Straw Bale Workshop

Seven Days of Learning By Doing

Teresa and I are mostly recovered from a seven day straw bale building workshop in Wheeling WV lead by Andrew Morrison of We learned so much, saw a few mistakes, saw how to correct some design issues, worked our butts off, had a ton of laughs, and made some great friends.

Wheeling Straw Bale Workshop ParticipantsRead More

Land Owners

We’re now officially land owners

Master plant listHere is the latest lay-out of our landscape design (focusing on the plants and things more than the house). It’s hard to read the list of plants so they’re detailed below.

This has not been presented to the township or the neighborhood so it’s subject to change but as soon as the weather breaks we plan to introduce ourselves to the neighbors and give them a copy of both this and a write up about the house and what we hope to do with it.

In addition to producing food for ourselves we look forward to sharing some of the fruits (and nuts and veggies) of our labor with our neighbors and introducing them to the idea of permaculture.

Plants we intend to grow

Open the image in a new window to compare it to the list below (or just open it and see the list and corresponding label).

  • LR – The living roof – sedum, wild strawberries, strawberries, other drought-tolerant perennials
  1. Eastern Red Cedar Guild – includes Mugo Pine, Blueberries, Evergreen Huckleberries & Japanese Plum Yew
  2. Black Locust Groves – interplanted with annual nitrogen loving vegetables & rhododendron on the slopes.
  3. Almond Tree Guild – chicory, dandelion, alfalfa, nasturtiums, chamomile, sage, lemon balm, bergamot, fennel, lavender, lovage, sorrel, tansy, violets, strawberries, shallots, horseradish, & clover
  4. Magnolia Tree – hostas & some annual flowers
  5. Serviceberry Tree – Japanese barberry, hydrangea, and coral bells
  6. Gooseberry Trellis w/ basil 
  7. Siberian Peashrub
  8. Nannyberry (Viburnum) Shrub 
  9. Bioshelter & cold-frames – mix of annuals and perennial veggies
  10. Black Plum – comfry, vetch, yarrow, clover, cilantro, thyme, garlic, chives, daffodil, dill, fennel, bee balm, chamomile, sunchoke, parsnip, carrots, dandelion, burdock, strawberries, & lavender
  11. Raised Beds 
  12. Espaliered mixed fruit trees – comfry, vetch, yarrow, clover, cilantro, thyme, garlic, chives, daffodil, dill, fennel, bee balm, chamomile, sunchoke, parsnip, carrots, dandelion, burdock, strawberries, & lavender
  13. Asian Pear Guild – comfry, clover, onion, garlic, leek, chamomile, sunchoke, borage, parsnip, carrots, fennel, dandelion, burdock, strawberries, lavender, vetch, & yarrow
  14. Hardy Kiwi 
  15. Fig Patch w/ rue, strawberries, & marigolds
  16. Rosemary Bush
  17. Wild-flower Patch – milkweed, bee-balm, joe-pye weed, yarrow, calendula, echinacea chrysanthemum, sunflowers, buckwheat, anise hyssop, flax, hummingbird sage ,cress, & lots more
  18. Hazelnut Trees – coriander, dill, catnip, and garlic
  19. Apple Tree Guilds – comfry, vetch, yarrow, clover, cilantro, thyme, garlic, chives, daffodil, dill, fennel, bee balm, chamomile, sunchoke parsnip, carrots, dandelion, burdock, strawberries, & lavender
  20. Elderberry Trees 
  21. Barberry Bush 
  22. Weeping Mulberry 
  23. Willow Hedge 
  24. Bing Cherry – comfry, clover, onion, garlic, leek, chamomile, sunchoke, borage, parsnip, carrots, fennel, dandelion, burdock, strawberries, lavender, vetch, yarrow, horseradish, cabbage, & calendula
  25. Pecan Guild – including Paw-Paw & Weeping Mulberry
  26. Osage Orange Hedgerow – honeysuckle, meadowsweet, blackberry, mountain laurel, staghorn sumac,
  27. Pond – Sedges, rushes, arrowhead, lesser cattail, Pickerel weed, water primroses, water iris, water lily, hornwort, Great Blue Lobelia, & duckweed
  28. Pool Area Plants – hibiscus, Sabal_minor (palm), taro, Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), blueberries, New England Aster, Purple Bergamot, Bottlebrush Grass, Indiangrass,
  29. Grass, and non-pathway areas – Bottlebrush Grass, Indiangrass, switchgrass, chasmanthium (in the shade), mint, wild strawberries, Hierochloe odorata (Buffalo grass), Perennial Ryegrass, creeping red fescue, (in shade), & other turf grass
  30. Driveway – permeable surface , most likely bricks, cobblestones, or lattice-worked concrete blocks filled with sandy soil mix and planted with turf grass
  31. Other Misc. Plants – sweet sorghum, corn, rye, oats, winter wheat, & spelt

Animals (if permitted)

Bees hives to be placed on the south-west of the garage roof allowing them to fly up and away from the other homes in the area. Bees provide honey, wax, propolis, and fertilize the plants.

Chicken or ducks would have their coop adjacent to the house at the back of the garage and will have a mobile coop during the summer allowing them to help reduce slug populations in the garden. They’ll provide us with eggs and their shells and manure can be used in the garden.

Goats would only be added if they were allowed and we were able to buy the land to the west of the house which is currently privately owned by the folks who live to the south of our property. If we talk to them and they were willing to sell us that land we’d also likely move the pool to be west of the house (and closer) and would use the land where the pool is currently situated for grain production and a larger catchment pond. Any goats that we add would be dairy goats since we’re ovo-lacto vegetarians and goat cheese, yogurt, and milk is especially tasty.

Since we love to bake bread and other baked goods having our own non-GMO grain source would be ideal. We’re not sure if the owners of that land would want to sell it, we’ve not asked, or what they’d want for it but since the pool won’t be something we add for a few years that’s not really an issue. We currently plan to grow a limited amount of rye and winter wheat anyhow but being able to add a larger plot (around 10’x20′) is a long-term goal.

If you have any questions please send them my way and if you’d like to help us build or just help us plant stuff please let us know that too!

Natural Building Progress

Just a quick update to say that the lot we have a contract on is buildable! This means as long as the title is clear and the price (which is based on back-taxes owed since the 1980s) is where we need it to be!

Here is a look at the lot and where we want our house via an overhead printout from Google SketchUp:

Land w/ survey and topo-lines

This bit of odd-shaped land is .6 acres and faces solar south so it’s perfect for what we want to do! The area to the top of the image (the north) is higher is elevation from the bottom of the lot (which is darker green).

We’re really excited and can’t wait to close and start working!

Straw Bale & Cob House An’at

Our latest natural building design

So in an effort to make our house both affordable and ecologically sound we’ve tried our best to shrink it down to a comfy size. The smaller the house the easier it is to manage and pay for up front and over the long haul. Remember that the more surface area between the interior and exterior the easier it is for heat to escape and the harder it will be to cool it in the summer. That takes us back to the idea of building round – something we could do if we were to do so on a large enough bit of land but that we won’t do on a rectilinear set of city lots.

If you’ve read this blog before or go read previous posts you’ll see an evolution of designs from roundhouses to homes that are rectilinear with the north and south faces being the widest faces to take advantage of passive solar design. Passive solar is still important to us but seeing as how we plan to use straw bales on the north, east, and west walls we’re less worried about heat loss. I could go on and on but I think showing you the newest design is probably the best way for you to understand what we are planning and why.

This design is made to fit on a lot that we’ve found just outside of the city (of Pittsburgh). It’s .6 acres and is at the top of a south-facing slope. It’s in a sub-division (I never thought I’d want to live in the dreaded burbs) but the neighborhood was built in the 60s so the houses are older, smaller, and though we’ve not met the folks who live there from looking at their houses and what they have in front of them they don’t seem like a bad lot.

We’ve got a contract on the land but we’ve got a few things left to figure out before we close. We’re really excited – this is the closest we’ve been and even before we build the house we’ll be able to start to plant things there and lay the groundwork for our suburban homestead.

Thanks for reading and as always if you have questions please leave a comment or reach me through the contact page.

Walnuts – that is the question

Should we grow walnuts?

It’s not an easy question to answer. For us partly because we have a reliable source of black walnuts at my mothers house where she has 3 nut producing trees including one rouge tree that is only about a decade old. It’s not an easy question for lots of other people either even if they don’t have access to other walnut trees.

One the one hand we’re quite sure that my mother is going to live forever, because well … mom’s are supposed to right? Besides she’s part German and the ladies on that side of the family seem to live well … forever. I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid that I had a whole mess of old German aunts who I’d swear lived through the Napoleonic Wars.

Even if we’re wrong (and we’re pretty sure we’re not) she might some day decide to move or chop those suckers down. She’s not a huge fan of the little green husks that surround the nuts. They’re dangerous when ejected by a lawnmower, she’s more of a fan of (shutter) processed foods, and besides the third tree killed a wind-blocking evergreen at the north-west of the yard with it’s toxic juglone* when it sprang up where it did because…

that’s how walnuts roll be-otch (I think that’s how that’s spelled).

Truth be told in this case it was more likely because a rodent of some sort carried it there and planted it for the winter only to forget about it or be ran over since it was likely a groundhog and not an agile little chipmunk or squirrel who stashed it away.

*Juga-what? Juglone.

Walnut trees are not fans of the Insane Clown Posse (or at least I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one wearing an ICP t-shirt) but they do contain Juglone which is a secreted toxin that will kill lots of things that one might consider growing near them. They should not be confused with people who paint themselves up like clowns, listen to questionable music, and drink off-brand soda. They may be toxic as well but they probably don’t have tasty (if not slightly bitter) nuts.

Since we’re attempting to buy slightly more than a 1/2 acre this shouldn’t be an issue for us but if we were building on an urban or typical (for our area) sub-urban plot that tend to be less than or about 1/4 of an acre it could be an issue.

For those with a lot the size of ours or larger juglone is really kinda just a boogieman since there really are a lot of things that you can grow near walnut trees. The real problem is that too many people want to grow whatever the heck they want to grow wherever the heck they want to grow it in whatever damn climate, soil type, etc they want.

Damn if they’re not going to see that grapefruit tree produce an abundance of large juicy grapefruit despite the fact that they live in a north-facing cave, under an over-hang in the far north of Canada just before the towering pines to the south and uphill of their cave give way to the tree-less tundra or (something like that).

Juglone safe

There are lots of Juglone safe plants. There are a few different berries that don’t seem to mind it and plants in the Nightshade family like:

  • tomato
  • potato
  • eggplant
  • peppers
  • mandrake (I don’t avoid women, Mandrake, I just deny them my walnuts)
  • cape gooseberries
  • petunias (if you’re not looking to grow things to eat)

And let’s not forget good ol’ tobacco! So if you’re a hipster with a penchant for addictions – fear not, you’re friends will think you’re cool and you’ve got that all natural, locally grown, homesteaded, (and not the least bit ironic) tobacco caused trach.

There are loads of other juglone safe plants – google it if you don’t believe me (I dare you).

So if the juglone is not an issue what is stopping us? Like I said – we have access (for the foreseeable future) to a supply of them and we’re both bigger fans of Pecans (sorry walnuts). So the reason that I posted this (aside from wanting people to know we’re still around and have not abandoned the world of natural building, homesteading, permaculture, and so forth) is that I’d like to know what you all (yinz) have to say!

What say you?

What do you say? What disadvantages would there be to us planting walnuts rather than pecan? Should we plant them both? We’ve probably got the space if we really finagle things but I’d also like to have enough sugar maple trees to get a bottle or so of maple syrup per year so we’ve got to be careful with how we place things. So leave a comment, or if you’re reading this and the comments are closed shoot me a message via the contact form and thank you for reading!



Certified Permaculture Designer

Phipps Permaculture Design Course

I did it – I’ve been certified through Phipps Permaculture Design Course. What is a Permaculture Design Course? In a nutshell permaculture design is a set of principals that apply ecological methodology to solve problems in a less energy intensive ways through finding and replicating natural patterns, creating feedback loops, reducing or eliminating waste, and by building self-sustaining or even abundance generating systems.

To receive my certificate I was placed into a group with 3 other truly amazing people and tasked with designing a system for Phipps that was both aesthetically pleasing and functional while at the same time was as low maintenance and low cost as possible. Our design was completed in only a few weeks so while it is fully functional and could be implemented as is there are probably points that could be improved if we were given more time.

Here is a PDF printout of our Power Point.

Permaculture Beyond Ecology

While the project that we designed was a rain garden that would have a positive ecological impact permaculture itself is not confined to ecological design. One of my classmates is applying permaculture to his work with computer system design and I’ve applied the principals to the design of the house my wife and I are planning to build. I’ve also used the principals of permaculture to help me design websites and in my work in Childhood Digital Media.

Permaculture and Digital Media & Learning

On May 23rd I will be giving a presentation on how the principals of permaculture can be applied to Digital Media and Learning. DML, or the study of DML began when the MacArthur Foundation set out to determine how digital media is shaping the way kids learn.  In Pittsburgh, through the leadership of The Sprout Fund and their partners they’ve developed an affiliation of formal and informal teachers, technologists, artist, media and content producers, and lots of other specialists that make up the Kids and Creativity Network. Sprout provides funding and support to the network via SPARK. As part of this support they host occasional Lunch and Learn sessions.

At the last Lunch and Learn which focused on the national DML conference I began to see a need for the principals of permaculture as a means of minimizing waste, encouraging relationships, and strengthening the efforts of those involved in DML. I opened my big mouth and shared this observation with folks from The Sprout Fund and they asked me to lead a lunch and learn.

In permaculture we’re told to value the margins as this is where the action is. The shoreline of a pond is vastly more bio-diverse than the middle of the pond or the interior of the forest that touches it. At the DML Conference talk I heard the word edges multiple times because those of us there already see value in these margins. It’s naturally understood that when myself and my business partner team up with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh the results are far greater than anything we could do on our own.

There were several more ah-ha moments and by the end of the lunch it was beaten into my skull that the principals of permaculture should be applied to DML. Those of us involved with DML should build this system into a self-sustaining platform where our efforts will feed back into themselves and our results will be amplified even as the inputs that we expend, (whether they be financial, labor, or otherwise), are not diminished but are actually replenished through the design of the system. In agriculture that may seem more attainable but it’s in no way out of reach in DML.

If you would like to attend please RSVP to The Sprout Fund so they have enough food and space set aside.



The Sustainability of City Living

Feed the City

The city I live in, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has in it 300,000 people (give or take a few thousand) and while we have an amazing market area – a hub – for produce, meats, dairy products, and event flowers in the Strip District much of that food is brought in from far away places. That means that we are food importers and as such, if those trains and trucks stopped tomorrow we’d be screwed. Our lovely market neighborhood would be worthless and we would starve. Please read that again because it’s a fact that is easy to understand but not one that people give much thought to.

Feed Yourself

I think about that quite a bit. If it were not for someone else bringing it to us, we would have no food. None.

It doesn’t matter how much money you make, you would starve. That is unless you have a large enough garden and the know-how to feed yourself. Some readers of the above thought experiment might also point out that you’d also have to be able to defend yourself from those that don’t have trying to steal your bounty but that’s a topic for another day. For now just focus on the fact that nearly all of us don’t and many of us can’t feed ourselves and that probably includes you dear reader.

See we need a certain amount of space to grow enough food to sustain us. The average (healthy) diet is north of 2,000 calories a day. To get even that from an average city lot would be very difficult so we need some help. You might start to think about how urban farms and near-city farms can solve the problem and while that’s true to some extent it won’t solve the problem totally since most of us like exotic foods and even more of us like pre-processed industrial food-stuff that requires incredible amounts of energy to produce and even more to haul around from farm to factory to warehouse to grocery store and so on.

Feed the World

John Jeavons and his followers claim that you can feed 1 person on just under an acre of land (about 4,000 sq. feet). That’s good but not great. The average lot size in Pittsburgh is well under half of that figure. When you take apartment living into account the average person would be lucky to be able to provide 10% of their own food. Even if they use John’s methods or other forms of permaculture. We just can’t feed ourselves everything we need on one city lot.

So what do we do?

Hit the Road

We could all go back to rural living but it’s unlikely that that will happen and besides there are still too many of us for this to be a viable option. We need a way to live in cities or other such communities that will allow us to invent and create and socialize and do all the other amazing things that cities allow us to do but we need to do all those things while finding a way to feed ourselves. So we can hit the road or we can apply permaculture design principals to our streets.

Growing Over the Road

Pittsburgh is an older city (for the US) and many of our streets have 9 foot lanes. We have 1,200 miles of roads inside of the city of Pittsburgh. If we could place arbors and/or fruit and nut trees along all of those roads we’d gather enough food for nearly 25,000 people. Though it wouldn’t be a diverse diet if we could harvest fruit and nuts along with other companion plants from even half of those roads we’d have gone a long way to establishing sustainability as a city. Many city gardeners can’t plant these types of trees in their yards because they’d take up too much space but by growing fruits and nuts over our roads residents without the room to grow these trees themselves could buy these fruits for less than what a grocery store sells them for.

Street Tree ArchesWe would reduce our need on shipping these goods to us and could set up public-private partnerships to harvest them. We would need to design the system in a way that the fruit, nuts, and leaf debris does not create a hazard for drivers but the system would also benefit these folks. It would clean their emissions, keep their cars cooler (if deployed over parking spaces as well) and keep the sun out of their eyes.

If we built arbors or other large structures above the road these could be used to support trees and nets to catch their fruit. They also could hold street lamps for night driving and for when the foliage above is too dense and extra light is needed underneath. These lights could even feature small solar panels that share the canopy with the trees and collecting the power they need to run all night.

Fruit and nut trees are not the only items that could be grown on or even in these arches. Planters could be hung in them that grow a wide variety of fruit and/or vegetables. If we combine such techniques with the green roofs we could create sustainable cities. If we were to mandate any new building be built with a green roof and employ processes described in books such as A Patterned Language we could easily feed ourselves and while we might not be 100% individually food independent we would be relying on our neighbors and not a faceless multinational corporation.


House update – Jan 2012

So Teresa and I have been shopping for a truck. There is one that I want to buy and I think we’re ready to do so but she needs a bit more convincing because of the width of the beast. We’ve also made a few design tweaks in the past few weeks so I wanted to post a a shot of the new design. In the new design (if you’ve been following along) you’ll see that we got a bit wider. In our effort to be more efficient we took a page from Dan Phillip’s book and created a design that will fit the code without us needing to double up headers, cut short our other materials and so on.

By making the structure wider we’ve been able to rearrange some things and can actually put in a second bedroom on the main floor. This will also allow us to slide the washer and dryer over closer to our bedroom and to vent the dryer out beyond the master bathroom or to keep that moist warm air inside in the winter.

One other major change that we’ve made to the design is that we’re not going to berm the north wall (the top of the picture). To do so we’d need to use a large amount of concrete and insulation on that side of the building. It’ll be more cost effective and environmentally friendly to not berm and build a porch to meet the sidewalk. Then we can also build wattle fencing under the porch, add a door, and store things like gardening equipment under the porch. The porch and the greenhouse (for the back of the house) are not included in the above image but they are very much a part of the plan so don’t worry – we didn’t forget them!

Overall – aside from adjustments that an engineer or architect might make to ensure code compliance this is basically the design we want to go with!  There is room for us to have a kid (or two), room for office space in the loft, and the yard space will give us enough room to grow (with luck) 80% or more of our own food. I was even reading today about how to grow wheat and other grain crops in small spaces and am confident that we could be mostly self-sufficient in just a few years.

One minor change that we might make (to this design) is to do a combined sink/toilet that would look something like this:

This would save on space in the second bathroom and allow us to put a small closet in that bedroom. The water from the sink would be used to flush the toilet and any excess would flow down the toilet drain. The tank would be accessible from behind the sink but when not needed you could put all the stuff that women tend to fill a sink-top with right on top of it (just keep the lid closed if you plan to do so).

As always be sure to let us know what you think of the plans or if you’re interested in helping out and as always thanks for reading!

Laundry Hamper

Teresa and I have these mesh laundry bags that sit on a PVC frame (actually we have two). This set up has served us well but since we got Dobby (the cat) back in the Spring we’ve had issues with him shredding the mesh bags, climbing in them, and breaking them. We’ve talked about ways to stop him but really none of them work well and some are just mean (like spraying him with water). He wants to stretch and scratch early in the morning and that’s a natural cat thing to do so this morning I had an idea – why should we stop him when we could just add sisal to the frame and give him something more appropriate to scratch.

To that end (and because the PVC frames have been broken) we designed the following:

This hamper rack will hold 3 mesh or canvas bags. We need to make new bags since Dobby not only broke the old rack but also cut the mesh bags all up. We’ve decided to use 2×4’s for the frame. The back of the rack, (closest to the wall), will have taller 2×4’s with a dowel running near the top and a rack on either side to hold clothes that are worn more than once, robes, and so on.

All sides will be wrapped with sisal rope. We plan to put casters on the bottom and hope to reuse the casters that are on the PVC frame.

Here is another look at the frame from above and  some measurements:

If you’re interested in making one for yourself and want to use these plans feel free. Our only request is that you seek out wood that has been sustainably  harvested or at the very least avoid wood from Georgia Pacific which is owned by Koch Industries. If you don’t know Koch Industries is owned by anti-social sociopaths that are out to destroy the US Government, remove all social support systems, and privatize everything so that they and a select and small group of other wealthy sociopaths can gather immense wealth and, in all but name, enslave the majority of the US population while raping the earth and rewriting history.

Sorry to go a little dark there but it’s pretty important that we all avoid buying from Koch Industries and try to reduce the wealth and power that these anti-American, anti-social, sociopaths have built up.

Thanks for your interest in our hamper design! If you have any questions please leave them in the comments or shoot me an email.

Latest House Ideas

So Teresa and I have done a lot of work studying housing layouts and we decided that the roundhouse design that we liked won’t be the most comfortable or economical. We also decided that since most of the house will be straw-bale and not cob (as we had planned) that it makes sense to square the place off more.


photocrati gallery

Our tour starts outside in the back yard, takes us around the house to the east side and then the front door on the north. The first interior shot is of one of the two upstairs rooms that could serve as bedrooms (though pictured as an office) before we venture down the steps look around at the main living space and end up in the master bedroom facing (from left to right) the door to the bathroom, the closet, and the door to the rest of the house. We end in the greenhouse built onto the south-wall.

To the left is a (not to scale) look at what the first floor will look like.

As you can see the master bedroom is in the north-west corner. The room will be bermed completely on the north and partially on the west. As we are looking to build in an urban neighborhood and nearly to the limits of the property we will have a house on the west side that will provide a great deal of shade during the summer.

Our plan is to have radiant floors and a masonry stove with a baking oven built into it but to forgo mechanical air conditioning for at least the first year. That was the plan before too but this design will not include the high ceilings or cupola that the roundhouse had included. Both of those features would have helped carry the heat up and out of the house. We’re hopeful that the high insulative value of the bale walls, the mass of the cob walls, the living roofs, the earthen floors, and trees growing around the house will help to minimize the interior heat. If it gets too bad we might consider a window air-conditioner.