The New Year

Without going into too much of a rant about off grid living, consumption reduction or any other possible changes that might alleviate some stress on the planet, I’ll just mention that the batch burner is doing very well. I am installing a refractory cement cast front to hold the pyroceram  “door”. The clay /fiberglass reinforced frame was wearing out, with large chunks falling away, holes opening up around the edges of the door, and just generally making everything less reliable.

I don’t have much experience working with refractory cement, and likely I will be spending some time working with the casting process, for a major rebuild next year.  The rough cast is almost installed for the time being, and I can hardly wait to run a few fires through it.

I suppose that change is a fitting one to start off the new year with, but I really don’t do much with resolutions. Every thought about change is a good first step, whether it immediately manifests in action or not. Every day is a good one to develop those thoughts that take us to a harmonious existence with this beautiful blue ball we call Earth.

So I guess I’ll wish everybody greater awareness, deeper thoughts, and long term peace and happiness.

Today, even though it is officially New Year’s Day, is still just another day in paradise!

Remember, If you’re not having fun, you’ve got the design wrong.


Rain or the lack thereof

It’s getting close to Christmas, by this time last year, riding the backhoe, there were as many wet days as dry ones. If I started building a dam for three days, there was water mucking things up by day four. Then two or three days of sticky mud, and maybe with a little luck a dry day or two undoing the damage of the rain and then  watching the next rain fall.

This year with earthworks on hold we are having almost nothing but dry days, I think the universe needs to see me renting a backhoe before it will allow the rain to fall.

The gold fish pond is so low the poor fish are having trouble breathing, I see them up near the surface of the water, at holes in the ice , and even in the lotus pond, goldfish there are dying. Between the warmer than usual weather, and lack of rain, the fish are not happy campers.

I have started to break the ice when it forms in the lotus and gold fish ponds, and the deaths in the lotus pond are not continuing, I think failure of the  weather to force the fish to hibernate keeps their oxygen demands high, then the ice blocks the oxygen exchange. But that is just a theory.

Yes, Ok, it’s Officially Winter

And it has been for a couple weeks now. When the first killing frost is in the low 20s(F) you know it’s time to start bringing in firewood and get the wood stove ready.

I rarely run my batch-rocket hybrid, and fact is it is still under development. The first “door” was a glass pot lid, but likely was the soda lime or borosilicate which are really not geared for the intense heat of a rocket.

I found out recently that the Visions cookware is actually pryoceram which is good to much higher temps and has greater thermal shock resistance, so I have impressed a shallow visions fry pan into service as my new door.

I also lined the top of the batch box with the ceramic fiber blanket material which allows the fire to heat up more quickly. The other major modification was to rig up a fan to help the exhaust at startup. This has effectively eliminated all smoke in the room which was a major problem only partially shared with my J tube RMH.

We’ve had some pretty high winds that have forced me to do a little more on the roof in terms of fastening everything down, and, of course I was forced to harvest all the tender plants in the garden. i did a vinegar pickle out of much of the pepper crop, and have some drying, as well as some more to slice and pickle.

The sweet potatoes yielded quite well also, although they are really still mostly an experimental crop for me. The biggest problem is to keep the leaves away from the deer and rabbits. As well as they did, I see next summer having many more areas planted, and perhaps some new varieties, although the purple ones are definitely coming back next year.

Even though nights are pretty routinely in the 20s now, the days are often quite nice, with a light sweatshirt or even just a t shirt at times being all that’s necessary. The fish in the garden pond are still out in force, especially when I feed them, but the gold fish pond is frequently iced over now and only barely melts by afternoon, since it has more shade and tends to be colder overall.

The dams will probably need ongoing attention, or at least some backhoe work to reinforce and raise them a bit, or else I will probably be worrying with them in early spring to moderate the flows and keep manageable levels, and there is still quite a lot of tree cutting to do.

I’m debating on whether to continue on with my older model battery chain saw, buy the newer version of the 18 volt model, or go ahead and get the 40 volt one.

My current system works well since I have a charger that uses 12 volts to charge the 18 volt batteries, the 40 volt system will require an inverter.

And to be clear about the issues, inverters are one of  the most troublesome parts of a system. They can blow out in lightning strikes, or just plain self destruct from overloads, failed fuses, or continuous labor. Anything that can bypass the use of an inverter, or really any sort of phase change from production to use of the electricity is worth looking at. Even just storing energy involves loss of a certain amount of production from various “frictions” between the PV, the controller and the battery.

So upgrading to a 40v system really is a big deal requiring an extra set of batteries for the tools and even extra pv panels to provide for the extra energy consumption.




Winter Finally Here?

I’ll believe it when I see it. A month ago I would’ve expected at least one or two nights of killing frosts, but here we are, and one or two nights of a touch of frost on the car, but tomatoes still growing in the garden.

Whether this has anything to do with climate change or is just a quirky temperature swing is tough to say. Maybe as the poles melt and the oceans become bigger, deeper, they will start to shift the axis of the planet and we may be in the sub tropics here in VA–the hot subtropics.

We are definitely in a drought however, and my ram pump is still sending it’s steady trickle of water into the goldfish pond, but heaven only knows how many goldfish survived the heron. I haven’t seen one of my favorites almost all summer, and now I expect I won’t know till spring when they start feeding again just how much damage was done.

The sweet potatoes are still green, and the coldest temps predicted are about 36 for the next week, but even then the temps start going back up, so who knows when a frost might come.

I had planted the sweet potatoes in the garlic bed, and wanted to plant garlic when I dig up the SP but at this rate I won’t have garlic in the ground till december –oh well, such is life. Maybe it’s time to assume that the sweet potatoes won’t actually produce much more at this point and just go ahead with the garlic, and let it get started in this mild weather.

For now though I guess I’ll just sit back and marvel at our good fortune.





Rocket Stove Pics

testing outside, sand covering exhaust–that paint just won’t burn, maybe it’s high  temp:-)

Maintenance with a 100 feet of copper makes lifting a 55 gallon drum that much more difficult–notice the paint is gone, sealing the bricks of the firebox, better riser, higher heat, but that means citra solve paint remover and delays

replacing mud around base is an easy repair  notice the pex pipe connection just above the firebox

Exhaust returning from the bench going out of the house


Water Design

Main frame water design tactics need to be high on the priority list when starting any new project. The first thing we think about when considering whether to buy a property, develop a property, or rehabilitate a property has to be water design.

Conventional water design assumed large amounts of fossil fuel for operation and maintenance so it was mostly oriented around draining water away as quick as possible. But since our primary purpose is to harvest and put to work all the natural energy passing through our property that we possibly can, our water designs will look quite different from those that treat water as a problem.

Many of these older designs would fall apart quickly if the lights went out and the pumps stopped running.  So it becomes the responsibility of the Permaculture Designer to find ways to sustainably manage water resources.

In the I Ching, the well is the center of the village, the center of life, the first important item to look for when considering a new settlement. This wisdom is still appropriate today, and applies whether structuring the ponds and swales of a 1000 acre farm, or a 1/3 acre lot in suburbia.

Certainly most places will have infrastructure and natural features that may complicate the issue, but whatever the situation, water is always the defining characteristic of production and life. As such, it needs to be first on our list when starting any project.

This is the design I submitted in my 2014 Permaculture courseThe red lines are boundaries,the black line a driveway and the yellow lines are dams and swales.  The swale in it’s simplest form is a water harvesting trench on contour. It stops the flow of water downhill, and soaks it into the ground, or directs it sideways in very heavy rainfall. The incomplete swale in between the two major swales is a good example of working around existing infrastructure.

With large parts of the dam construction already accomplished, the design is well under way to completion. The  dam and pond in the center of the photo has an arbitrary designation of HGP. Moving to the left is the Lower Gully Pond LGP, and following the contour there to the next pond is the Contour Pond.

Follow that same contour line to the very top of the photo at the boundary line and a small gully pond might normally be part of the design, but this is an example of running into the boundary and out of the designers’ control. A swale at this point can start to run uphill off contour along that boundary to control that water and channel it back into useful storage.

Or this might be a point where property owners might collaborate in building a dam to store and soak water, which might require some education and legal consideration to protect both parties.

The smallest pond between the Contour Pond and that shared pond is the Ridge Point Pond.

Currently it has been a dry summer and even though I held back a fair amount of water in the ponds since their creation in January, they are pretty dry right now. The original fish pond (not identified in the design) has the most water, primarily due to large releases from the LGP a few weeks ago when it appeared we might be getting some rain.




Lack of water at this stage doesn’t really concern me very much with respect to the success of the design since it takes about 7 years for a landscape to become fully hydrated. The HGP lost water quickly to the sedimentary rock with some clay that forms most of the pond area, and has no swales developed to add more water. Add to the natural losses the water I deliberately drained before the end of the rainy season and the current very low levels were really expected.

Even though it is down to a small fraction of the water it held back in the Spring, I know that “lost” water will continue to hydrate the surrounding soil and the existing pond life and other natural processes will start to form seals in the rock to slow the “losses” in future.

High Gully pond looking at dam

HGP looking toward the back    at high water this Spring

This last photo is recent, down to a foot or so of depth, but one good band of rain from a hurricane could change it all. Even just a couple inches to keep the catfish alive would help right now.

The Lower Gully Pond / Dam is just above the fish pond and has been the only partial failure in management thus far. The trunk of the larger tree is immersed in the first two photos taken in June (left) – The last one taken in August after a final release of water into the fish pond. Note that tree is  now high and dry on the far right center of the photo.

During the early Spring rains I was gone from the property for several major rain events in a row and the caretaker did not know how to open the drain valve or manage the water levels, and when I returned there was a partial breach that must have been somewhat forceful at first. Heavy rocks were moved at the waterfall going into the fish pond and there was some heavy erosion in the lower driveway from a sustained volume of water.

The net effect of the dams, however has been positive and overall the breach was mostly just a miscommunication, since it could have been avoided with proper management. The breach did affect how much water I felt safe in holding, so the rains that followed were kept well below the previous breach, even though a wheelbarrow and some time quickly repaired that small section.

For the long term, the goal is to have them self regulate with controlled/directed overflows taken away from the dam proper. Once dam height and width is to spec and swales are properly installed, the only thing that will breach the dam might be an earthquake or deliberate activity that compromises the features

Presently my work is to cut saplings, survey and generally get preliminary work done before renting the backhoe again, but like any good designer, I spend a lot of time doing observation–some might call it spacing out, but I have started to see a pattern developing since the dams have started to hold back “normal”  water flows.

Looking forward to a time when the surface water storages are full, it becomes obvious that more will be needed and I’m looking at another swale a little above the level of the Fish Pond.  I also see the potential for swales below the Fish Pond, but those may become part of a generational development not manifested all at once

Early Spring- The PVC pipe has never been used but would be a drain if the pond ever needed cleaning. Note the water level is about a foot down in the picture above, but nearly full in this picture. Waterfall supplying Fish Pond. the roks and gravel help with oxygenation.

Currently this area is covered with weeds, but somewhere in that gravel lined pool below the fall there are bulrushes and water irises.the proportions here may seem larger, but the fall is only about 4 feet high sediment pond that supplies the waterfall. In time I would hope this pond will stay full through the summer and be a source of duck weed which the gold fish eat to extinction. It can grow here then be released a little at a time through a drain that bypasses the waterfall

Water Lillies

Note the few scattered Lotuses  closer to the bottom of the photo that were  planted at the end of last year, they are now threatening to take over the pond

Water Plants can be quite useful providing shade keeping the water cool, and also provide food for the fish. But in a pond like this small one, with so many fish and water levels reduced by half, they could block the surface area of the pond where oxygen is exchanged. Submerged plants actually consume oxygen at night and on cloudy days.

Some people forget that plant respiration goes one way in light, sequestering carbon and releasing oxygen, but then reverses at night, consuming oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.  Wild systems usually avoid this naturally, with continuous oxygenation from flowing water and various animals and fish consuming enough plants to balance the system. These gold fish, however, do not consume Water Lilies, and the deer have a problem accessing them.

The soil is mostly a sedimentary gravel/rock mix in both the Ridge Point and Contour ponds. This is both good and bad. Good in the sense that these ponds act as dry wells, pushing water underground , bad in the sense that they fill a little, then harbor mosquitoes for a while and empty, killing eggs and larvae of the critters that might control the mosquitoes in a more permanent pond.

The  Contour pond currently gets lots of run off from the driveway, and suspended clay carried by this water has started to provide an effective seal. driveway with ditch leading to CP contour pond immediately after a heavy rain event

The Ridge Point Pond  is located in the background upper right, and the back edge of the “pond” is basically described by the sunlight in front of the trees across the top of the photo. Mostly a dry hole now,  the swale that is intended to supply it has not yet been connected. Even so, the rain has started the sealing process, and water that used to roll off the ridge now soaks into the ground. I’ll get more photos up when I find them.

The Ridge Point  pond has an interesting place in this design, and will likely take longer to seal than the other ponds. It has the potential to act as the overflow drain for the whole upper part of the property, including not only its’ connected swale, but also  overflow water from the cistern, and overflow from the High Gully Dam.

These “dry” holes, actually can become quite productive over time. Rice for instance only needs to be immersed in water early in its’ life cycle to control weeds. Taro can grow in water or very wet humus, likewise with Water Chestnuts and Kang Kong. The Circular nature of both dams lend themselves easily to a dome greenhouse structure covering them, creating a season extension.  Having a direct access to water through poly pipe from the HGP, both the ridge Point and Contour ponds can be easily irrigated through the summer (Once that dam starts to hold a little more water.)

When dealing with something as expensive as a dam, it’s better safe than sorry. If you are thinking about building a dam, study, study, study. If you are trying to grow fish you will need to examine the soil and make sure the subsurface is not going to leak like a sieve. There are ways to overcome these sealing problems, but it’s good to know about them before hand.

I knew, for instance, the likelihood of a serious amount of rocky clay the farther I got out of the gullys. That expectation grew out of observation of a bench cut  in the slope next to the fish pond. Seeing that type of soil disturbance can provide a great map of what to expect once you start to dig.

Under the accumulated clay that one would expect in a low spot or keypoint type formation in a gully there are a wide range of possibilities. Knowing the geologic history of the area can also help predict the soil types one might expect to find.

Still, these preliminary observations and research are no guarantee, and test holes will be the final judge of how a pond might work in any specific location.

Even if your primary goal is erosion control, and holding water in a pond is not a necessity, the Dam itself needs to have enough clay and a good construction. Hire an expert backhoe operator experienced in these constructions, or research carefully appropriate techniques for your area.

Well built and protected a dam will be there for a thousand years providing multiple benefits to the surrounding area with minimal maintenance.

I consider my dams to be erosion control, and was inspired after watching the torrents of water that would flow for days after a heavy rain running from the fish pond to the creek. This sort of erosion is actually normal here, and the excess water from my land was duplicated over and over up and down the creek, causing large flows that have washed away the bridge over a secondary highway several times.

These sorts of controls are desperately needed almost everywhere and while I may not prevent the whole creek from flooding,  at least I’m trying to do my part to keep my land from contributing to the flood. Over time, if intelligent management becomes the norm, small ponds like these will be the best way to manage water. Large dams that flood whole regions have a host of problems, many of which are only now becoming known, while small ponds can become the life blood of an ecosystem..

One obscure bit of information I had never considered was reported in a survey and analysis  that stated the hydroelectric power created by the large dams in the North West and Canada was not worth the lost fertility in the forest from the migration of salmon upstream from the ocean. Add that to the fact that many of these dams have silted up and are no longer efficient producers of power, or have deteriorated and become unsafe, and the net effect seems to indicate they should never have been built.

Small dams like mine are located in places those migratory fish would never reach directly under normal conditions. A small dam failure is of little consequence to the surrounding community, but contrast this with the huge amount of water sent downstream by the Army Corps of Engineers recently after Hurricane Harvey.

They had to release so much water to protect these large reservoir dams that many houses which had not been injured by the hurricane needed to be evacuated because of the man made high water from these very large dam projects.

As a conclusion to this water design post, let me include the newest project, the link provides a good theoretical and practical explanation of the process.

The creek already had a dam with a fiberglass 3 ” pipe going through the dam and yesterday  I used a gutter adhesive to fasten this cleanout pvc fitting that has a threaded end to allow for easy changes in whatever attachments I might want to make to the water flow. In this case a 1 inch CPVC pipe

Normally it would be difficult and very expensive to buy assorted fittings to adapt to a 3″ thread. Lowes had nothing but the normal cleanout plugI found a drill bit that was almost a perfect size for the 1 inch pipeglued it in place and then screwed the assembly into the cleanout fitting. After I opened the water flow I did get the ram going, but after waiting overnight there was still no water at the fish pond. One mistake was not installing unions that would allow easy removal of the pump, because shortly after discussing the issue with a friend who had an operational pump, we decided the problem could be the lengthy supply line (150 feet).

Shortening that line gave me a slight water flow at the Fish Pond, but the reality of a short fall at the dam and the height to raise the water to coupled with the size of the pump meant it was really about as good as could be expected.

Some tips, if you try something like this, make sure your valves move very freely, friction, stickiness, anything that affects the reaction time of the valves could be the difference between a functional pump and a failed experiment.

A pressure gauge between the pressure tank and the output line may give an easier way to monitor the pump operation without running up and down the hill checking the output. In this case the operation of the “waste”  valve is affected by gravity. A little experimentation and I found some slight adjustments in the vertical angle of that waste valve could speed up or slow down the rate of the ram action.

The new supply line is about 20 feet long, and the 1/2 inch output line was slightly longer but at almost the same elevation. Changing the rate of the ram action of the pump did not seem to have a large effect on the output, but a pressure gauge would probably help with finding the most efficient action of the pump.






Summer is Back Also

With temps rising to the 80s again this week and another spell of dry weather it’s starting to feel like summer again. Maybe it’s not in the 90’s and cools off more at night, but that just makes it even nicer than summer. The growing season gets a nice little boost and last minute projects get a reprieve before the colder weather moves in.

It was pointed out to me that this is a bit early for this expected step back toward summer, but to me things are strange enough otherwise that this variation doesn’t mean anything. Maybe the winter will be longer, colder, or end sooner, but prediction at this stage is premature.

So I think I should plant those fall lettuces, do a little harvesting, start some herbs drying, and in general just enjoy the day.


I’ll Be Back

Yes, the heron has returned.

I surprised the heron last night–or it surprised me, or neither surprised either, depending on how one perceives it. But the heron  was at the fish pond and the fish went into hiding again.

I’m hoping the problem was that i had moved both scarecrows back a bit further from the pond. last night i moved one of the scarecrows right to the spot I saw the heron flying up from, and it had not returned this morning, although I did see it at the upper gully pond.

I have decided to let the upper gully pond be a fishing ground for the bird as much as possible. The bird will need to have someplace to hunt, and if the pressure is too extreme it may start to directly challenge the scarecrows rather than avoid  them. It is unreasonable to expect the heron to leave forever, and guiding it away from a more valuable area to another place is always going to be more effective in the long term than simply trying to deny access altogether.

It is possible to set  up complete exclusion zones,  but one of the goals should also be to balance energy with payoff.

I know that my goldfish pond is out of balance, and I have been willing to sacrifice some energy through the summer to creating and moving scarecrows around. But I’m not willing to extend that energy to the other ponds, and with luck the heron may decide that looking for catfish is easier than taking a chance looking for goldfish.


I was battening down for a big storm as Hurricane Irma approached and finally demolished the Keys and Florida in general. Today however,  when the storm should be giving us a tropical deluge, I’m finding that there is even very little rain forecast for our area. I’m not concerned about water situation though, a quick check on the cistern last night, and it is filled, a tribute to the new gutter system. Also we will likely get more rain sooner or later, so that thousand gallons should easily carry me through to the next storm.

It’s somewhat interesting how all this recent work on the roof has triggered a new interest in getting the house to a place where it doesn’t need constant attention. Irma promised more water than she finally delivered, but it was enough to have me back on the roof for the last several days, while ignoring all the backhoe preparation I have to do.

Yesterday I finally started to set up the covering over the Yoke so the hatch would be more easily accessible, although the real test waits for the rain, and of course the final framing will get put off until the rest of the structure is substantial enough to really handle the extra weight.

At least now, my attention is moving down to the walls and inside the house in general. Organizing tools and materials, clearing a large section on the south side for actual living activities is the next big push. The rain gutters and fascia boards are almost finished, so now I can start looking at windows and framing and closing all the smaller gaps.

There is something about having a secure structure to live in that is basic to growth and development. I’m finding as I take care of things on a more permanent basis I’m more able to move forward with other parts of the process.

Simple details like secure bolts holding the headers together to stabilize the outer walls. Then that allowed me to lower the yoke and even out the roof structure which further stabilizes everything.  And as each step progresses I feel better able to focus on and complete other details. The completion of the shelter may never be totally done, but longer intervals between working on it, and fewer nights waking up early to check for leaks or wind damage means more attention to other things, or at least more time to relax and be lazy.

Things like housing and other basic structures of our culture here in this place and time all seem to be up for grabs in deciding how much structure is necessary and how that structure will be implemented. Structure of course meaning everything we surround ourselves with.

Plumbing,  transportation, food supply, etc have all taken on new qualities as we move forward with technology, and yet the newest technologies are still serving some of the simplest functions.

From tents to high rise luxury apartments, the goal is still the same, to protect us from the wind and rain. The real questions are, how much protection do we need and what is the cost?


The Fall

September 6, 2017

Walking back from the fish pond in the rain, I had this new sense of well being, and not just because of the relief from drought and hot temperatures.  Of course this time of year there is always the possibility of monsoons, or hurricanes dropping large amounts of water all at once, but today I documented the rise of about two feet in the level of the fish pond.

This was not due to rain, but because of a decision to start the waterfall by draining the remainder of water behind the Low Gully Dam. I could have done this sooner, but decided to hold onto the water there until I felt fairly sure we had turned the corner on water supply to the garden. Because of the steady rain, I felt safe enough in the garden requirements and the filling cistern to go ahead and release the impounded water.

Although they don’t say much, I’m sure the goldfish are quite grateful for the extra oxygenated water being continuously fed into their pond  down below, which, because of the other dams recently constructed, has been receiving less water than before during the rains. But even with the rains, in years past, this time of year still sees that pond 3-4 feet below the high water mark.  So my feeling of well being was really due to the ability to release on demand water for the fish pond.  In future, the simple turning of a valve can save a pond full of fish if there is an extended dry spell.

P.A. Yeoman would say that ponds on a farm should be empty at the start of the rainy season, and it was tantamount to greed to try and hold onto that water when it could/should be sent to fields or places that might be able to use some extra. Also of course, that way the ponds can be cleaned, dams inspected and repaired, and generally made ready to hold their full capacity when the rains start all over again. In this case the water went to the fish, not gardens, but in future the High Gully Dam will likely have some excess water for gardens during the dry season.

Harvey, the hurricane, just dropped several feet of water down in Huston, and even the best prepared water design systems might be overwhelmed by that sort of exceptional stress, although a really good design still allows a way out when everything else is full to overflowing.  In this case, there was the fear that aqueducts might break under the flood, causing even more damage to those in the valley below.

This can be a reminder that there is always the possibility of extremes even the best planners can’t foresee. While larger dams may be without secondary outlets, swales can take water away from the valley/gully where one would expect the worst accumulations of water, and as it spills over the swale at an intentional low spot on the swale, the water must find a new path back to the gully and more and more of it’s destructive erosive force can be lessened. At each dam the water is stopped and taken again and again out of the valley to the areas that normally would get less water and need it most.

While large well engineered dams can be magnificent, more,smaller dams can do a better job at the task of stop, spread, and soak. With fresh water becoming scarce, anything that can keep more of that fresh water from running out to sea is a welcome detour.

As trees disappear and the normal water cycle becomes interrupted, small dams and swales are recognized as the answer to these sudden events, and properly implemented, the swales (which are a tree growing system) can even help lead the landscape into a more naturally balanced water cycle with bands of trees on contour controlling the flood.

So while my swales are not yet fully developed, and my dams are still somewhat at the mercy of the rain, at least they are stopping most of the water that used to run directly to the creek and off the property. And this year enough of that water remained to substantially raise the water level in the fish pond when it otherwise might be stagnant.

As the ground becomes better hydrated each year I would expect to have more and more water, until there is a natural subterranean flow that automatically keeps all the ponds full, and all the swales growing trees.

It is easy to speculate how far hydration may take a basically dry landscape, but it is enough for me to feel good by being able to turn a valve and fill a pond with water that might have been long gone many months ago.