MOTHER’s Self-Sufficient Homestead

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A portion of the plan for the MOTHER EARTH NEWS self-sufficient homestead. The plan will change as circumstances require.
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Exterior of the greenhouse.
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Exterior of house and greenhouse.

Just about two years ago, MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ EcoVillage researchers took on a pretty ambitious project: to develop an acre of land into a largely food and energy self-sufficient homestead, and to do so for as little money as possible. In the early articles about the project, we spoke fleetingly about the permaculture concepts we had in mind and described the lowcost earth shelter we built as a residence.

A lot has happened to the project in the last two years. The $10-per-square-foot home has now been finished and occupied for two winters, and quite a bit of food was grown during the 1984 season. But, as anyone who has a homestead knows, dreamed-of goals and everyday progress are often two very different things.

Though it’s sometimes frustrating to be limited by the number of daylight hours available (and by having to sleep through some of the dark ones), a project of this sort can suffer from too much haste. When restoring a moonscape (as we called the denuded site before work started), you’ve got to pause to see how things are working. Any attempt to establish a cooperative natural system of various plants and animals that isn’t accompanied by continual revamping is destined to fail. Permaculture practice is largely a matter of arranging fortuitous and felicitous interactions, many of which you just can’t anticipate. The trick is to notice the successes and capitalize on them.

Consequently, despite all we’ve accomplished, this is in no way a final report. There’s a long way to go; in fact, some of our steps will have to be taken over again. But as we approach the second full growing season on the property, we’ve found it necessary to review what we’ve done and to refine our concept of where we’re going. This article is a summation of those musings and a report on the latest piece of construction: the greenhouse.

The Household Today

Our first project, of course, was to build a comfortable, efficient, economical home on the property. The residence contains 1,000 square feet, cost a little less than $10 per square foot (in materials) to build, was fairly labor-intensive to put up — both because of its shape and because of construction techniques we used to minimize material used — and meets Southern Building Code Congress requirements. The structure’s space heating demand is quite low (less than 10 million auxiliary Btu per year) because of the home’s shape, earth sheltering, heavy insulation, and passive solar gain. The occupants used between 1/2 and 3/4 cord of hardwood last winter.

The house isn’t hooked up to the utility grid. Instead, it’s wired for 12 volts and is served by a small hydroelectric generator, which, in turn, is backed up by an AC/DC motor-driven generator. Power use is about one kilowatt hour per day at 12 volts: The occupants run the backup generator to boost the battery bank and to power the vacuum cleaner and other major appliances. We’ve been working on a 12-volt refrigerator, but there won’t be enough power to serve even its meager needs until photovoltaic panels are installed to augment the hydropower. The range and water heater are run on LP gas at this point. We’d love to have a wood cookstove, but time and funds haven’t allowed that yet. A passive solar water heater is the next item on our construction agenda.

Horticulture Today

As we’ve already mentioned, most of the ground used for this project was a virtual wasteland when we started. It had been used as a stump, rock and earth fill, and most of the area had no topsoil at all. Hence, our first priority was to get cover crops in that would begin renovating the surface layers of earth. As soon as heavy construction was finished, in the spring of 1983 a temporary crop of hairy vetch was planted in an effort to control erosion until proper cover cropping could be done in the fall.

In the autumn, Bob Kornegay (manager of the agricultural aspects of the project) seeded the high area north, east and southeast of the house with a mixture of five parts fescue to one part clover — a perennial combination that’s easy to maintain and that loosens the upper layers of soil with both its roots and the biomass that it adds to the earth when mowed periodically. The area closer to the building, some of which Bob hoped to put to work in the spring of 1984, got a mixture of hairy vetch and rye, all of which was to be turned under in the spring. At the time, Bob would have liked to have done the entire area in annuals to be turned into the soil, but he knew that job was beyond the capabilities of any of the tilling tools we had then. Now that he has access to a Gravely walking tractor with a rotary plow, however, he plans to speed the pasture renovation process by using annuals over the entire area.

With the help and advice of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ gardeners and apprentices, Bob is establishing growing beds from the house outward, starting with what will eventually be a flower/plucking green/culinary herb area on both sides of the front door. He planted mostly perennials in these beds this past year but plans to move the plants gradually to outlying areas as appropriate beds are readied. In fact, during the 1984 season most of the plots next to the house and along the front walk served as nursery areas for a diverse batch of herb starts. Because of the convenience of this location, Bob was able to keep a close eye on the progress of the seedlings. In 1985 the area under the kitchen window and in front of the greenhouse will be converted to its intended end use: growing a mixture of cooking herbs and small greens and a selection of flowers that we expect will attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

During the first year there simply wasn’t enough time to prepare many new beds along the walkway, but there was one area of existing good soil west of the front walk, between it and the stream. Bob took advantage of this alluvial mini-plain and got a cover crop of hairy vetch and rye in during the fall of 1983. In the spring he skimmed the vetch and rye and did two seedings of buckwheat. By fall, visitors enjoyed nibbling on young okra, as well as on other vegetables that grew in the shade of the tall okra plants.

In the spring of 1984, Bob prepared more nursery beds on the east side of the walk by mixing large quantities of rotted cow manure into the rock-hard soil. 1984 also saw the beginning of a privacy fence along the road at the south edge of the property. Rose of Sharon, forsythia and pink and white spirea will provide a visual screen after they’ve had a few years to get established.

The two ponds in front of the house haven’t produced many fish yet because the source water — from a creek and the hydroplant’s intake in a lake above the homestead —has been too warm and murky. By deepening the hydro intake and tapping another creek’s flow into the upper pond, we’ve managed to improve the water quality dramatically, but the temperature is still marginal for trout in the summer. We now have 500 young hybrid bream wintering in the pools, and we figure that about 50 of these fish should do well there as adults.

The greenhouse inside the earth shelter is used largely to overwinter perennials (especially cash-producing ornamentals) and to grow greens, herbs and flowers. Potted ornamentals being held for sale in the spring are wintered against the back wall of the living room, where the sun penetrates fully during the colder months. In summer, cuttings from parent ornamentals move up to rest on top of the beds in baskets.

In the small planter along the back of the kitchen counter, Bob keeps culinary herbs that won’t winter over and some herbs that would winter over but are simply nice to have on hand, along with a scented geranium to keep the area fragrant and an aloe vera to apply to burns.

The Greenhouse

The separate greenhouse we’ve added to our homestead does so many different things that it’s been difficult to figure out what to call it. Naming it by its functions could lead to a conglomeration such as this: compost-heat- and active-solar heat-augmented, photovoltaic, earthbermed, plant propagation and production rabbit hutch/chicken coop/terraced growing bed/runway greenhouse system. See what we mean? Let’s compromise and use the New Alchemy Institute’s term: bioshelter.

Our bioshelter is an attempt to get as many quality uses as possible out of one building, but the structure itself also makes use of the very systems it supports. The goal, however, isn’t so much to see how many interactions we can create as it is to develop the most effective ones. For example, in the back of the greenhouse is a small room where chickens and rabbits can come in out of the weather. The solar input to the greenhouse helps keep the critters warm, while the animals themselves add their body heat to the building. More important, the structure of their home (block walls bermed with earth to their full height and with every other core filled) adds to the overall mass of the greenhouse, which helps to stabilize temperatures.

All these factors work together to create a beneficial thermal environment.

Despite this attention to creature comfort, the greenhouse is still primarily intended for plant (not heat) production. It has a large overhead glazing area — which lets in lots of light in the daytime but loses awesome amounts of heat at night — and white walls to reflect the sunlight rather than absorb it: This prevents plants from phototroping heavily toward the windows.

The key to getting good production from the greenhouse beds is to keep soil temperatures up — preferably in the 80-degrees-Fahrenheit range. (Up to a point, plants double their growth rate for each 10-degree rise in soil temperature.) Air temperature is less important as long as it’s high enough to prevent leaves from freezing. Consequently, our growing beds are extensively insulated on the sides, and the 10 inches of growing medium rests on a layer of rock through which warm air can be circulated. The areas under the beds are open to allow us to experiment with several different heating methods, and we’ve borrowed ideas from a few other research organizations to pump warmth from these chambers into the soil.

First, we’ve taken a lesson from Rodale Press’s Residential Passive Solar Greenhouse and are picking up hot air from the ceiling peak and distributing it below the beds. A squirrel-cage blower powered by a Solarex photovoltaic panel hooked to a 12-volt battery moves the air around. The fan takes orders from a blower control thermostat that switches it on when the temperature at the peak reaches 85 degrees and a heating thermostat that switches it back off when the temperature drops to 75 degrees. There’s also a manual override switch we use to force air into the compost piles when necessary for maintaining decomposition.

Rodale’s greenhouse has rock under the beds to offer mass for heat storage, a system that seems to work quite well. However, we’ve followed the lead of the Biothermal Energy Center and the New Alchemy Institute by composting various mixtures of organic matter in the bins beneath our beds. Though this technique is still in the experimental stage, it does have a number of both already-demonstrated and still-theoretical benefits. The most obvious plus is that decomposing organic matter produces a great deal of heat: Our compost piles have reached 180 degrees and have maintained 160 degrees for more than a week at a time. Furthermore, the same material also yields moisture, carbon dioxide and nutrients, which rise through the rocks and into the growing medium. Summertime experiments have shown that these effects are at least as important as the heat input in increasing plant growth rate.

As of January 1, 1985 (the greenhouse’s first winter), production is excellent. The solar-compost combination, along with a boost from a catalytic kerosene heater placed below the beds between compost fillings, keeps soil temperatures above 70 degrees, and air temperatures have stayed above 40 degrees. Our coldest night so far has been 7 degrees, but cold hasn’t settled in for an extended period. Bob comments that the compost piles, when fully active, seem to add just about the same amount of heat as the kerosene burner. What’s more, the air-circulation system has boosted soil temperature a full 10 degrees on clear days.

The Plan Today

When we introduced this project back in 1983, we included a rendering that showed what our plans were for the self-reliant homestead. At the time, one staffer remarked that the drawing was attractive but that there wasn’t much detail — a real concern for someone who has to worry about how much something is going to cost. The problem is that though you may know what you want to do at the beginning of a permaculture project, it’s just plain impossible to say exactly how you’re going to do it. More to the point, excessively detailed plans can hamstring such an effort if they prevent one from seeing and profiting from nature’s ways.

The Self Sufficient Homestead Illustration we have now is a lot more detailed than the first one, but there’re still quite a few areas where, if pressed, we’d have to say we just don’t know exactly what’s going to go there yet. Nonetheless, most of the distinct zones on the property have begun to teach us what they’re best suited for, so we can at least tell you what their general purpose will be. We’ll also mention some of the plants that are likely to be grown in each area and what animals may circulate there.

North Sun-Trap: Starting on the north end of the property, we aim to establish a suntrap. This windbreak will shunt cool air descending from the hollow above the property around the orchard, annual beds and house. Going toward the north, we’ll plant hybrid poplars that will be coppiced for biomass and firewood, white pines (because they grow rapidly), Serbian spruce and hemlock. Back in these trees will be a manure-rotting area, where manure will be rendered to add texture to growing beds.

Orchard: Within the shelter of the north sun-trap, we’ll have an orchard consisting of a variety of dwarf fruit and nut trees. The specific types we’ll use will depend on what’s available, though we’re most interested in heirlooms. (Perpetuating old-fashioned varieties of plants is one overall goal of our agricultural plans for the land.) We do know, however, that we’ll be moving apple rootstocks of EM-9 and EM-7, as well as several sand cherry and quince trees, from the main Eco-Village gardens. To both sides of the fruit trees will be walnuts and filberts — two nut trees we definitely plan to use. Off to the right of the orchard are elderberries, and the three rectangular areas are biodynamic compost piles for the annual beds below.

Shed and Chicken Yard: The shed to the northwest of the greenhouse will serve as tool storage, a small workshop, and a loft for hay and grain amaranth grown on the perimeter of the chicken scratching yard just north of the greenhouse. Grain amaranth will be grown at a number of locations around the property, and storing it in the shed loft will keep it convenient to its consumers: the chickens.

Annual Food Crops: We picked the area right behind the house as the primary location for annual beds because it’s on a south-facing slope. This hill has been terraced and banked with rocks for solar mass to extend the growing season, and we’re in the process of erecting fences that go straight down the middle of each bed. At the end of each row is a gate that can close off either half of the plot. The fence network is linked to the chicken coop in the greenhouse, and the fowl (maybe the rabbits, too) will be allowed to run in alternate halves of the growing beds, where they’ll fertilize the fallow soil, scratch, and keep the insect population under control. (Annuals have the greatest trouble with insect pests.) The gates will be flopped annually so that the chickens can get into the other half of each bed. As of January 1, 1985, the beds are all ready, and we have cold-weather greens, such as collards, kale, and spinach, growing under a cloche on the lower terrace, and hairy vetch and rye on the upper beds for the chickens to forage in the spring.

A gate in the fence at the northeast corner of the annual area can be opened to allow our flock of chickens to forage the entire area to the east of the house — bounded by the fences in the east windbreak, along the path east of the house, and at the south end of the experimental covercrop area.

East Windbreak: The area to the east of the road leads up into another valley that is a major funnel for chilly winds. Scrub pines and vines are the main plants that grow along the road now, but we plan to replace these with white pines limited to 12 feet in height. Dogwood, Japanese crab apple and some other hardwoods are already present and fighting for their lives, and we’ll do all we can to encourage their survival.

Biodynamic Compost Production: The area directly to the east of the house isn’t well suited to the intensive growing of food crops, so it’ll be used largely to generate green mass for biodynamic composting. A tremendous amount of this compost will be needed to properly vitalize the many growing beds being added on the property.

Mint will be grown high on the bank because its thick root system will hold the soil in place. But directly across the path from the mint we’ll add more stinging nettle (which has been found to greatly increase the production of essential oils in mint) to what we planted this year. Another complementary pair of crops, potatoes and comfrey, will be planted next to each other in this same area.

Catchment Pond: Ever since MOTHER EARTH NEWS has owned the Eco-Village property, there’s been an erosion problem to the east of the homestead. A ditch has long carried off the precious little topsoil that exists on the embankments. We plan to dam this ditch at the northeast corner of the south sun-trap and allow the sediment to settle before it’s carried away. This pond will be an important source of sand and soil for further bed building and will provide storage for water that can be used to irrigate the experimental cover-crop area when the need arises.

South Sun-Trap: The southern arch of trees, consisting of clipped hemlock and glauca (as well as various other junipers), shields the experimental cover-cropping area and bends breezes around and down the walkway area. Because this sun-trap could block solar gain to the house if allowed to grow freely, it’ll be controlled at a 12-foot height.

Experimental Cover Crop: The beds at the south end of the property will be used for an experiment in which food crops will be interplanted with cover crops. Beds will be sown in a cover — such as alfalfa — in three-year cycles, and food plants will be cut into the existing growth.

There are many different ways this is likely to be done — we’ll be trying a variety of methods to determine which work well — but an example may help explain the concept. Let’s say that alfalfa is grown for three years in a 5′-wide bed. In the spring, carrots might be interplanted after the alfalfa has been skimmed and tilthed in a strip 8″ wide. Companion plants might be introduced at wide spacings, as well, by cutting out circles. The carrots will grow in a soil loose with fibrous roots and full of nitrogen from the nitrogen-fixing alfalfa — we hope they’ll grow very well indeed. Once the carrots are harvested, the area will be resown in alfalfa. And the next spring, perhaps peppers will be grown in a different 8″ strip. After the third year, the entire cover crop will be turned in, and beans and potatoes will be planted during the fourth year. Then the cycle will begin anew. Our experiment is on a very small scale, but we hope that eventually it can be applied to larger tractor gardens.

We could go on and on with the details that we have in mind for the different areas of the self-reliant homestead, but we’ve already listed far more than can be accomplished in the coming year. And by New Year’s Day of 1986, many of the ideas we’re so fond of now will probably have been abandoned, replaced, or refined. Better that we should get back to work now and report again when we’ve learned from yet another year (or so) of experience.