Monday, September 27, 2010

The newest pod

Somehow 2 months have gone by since I've written a thing. I'll start with the newest structure that has popped up in the backyard village. It all started with a lot of these:

I believe around 700 to be exact.

These adobes- just soil, sand, straw and cow manure- were made to go into a structure called a Nubian Vault, which is a style of earthen vault building revived by the Eygptian architect Hassan Fathy that does not use any formwork, and therefore can be done without any wood. Our friend Stevan who studied the technique with masons in Burkino Faso was looking for places to build some of these vaults where they could be observed over time, and we gladly gave a portion of our yard for the purpose of vault research, and to make a stylish new home for our expanding flock of poultry.

Here we are looking through the front door to the back kick wall. These two kick walls were built prior to the workshop and are the walls that the adobes will lean against to make up the vault. The little box is the future chicken door.
Here the plumb bob is being used to transfer the dimensions of a catenary arch onto the kick walls. It is the shape the vault will follow, and is the inverted shape of a chain hanging between two points. Guide strings will be strung along the length of the building between the traced out form on both kick walls.

Stevan demonstrates the angle at which to lay the first adobes that will make up the vault during the workshop.

You can see the walls growing as the process gets further along. It was an extremely graceful structure to watch emerge.

And more still... you can see the angle of the rows of adobes clearly here.
Here you can start to see what happens in the middle when the different angles from the two ends come together in the middle.

Meanwhile the girls are checking it out from their old coop next door. They've started laying eggs, we're getting 6-7 a day from 10 chickens, ranging from tiny "practice eggs" to larger double yolkers. Unfortunately they've also started eating the duck eggs...

More pictures and updates coming soon!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Visitors from India

Last week we had the opportunity to host two men from the western state of Gujarat, in India, at our house.  It was their first time to the states, and we were honored that they chose to spend time at our house in El Sobrante of all places.  It is a long story how they ended up here, but the short of it is that Massey and I met Himansu briefly in India this winter, and told him to stop by when he came to the states.  Himansu was traveling with Ramu, an artisan from a tiny rural village who makes quilts, to an international craft fair in Santa Fe.

Himansu runs a textile business that employs Ramu and other quilters and embroiders from Gujarat, but does lots of other things too, like record tribal folk music in earthen buildings in Gujarat and Rajastan.  Ramu is also skilled at many things.  He declared our site soil to be a wonderful clay and proceded to show us how to do Lipon- the traditional Gujarati way of doing decorative earthen work on walls.  He dosnt' speak English (save for a few words) and we learned limited Gujarati in the past week so communicating was a delightful challenge, and mostly done through Himansu, who translated.

Below is Ramu, in our clay soaking pit, processing our site soil, and horse manure, to make Lipon with.

This became a great opportunity to work on the wall-- that has been sitting rather unfinished out front for a very long time-- so an early morning plastering session turned it red, from some clay soil somebody brought back from up north.

Next, Ramu showed us how to do Lipon, by rolling snakes out of a careful mixture of clay soil, screened dried horse manure, wood glue and water, and pinching them tightly to the wall.

Over the course of about 3 or 4 days, we had lots of helpers, and lots of gawkers, and met more of the neighborhood than we'd previously met, because pretty much every body who passed by was compelled to stop and comment or ask questions.
The pattern was drawn by Massey and inspired from a bed sheet with an old Mogul pattern she'd originally picked up from Himansu in Gujarat.  Himansu calls it "nervous elegance" referring to the drooping flowers that are scattered throughout Mogul designs.  I liked his description.

We removed some of the bamboo and used base plaster to sculpt designs in the openings, a method also inspired by Gujarat.  Mirrors are often embedded in the design, though for our wall we decided against mirrors and instead used mica, which was traditionally used before mirrors.  It looks beautiful.

More pictures to come.  The roadside is now complete as well, and the roof is next to protect all this fine work...

Thanks to everybody who helped with this intricate work and a big thank you to Ramu and Himansu as well.

Oh and one last picture for your amusement... the bamboo trailer wasn't quite up to the bicycle rickshaw standards of India, but we thought we'd give it a go for airport transportation :)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Exciting Harvests

Summer... The days have been chilly and windswept as the fog rolls in and out.  Ah the Bay Area.  Today was hot and sunnny, and it was a lovely reminder of what summer means some places.  Here are some pictures of exciting harvests we've had lately that I just have to share:

There are so many dried favas. Plenty to have for planting this winter, and some to eat too.  I've never cooked dried favas before.  

Potatoes are sooo much fun to harvest.  These were pink inside too, large and delicious and there are more out there.

Also, three kinds of citrus.  Only a few fruit per tree at the moment, but they are young trees, and guess what?  They are delicious!  We sampled this navel orange, and a mandarin that were sweet and juicy and sun-warmed scrumptiousness. 

The bittersweet harvest was the beehive.  After all that crazy swarming this spring, looks like our hive didn't make it.  So lots of beeswax to clean, honey to drain, mead to ferment, pollen to pick out of the comb.  Glad we caught one of the swarms.  Now to figure out what happened.

And there is loads of garlic.  About 5 different kinds, currently, hanging in the unfinished closet in my house in the back yard drying as it's a relatively shady/cool/out of the way spot.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Interns at the Villa

Back in May we were lucky to have 2 amazing highschoolers working with us.  They'd come initially on a field trip and decided they wanted to do their senior project here, so they came back for the month of May and contributed loads of hard work and enthusiasm doing everything from processing tons of material for plasters and earthen mixes, building compost, putting irrigation in the garden, pouring a floor (along with their moms who came for a day too!), shelling fava beans... a lot was done for sure.  Thanks Cora and Hailey!   Here is a sampling of pages out of the book they put together for their presentation at school: 

And the really awesome thing is they liked us enough to come back! So we get to have them around helping out some this summer too.  

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Why I Garden

Last night I went to a seed saving talk with Bill McDorman, the man most famous for traveling to Siberia in 1989 in search of plant diversity.  Behind the Iron Curtain he found a world cut off from the influences of industrial agriculture, growing more varieties of tomatoes than anywhere else in the world out of true necessity to feed themselves.  

It was a passionate and facinating talk and a good reminder of why I garden.  Sure, there are many reasons.  I like planting seeds, watering them, watching them grow and then getting to eat fresh food out of my own garden.  It's fun.  I like being outside.  But Bill reminded me of the importance the work of a gardener holds for the future, and the startling numbers which  I've heard before, and often forget because my mind dosn't seem to hold onto numbers like that.  That we relied on 1500 plants for food in the 1900s.  That in the 80s, 30 plants contributed to 90% of our food, and just 4 of those plants, to 75 % of our diet.  And now?  Half of our calories in all of America come from soda.  Yep, soda.  And what's in that?  Corn syrup.  Corn.  Where are we going from here?  Where can we go from here?

Though the facts are depressing-- that we are making a rapid transition from a history of 10,000 years of genetically diverse agriculture to a agricultural system that relies on only a few species grown with chemicals and genetic modification and things such as terminator genes which mean the farmer can't possibly save seed but has to buy them again from the seed company-- the reminder was important.  As a gardener, the way to protect our food source and survival for the future is to continue to grow as many varieties as possible, and to save that seed.  I don't want to just eat corn.   And besides the fact I don't want to, what's going to happen when diseases wipe out this one major crop- more susceptible as a single species than diversity.  

Today, newly inspired and still in the spring rush to plant plant plant, I dug through our seed box and came up with a little jar of about a dozen varieties of dried beans that my aunt had given me for Christmas years ago (thanks Irene!), and I hadn't really gotten around to planting huge numbers of yet for various reasons even though I thought it was the coolest gift ever.  They are absolutely beautiful and have names like Yin and Yang and Vermont Appalousa and are all different colors and sizes.  I planted up half or more of each type.  Yeah our garden is filling up, but there is always more space.  An overwhelming amount of space at times to take care of, plant, water, harvest from... but I can't think of many more important things to do with this little piece of land than build topsoil and plant and save seeds.

We are lucky to have BASIL,  a seed saving library based out of the Ecology Center down in Berkeley, that I haven't made full use of but am glad to know exists, and last night I was just alerted to maybe the first ever seed library that is in an actual library, out this way in Richmond- the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library.  Check it out!  Or if you don't live here... save some seeds, plant them again, give some to your neighbor... start your own seed library?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Quick snapshot of the front-back yard...

Oh its looking so good in the backyard... snapped some pictures on my way to get kale in the drizzly rain tonight.  Over the tops of the kale and the lush bed of ripening strawberries is Sasha's cob house with its new plaster from the work party back in April(a belated thank you to everyone who helped!)  My favorite is the little nicho in the buttress behind the door...

And here, inside, is the second layer of earthen floor that was done last week with the high school interns and their mothers, complete with tubes laid throughout it to carry solar heated (and maybe occasionally fire heated) water and make the floor cozy and warm.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


We have chicks!  The little fluffballs you see here are a mixture of Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas and Barred Rocks.  They'll stay under the heat lamp (in the living room...) for a month then they get moved to somewhere more spatious and probably out of the house.

Monday, April 12, 2010

More of the Bee Saga

To wrap up the bee saga (and then I promise I'll write about other things) we had another swarm the day after the last time I wrote, but this one actually took off and disappeared after landing high up in the same oak tree again.  (They tend to go back to the same spots because the bees are attracted to the swarming chemical called Nasnoff they let off).  I've since learned that 70% of swarms die.

I went in the hive that night to find out what on earth was going on in there, and to gather questions for a class I had just signed up for (quite timely)  the day all this swarming business started.  I made about a million embarassing mistakes, one being that the pit zips of the rain jacket I use as part of my bee suit were wide open.  I had just started opening up the hive, and it sounded riled up and angry (I should have taken this sign to back away and not attempt an inspection right then, but no, with another another beginner's mistake, I blundered on).   Sure enough, right after I realized there were gaping, unzipped holes underneath my arms, I felt the familiar vibration of bee stuck in fabric.  I managed, after walking away, to get everything off without squashing any bees or getting stung.  

There didn't appear to be a queen present because of a lack of eggs, but there were tons of queen cells (larger peanut looking things hanging onto the side and edges of the comb) which means the hive was raising a new queen and the old one probably took off in the first swarm.  Ironically the night ended with a sting in the armpit after running around the courtyard in the dark shedding jacket, veil and finally my shirt too.  

The hive was very full of comb and surplus honey so I ended up harvesting 2 bars of capped honey comb, which after being pressed and drained through a sieve, was about 2 quarts of honey.    I was ready after this rather difficult hive visit to spend some time learning from an experienced beekeeper, and I greatly enjoyed the class this weekend with  Alan Hawkins, where I did indeed learn tons.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spring Swarming...

Yesterday while I was contemplating chicken coop designs in the backyard, the air was suddenly filled with bees, everywhere, making A LOT of noise.  The had been acting somewhat suspicious (some clumped outside the hive, and just lots more than usual of them around) and apparently they had decided it was time to swarm.  

Luckily, they chose a fairly accessible site at the top of our plum tree.  Well, accessible with our ten foot ladder.  

So... Sasha and I climbed ladders, held a wooden wine box under the clump, shook the branch, and fairly gracefully managed to get most of the bees in the box, which we then left atop the ladder, so the few bees not in the box would find their way back in.

Not the best of ideas, one might guess.  Luckily, when it fell, which it did, it landed intact, in a chair below the ladder, and the inhabitants inside seemed fairly unfazed, at least, they were still there.

We left them overnight, and in the morning transported the box of bees a few miles to our friend's orchard, where we emptied the box that was starting to split at the seams, into a Langstroth bee hive.

Today, from the front yard, we heard a sound that was very much like the sound I heard yesterday in the backyard, and rushed back to find that our hive had decided to swarm again.  After some time, they settled at the very top (way higher than that 10 foot ladder) of the oak tree in our yard, and we called around to various bee keepers to find someone who wanted this swarm.  Just about when one of them showed up (without a ladder) the entire mass took off again, straight back to the original starting place, our hive.  

It is the time of the year when swarming is common.  The hive has raised a new queen, and either the old or new queen(I'm not sure which) and some proportion of the other bees take off in a very organized fashion to find a new home, with scouts going off searching in all directions, and the workers gathered around the queen in a tight ball to protect her.  There is some management of hives to minimize this happening (which we haven't been on top off lately) but it dosn't seem to me like an inherently bad thing, after all, it creates another colony of bees, and increases their population?  More thoughts on this later, along with a hive visit to see what's actually going on in there...

Monday, April 5, 2010

Plants, ducks, and bees gone wild

Home.  There's nothing quite like it.  The housemates have been split across several continents for about the amount of time you might have noticed a lapse in blog posting, while Sasha and adopted housemate Natalie held down the fort.  Actually Lindsay is still gone, and can be found now and then here(if you havent checked it out already):

There is a brief window of priceless prospective upon returning home, that I have been enjoying the past few days, and could write plenty about.  

But for now I'll just say that I've enjoyed seeing all the changes here on this little piece of land, and seeing which plants have quadrupled in size while I've been away.  

The favas are especially thriving...

Sasha has been experimenting with letting the ducks loose on our sow bug infestation, and now they are happily enjoying free range of the entire backyard, which is fairly duck safe at the moment since we are focusing on getting 
perennials in and there aren't tasty new annual starts for them to nab.  Apparently ducks are able to forage a much greater percentage of their diet than chickens, and while we haven't quite put that theory to the test because we do buy them food, they do seem to be enjoying the free rein, and we are getting eggs again (though that is probably due more to light). 

And then there are our bees, who apparently have decided their old home was too small.  I think I'll save the story for the next post, but the short of it is that our bees swarmed yesterday, and then they swarmed again today... 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

High School Students Plaster the Oven

We had a great group of high school student from Marin Academy spend a day at Villa Sobrante last Sunday. After showing them around, we made pizza in the wood fired cob oven, then plastered the oven with an earthen plaster. I have never had a such an enthusiastic group of teenagers. It was fantastic. It was day one for them of five days of hands on permaculture, after here they headed out to RDI. How wonderful it would be if every teenager had the opportunity to do that, and if even a small percentage wanted to.