Much of the roof has finally gone up on our cob cabin. We do a quick tour of our progress showing how the cabin is built off of two huge granite boulders and includes an integrated rainwater harvesting tank and huge roof patio overlooking the chaparral.
My name is Chris Meador and I'm the founder of Permasystems. I try to practice permaculture as much as I can and I try to eat as healthy as I can. After all, we are what we eat!
To me, eating healthy means getting food from happy and healthy sources, basically, as regenerative as possible. Sometimes I eat regenerative food and sometimes I don't. Although I wish I could have regenerative food all the time, the reality is that I'm just not there yet. The the important point for me is that I'm moving towards eating more and more happy healthy food - because even baby permaculture steps are awesome!
One of the big reasons I want to eat regeneratively grown food is to avoid ingesting poisons. Poisons are bad right? Unfortunately our mainstream food system uses tons of poisons to grow our food - from pesticides to rodenticides to fungicides to herbicides. In 2014, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to apply 0.8 pound/acre on every hectare of U.S. cultivated cropland and 0.47 pounds/acre on all cropland worldwide.
For this post I want to focus on glyphosate, a type of herbicide, and an ingredient in Roundup and other products primarily used to kill plants. There is a lot of debate out there on whether or not certain amounts of glyphosate ingestion in humans is safe. There does seem to be a trend. Obviously the maker of glyphosate, Monsanto, says it is safe and they have funded many studies of it, but there seems to be an increase in the number of studies finding glyphosate is not safe, and even carcinogenic. Additionally, more governments throughout the world are beginning to place warning labels on glyphosate bottles or even restrict the protect and in some cases outright ban it.
To me it seems like there are some obvious dangers of putting glyphosate in my body so why not just avoid it, play it safe. After all, our modern civilization seems to unfortunately be really good at accepting things into our mainstream society without conducting the proper due diligence to see if they are safe. We do this over and over - like with cigarettes, DDT, agent orange or a host of other products/chemicals.
This is why I decided to test my own glyphosate levels. There have been a number of recent articles discussing the increasing levels of glyphosate found in people and the possible risks.
Time Magazine - time.com/4993877/weed-killer-roundup-levels-humans/
After doing some research I decided to use the Health Research Institute for my test. They utilize highly sensitive equipment and are conducting a large-scale study documenting glyphosate levels in people - I thought it would be good to add my data to their system. It was about $100 - pee in a cup and send it in.
Here is an information sheet that accompanied the results.
Unfortunately they did detect glyphosate metabolite in my sample, meaning there had been glyphosate in me. Although my levels are pretty low it is still quite shocking to see my levels as high as they are because I try to be quite conscious in what I eat. This will push me harder to only eat happy, healthy food grown regeneratively and grow more of my own. I look forward to reading further studies that objectively assess the risks of glyphosate and other poisons.
Even if we put aside the argument if glyphosate is safe for humans or not, the fact remains that the large-scale practice of using glyphosate in farming is completely unnecessary and degenerative. We'll talk about this subject in another blog post so stay tuned and hopefully stay away from poisons!
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In this series we highlight useful plants that fit into permaculture systems. These systems work with the patterns in nature and provide a holistic and interconnected context.
For this profile we are showcasing stinging nettle, Urtica dioica is the native to San Diego County and Urtica urens is the naturalized species. Often called a nasty weed, this plant serves a specific beneficial purpose and provides super healthy and tasty food for hardly any work! What could be better!
The big downside of this plant is of course it stings like hell when it comes into contact with skin. The stinging normally does not last long, but reactions vary from person to person. Luckily, the stinging is pretty easily avoided by utilizing good gloves during harvesting.
The plants contain long, thin, hollow hairs that cover the majority of the stem and the underside of the leaves. Nettle stings contain acid (formic acid) but they also contain histamine and other chemicals. Luckily again, these chemicals become completely benign once the nettle is cooked.
Harvesting it pretty easy - just use scissors to cut near the base of the plant. Nettle is best harvested when young, before flowers and seed pods are formed. As a general rule I like harvest plants shorter than 1 foot tall. As the plant ages it gets more fibrous. It can get so fibrous that nettle is known for making fibers like yarn and fabric. And they don't sting!
Now that you have a nice big bag of fresh nettles it's time to cook or dry them. It can also be nice to harvest just a little bit to make fresh tea. For drying, is best to separate the leaves and dry in the sun or a dehydrator. For cooking, you can just throw them in the pan with little water, oil or butter - they can also be steamed. Cook and enjoy as you would spinach. They can be used in an infinite number of dishes - one of my favorites is pesto - just blend up the lightly cooked plant with garlic, pine nuts, lemon juice and sea salt, then toss with your favorite noodle.
Stinging nettle is not only an abundant free growing plant around the globe but it is also rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. (Gregory L. Tilford, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West). Fresh leaves contain approximately 82.4% water, 17.6% dry matter, 5.5% protein, 0.7 to 3.3% fat, and 7.1% carbohydrates [Lutomski, Jerzy; Speichert, Henryk (1983). "Die Brennessel in Heilkunde und Ernährung". Pharmazie in unserer Zeit (in German)].
The plant spreads quickly by seed and also by rhizomes, and is often able to survive and re-establish quickly after fire or other disturbances. They are the exclusive larval food plant for several species of butterflies.
While this plant often gets a bad rap it proves itself to be highly tasty, nutritious, and functional - it is highly overlooked and underrated. When people talk about the "problem" of having to much nettle, the solution is simple, make pesto and share!
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Converting A Conventional Orchard Into A Regenerative System - How Ceasing To Use Synthetic Fertilizers Can Bring Back Life
Around when I was born my father started an orchard on our land in backcountry San Diego County. Our Mediterranean climate is perfect for growing all kinds of amazing plants. However, our hard, compacted, clay soil filled with round rocks, makes for some challenging growing conditions.
He planted mostly stone fruit and citrus and, like most people, decided synthetic fertilizers would be the way to keep the plants happy and producing fruit. What he probably didn't know was that over time, synthetic fertilizers build up the amount of salts in the soil, one of plants worst enemies.
When salt dissolves in water, the ions separate and plants absorb the chloride ions. This makes it difficult for plats to uptake water creating drought-like conditions, even when ample water is present. Excessive sodium in the soil also obstructs the availability of important nutrients and kills beneficial soil microorganisms.
The downsides of synthetic fertilizers don't stop there. They can leach into streams, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water disrupt aquatic ecosystems and increase the nitrate levels of soil. Plants produced from such soil, upon consumption, convert to toxic nitrites in the intestines.
The list goes on, but lets try to focus on something a little more positive.
Over my years of studying permaculture I began to experiment with my dad's orchard, I wanted to see if ecological design could really beat the conventional agriculture methods of our modern society. First, I made sure no more synthetic fertilizers were applied. Then, I started adding compost and mulch, at least a few inches thick. I sprayed compost teas and beneficial fungal spores.
Next, I started to plant a lot more trees and really try to think about what cultivars would do best in this location. I had been observing the spot for years, now was the time to put that knowledge to use. I started to plant nitrogen fixing trees, why buy nitrogen when plants make it for free??? Palo verde, tipuana tipu, ice cream bean and guaje were some of my first perennial choices. I also wanted to get a lot more diversity in fruit and food without having to use much water in our dryland ecosystem. To reach that goal I planted loquats, pineapple guavas, kei apples, jujubes, grapes, moringas, pomegranates and more.
In the first year after ceasing to apply synthetic fertilizers fruit production declined and I thought this would be the case. Fruit production had already been declining, I could see trees were not happy and I had a good hunch it was due to salt build up. It was going to take at least a year to flush those salts out of the soil. To aide in this process, I applied gypsum to loosen the soil structure and allow water and nutrients to better move though the ground.
In the second year I started to see some exciting results. Tress were looking healthier, they were growing more, their leaves looked greener, more blossoms came out, and, there was more fruit! In fact, we had an old stone fruit tree, we didn't even remember what it was because it had been so long since it has produced fruit or even blossomed. This time, in the second year, it began to blossom, I was so excited. It was also not a colder-than-normal year so I was quite sure it was not just blooming because it was getting more chill hours. Finally, fruit begin to grow, it was a nectarine! Not very good tasting but a nectarine it was!
By the third year this tree had even more blossoms and more fruit, it was starting to taste good. Other trees followed suit. Our old tangerine tree had looked like it was dying, branches where turning brown and fruit production plummeted. This was a tree I was especially fond of as I remember stuffing myself of it's delicious fruit at a young age. In the the second and third years it started to produce more and more fruit. This year, the fourth, it's loaded! Branches have stopped dying and although it still looks like a very old tree, it seems happy again.
In time I will plant more and more trees in the orchard. My goal is to move it to be a regenerative system, a system that takes care of itself. I will have to continue to occasionally add compost to replenish some of the nutrients but for the most part I will not have to do much. I will slowly plant ground covers and smaller sized plants to maximize vertical space, like a food forest. Our previous blog explains food forests.
The one thing my dad never did was spray chemicals, no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. We never had serious problems with pests or diseases that we know of. I am happy to carry on that tradition and I know that moving this orchard towards a regenerative system will improve the health and resilience of plants there while in turn providing us with a greater and healthier bounty of food.
A food forest is pretty much what it sounds like, a forest of food. Sounds pretty great right. Who wouldn't want a forest of food??
A food forest consists of big trees, medium and small trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous and ground covering plants. All the different sizes are planted in a way to produce food on multiple vertical levels, all within a single regenerative system whose goal is to take care of itself, with minimal work and outside inputs. The idea is to mimic a healthy old growth forest like we find in nature.
The image above gives you an idea of what the plants look like in a food forest system. One of the big goals is high diversity. This means planting as many species as possible in each size category. Each species has multiple functions. One tree species might provide shade, mulch, fruit and nitrogen for other plants. The more functions a species has, the more it is doing to be regenerative, and the less work you are doing! Regenerative means taking care of itself, like being self sustaining.
If we look at an old growth forest we can see a healthy regenerative system with plants of all different sizes. Mother nature is taking care of the system. Nobody is watering, pruning, weeding, fertilizing or planting, yet it keeps growning and growing!
Now lets imagine a traditional orchard or vegetable garden like we see below.
This vegetable garden is growing food on mostly one vertical layer, from just above the soil to about 2 feet above. Most of these plants are the same size. As vegetables are harvested from the garden we need to replace the nutrients that were carried away in the food, like nitrogen. Many people add synthetic fertilizers to accomplish this which can hurt the plants and soil in the long run. However, the easiest and healthiest way is to use high-quality compost. This garden also has bare soil so we are loosing water to evaporation and killing the healthy biology in the soil. Plus you have to replant everything each year! Now I'm not saying annual vegetables gardens like this are bad, but with a food forest you can grow more food with way less work.
Most of the plants we find in a food forest are perennial, meaning they keep growing year after year. This is great because unlike most vegetables you don't have to plant them year after year. Perennial plants, which include some vegetables, also grow much deeper roots enabling them to find far more water and nutrients deeper in the soil. This, in turn, means you don't have to provide them with as much water or nutrients.
In these pictures you can see there is so much growing on so many levels it is difficult to tell what's what! This is a very efficient use of space compared to the traditional orchard or garden bed we described earlier.
By selecting just the right species for the right location you can mimic the old growth forest. For example, planting trees that produce dappled shade, a mix of shade and sun, allow other plants to grow underneath the tree's canopy. The light shading helps to reduce evaporation which can provide a lot of extra water for the system.
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After finally finding some time to work a little on the cob cabin we continued to construct the porch roof by installing the horizontal roof support made out of a used telephone pole, a few joists, and also part of the roof to protect the cob from rain.
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In this series we highlight various plants we find to regeneratively suit dryland ecosystems. Our experience is based on plantings at our permaculture education and demonstration site in Ramona, CA. We are a Mediterranean climate, Zone 9, with approximate annual rainfall of 16 inches. Soil at the site is variable. Habitat is primarily chaparral with some grassland and oak woodland.
The pomegranate is native from Iran to the Himalayas in northern India and was grown in the Mediterranean region since ancient times. It is widely cultivated in India and the drier parts of southeast Asia, Malaya, the East Indies and tropical Africa. The plant was introduced into California by Spanish settlers in 1769. In this country it is grown for its fruits mostly in the drier parts of California and Arizona.
The pomegranate is a neat, rounded shrub or small tree that can grow 20 or 30 ft., but more often 12 to 16 ft. tall. There are also dwarf varieties. It is usually deciduous, but in certain areas the leaves will stay on the tree. Pomegranates are long-lived with specimens in Europe that are known to be over 200 years of age! They can be pruned into trees but will try to grow more like bushes by sending out lots of suckers from the base.
There are over 500 named pomegranate cultivars!
Pomegranates provide healthy doses of vitamin C, vitamin K and folate. The seeds are a rich source of dietary fiber and micronutrients. They can eaten or used in dishes fresh and raw, straight out of the peel and white pulp membrane, or turned into juice, wine, liqueur, sauce, marinade, jam, spices, cooked into an infinite variety of dishes or dried.
This easy to grow plant is relatively fast growing, extremely hardy and drought tolerant needing no supplemental water after establishment at our site. We have planted them in a range of soils and found them to grow well even in extremely hard and heavy clay soil that does not drain well.
To date we have planted the wonderful, parfiaka, kashmir bland, ambrosia, eversweet and evergreen cultivars. They all seem to be doing well. Most are less than 2 years old and have not produced much fruit so it is too soon to say which are producing best. We will give you an update in a year. Some are planted in the food forest and some just out on their own. The ones in the food forest are growing faster but I think that is because of the healthier soil in the food forest.
When thoughtfully placed using permaculture (click to learn more about permaculture and ecological design), pomegranates make a wonderful addition to any food forest or ecosystem. They are so easy to grow, beautiful, provide versatile, tasty and healthy food, shade, organic matter from falling leaves and roots and are easy to chop and drop to build healthy soil. They are also super easy to propagate or can be purchased for pretty cheap in small sizes. A simple to use fruit press can easily get the juice out of pomegranates in case you are not a fan of removing the seeds!
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Prickly pear cactus and it's fruit have been an important food for indigenous people of the Americas for eons. The cactus pads can be eaten, and used as medicine, while the fruit, often called an apple, is a sweet and juicy treat.
Prickly pear cactus (Genus Opuntia) has literally an infinite number of species as this Genus easily and often hybridizes. Originally native to the Americas, like most true cactus species, prickly pear is now found all over the globe. In Mexico, prickly pears are often used to make appetizers, soups, and salads through entrees, vegetable dishes, and breads to desserts, beverages, candy, jelly, or drinks.
What's so cool about the prickly pear cactus is that it can provide a ton of food with zero supplemental water in a dryland ecosystem. Take a look at the photo above, this prickly pear cactus (unknown species) has been growing at our permaculture education and demonstration site in Ramona, CA for decades. It never gets a drop of supplemental water and we only get an approximate average of 15 inches of rain a year - yet every year it has tons of fruit! Check out how much fruit there is on a single pad below!
Picking the fruit from the plant should not be taken lightly. It is not hard but each pad and fruit has tons of little spines called glochids. They are small hairlike prickles that easily penetrate the skin and detach from the plant. That means good gloves and protective clothing are in order. Keep in mind that no matter how much protection you don, spines somehow always get stuck in you so have a good pair of tweezers or a pain tolerance ready. The spines don't hurt much but are so small and numerous that they can be difficult to get out of your skin and clothing.
You know the fruit is ripe when it easily detaches from the pad with a push or pull. Pick as many apples as you can, leaving some on the plant for other animals. Set your bounty in a bucket or something sturdy as they get heavy.
To process the fruit find a nice flat cutting surface that you don't mind getting stained from the beautiful juices of the apple. Some people burn off the spines or brush them off, but I find it far faster to just fillet off the skin, vastly reducing the chance of getting any spines in your food. The skin is great for composting.
Start by setting the fruit on the flat rim of one side so it stands on end and the part that separated from the pad is pointing up. Then fillet downward in sections around the apple as thinly as possible while still getting all the spines. Slice down until you are almost at the bottom, just before you hit the skin, then stop (like the photo below). Then you can either slice across the bottom horizontally or grab the slippery flesh and twist off of the skin. The best method kinda depends on the species.
Now you get to choose what to do with your yummy bounty. If this is your first time eating prickly pear apples just take a big bite as is and enjoy! The flavors can vary a lot between plants and species but hopefully they are juicy and super sweet. There are seeds in the fruit but I just try to chew them some and swallow.
As we said before, this fruit can be used for so many things but one of my favorite is just plain or in smoothies. You can make juice, wine, sorbet, syrup, or add them to just about any dish. Be creative and enjoy this amazing permaculture fruit!
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A recent article in The San Diego Union Tribune featured Milijan Krecu, a San Diego local farmer and educator.
Milijan, originally from Yugoslavia, immigrated to the US and went to college at UC Santa Cruz where he discovered that everyone wasn't experiencing the same joy and rich flavors from food that he had grown up with.
He is assistant property manager and farm advisor for the Leichtag Foundation's Leichtag Commons farm. The private and independent foundation works to support Jewish life in North County and Israel, fight poverty and advance self-sufficiency. They grow great food via Coastal Roots Farm, host events, rent out space to growers, and connect organizations.
They primarily grow seasonal row crops but have a new food forest that relies on permaculture principles and techniques.
We look forward to seeing their food forest grow!
Link to original article here:
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This Minisode shows the progress on the roof of the cob cabin, the porch support poles and the cob wall integrated ferrocement rainwater harvesting tank.
The roof will be ferrocement, like our water tanks, consisting of 3 layers of steel lath encapsulated in cement for a total thickness of 3/8 inch (click here to see our page about ferrocement). Because the roof will be a patio we need to make it extra strong to support a lot of weight in case a lot of people go up there. To do so we are using 24 foot 2x12 rafters laid into the top of the cob walls which to the cob wall on the other side, about 18 feet. These are spaced 1 foot oc on 1 side on 16 inches oc on the other. We will pulace plywood on top of the rafters and apply the ferrocement roof on top of that. The ferrocement roof will be floating to compensate for different expansion and contraction of the wood versus cement. Small gutter-like devises will be custom integrated in the roof to convey water towards a downspout on one corner of the roof that leads to the water tank.
The water tank is made out of ferrocement (click link to be directed to more information about our ferrocement water tanks) and will be integrated into one of the cob walls. This will save time and materials because we will not have to build a cob wall there while also providing a ton of thermal mass. A rocket mass heater will be built between the water tank and large integrated granite boulder inside the cob cabin. Overflow from the water thank will be directed to our food forest (click link to see blog and video about food forest).
The roof will overhang approximately 12 feet to the south in a semi-circle to provide a large covered patio. This will provide passive heating and cooling including shade and shelter from the rain. We sunk 2 sections of telephone polls into the ground to support this patio roof. The poles were free from the electric company who was replacing them on our land. An additional horizontal pole will be placed on top the two vertical poles sunk in the ground to support the roof rafters.
For the vertical telephone poles we dug down until we hit solid rock, about 2 feet in those 2 spots, then made a level spot in the bottom of the hole with concrete, placed a pole on that, then filled in around the poles with recycled road-base (basically crushed concrete of various sizes) ensuring it was well compacted.
Please enjoy the video below.
You can click the "Cob" category on the right hand side of this page to see all previous posts about the cob cabin building project.
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