has no financial concerns in the sale of this home.


Cordwood Construction Best Practices

Use every resource at your disposal and while you may need to use a real estate agent, why not try to sell it yourself?   Many websites featuring natural homes are a mouse click away.  There are also numerous websites that cater to the sell-your-own person.  Here is a sampling of what I accessed in a few minutes. There are many more.          

If you are interested in buying or selling a cordwood home or building one, why not take a look at Click on What's New?  Read the Articles and Newsletter and take a peek at the 700+ pictures under the Photos menu.  

If you would like to read about cordwood, why not try the latest and most up to date book on the subject Cordwood Construction Best Practices (at the Online Bookstore: available in ebook and print format.)


An Urban Home-Raising and So Much More

The Be the Change Project and House Alive Natural Builders conducted a three-day cordwood cob house-raising workshop in early May in Reno, Nevada. Registrations and interest in the months leading up to the “One-Day Cob House” event were great and we gathered on Friday morning with 60 people and high hopes.  Cob is known as a slow and laborious building technique and this effort, as far as we know, was a first.  Friday was a set-up and skill building day and included a tour of our project – an electricity, car, and fossil-fuel-free urban homestead – to strengthen the container of the weekend and share the broader vision behind our project and this most unusual of natural building workshops. Saturday was the build day – 6:30 a.m. start!  Sunday was a light day of cleanup, some base coat of plaster, reflection and goodbyes. We raised a 184-square-foot cob cabin that weekend but what we really built was a beloved community.

One Day Group.jpg

It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon when I left the building site on my bike to get a line level from my house (our “Be the Change Project”) two blocks away. Five minutes later I was pedaling my way through marble-sized hail ricocheting off me and the road. My heart sank as I figured our ambitious effort to raise a cob house in one day was doomed. 

We had risen at dawn that morning – all 60 of us - and started building at 6:30am. Progress was good at about 10 inches an hour.  We assembled the roof on the ground without a hitch.  The workshop participants were a wonderful, interesting, and hard-working group from all walks of life: a team that builds houses for the homeless, a couple from a Jewish urban farm and education center in Berkeley, a family with three girls from the foothills of California (the girls orchestrated the Friday night talent show all on their own), older women homesteaders, young single guys just getting started in natural building…

Weather Woes

One Day wall.jpg

But alas, the weather was against us. May in Reno is a tricky time of year with any kind of weather possible.  I had checked the weather forecast daily for the past 10 days and saw it go from good to bad and worse.  While Friday, the first day of the workshop where we did skill building, harvested clay, and gave a tour of our project, was pleasant with sunshine and a light wind, Saturday called for afternoon rain and temperatures dropping throughout the day. And that’s just about what we got. 

“All well”, I thought as I biked back to the site, “We gave it our best.” Our planning and organization was outstanding; our lead instructors, Coenraad and James of House Alive, are some of the best around; our group of 60 was outstanding with a healthy mix of folks with cob, Earthship, and carpentry experience.  “Maybe tomorrow we can get the rest done.” I thought.   “We can tarp it, hope for better weather, and pile into the main house to get warm.  After all, a cob house in two days is pretty amazing, too.”

But then, I heard it: cheering!  60 joyful voices raised up against the hail in a chorus of whoops, whistles, and hollers. They were celebrating the hail and the hard weather that was pushing against them. I turned into the site, leaped off my bike, and dashed to the building. Hands blue and pink from the cold were piling cob higher, muddy shoes were dancing atop batches of cob, cordwood was being handed up the walls, and people were straddling bales and barrels and ladders to get to our highest layer of  – all with smiles. It was going to work. We were going to do it. A cob house in a day!

Cob Building Workshop Wrap-Up

One Day Roof.jpg

We called it quits on Saturday at about 6:30pm and considered the day a great success. We had raised walls six and a half feet high and built and hoisted, with 100 hands, a roof to top those sturdy walls. We were tired and cold but also effervescent and joyful from a good day of side-by-side meaningful work. The cabin will host interns, guests, and maybe even a new resident to be part of our growing community. With earthen plastering, light straw clay infill of the box-beam, and an earthen floor, there is still much to do. But it will be done with the help of many more hands and hearts learning and experiencing the joys of natural building and the joys of a living community.   It will also be an object of great beauty, something most of our modern homes (and by extension, our modern lives) sadly cannot claim.

Most folks were gone by one on Sunday (it was sunny and warm, by the way) but a small group of us locals and friends remained. We were lazing about munching on leftovers and reflecting on the weekend, still in awe at what transpired.  Someone mentioned the hand blessings done by Katy. Another shared how one participant found the workshop by Googling “Cob Party.” We laughed about the face painting and agreed the African drumming group was incredible.  I remarked about how cool it was that James (of House Alive) flew to Reno from the Galapagos Islands just to be at the workshop and wound up co-leading it. And what about those kids who organized the campfire talent show!  I think all of us sitting there at that moment would have agreed with what another friend said the next day, “I feel like anything’s possible with this community.”  We feel so blessed.

One Day with roof.jpg

There will be another “One-Day Cob House” build next year, near Reno. Contact me if you’re interested in being part of another phenomenal workshop.

Photos by Shannon Welles

drought pod may 30

Experimentation and observation are key to my years of successful gardening. I want to list a few books and authors that are instrumental in my approach to gardening.;

I spent NO MONEY to build this Drought Pod and it is fueled by my food waste.    

I've read many books and perhaps my favorite author is Ruth Stout.  What I especially like about Ms. Stout is her observation of the forests around her home and the role that heavy mulch plays in nature and the fact that Mother Nature does not till the soil.  Secondly, she is funny and her approach to gardening is light and forgiving.  I highly recommend her books, even though they are difficult to find.  I think Barnes and Noble has reprinted her best seller.  Search the used sites first!

Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza is another great book.  Her approach to building a garden is forgiving and resourceful.  Starting with cardboard, layers of available, mostly free materials are used to build garden soil.  I used this method at my Ecohut to block out weeds, add layers of whatever organic materials I could drag home and created an awesome, rich garden soil up to 12" deep.  

No-Wrong-Answer Gardening

Barrel in the ground for simple compost tea usage

The great thing about building a garden is that most of the materials one needs to build an organic, rich, microbially diverse garden soil are free.  These materials are considered waste materials and would otherwise be taken to a land fill, but are free to you if you can haul it home.

How I Developed the Drought Pod

I started in 2006 at my Ecohut with a barrel in the ground that I briefly described in my first blog post.  I used horse manure in a bottomless barrel, submerged into the soil about 12" and created a simple form of horse manure compost tea, along with cardboard and heavy mulch to grow about a dozen awesome tomatoes.   The tomatoes were planted directly beside the barrel so that the roots could tap into the compost tea inside the barrel.  

By planting beside the barrel, and not directly into the barrel, the tomatoes never had 'wet feet' and could tap into the nutrient rich moisture as they so chose.  

Passive Moisture-Retention System Using Straw Bales

Moisture retention straw bales in the soil.

bales for moisture retentionAs I was moving hay bales one hot summer day, the only naturally wet spot in the garden was under bales of hay that had been stacked there for a while, waiting to be broken apart for mulch. The realization that the only wet spot in the garden is under a bale of hay led me to my next experimental project.  

I shallowed out the soil about 6" deep, the width of the bale, for the length of the row and then arranged my straw bales in a long row in that recession.  The bales are placed on their edge, with the wires NOT in the soil to keep them from coming apart.  As the bale very slowly breaks down, the wires continue to hold the bale together.  I have bales in my garden that are going on 5 years that are very slowly dissolving into the soil but still performing their intended purpose: moisture retention.  

A drip hose can be placed under the bales as the row is being installed, so that both rows can be water simultaneously.  

hay squares as mulch

The importance of the bale as organic mass is huge:  weed elimination, moisture retention, and the most important function of keeping the root system cool on a hot day.  These bales only need replacing ever few years.

Additionally, I added squares of straw between the rows as heavy mulch for weed control, etc.  

I don't believe you can have too much mulch, plus the elimination of tilling from year to year is priceless. This is a no-till system. Everything is created  on top of the existing soil.

Using this system, I added steel posts and cattle panels on both sides of this straw bale row and planted tomatoes on both sides of the row.  I trellised the tomatoes for space utilization with great results.  

Let me state here the importance of compost tea.  I'm a big believer and heavy user of compost tea in my garden for both root stimulation and as a foliar spray.  In another blog, I will describe how I make compost tea.   

Organic Mass

drought pod barrel

A dense mass of organic material stays wet much longer than an equal amount of organic material distributed over a big surface area.  For example, I just brought to my garden a water logged bale of wheat straw that had been left out in the rain.  It must have weighed a couple hundred pounds.  I cut the wires and am using the flakes and cardboard, as mulch around my Drought Pod.

How to Build a Drought Pod

Walking home one day, someone had discarded a 40 gallon plastic barrel that had been fashioned into a compost tumbler.  The barrel had been drilled with lots of holes and a lid made into the side of the barrel.  These type compost tumblers rarely work as dreamed, then are discarded.  I had no intention of using it as a compost tumbler, but because of a video I watched on YouTube called KEY HOLE GARDENS IN AFRICA, I realized I could create a similar effect with this barrel.  Any type container can be used to create this effect.  Be creative.  Recycle.  

I hollowed out the soil about 6" deep where the barrel would sit, then lined that depression with spoiled alfalfa hay.  The barrel was placed atop the hay, then INSIDE the barrel I layered, lasagna style, from bottom to top:  

1) 6" spoiled alfalfa hay
2) 6" veggie waste compost
3) one gallon of rabbit manure
4) two gallons of worm castings plus worms
5) 4" of veggie waste compost
6) enough spoiled alfalfa hay to cover this organic mass 
7) approximately 3 gallons of super rich compost tea 

What I have created, instead of a compost tumbler, is an in-ground worm composting station for all of my food waste.  This organic mass should stay wetter than a sponge, but not soaking wet. Generally, whatever moisture is in my food waste is all I will need to add for a very long time.  

Buy you a moisture probe for a more accurate assessment of the moisture content.  

Another tip I highly recommend is to use an old food blender, put all your veggie waste in that blender and add some water to make a slurry of the veggie waste.  Then dump that slurry into this worm station for easier consumption by the worms and general composting breakdown.

The Garden Pod Perimeter

drought pod april 16

Around the perimeter of the pod, I lay down cardboard to discourage unwanted plant growth then I add stall mix from a horse farm (wood shavings and manure the older the better), compost, powdered manures, anything to create a planting base for your garden plants.  This bermed soil should be at least 8" to 10" deep, and acts as a planting medium for your plants.  

This bermed soil is moderately moist, because the bulk of the moisture and nutrients will come from inside the pod.   Then plant DIRECTLY beside the pod, and as the plants grow the roots will intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients through the holes in the barrel.  By planting on the outside of the barrel, the plants never have wet feet and are able to tap into the moist nutrient ORGANIC MASS inside the barrel.  The bermed soil will actually be on the slightly moist scale, while the inside the barrel, the organic mass will be wet.  

Once the organic mass inside the barrel is complete and the soil bermed around the Drought Pod, mulch heavily with spoiled alfalfa (preferable), wheat straw, berlap bags, anything to create a heavy mulch which will reduce evaporation and most importantly keep the roots cool.  

Just remember this is no-wrong-answer gardening.  There are no absolutes.  I'm not telling you how to garden or to create this project, I'm just telling you how I created this.  Be resourceful, use free manures for the compost tea, get veggie waste from your neighbors.  

The Drought Pod is ideal for small spaces where one doesn't have room for garden rows.  

As Ruth Stout said, "Plants don't know if they are planted in a straight row or not."


I have spent $0. on this project.  It will grow food for years.  No tools are necessary.  The Drought Pod may be my best experimentation project to date.   Here I am in Mother Earth News.

This first photograph is April 16, 2014 the day I planted the tomatoes.

This photograph was taken yesterday, May 30, 2014.  45 days in the ground.  

I hope this makes sense and motivates you to experiment in the garden!  

Until next time.

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