Sepp Holzer – Terraces & Raised Beds

If you start inquiring about permaculture you are bound to run into Sepp Holzer – an Austrian farmer that has been evolutionazing farming for over 40 years. Also, if you start inquiring about permaculture you may, like I still am, feel lost and detached. On the one hand permaculture is a common-sense approach that works with nature, on the other hand it is a vast and intricate web of knowledge and best practices which I have a feeling can best be taken on through years and years of practice.

To me the challenge in making sense of permaculture was where to start. The first step is (by now) obvious to us – observing our land and seeing it’s natural potential and qualities. The next step has been gradually appearing. Though we want to quickly reach personal sustainability (growing our own food) it has become clear to us that we first need to rejuvenate and revive the land (which has been plowed and harvested for many years). But how to do that? Today I found, in a seriese of videos with Sepp Holzer, what looks like the most promising and actionable step in achieving that – terraces and raised beds.

This last video is less about terraces and raised beds and more about logistic, financial and social aspects of Holzer’s work:

Visiting Mociu with the Pros

Last Friday (April 1st) we visited our land in Mociu a 3rd time, this time with a team of professionals. Every visit has awarded us a different color – the first was snow-white, the second earth-brown and this visit was dominated by fresh-greens. The last kilometer of road to our property can hardly be called a road (can only be accessed by a 4×4 vehicle or horse-drawn carriages) so we were fortunate enough to have had a few dry days which meant that the two non 4×4 vehicles managed to get to the property (with their gear) in a round-about way.

The first thing we did was decide on an approximate location for the house. We then planted a first stake to mark the south-east corner. Then the geological testing guys setup their drill in what we later realized was pretty much the center of the house …

… and began drilling to test the composition of the soil which needs to be taken into consideration in designing the foundations.

At first they drilled to a depth of 2 meters and then to a depth of 5 meters. They did an initial analysis using good old human touch (which showed tightly compacted clay) and then packed the materials in plastic bags that were sent off to a laboratory for analysis which will result in a detailed geological report. Here they are going over the findings with Andreea and Horatiu (our architect) as an audience.

Darius is an intern who works with Horatiu and will be involved in our project. He also had a long day of work making sketches and taking measurements of the existing structures. This will help us in landscaping work and in future renovations.

We also had with us a couple who do topographical maps. They set out to measure and map our terrain and the precise location of existing structures and other elements (such as the well) on the property. Here you can see the measurement laser being setup and in the background our neighbor plowing his land.

This was the first time we realized just how large our property was – especially back into the hills behind the existing house.

For the first time, in our presence, someone actually walked up the hill to the border of our property (supposedly marked by a corner-stone). Yes it’s the hills across the valey – and just to give you a sense of distance:

For someone who grew up in a lifestyle where 500sqm was large and 1000sqm was huge … this continues to be mind-boggling … but I am quickly getting used to it (more on that in the future). Here Andreea is explaining where our property ends to the east.

Which is that line of trees behind them:

Meanwhile we completed roughly measuring and marking (with stakes in the ground) the periphery of our future house. Here you can see Andreea stretching a thin rope to mark the periphery and then Horatiu placing the last stake that marks the end of our spacious front porch.

… and then Andreea, having made a full circle made her way back to the first corner post before jumping in joy and giggling crazy ­čÖé

Andreea and I walked up on the opposite hill to have a look at our property from it’s other end (though we only climbed up half way!).┬á On the way we encountered the neighbouring property covered by sheep we had seen earlier traversing the top of the hill.

Finally I asked Andreea to walk back ahead of me and to go stand on our future porch – and again to give you some sense of scale:

It was a spectacular day – a huge leap forward. Though it wasn’t physically demanding it was emotionally very intense! Our dream is transforming into a living reality ­čÖé

 

 

Visiting Malin Hermitage

On the last weekend of March we finally got to visit Malin Hermitage run by Philippe & Adriana. We went for a first of a series of educational & social weekends organized by EcoRuralis that will be taking place there. I gladly accepted an invitation to come and teach Yoga there. We wanted to see the place a few weeks ago while we were searching for land but didn’t get around to it because Mociu appeared in our lives.

The place was cold – too cold – a recurring problem in Romania and an inspiration for us as we hope to demonstrate that better living can be achieved with hemp-lime construction. Though it wasn’t as cold outside as the freezing winter months it was still cold. We slept in sleeping bags on beds in an attic room (you can see the entry to it at the top-right of the image above). When we left the room in the morning it was colder inside then it was outside. It’s a shame that this was a dominant part of our experience – but there it is.

It was spectacular to be on a farm so close to nature and far from a city. There are no phones (lines or cellular) and no electricity┬á – at night we sat by kerosene lamps. In this “natural” setting nature has both an awesome and obvious presence – it is a huge deal and no big deal at the same time. On Saturday I also witnessed my first Romanian spring rain – it arrived very suddenly and it poured loads of water on us. Water is an amazing natural resource here, which, together with plentiful land makes this country a rich and promising place!

We arrived on friday just after dark – and this is what we woke up to the following day.

Donkeys are the main working animal on the farm

And when they are eating the fresh spring grass they don’t make great conversation and don’t care to be disturbed. This donkey stopped eating long enough to signal Andreea to leave him alone.

The property has two streams running on it. They had a soft flow and according to Philippe they can dry out during peak summer (doesn’t look like enough flow to effectively create hydro-electricity – at least not at this time of year).

Apparently Romanian farmers have an┬á environmentally destructive habit of clearing fields with fire. It is driven in part by laziness and in part by government regulations. When you own land in Romania you are responsible for maintaining it and not letting it grow wild. Lighting a field on fire is the easiest way to clear it. So to discourage this behavior laws were passed illegalizing the burning of land. So now, Romanian farmers light fires and run away (so as not to get caught and blamed for the fires) leaving the fires to burn out of control. Philippe’s neighbor did this and his fire burned out of control, spread onto Philippe’s land and nearly spread to the neighboring forest:

During the day we sat on the porch behind Phillipe and Adriana’s residence where we had talks and lectures:

Philippe uses old windows to create an incubation space for seeds. Phillipe digs a 60cm deep space in the ground – fills it with 40cm of donkey manure (from a composting pile kept nearby) and then 20cm of composted soil in which the seeds are planted. The manure ferments and generates heat which is locked in by the window which I am assuming also acts as a solar heater too!

A mix of donkey manure water and clay is also used to create a protective “paint” placed on tree trunks to discourage potentially damaging insects.

And despite the vast quantities of rain-water there were plentiful examples, on almost every roof, of water collection barrels using natural forces of water pressure and gravity to provide irrigation.

Finally, one of the greatest gifts of this weekend was some time I spent reading in a two-volume book about Forest Gardens – an evolutionary form of farming/gardening where a forest-like eco-system is created and planted with a diversity of perennial plants. These plants all work together naturally (as do forests) to support and complement one another in creating a low maintenance and abundant eco-system. This means no more plowing the land, no more moving fertilizers from one place to another and no more dependency on oil and fuel for growing food.

I was greatly inspired (and relieved!) by the potential of forest-gardens and it will definitely have a strong effect on the kind of agricultural work we will be doing on our land. I invite you to watch A Farm for the Future to get you started on this path. Stay tuned for plenty more as another of my major pre-conceptions about the world comes crumbling down.

A Farm for the Future

A series of 5 videos shedding blinding bright light on the relationship between food production and oil. Every unit of energy consumed in inustrialized food takes 10 units of mostly fossil fuel energy to create. The implications of fossil fuel depletion are reaching. Bottom line:

  1. Stop plowing fields.
  2. Less meat consumption
  3. Permaculture – agriculture┬á by design
  4. Extremely low maintenance forest gardens (that have the potential to feed 10 people per acre)
  5. Moving away from cereals towards nuts
  6. Reruralization – more people growing food & less people living in the city.

Rocket Stoves

I first came across Rocket Stoves a couple of weeks ago at Paul Wheatons friendly website. I still do not grasp completely how they work but I am learning a lot (and asking a lot of questions) … in other words educating myself ­čÖé

Gasification

Gasification is a word we’ve encountered many times in relation to high-efficiency wood-stoves. Here’s what I’ve been able to understand so far (excluding professional terms which I still have not got down).

When wood is burned some heat is (naturally) generated together with some gasses. These gasses still contain potential burning energy but in regular stoves they simple escape through the chimney. This is both a waste of potential heating energy and a source of pollution. Efficient stoves that include “gasification” create a kind of “second burning” by (1) containing the gasses in a secondary chamber and (2) by insulating the stove, containing the heat and increasing the temperature (the gasses require a higher temperature to burn). The result is much (drastically more) efficient burning and greatly reduced pollution.

The following video demonstrates the “rocket” burning result of gasification:

Thermal Mass

The Rocket Stoves depicted in Paul’s website is based around the idea of thermal mass – which is a fancy way of saying “something that can contain lots of heat it and slowly radiate it back into the space”. This can be a couch or a wall or even a water heater.

This idea of thermal mass is well known here in Romania. It is used in typical tera-cota village stoves where the heat is directed in a maze of passages that cause the stove to slowly heat up and then stay warm for a long time (a good stove can be lit in the evening and will still be warm the next morning).

At first I assumed that a thermal mass was an inherent part of the rocket stove. But that isn’t necessarily true. This next video demonstrates a rocket-stove used as a cooking stove:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=797446823830833401

More information and plans for this kind of rocket stove can be found here.

This application of the same┬á rocket stove burning mechanism shows an insulated burner that is designed to keep the heat inside and direct it to a cooking pot. I think this can be a useful design for a cooking stove that can be used during the summer months because it doesn’t radiate unwanted heat into the space.

Water

One of the first ideas we played around with was using the same stoves for both heating the space and heating water. Though this can work it needs careful consideration. Though it’s tempting to think of the stove as heating the water, it’s useful to remember that as this happens the water also cools the stove!

If you add a water heating coil to a traditional Romanian tera-cotta wood stove it will heat the water, but the stove itself will cool down much faster and will have less effect on the space.

It’s empowering to slowly peel away the layers and connect with the common-sense behind heating systems. It makes me wonder about sophisticated technology vs. simple concepts. On the one hand gasification looks so simple to achieve and yet modern central wood-burning heaters, it seems, cannot achieve gasification without electricity!

The Humanure Handbook

As the reality of a village life nears us we need to make a choice on what to do with toilets. At first we will need a solution that we can easily add to an old existing house where we will live temporarily. Then we are going to need a long term solution for our house. Then we will probably need to replicate that solution as we prepare to recieve guests, students and friends.

There is no doubt in our mind that we are going to implement some form of composting solution. There really is no justification for actually creating and dealing with waste when it can be transformed into compost.

The question we are dealing with is how to evacuate our waste from the house. One option is using flushing water which is familiar, comfortable, demanding ince for composting the liquids and solids need to be separated. A cheap, simple, direct and ecological solution is a simple composting toilet – a bucket in a box – the shit needs to be carried out by hand!

We’ve been reading around a lot and looking for alternatives and we still have not made up our mind. Today’s discussions and searches brought is to The Humanure Handbook – which seems to be a classic text, often cited on the internet on the subject.