Long Overdue Update

It’s been quite a while since we last updated, and so much has happened. Besides attending two festivals back-to-back, moving to a new temporary location, and continuing our search for land, we’ve been implementing several permaculture projects in an attempt to reduce both our financial costs and our impact on the environment. Whether these projects come with us when we move again or whether they stay on the land after we leave, just working on them has been a valuable learning experience that is sure to serve us well in the future. More on permaculture in a moment, but first, the other stuff we’ve been up to:

The week of PorcFest and the following week of Burning Porcupine seemed to go by too fast to get around to doing even half of the things we wanted to do, but overall were still enjoyable and some moments were even relaxing. Our solar teas were well-received, as were the variety of foods we served: dried kale chips made from homegrown kale, chicken bacon lettuce wraps, homemade yoghurt made from local raw milk,  fruity nutty granola-ey hippie squares, and especially our cheesy low-carb gluten-free vegetarian medicinal lasagna.

We hosted impromptu permaculture conferences, multiple instrumental jam sessions, partner/flying yoga practices, laughing yoga sessions, group meditations, and generally aimed to create a calm oasis amidst the otherwise chaotic festival atmosphere. Providing space and equipment for massage/reflexology along with making a variety of essential oils and herbs available turned out to be very helpful as complementary and alternative treatment for a number of minor injuries and ailments. Interesting conversations with old friends and new friends alike abounded, but by the time it was all over and we’d finished moving into our new home, it was nice to have some quiet time and a little vacation from our vacation.

Although it’s a transitional situation as we continue searching for land to call our own, Saba Cooperative is proud to be working in tandem with another local project called the Free Grafton Embassy. The Embassy is envisioned as a place where peaceful people can feel welcome, whether for a day visit or something more long-term, a space wherein folks can come together and consensually exchange for mutual benefit, and an environment that vividly illustrates the do-it-yourself spirit of Free Grafton. During our time here, Saba aims to put into practice a diverse array of permaculture alternatives, learning as we go, and hopefully leaving the Embassy better than we found it.

With the hope of reducing our use of the propane water heater, one of the first permaculture projects we implemented upon arrival was a simple solar water heater made out of a couple of old aquariums, a piece of styrofoam for insulation, and a few plastic jugs painted black. On a sunny summer day, by mid-afternoon, the water in the jugs is just right for washing dishes, and without adding more cold water is almost too hot for showering. Soon we’ll be adding more jugs and another aquarium.

There was an overgrowth of weeds on the hillside just in front of the Embassy, and while it isn’t the sunniest spot, we felt like it was sunny enough, and close enough to the house, to justify the construction of our first hugelkultur bed there. Hugelkultur translates roughly from German as mound-culture. The idea is to use rotting logs as the base for an organic no-till garden bed. The logs act like giant sponges, soaking up water and storing it for future use, which in the long run means a bed that requires little to no irrigation, (if the bed is built tall enough.) Eventually, after providing a tasty meal for their bacterial and fungal inhabitants, and after being thoroughly tilled and fertilized by worms and a diversity of microorganisms, the logs will become a rich soil that’s the perfect medium for growing a polyculture of edible perennials. Also, as the logs break down over time, the decomposition process will generate a small amount of heat, thus extending the growing season. Hugelkultur beds are designed to build healthy soil in a way that’s quite similar to what happens naturally in a forest ecosystem.

First, we pulled a bunch of big, juicy, rotting logs out of the woods on the property and piled them up in a rough approximation of the shape we wanted for the bed. Then, lots of leaves, and since it was available, we threw on some kitchen scraps and other compostables, followed by some leftover potting soil. In the search for rotting wood to add, we discovered that around the trunk and roots of rotting stumps we would often find dark, rich soil. This natural humus we dug out by hand and added to the hugelkultur bed. After thoroughly covering up the logs with leaves and then soil, it was time to sow. In went some potato cuttings, a few potted plants, (strawberry, sunflower, pepper, squash,) that desperately needed to spread their roots, and an assortment of random seeds that were getting a little old. Finally, straw mulch was added to top off the mound and help keep it moist, and a few earthworms were introduced to their new home. We’re not expecting anything extraordinary for the first year, as the mass of carbon takes time to pull the nitrogen up from down below, but we’re hoping that it pays off in the long-term with high yields and comparatively little maintenance. Since that first experiment, we’ve managed to build a second hugelkultur bed nearby and just finished a third one down the hill from the first. Meanwhile, some of the squash and other plants sprouted from seed in the first two beds are rapidly overtaking the formerly potted transplants, some of the potato plants are doing nicely, there’s some kale coming up, and the sunflowers transplanted in the second bed have started to bloom. The third bed was planted with a variety of brassicas and herbs, and some legumes were thrown in to help fix nitrogen. We just got a huge load of free rabbit manure, and a little of that went into each of the beds as well.

Yet another permaculture project we started here at the Embassy is a three-stage composting system. With just a few screws and three old wood pallets, we slapped together the first chamber of a three-chamber compost bin. With a few more pallets, we’ll be able to build the second and third chambers. The idea here is to fill up the first chamber for the first year, then move onto the second chamber for the second year, then the third chamber for the third year. By the end of the third year, the compost in the first chamber has been breaking down for two years and should be a rich humus ready for use in the garden. Scoop it out, and start over in the first chamber. Using this method, all manner of organic kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, and manure can be composted safely and efficiently. One tweak to this system that we’re planning on implementing is a fourth chamber, with a shed roof over it, in which to store dry carbon cover materials, like sawdust, nearby. Whenever anything is added to the compost pile that might smell or attract flies, it helps to add some carbon cover material to keep everything neat and well-balanced.

We’re helping to raise chickens while we’re here at the Embassy. Right now, a little flock of chicks is sharing a stationary coop and run, but eventually we hope to build a mobile micro-coop and acquire some fencing to implement a perennial polyculture pasture system.

Finally, in an attempt to reduce our use of the electric stove, we built a portable rocket stove for cooking outside. With two #10 cans, four “family-size” soup cans, and a few handfuls of expanded clay aggregate, we managed to build a high-efficiency wood-burning cook-stove. The only tools used were a permanent marker and a really tough pair of scissors. We’re hoping to host a workshop soon wherein participants will be invited to help build a full-size rocket mass heater onsite and also given an opportunity to build their own portable rocket stove to take home with them.

As far as the Wholly Permaculture Bible goes, because it’s summer, we don’t want to spend all day inside on the internet researching and compiling information about all the different species of organisms (potentially) living here. There’s so many other things that need to get done, and only so many months of warm weather and sunlight in which to do them. In other words, expect more updates to the species list as the days get shorter.

Not wanting to rush into anything, we’re still looking at our options for buying land, and we’re open to many possibilities including partnerships with like-minded neighbors. Thanks to an absence of zoning laws and a relatively friendly planning board, Grafton in particular presents an opportunity for creatively subdividing a larger parcel into several smaller ones. How about an eco-village of tiny homes, each with their own edible forest garden, bordering Saba and within walking distance of our envisioned community center? The inhabitants of such a village could own their own land and wouldn’t necessarily have to be Saba members. The opportunities for cooperatively building and growing a sustainable local economy are limitless. Email us if you’d like to help in our mission to create a holistic health and permaculture paradise here in the Shire.

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