Building the Walls of the Slip Straw Sauna

natural building

Slip straw is a technique that we’ve come to love over the years. It’s a great blend of natural building with conventional stud framing.

Also known as light clay straw, slip straw is as simple as the name suggests: straw mixed with a clay slip (clay slaked in water and blended to very liquid consistency.) At this point, forms are put up on the studs and the slip straw is pounded into the cavity. When the forms are removed, the clay binds the straw together in a matted hair effect which is perfect for the application of earthen plasters. In future posts, I’ll get into the specifics of the technique, but this is the gist.

Many hands make light work applying clay slip and the first coat of earthen plaster!

Less than a month ago we began the sauna. As mentioned in a previous article, we decided to pause on the straw bale house and prioritize a sauna because it became obvious we weren’t going to close in the straw bale before winter and we wanted a place to get hot and wet. Each previous winter we’ve put aside our on-demand propane outdoor shower when freezing temps come and have settled into the world of boiling hot water for showers in the high tunnel on warm days. A sauna was in order.

A sauna holds its place in human culture as a space of rest and holistic rejuvenation. In some cultures they are revered as something for everyone and in others thought of as something for the upper classes. By building a sauna using low cost natural methods and indeed basically using materials directly from the earth, we hope to instill a people’s sauna tradition.

Chelsea, me (Wren) and Mary pounding slip straw together. It was close quarters, but very fun!

In another article I’ll highlight the steps we’ve undertaken when building the sauna from start to finish: including site location, foundation, material selection and acquisition, and the building process, but in this article I want to focus on a component of our build that greatly propels our progress, boosts our morale and fills our spirits. I want to focus on work parties.

In rural dwellings the world round, community members gather to help their neighbors build. Traditionally called a “barn raising” in the United States, communities come together, share food, and get sweaty raising walls, roofing, and putting finishing touches on houses everywhere. Locally and nationwide this tradition has fallen out of favor in an age where other people build our homes, just as others are responsible for growing our food. In this I think we have lost a great deal.

As someone succinctly stated the other day in response to an article that I’d written about a work party- when people help us build they’re doing more than raising walls, they’re putting their energy into the building, literally becoming a part of our house.

Before you write that off as too esoteric, consider the process of us building our earthen sauna. Unlike in modern buildings where materials come from hundreds if not thousands of miles away and are subject to any number of industrial processes (most of which are polluting, exploitive and toxic) these materials are local and each step of the way they are touched, even massaged into place. Take, for example, our process:

  • Put up locally grown and milled pine conventional stud framing
  • Take local straw and put a light clay slip on it by tossing it like a salad
  • Pound the slip straw into forms using a 2×4 piece of wood
  • After this sufficiently dries, massage a clay slip into the slip straw using your hands
  • Apply layers of earthen plaster (all local materials) with hands or trowel and smooth to taste

As we have invited community members in and they’ve shown up with gusto, dozens of people have tossed, pounded, massaged and smoothed our building.

Inch by inch and layer by layer these walls have gone up and it’s due to the very literal input of human energy. Local materials and local people make up this sauna and it is our hope that many will also come to enjoy a sweat, let out some deep breaths and find restoration and community in it as well.

Thus far we’ve had 3 work parties for the sauna. The first one included starting on the slip straw and some local people who live at a nearby community called Oran Mor came out. They were really excited to learn about this technique and were amazed at how much lighter and easier it was than using cob! They left excited to perhaps make some interior walls in their earthen home.

Dez of Oran Mor trying her hand at slip straw.

Next we had another work party where friends from 30 minutes to even 2 hours away, all living close to the land, came to help continue the slip straw mixing. This was the day after we were able to share slip straw at the 40th annual Ozark Area Community Congress. As always when we have work parties, we share some food and company and that is as important as working on the buildings. We are simultaneously building structures and community bonds.

Chelsea and Kaci pounding slip straw into the forms. After this section is done, the form is then leap frogged up to the next section. You can take the form off right after you finish the section.
Ini and our local friend mixing slip straw to stuff into the walls. It was great to have people working constantly mixing slip straw while others pounded it into the walls!

Over the last week Ini and I have been working tirelessly to build walls and prep for this weekend. We were planning on applying a clay slip and a first base coat of plaster on the dried sections of walls. Many people were writing to say that they would be coming to help and we needed to prepare materials and organize the day.

Ini clearing the site for Saturday’s work party. Safety first!

Over 20 people came out yesterday to help with the sauna!

Our group included music-making friends we’ve met over the years, a group from East Wind (a nearby income sharing community- you may know them for their famous nut butters), friends building a cordwood house, stone’s throw neighbors, local friends with kids, and our Wwoofer from London who arrived a few days ago. It was a challenge to instruct and provide materials as fast as their hands were using them, but the motivation was infectious and we managed to keep up.

Clay slip is applied directly to the slip straw wall and one can then apply the first coat of earthen plaster, sometimes called a scratch or base coat, onto the sticky clay slip.

The day before we had strained six 5-gallon buckets of slaked clay with chopped straw (so it could ferment for 24 hours which helps break down the straw and increases the stickiness and bonding.) We also prepared buckets of clay slip for the wall, defrosted a large beef bone from nearby Elixir Farm, a biodynamic and grass fed beef operation, soaked beans for the soup, harvested veggies, made seed cheese, charged batteries and got a good night’s rest. 

Hobi stapling fiberglass mesh onto exposed wood as others sift large aggregates out of the slaked clay.

As people joined us the next morning, we got to work applying the clay slip to the slip straw walls. We also had people stapling fiberglass mesh to the studs as the clay will not bond to wood and our goal is to make a contiguous plaster skin over the slip straw walls. This creates a “stressed skin panel” and strengthens the wall system.

Petey wetting down clay slip I’d applied two days prior. It’s important to wet the substrate to insure good suction with future clay rich layers.

We started the morning off explaining the method: massage the clay slip (simply clay slaked in water and mixed well) thoroughly into the walls. The clay binds well to the slip straw and provides ample base for the next coat which is a base or scratch coat of earthen plaster. Without the clay slip, it’s quite difficult to get a plaster to stick to the slip straw. Clay (when wet – always wet before adding a next layer,) however, provides ample suction and traction for the next layers of plaster.

Local people of all ages lended a hand. This accessibility is a strong suit of natural building.

Ini and I mixed batch after batch of plaster and it got a bit overwhelming trying to keep up with demand. Petey from East Wind who has been to work parties galore commended us at how well we had prepared and were able to keep up with the group. Let it be known that it took quite a bit of work to simply keep up with the group and anyone planning a work party should take this into consideration.

Chelsea and John applying a base coat of earthen plaster with their hands.

At certain points we had a dozen or more people massaging clay slip onto the walls, stapling fiberglass mesh, and applying a base coat of earthen plaster which was 1 part clay, 1 part straw and 1 part sand.

All of these loving hands putting their energy into our building!

Days of work for us done in a couple of hours! It was incredibly heartening to see so many people come out, lend a hand and get jazzed up about slip straw, clay, earthen plasters and natural building. Many left with ample inspiration and folks at East Wind might even endeavor a natural sauna build next year!

Discussing just how coated the slip straw needs to be with the light clay slip. Like tossing a salad, each straw just needs to be lightly coated with the slip – not wet.

To me, this is the bright light of the community-based homesteading life. In our increasingly monetized, expert based and isolated culture, we lack strong community bonds. We lack non-monetized helping hands, potlucks, skinny dips in the creek afterwards and a good riff on the banjo.

Our sauna build is embedded with our community (most are over a half an hour drive away!) showing up amidst full schedules, their own projects and busy lives to learn something new and simply to help. It’s spiritually fulfilling to me and Ini and I remarked at how amazing it was to witness and be a part of as we drifted off to sleep last night. Sharing, teaching and  connecting are at the heart of what we aim to do and we both felt incredibly satisfied from yesterday’s efforts.

Sarah stoked to be getting muddy learning slip straw!

There is something special about working with earthen materials. Something deep and ancestral seems to awaken in many who get their hands muddy and gather in community to build healthy and locally based buildings. You can see it on people’s faces as the dive in to the process.

Ryan cutting roofing

We used all of the prepared materials and skilled friends who came later helped us cut all of the metal roofing and get the radiant barrier roof insulation up and nailed in before the night’s storms rolled in.

Building a slip straw sauna with an earthen plaster finish is more than the sum of its parts. Along with the clay and straw walls covered with layers of sand, clay, straw, and manure mixtures at varying degrees, these walls are built by the soul of our community which is the empowerment that happens when we all get together. Thanks to everyone who put themselves in this building – we hope you’ll come by for a sweat this winter.

Beauxb and Cody from East Wind satisfied with their work.

Teaching Natural Building in the Ozarks

Ecotrain

Natural building is people’s building.

Just watch this singing Tibetan group building a rammed earth house if you don’t believe me:

If I could pin a catch phrase for our passion for natural building, it would run along these lines. When we look at our modern expert culture we think that someone else will fulfill the basic necessities of our lives for us.

Someone else builds our house, grows our food, purifies our water (that we both drink and poop in), prepares the electricity that fuels our home, fixes our stuff, etc. While DIY culture is growing, I think we can take it a step deeper and start to provide our needs for ourselves. Cut out the middle man so to say and realize that it doesn’t take an expert to fulfill our needs.

It’s not only empowering to embody this line of thought, it also is exactly what the earth needs in a time when the bottom line of capitalism has made many of our industries downright harmful for the earth and all of us beings.

Natural building by definition is made from materials which can return to the earth. These are radically simple and accessible place-based methods which are good for our health and the health of the earth! There is abundant magic in this direct connection.

Over the weekend we had the opportunity to teach about natural building and do a demo showcasing slip straw (light clay slip) and earthen plasters at the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC.) It was the 40th annual OACC and we got many insights into just how long bioregional culture has been thriving in the Ozarks. We sure have some committed elders who have been holding it down! So much gratitude.

We facilitated a brief introduction to natural building followed by a slide show showcasing a variety of buildings and unique finishes.

Touching on some of the basic principles of natural building, we outlined concepts such as buildings acting as a 3rd skin (2nd skin is our clothing) and building with a good set of boots and hat (proper foundation and roofing details.)

The slideshow featured inspiring examples of the variety of materials and finishes that can be used. It was just a taste of what is possible when working with local materials in response to unique climatic conditions. After that we went outside to practice slip straw and plastering techniques on our demonstration wall.

The day before Ini had created a demonstration wall. We also brought buckets full of the components for making a base (or leveling coat) of earthen plaster.

Upon gathering around the demo wall, we began tossing the straw in the clay slip.

Once mixed, we demonstrated stuffing the slip straw into the form and packing it in.

We touched on the basics of plaster and had a chance to explain the concepts behind earthen plasters.

There was plenty of interest and some time for questions.

Part of our goal at Mountain Jewel is to teach and empower local folks to make use of natural resources and common sense to build site and climate appropriate buildings. While not everyone in attendance has the opportunity to build their own natural home, we did offer suggestions for adding an interior earthen plaster to an existing structure.

The slip straw technique is exceptional at filling in conventionally stud framed walls inside of a building. One can then apply a beautiful earthen plaster finish.

This was just a taste for folks and we’re very excited to be offering more opportunities for hands-on learning coming up.

Watching participants react in amazement to this technique was rewarding as we showed them how simple and accessible slip straw is. Nearly everyone has this reaction. It’s pretty amazing to be able to build with earthen materials that feel good, are good for the earth and us and have such beautiful finishes.

In coming weeks we’ll continue building our sauna, practicing earthen plaster with our community as we gather to build from the Earth. Come join us if you like!

For the Love of Clay Plaster: Building a Sauna

Homestead

In Finnish tradition, when one first moves to the land they build a sauna that they can use and live in the first year while getting their feet on the ground. It serves the dual purpose of providing a restorative haven and also a tiny home of sorts while they establish other infrastructure.

When we moved to the land at Mountain Jewel we had basically no building skills. We were gardeners and needed a home on our raw piece of land as a necessity, but it wasn’t what excited us about homesteading. To house us that first year we bought a used yurt on Craigslist.

Fast forward nearly 4 years

We are building a straw bale home and tending gardens & food forests. It becomes clear, however, that we will not get the straw bale house, begun in April (though dreamed of for much longer), closed in for winter. One of the reasons is that lime plaster requires above freezing temps to cure and we are about a month from our first freeze. As this reality settles in, that we will be spending another winter in our tiny cabin built during the Discovery Channel Homestead Rescue episode on our land, I realize that I cannot do another winter in that tiny space with Ini — without running water or a place to wash off easily. We decide to build a sauna.

As the temps have cooled in the past few days, the decision to take a pause on the straw bale house and build a sauna seems a good one. It’s hard to take clothes off and bathe outdoors when it’s really cold out! (Though we have a well with a pump and electricity, our cabin is hundreds of feet away from that and there are no insulated indoor spaces capable of housing a shower.)

Earthen Plaster Practice

Painting on a clay alis (clay paint) onto an earthen plaster. I will go more into this in future articles.

This season as I gear up for plastering an entire straw bale home (lime on most of the outside and a combination of lime and earthen plasters inside with an earthen floor), I have been honing my skill at earthen plasters. Thus far on the homestead we have created a composting toilet (the Fert Lab, pictured below) that is slip straw with a clay plaster and the facade of the solar shed is also slip straw with earthen plaster finish. A few spots on the exterior of the composting toilet were very eroded from direct water damage and the conventional studs were showing through in a few places due to the sand/wheat paste not being a good binder- we have since started to use fiberglass mesh to better connect wood and earthen plasters. I decided to start there.

In these dark sections, the slip straw was revealed and the earthen plaster was greatly cracked. When water directly hits an earthen wall, the sand comes to the surface and the wall slowly washes away as the clay can only take so much before it erodes. The dark clay is a base leveling coat of plaster.
Fiberglass mesh stapled into a framing stud. Clay cannot connect with wood so this bridges the plaster gap. Notice the wet clay on either side. When applying a new coat of plaster, one must wet the clay to ready the particles for bonding.

Mixing earthen plasters is an art unto itself. Yes, you can basically take any clay rich soil and put it on the side of the wall and it will do some type of job at resisting the elements and closing in your building. However, without good ratios, you will get cracking, peeling away from the surface below, dusting, and a finish that leaves a lot to be desired.

Solar shed perspective shot on many of the areas that needed attention. In future articles, I will detail the process and show final photos.

Being the stubborn creature that I can be, I had not followed all of the advice to do test patches and to sift the clay when making earthen plaster. This led to some cracking and unsuitable trials on my part that I went ahead and plastered the whole wall with (I did mention that I can be stubborn.) This time, however, I was really interested in honing my craft and not just getting the job done. It’s my intention to get really good at this so I can live in a house that exemplifies how truly stunning earthen plasters can be.

The dark brown is a straw and clay heavy leveling coat that prepares the wall for the final plaster which is usually very refined and creamy (lighter finish on right.)
This creamy plaster literally drove me wild with glee. A taste of earthen delights! A dream to apply!

So I practiced. And practiced. Made test patches and trials with our local clay, sand and straw mixes and I learned a lot. One mix I did was very heavy with clay (I had read from Athena Steen of the Canelo Project that a heavy clay mix with a lot of straw and little sand can actually be beneficial in areas where finishes are exposed to direct rainfall- sand comes to the surface when exposed to rain and often erodes quite quickly, whereas the heavy clay & fiber can provide more of a mat resistance.) Though I did have some slight cracking (imagine small broken blood vessels) on this finish, with a wrung-out sponge I was able to burnish the exterior and wet the clay enough that it filled its own cracks.

Left: clay heavy final plaster that has not been burnished. Notice the cracking and uneven drying due to heavy clay content. Middle: same plaster finish as on left but rubbed gently with a wrung out sponge. Notice that the surface now appears much more even, the cracks are (mostly) gone and a nice straw aggregate has appeared. Right: This is the clay alis (natural paint) that I have applied as a final coat (will go more into this in a future article.)

After realizing how a heavy clay finish performs, I was interested in experimenting with more sand. A basic ratio for earthen plasters is 1 part clay and 3 parts sand with a generous portion of chopped straw. This is a rough guideline because the “clay dirt” in each area of the world contains different levels of sand, silt and clay. You can do a test to figure out how much clay, slit and sand your soil contains and whether it is suitable for plaster. Sigi Koko has a good video:

When I made a ratio with 1 part of our clay with 3 parts sand and some finely chopped straw, the plaster felt nearly too sandy, too coarse and dense. It didn’t feel right in my hand, but boy did it dry to a beautiful, crack-free finish! I’m learning by touch and I have a ways to go!

This is why it is so cool to practice with your own local clay – it’s incredibly empowering. I am not simply following someone’s recipe, but I’m learning about what the different ratios look and feel like myself. If you’re interested in learning about earthen plaster, I encourage you to do the same. Because all of these are earthen ingredients, if the plaster doesn’t turn out right I can wet it and use it again!

Sauna Dreams

After honing my craft on the Fert Lab, I was truly itching to plaster more walls. I was having dreams about plastering each night and woke up wanting to sift clay and mix up creamy gorgeous plasters. After Ini and I decided we were going to pause on the straw bale and build a sauna, we decided on a conventional stud framed building with slip straw (light straw clay) infill with an earthen plaster finish. Soon I would have more surfaces to play on! (Basically we built the sauna so I could plaster more!)

Mixing up a batch of slip straw earlier today! Stay tuned for a tutorial video and sauna and slip straw specific articles.

We started the sauna in early September and we’ve been working hard nearly every day on it. I’ll make another post detailing our progress, but thus far we have built the foundation, framed all but one wall, finished the roof on the back of the building and completed nearly half of the slip straw infill. No doubt we are tired and building our muscles, but we are fueled by passion and our imaginings of baking in our sauna this winter!

Photo from a few days ago. Roof and more walls completed at this point.

In coming posts, I’ll detail our progress on the sauna, share some photos and details of my plaster process on the Fert Lab, provide some tutorials on the methods and practice of Slip Straw and Earthen Plasters. Stay tuned!

Are we waiting to appreciate the now?

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The fact that so many of us are postponing our satisfaction, happiness, contentment or joy is heartbreaking. We are waiting for the right conditions to arise before we can settle into the moment and know that we’ve made it. For me on the homestead it’s : “When we have hot running water, when the house is done, then we’re eating the yields from all the fruit and nut trees we’ve planted…”

There is no later, and I can’t sacrifice the present for some idealized future. Is it really worth forgoing the present for future gains?

In seeking balance during this seemingly ever busy summer I took a step back from the massive of undertaking of building a house, tending food forests, keeping up with annual gardens, building infrastructure etc. to look at where we’re at, where we’re going and what the roadmap looks like.

I know we’re not alone in this, although for others the conditions may be different, but the sacrifice is the same. Big tasks, life goals, and even sheer survival can be daunting and the drive to accomplish and progress can push us into unhealthy spaces.

I’m writing from a little break from it all that we’re taking. I can say I’ve gotten into unhealthy spaces all too often, driven by the impetus to secure our base needs or to push for progress on a variety of projects. The work never ends, and the itch for expansion is real. Inspiration and vision motivate action, but there’s a point when the push to accomplish overshadows the ability to appreciate the process.

For us the pressure we often feel is 100% self imposed, and yet we still push ourselves to a point where we fall out of balance.

I’ve heard this story from many folks seeking to live a life of integrity, connected to the natural world. In seeking the simple life there’s often an overwhelming amount of planning, labor, input and time involved in manifesting such a vision. People get burned out, finances suffer, relationships break…

Why is this story all too common?

There are many layers to this, but it seems in our society (be it conventional or alternative), we succumb to the struggle where we are waiting for things to change until we sink deeply into the moment and truly inhabit the space we’re in. Just waiting for the next things before happiness arrives. So what are we really waiting for?

I have been pushing progress on our house build, wanting to meet a goal of winter inhabitation. There’s so much between here and there I feel as if I need to be working 100% of my waking life. I have cedar posts to notch out for a timber frame, framing to figure out for the second storey, roofing considerations, water lines, electrical and more. Wren is on a similar page too and is tending much of the gardens, but a lot of this feels like it falls on my shoulders.

Work has become an addiction and like other addictions it takes me out of balance and away from the present moment. To the point of exhaustion, frustration, emotional breakdown, neglect. It’s not worth it, yet I’ve found myself succumbing to the voice of “not enough”.

Enough in my mind is an unattainable goal. It’s a bar that moves further as I approach it. There’s always more work that lies ahead. This is a fact of subsistence farming, homesteading and building a house; the work never ends. It’s not the amount of work that is the issue, rather my approach and view of work. I’ve been going about it all wrong, and listening to the out of reach feedback loop.

Taking a breather from it all to perceive from a bird’s eye view reminds me of the bigger picture of life and how little all the issues are in my life compared to the great wide world. I’m safe, have access to plenty of clean water, am well fed, and have a roof over my head. It’s not a life or death situation, but I’ve been acting like it is.

I’m in need of a reboot and that’s just what I’m going to give myself.

Season of Harvests

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As we transition into late summer, I can feel fall in the air. Through the cooler mornings and evenings, the slower growth of the grass and plants and by so many things going to seed. We are in the seed collecting times and it’s a great activity in the evenings to go to my flower plants and save their brown odd seeds.

Along with harvests, we’re putting away some foods this year. As we are so busy, we aren’t pushing ourselves too hard on this front, but I have made a few batches of pasta sauce that I’ve frozen in baggies. These Opalka tomatoes pictured sliced in half below are amazing paste tomatoes that I’ll definitely grow again for these purposes!

We are also getting a lot of growth on the Okra plants. This is “burgundy okra” and I like it – but then again, I’ve liked every Okra variety I’ve ever grown. It’s such an easy plant to grow and I am a huge fan of okra sautéed in oil with salt and cooked low for a while. Mmm mm!

The high tunnel waned a bit in the heat, but we put on a good deal of mulch and gave some deep waterings and it’s coming back. The tomatoes, peppers and figs are rocking! The cucumbers are out and we’re going to do a cover crop of ripper beans in their place. We’ll start some fall/winter crop seeds like kale and other fav greens to put in after the ripper beans.


Today Ini planted Okinawa, a perpetual spinach variety from Japan. Though frost sensitive (we usually bring it in), it grows quite large for as long as you let it! It’s a tasty cooked green. We set it here in between two figs, which are doing quite well in the high tunnel.

Tending the plant nursery

Ini up-potted and heavily watered all of the plants in our plant nursery. Some of these will be planted out in permaculture guilds around our house once much of the land-works are complete and others will be for sale as our nursery gains more steam over time. It was so fun this morning to play in the garden together – it’s both of our true passions and with all of the other work on the homestead (read: building a house!), it can be easy to get caught up in what HAS to happen and forget how much we love gardening and working with plants!

Aronia berries (Aronia melanocarpa) are starting to ripen! I have eaten a few and don’t really mind the strong chalky flavor knowing how high they are in nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants! Haha! I’m having to hold myself back from harvesting because I’ve read that though they look ripe in late July/early August, they’ll be most ripe come mid-August. I’m looking forward to making low sugar syrups, freezing some and maybe vinegaring a batch.

Also my first harvest of elder berries from the land this morning! I will freeze these (taken off the stems) and wait til I get a larger harvest before I start processing them into syrups, vinegars and other such things. Exciting!

We’ve waited a few years for our plants to start fruiting and this is an exciting summer because so much is doing so well!

Walls Up~ Starting to Look Like a House!

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This morning some good friends came over at 7am to help put frames up! We are so blessed with some good community!

Ini and I have been working hard in the background building frames, but we can’t put them up alone. It’s a true testament to the power of “many hands make light work” that early in the morning on a Sunday friends come over to help us and get shit done!!

We’ve been largely working on prepping everything for these major communal pushes. The wood is simply too heavy to lift on our own… we gotta save our backs!

We love that it’s local wood and we’re trying to use eco-friendly materials as much as possible, but we need materials that will boost the longevity of the building like that tar paper shown above that goes under the pressure-treated sill plate. Not ideal, but we won’t have to fix it in 10 years!

Mindy, Billy & Brian, all local neighbors, came over and we got the first 3 walls up in a hurry as they were already assembled – we just needed the people power. As the nut and washer screwed firmly onto the anchor bolt, I felt something click into place. All of our hard work is paying off and the house is taking shape. So much goes into an endeavor like this and seeing these steps materialize into something increasingly house-shaped is amazing to my eyes.

We worked from 7am to 11am. It’s simply been way to hot to work into the midday sun.

As our wise old friend Gene told us recently, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out into the noonday sun….

We completed a few more frames (Ini had all of the wood cut and lined up already) and then called it a day and feasted on some cucumbers, tomatoes, cinnamon basil with crackers and potatoes with hot sauce – all from the garden. We feel extremely grateful to be surrounded by such good people.

We’re already hankering to get the rest of the ground level frames set up. Hoping to have another work party this week and rock it out.

After that we’ll set up the cedar logs we felled and peeled last week and get them onto their pier resting places. Then we can secure the ground story and get started on the second story! Then roof!

It’s an extremely satisfying project to build ones own house. Plenty of patience is needed for such an endeavor and we’re reminded by many good souls to enjoy the process and not try to rush it along. As goal-oriented individuals who work quickly, we’re learning to pace ourselves and take it easier than our minds tell us to. Not everyone gets to build their own house, a good neighbor told us, and he reminded us to enjoy the process. We’re doing our best in that regard while also being absolutely stoked to keep moving forward.

Of course the heat slows us down as it’s 95 (in the shade) most days so we’re limited to the mornings and evenings — but let me tell ya, Ini does still get out during that midday heat and I’m not quite sure how… mad dog Englishman….

Reflections from the Garden

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This summer has been a great year in the gardens at Mountain Jewel. We’re seen the effects of a wetter year and ever increasing fertility; our gardens are bursting with life. Our first season of growing in our high tunnel  has yielded hundred of pounds of cucumbers and tomatoes already. While our main focus is on perennial agriculture we no doubt grow plenty of annual crops. Some crops are of course hardier and more willing to thrive under neglect than others, and as such we’re always open to feedback from the natural world to guide our gardening habits.

Ini with Delicata squash


Before moving here, folks told us we couldn’t grow food in the rocky soil of the Ozarks. While the fertility and tilth of the soil didn’t draw us here, claiming our food sovereignty is a major impetus for our lifestyle choices. We are keenly aware that with enough observation, experimentation and effort, food can be raised anywhere. Those who garden know there is always some element of uncertainty or struggle to deal with in the gardens, but what can we do to ensure high quality nutrient dense produce to feed our families and communities without being overtaxed?

We focus on feeding the soil food web and considering the life in the soil in our practices.  I’d like to share some insights and observations from the short time that Wren and I have made while raising food on our homestead. 


In years past we’ve seen hornworms defoliate dozens of tomato plants, cringed as squash began setting luscious fruit only to be killed by the toxic injections of squash bugs. Brassicas reduced to skeletons and so many plants struggling to get their needs met in dry low fertility soil.

We could baby some of the plants along, but we prefer to practice what Mark Shepard (a prominent force in restoration agriculture) dubbed S.T.U.N (Strategic Total Utter Neglect).

The point is is finding out what can survive and even thrive while being exposed to S.T.U.N. The next step is taking this feedback and putting it into action. 


This approach does not mean completely forgetting about plants, but rather creating conditions and choosing the right plants. This approach often means loss and while this can be hard after babying seedlings for weeks and seeing the succumb to this or that, but it also illustrates what works and how to shift efforts in the future. We’re lost plenty of trees and countless veggies to this practice, but we’re better off for it. 

Boysenberries thrive here. More, please!


In past years the only winter squash that yielded any fruits were the ones that volunteered in the compost pile. This year we’ve planted many squash family friends from a variety of species; moschata, maxima and pepo. Some of each have already succumbed to an early death due to squash bugs. What we did notice is that the plants that are least affected have the highest moisture and fertility and are notably more vigorous. By far the healthiest of all squash received the grey water from our outdoor kitchen.

What this tells me is that rather than laboring to exclude the bugs, applying natural pesticides or hand picking them, I can create better conditions for them, practice S.T.U.N. and hope to still gather a harvest without too much work. We are also experimenting with ranging chickens to see if they can knock populations down. 


We all know potatoes are a great way to grow a lot of calories with little effort. While we love our spuds, we diversify our staples by growing sunchokes and skirret that also provide delicious tubers. These plants not only thrive with little to no inputs, they also multiply year after year and provide beneficial insect forage and habitat. In fact they grow so well that you’ll be up to your eyes in them before you know it. So choose the place to plant them wisely. 


While we’re waiting for the hundreds of trees and shrubs we’ve planted on our land to start yielding, we have some time to dial in what works for our diet, our landscape and our labor budget.

Many of of brassicas got devoured this year, but the abundant wild greens offer nutrient dense fare with nearly zero effort. Plants like purslane, lambs quarter and chickweed have kept us in greens at times when our domestic crops failed or were between successions. Practicing S.T.U.N. is a lesson in letting go, but it is not a truly passive approach. Each time we lose a plant, we have a chance to learn more about its needs. It also allows us to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to meet our needs as in the wild green example above. We are evolving with our gardens.

The indomitable purslane… thrives in any heat


I’m not afraid of hard work, although it’s great when you realize that hard work isn’t needed.

Lay a heavy layer of mulch and you’ll soon forget about troubles with weeds (well mostly). Prioritize wild greens and encourage their spread and attending to finicky leafy crops may seem less important. Plant hardy and well adaptad tree species and in time you’ll be glad you did. Plant more of everything than you think you’ll need and be more OK with loss. Cultivating a thriving garden takes patience and hard place-based earned wisdom. It is a co-evolution- of soils, saved seeds, letting go of some endeavors and leaning more heavily into others. It’s a wild journey that I’m glad we’re on!

Foundation for our Straw Bale Home

Homestead

Wow y’all! I have not been keeping up with sharing all of the work we’ve been doing on the Straw Bale build. Things are busssssy, but I’m making an effort to document some of this to share/educate/enliven and because I value being able to look back on things.

The month of June included a lot of work on the foundation. You saw us get a backhoe in to dig and fill the trench. And I didn’t record any of the form building, though @birdsinparadise documented some of it when they visited.

It was so awesome that they could come & help us with the foundation — and my mom helped clean and organize our entire outdoor kitchen (who’s amazing? she is!!) Not only were we making great memories together and we’ll always remember them as being a part of the house build, but they’re really brilliant and skilled people. They used to own a home building company and my dad spent many hours on site (+ he’s a perfectionist who can build nearly anything!) and my mom was the accountant for said home building company and did all of the estimating for the builds… perfect duo to step in as we’re wrapping our minds around the build.

As I mentioned above, my dad is a perfectionist “over-builder” and that’s exactly what we wanted while making the foundation. In fact, we had a friend of ours who had worked in concrete for 8 years come over and inspect the forms before the concrete & pump trucks came Friday June 28, 2019, and he was impressed with the forms saying that they were overbuilt. The pump truck operator said the same thing! We had no blowouts and everything went smoothly (except Ini misestimated the amount of concrete to have delivered so we had to hand mix a section.) All in all – it went really well.

Here are some pics from the day:

We had to get a pump truck as the cement truck couldn’t fit around our site. We couldn’t believe how large the pump truck was – absolutely incredible! When it got going the work happened so quickly!
Ini directing the nozzle into the forms.

We had a good crew of local friends including Petey & Sumner from Eastwind (an income sharing community near us), Chris & Gene (neighbors from 10 min away), Michelle (neighbor 20 min away) and Sarah (a friend we recently met at the Baker Creek Festival who is 3 weeks away from having a baby!). It was a great crew!
Petey & Sumner banging the sides of forms to get the air bubbles out of the concrete.

Gene especially had a lot of concrete experience under his belt and he and Chris smoothed off the tops as we went along.
The little section to Chris’ right was the gap between our need and what Ini estimated! Some of the trench was deeper than he thought it would be and that’s why he thinks his estimate was off (even though he ordered more than he thought we’d need.)
We eeked out the last bits in the pump truck (that the pump can’t access) and filled up the trench by hand, but it still wasn’t enough. Ini, Petey and Sumner mixed some concrete by hand after Michelle and I went to town to get some. Not ideal, but it worked!

Today Ini is taking off the forms (we’ve been lightly misting it for the past day and a half). It’s been super hot – like in the 90s so that concrete is drying and curing quickly. So far what he’s taken off looks great!

I have a video of the process that I’ll compile and upload as well and we’ll do our best to blog about the process as it unfolds.

It feels like such a big hurdle to be finished with the foundation. This was a new step for us and a lot of the steps to come are things we’ve done before. We’ll be calling the community in for help along the way and we’re super excited to be finished with the foundation! Onward <3

Perennial Food in the High Tunnel: Planting Figs

Homestead

Here in the Ozarks of Missouri we’re on the USDA zone map as 6b. Who knows, we may be zone 7a soon! These zones depict climate trends like the date of first and last frost and mean temperatures throughout the year.

When choosing perennial plants to grow, one looks at these trends to see if a plant will thrive within a given climate. With High Tunnels (especially if they’re heated or double walled), we have the opportunity to bend these zones a bit and extend the season or encourage the growth of plants that usually wouldn’t thrive here.

One such plant that is a common one for High Tunnels, Greenhouses and Microclimates is the Fig.

Common figs belong to Moracea family which also includes mulberries and Osage orange.

They are part of the very large Ficus genus which includes thousands of species that grow all around the warmer parts of the world. Figs have been cultivated for thousands of years and have captivated human interest with their scrumptious fruits and lush foliage.

Figs have low water and nutritional requirement, are not bothered by many (or any) pests and love heat so they are a great choice for our high tunnel. Many of the edible figs are hardy to zone 7 and above, meaning they won’t reliably bear fruit in our climate.

On our homestead, we’ve decided to allot the fig ample room within our High Tunnel to encourage fruiting. Usually figs “die back” each year (their roots are still alive, but all above ground growth dies. When this happens, we lose a lot of fruiting opportunities as the plant has to spend its energy producing vegetative growth as well. However, in a High Tunnel the fig doesn’t die back and we get to start with a larger plant each season.

To prepare the soil, we first dug and removed rocks. We then grew a spring cover crop of oats and amended with ashes and lime. We harvested the oats at the milky stage for a delightful nervine tonic and then cut the straw down to stubble to cover the bed- a great mulch layer! We will add some kelp and a little manure before laying on the mulch even more heavily.

We are choosing to focus on perennials in the high tunnel for a few reasons.

First, we want to grow something we otherwise couldn’t, not just get a jump start on heat-loving annuals. Secondly, pests can easily build up in an artificial environment such as a high tunnel, particularly if similar crops are grown year after year. Figs are not susceptible to the most common garden pest. Lastly, we also didn’t want a lot of maintenance and upkeep with the high tunnel so figs it is!

The Romans grew figs in pits to constrict the roots and encourage fruiting over foliage.

These were rock or concrete pits or trenches roughly 2 feet cubed. This bodes well for us because our soils are shallow and we have plenty of rocks, not to mention low fertility. We will boost Phosphorus and Potassium as we are low in these minerals but take it easy on Nitrogen to avoid excessive leaf growth.

We’re excited to take our perennial vision to the high tunnel and are looking forward to a delicious variety of figs in years to come.

Harvest Times in the Garden

Uncategorized

This a busy time of year in the gardens and at our homestead, Mountain Jewel. The house build is taking up a lot of our time and we’re so thankful to have my parents here (@birdsinparadise) helping with the build!

Luckily we have a lot of fresh fruits & veggies to share with them and cocreate some awesome meals. Zucchini, purslane and cucumbers, anyone?

Above you can see a sweet little handful of berries. With so much hard work put into the homestead year after year, eating the fruits of our labor is extraordinarily satisfying and promising.

Pictured are some black raspberries, juneberries and goumi berries. We are especially in love with these Red Gem goumi berries. I ate a few too many at their astringent stage (I was so excited!) and have learned that they’re at they’re best when they’re nearly falling off the vine!

One plant that we have in abundance is Purslane! I’m so thankful to have such an adventurous mom who I can give something a little atypical (to the modern diet) and she whips up something amazing!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) aka Verdelagos in spanish, is an incredibly nutrionally rich plant that boasts Omega 3s and ALAs (only found in fish!) . It grows like a weed (and as a weed) which causes many people to skip over it, but it’s one of the most heat tolerant — read: heat thriving — crops available. It grows faster than malabar spinach and I think it’s tastier.

This is all a part of our effort to thrive while seeing what is available. To me, this is aligning with a permaculture lifestyle.

My amazing mom made a DELICIOUS pesto pasta using purslane!

Check it out!

Here she is also making a special treat that Luci would love to get her hands on. This is just a teaser – I’ll let her reveal what we were eating that night!!

Harvest Begins

It’s also that time of year that the harvests are really starting to churn out!

Pictured is our first tomato (((almost))) ripe! We love snacking on fresh tomatoes and cannot wait! Any day now.. Then I’m sure will be eating them with nearly every meal.

One thing we are already having overwhelming amounts of is cucumbers and zucchinis — and it’s only the first week of harvests. We planted 30 cucumber plants (!?!!) so this year we’re basically going to be giving them away to friends and neighbors constantly. Yesterday we made 4 quarts of lacto fermented cucumbers with the harvest you see above.

What are you favorite ways to eat cucumbers? We eat them straight off the vine, love a good vinegar cuc salad, sliced up, and of course pickles!

Pictured above with my hand on it is the Bolivian “cucumber”, Achocha. These seeds were gifted to us at the Baker Creek Spring Planting Fest and we’re excited to try them out. After weeding the bed, I put them in the shade (of a goumi & Wild False Indigo). I also put in some horehound (seed started by a friend) and Basil (Emily variety).

Man I love growing all the green things!!

How does your garden grow? Look forward to sharing little snipits all summer long and of course keeping y’all updated on the house build!