Friday, March 30, 2012

Straw Bale Homes are Beautiful

A "modern" Straw Bale home just outside of Sacramento, California.

Building a house out of straw may seem, at first, like a foolish idea. However, over the past couple of decades, there has been a steady increase in Straw Bale homes being built, and with it has come better research showing the wisdom of this ancient building material. I am not going to get into the details of construction today. I just want to show the beauty of these energy efficient homes.

A modern Straw Bale home under construction.

A modern Staw Bale home with Passive Solar and Solar Photovoltaic design.

A Straw Bale "Farmhouse".

Unusual Straw Bale home at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico

A small, Straw Bale, second "home" in a Berkeley, California backyard.

A Straw Bale mountain home.

Very unique Straw Bale home in Pembrokshire, UK

A Straw Bale home in Argentina.

A Straw Bale home with Passive Solar design in New Zealand.

The first Straw Bale home in New Zealand.

Exterior and Interior of Straw Bale home in Oakland, California.

Interior of Staw Bale homes can be beautiful!

The interior of the Straw Bale home shown at the  very top of this article.

Unique floor and ceiling details in the Straw Bale home.

This couple built their Straw Bale home... one thing I love about these structures.

Fine finished interior of a Straw Bale home.

Non-conventional is a huge selling point with Straw Bale homes...

...but many Straw Bale builders choose more traditional designs.

Deep inset windows are typical with Straw Bale homes.

Exquisite interior of a Straw Bale home in San Luis Obispo, California

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Comfrey

Common Name: Comfrey
Scientific Names:
  • Symphytum asperum (Rough/Prickly Comfrey):
  • Symphytum ibericum (Dwarf Comfrey): 12-16” tall and wide
  • Symphytum grandiflorum (Large-Flowered Comfrey): 8-12” tall, 18” wide
  • Symphytum officianale (Wild/Common/Medicinal Comfrey): 3-5’ tall and wide
  • Symphytum orientale (White Comfrey): 2-3’ tall, 12-18” wide
  • Symphytum tuberosum (Tuberous Comfrey): 1-2” tall and wide
  • Symphytum x uplandicum (Russian/Caucasian/Quaker/Blue Comfrey) = natural hybrid of S. asperum and S. officinale: 1-4’ tall, 3’ wide
Family: Boraginaceae (the Borage or Forget-me-Not Family)

Comfrey growing as companion plants to fruit bushes.

Comfrey is a fast-growing, perennial, herbaceous, clump-forming plant typically with a deep tap-root (that helps draw up nutrients), large leaves (that can be cut and dropped in place or moved to an area where you want/need those nutrients), and small, pretty flowers (that attract a large number of beneficial insects). It can grow in a wide range of growing conditions. It is an ideal "fertilizer" plant in the Forest Garden.
  • Comfrey is a native to Europe and Asia.
  • It has been cultivated since around 400 B.C.
  • Used medicinally in China for over 2,000 years.
  • First brought to Britain in 1800.
  • WIld Comfrey was shipped to North America by English immigrants and Russian Comfrey was shipped to Canada in 1954.

  • The name "comfrey" comes from the Latin for "grow together" - even ancient people understood the value of Comfrey!
  • Also known as “knitbone” after its traditional medicinal use in assisting the healing of broken bones.
Primary Uses:
  • Mulch – can be cut 1-2 x per year (4-5 x per year if fertilized) to about 2 inches above ground and used as a green or “chop and drop” mulch. Avoid harvest in the first season.
  • Liquid Fertilizer - steeping chopped Comfrey leaves in water for several weeks produces a thick, dark liquid that can be diluted with water and "fed" to plants.
  • Mineral Accumulator – high in potassium, but also phosphorus, calcium, Copper, Iron, and Magnesium
  • Ground Cover – lower growing species can tolerate some foot traffic, plant 2-3 feet apart.
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar and pollen plant
  • Lacewings prefer to lay eggs on Comfrey
  • Spiders prefer to overwinter on Comfrey
  • Parasitoid Wasps and Spiders prefer to spend time and hunt on and around Comfrey

Secondary Uses:
  • Fresh eating – only Symphytum officianale (Common/Medicinal Comfrey) and Symphytum x uplandicum (Russian/Quaker Comfrey). Best when cooked.
  • Forage crop for pigs, sheep, and poultry, but reportedly cattle and rabbits don't like fresh leaves (only wilted).
  • Medicinal – long history of use in aid of wound and bone healing.
Comfrey has medium to large leaves, and some species have tiny hairs on them.

AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information found
Chill Requirement: No reliable information found, but likely not required.

Plant Type: Small Tree to Medium-sized Herbaceous Shrub (while frost resistant, continued freezing weather will kill back above ground growth).
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer and Ground Cover/Creeper Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many species/varieties available. 

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: May-September (depending on the species)

Life Span: No reliable information available
Size: See individual species list above
Roots: Some have rhizomatous and others have fibrous tap roots - deep and expansive
Growth Rate: Fast

Comfrey's flowers come in a wide range of colors: purple, pink, blue, white, yellow... beautiful!

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade (about 50%)
Moisture: Medium, some species can be a bit more drought tolerant
pH: tolerates a wide range (6.5-8.5)

Special Considerations for Growing:
This is a great species to plant under fruiting trees. If you want to “chop and drop” frequently as a green mulch, consider fertilization with urine (yeah… just pee on it!) as a simple way to boost growth.

  • Can be propagated through root cuttings in Winter and Spring – should be planted about 2 inches deep.
  • Division in Spring.
  • Symphytum officianale (Common/Medicinal Comfrey) can self-seed.

Maintenance: Minimal.

  • Can be spreading. (Note: the use of "Bocking 14" cultivar is sterile and prevents its spread)
  • Can be hard to eradicate.
  • Poisonous – all parts of the plant contains pentacylic alkaloids (regular consumption can cause liver toxicity)
  • Note that leaves and stems are covered in small hairs that can irritate the skin.

Harvesting Comfrey... pretty easy with such large leaves.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Back to Eden


There are two words that best describe this film: Sustainable and Permaculture. This film is amazing!

From the website:
After years of back-breaking toil in ground ravaged by the effects of man-made growing systems, Paul Gautschi has discovered a taste of what God intended for mankind in the garden of Eden. Some of the vital issues facing agriculture today include soil preparation, fertilization, irrigation, weed control, pest control, crop rotation, and PH issues. None of these issues exist in the unaltered state of nature or in Paul’s gardens and orchards. 

“Back to Eden” invites you to take a walk with Paul as he teaches you sustainable organic growing methods that are capable of being implemented in diverse climates around the world.

BACK TO EDEN shares the story of one man’s lifelong journey, walking with God and learning how to get back to the simple, productive methods of sustainable provision that were given to man in the garden of Eden. The organic growing system that has resulted from Paul Gautschi’s incredible experiences has garnered the interest of visitors from around the world. However, never until now have Paul’s methods been documented and shared like this!

As a part of our mission to freely give and freely receive, the makers of BACK TO EDEN have agreed to stream the full feature film online for free.

There is a strong Christian component to how Paul Gautschi lives his life, sees the world, and sees gardening. If you are turned off by such things, and you choose not to watch this video, I think you will be missing out on some amazing information. If you are a Christian, this video will confirm many of the truths you believe.

I highly recommend this film. Please watch it!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Permaculture Project: Planted Compost Circle

The "Banana Circle" is a classic, but tropical, design.

The Banana Circle is a classic Permaculture design. A circular pit is dug. The soil from the pit is used to build up walls around the pit. Bananas are planted in the wall. Any and all organic matter that would be added to a compost bin is added to the center of the pit. Over time the organic matter breaks down and provides a fantastic nutrient supply to the growing (and nutrient hungry) banana plants. This design illustrates Permaculture Principle Eight: Integrate Rather Than Segregate. This design integrates a compost pile and a food producing crop planting into one structure. This design automatically fertilizes itself as the organic matter breaks down into compost. This design protects from drought by having a huge pile of organic matter (which absorbs and stores large amounts of water) right next to the banana's roots. This design is brilliant!

But it is tropical.

Yes, I have a few banana tress in my backyard right now, but I'm moving in a few months, and I don't suspect I'll ever live in the tropics or sub-tropics again. 

One similar method that is being used with annual vegetable gardening is the Tomato Circle. The same basic premise is followed as the Banana Circle... a central compost pit with tomatoes growing all around. I particularly like the one design shown below. Note the "pit" is really more of a circular trench with a drain. This allows more focused water collection closer to the plants, but still allows an escape if too much water collects.

But this is for annuals.

A "Tomato Circle" is a growing trend.

So how can I incorporate the concept of a Banana Circle in more temperate climates using perennial plants? I have yet to find anyone designing Planted Compost Circles (I don't know if there is an official name for these designs, so this is what I call them). I wanted to get a few of my ideas out there, and maybe spark better ideas from others. Here is what I have so far:

  • Mixed Berry Circle - a few each of Goji, Goumi, and Nanking Cherry.
  • Bramble Circle - a mixed variety of blackberries and raspberries.
  • Gooseberry Circle - a mixed variety of Gooseberries
  • Blueberry Circle - compost can be heavy on the "acid" content (i.e. pine needles).

As I come across more, or better, ideas, I'll post them here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How to Peel Garlic in Less than 10 Seconds!

I have previously admitted that I am a foodie, a food snob, whatever... I love to grow, cook, eat food. This video was just sent to me, and it is amazing!  Take a look:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Butterflies of the Maypop

The beautiful Maypop flower.

The Maypop (Passiflora incarnata, that I recently wrote about in this postis the primary host plant for a few butterfly species in North America. Growing up in South Florida, I distinctly remember both the passion flowers (although I still am not sure if they were Passiflora incarnata or other closely related species that need the more tropical weather of southern Florida) and a few of these butterflies. But I did not know how closely their lives intertwined. I am always amazed at the beauty of God's creation as seen in the wide variety of plant and animal species.

Gulf Fritillary (aka Passion Butterfly)
Agraulis vanillae
Uses the Maypop for food (leaves) as a caterpillar and food (nectar) as adults.

Gulf Fritillary (aka Passion Butterfly), Agraulis vanillae, on a Maypop flower.

Variegated Fritillary
Eutoieta claudia

Uses the Maypop for food (leaves) as a caterpillar and food (nectar) as adults.

Banded Hairstreak
Satyrium calanus
Uses the Maypop for food (nectar) as an adult.

Red-Banded Hairstreak
Calycopis cecrops
Uses the Maypop for food (nectar) as an adult.

Julia Butterfly (aka Julia Heliconian, The Flame)
Dryas iulia
Uses the Maypop for food (leaves) as a caterpillar.

Zebra Heliconian (aka Zebra Longwing)
Heliconius charithonia
Uses the Maypop for food (leaves) as a caterpillar.

The Zebra Heliconian, official butterfly of the state of Florida.

Mexican Silverspot
Dione moneta
Uses the Maypop for food (leaves) as a caterpillar.