News from Serenity Valley, June 2014

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I can’t believe it’s already June. Time seems to be flying by faster and faster these days. I wonder what they’re putting in the water… Anyway, it’s time for a long over-due update, and I’ve got some big news!

The first piece of news is, as you can see in the photo above, I finally got my property deeds! I’d sent in my last payment last summer, but it took a while for the deeds to get to me, probably because I hadn’t kept the seller up to date on my mailing address. But, I have them now, and the property is officially mine for ever and ever. It feels great to have that taken care of. For as long as I can afford to pay $500/year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home.

The other piece of big news is that I quit my job (again)! I’d been working in San Francisco as the Chief Technology Officer of a startup for the last couple of years, and recently decided it was time to move on to my next adventure. So what’s my next adventure, you ask? Well, that’ll have to be another post, but for now, I’ll just say that I anticipate being able to spend slightly more time on my property, and having more time for blog posts, and definitely more adventures (for starters, I went on a 7-day 85-mile backcountry backpacking trip!).

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As far as other updates go, the rain barrel I set up late last year (and finally hooked up earlier this year) managed to capture over 800 gallons of water off my cabin roof, despite it being a severe draught year. So, I decided to plant another tree (the cherry tree I planted a couple of years ago died last year). This time I opted for an apricot tree, and I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to keep it alive, assuming the irrigation system works properly while I’m away.

One thing I’ve been trying to figure out, is how to make decent dirt. I’d like to grow more plants and vegetables in the future, and I’d like to avoid buying soil if possible. But the native soil is this dusty red dirt that compacts into a hard lump when moistened and dried, and hardly has the texture of soil. After some experimentation, I’ve found that mixing a naturally occurring mulch-like substance from a decomposing tree along with sand into the native dirt produces something that has the texture and water absorption properties of proper gardening soil. I’m currently experimentally growing a couple of squash plants and a tomato plant in this home-made soil (with a small amount of commercial planting soil around the roots), so we’ll see how they do.

Other than that, I’ve got a bunch of projects or project ideas, so I’ll keep y’all posted on those as/if I make progress!

1000 Gallon Tank, Evapotranspiration, and Other News

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I can’t believe it’s already December! This year definitely flew by… and now I only have a month left to try and beat last year’s abysmal blogging record of 4 posts for the year. Good news is, with this post, I’m up to 2 for the year, so I’ll only need to squeeze in a few more this month to beat that.

It’s been a quiet year in Serenity Valley. I’m spending most of my time working in the city, so I only get to go up there every now and then. On the other hand, all this working allowed me to keep paying the bills, and I’m happy to say that I finished paying off the property this summer. So, from here on out, as long as I can afford to pay the $500 or so a year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home. Having grown up moving from place to place and never feeling like I had a home, it’s tremendously gratifying and comforting to know that there’s a place on this earth that is mine; a place I can go to at any time; a place nobody can take away; and hopefully at some point in the future, a place that can sustain my basic needs (it already provides free shelter, free electricity and nearly infinite heating fuel — which is more than you can say about most homes).

Speaking of home, both structures have faired well so far. Hut 1.0 is going into its 5th winter, and it’s still looking about as good (or shabby) as new, at least on the outside. On the inside, though, a few gaps that opened up in the walls have given the local mice community a free run of the place. I still use the hut for storage, and set up traps every now and then as token resistance against the invaders, but I fear it’s a losing battle. Nonetheless, given that the original intended lifespan of the structure was 5 years, I’m happy it’s still standing and in as good of a physical shape as it’s in.

Hut 2.1 is doing very well going into its 4th winter. Unlike Hut 1.0, 2.1 has been remarkably free of mice, and is doing quite well structurally. The dry climate certainly helps keep all the wood in good condition, and I’ve recently started adding some braces in the corners as seismic reinforcements. About the only thing that’ll destroy the structure is a forest fire (or carpenter ants), but other than that, it’s probably not unreasonable to expect the structure to stand for a couple of decades or more. It’s pretty remarkable what you can build for so little money…

Other than paying down debt, I’ve also started putting money into various improvements as well. The 300 gallon rain barrel I wrote about in the previous post this Spring was one such improvement. And more recently, after watching water slowly (very, slowly) accumulate in that 300 gallon tank over the course of the (very dry) year, I decided to expand my water collection system by adding a 1000 gallon tank.

I’m still not completely done hooking everything up, but I’m already starting to dream about what I could do with all this water (assuming there’s enough precipitation to fill the tanks this winter). I know, 1300 gallons isn’t that much water in the grand scheme of things, but it’s far more water than I’ve ever had on this property. My meagre attempt of a garden back in 2010 was irrigated from a 50 gallon tank, which I was only able to re-fill every other week, and that wasn’t enough water for most of the plants. At 3 gallons per plant per week, 1300 gallons would be enough for over 400 plant-weeks (or 20 plants for a 20 week period). That’s certainly a far cry from achieving self-sufficiency, but it’s enough to at least start experimenting in earnest.

Incidentally, you may wonder where that aforementioned “3 gallon per plant” figure came from. Well, I said I’ve been “dreaming” about what to do with all that water, but actually, said dreaming has included some actual research into plants and water usage (a topic I knew nothing about — for some reason, they didn’t teach us this stuff in any of my computer science classes). As it turns out, the amount of irrigation a plant requires is largely a function of “evapotranspiration” (ET), which is a combination of soil moisture evaporation and plant transpiration. As you may imagine, ET is affected by things like temperature, humidity, soil, the size of the plant and many other factors, so it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. There’s a formula called the Penman equation which can be used to estimate ET (here’s a handy dandy online Penman calculator), but that’s more for estimating ET over an area of land. If using drip-irrigation as I have, (and would in the future) you really want to know how many gallons of water each plant should receive. For that, I found this nifty water-usage table by plant size and climate (the same site has a great page on irrigation in general), and according to that table, it looks like a small plant or shrub would use somewhere around 0.2 ~ 0.75 gallons of water per day during the hottest days of the year. That translates to 1.4 ~ 5 gallons per week, so I decided to call it an average of around 3 gallons.

One last project for the year is to build a covered deck in front of the cabin, which will further expand my rain/snow collection surface. But I’ll talk about that in another post… For now, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the 1000 gallon tank.

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U-Haul trucks are for moving things, right?

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The frame of the octagonal base.

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A little trig goes a long ways…

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The octagon was filled with gravel to create an even and level surface…

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The tank on the base. You can’t see it in the picture, but there’s a layer of OSB between the gravel and tank.

Rain Barrel!

I finally got around to setting up the rain barrel I bought last year. The wet season only lasts a couple more months, but hopefully I’ll be able to harvest some water to help keep my cherry tree watered during the dry months. In any case, I’ll tell this story with pictures, so… here we go!

Bits and pieces. Let’s hope I have everything!
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Putting up the gutters. I intentionally hung them low so that snow would slide off without snagging them. I may eventually put rails on the roof to keep the snow there so that I can collect more water as it melts. I’ll need to assess whether the additional load on the roof will cause problems. I also set these up on the south side so that exposure to the sun willl hopefully keep things from freezing too badly.
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Gutters and downspout all finished. Part way down the downspout is the RainReserve rain diverter. Instead of diverting everything, it captures water that falls along the interior sides of the downspout, while allowing bigger pieces of debris (like leaves) to fall through. Or so the theory goes…
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Building a platform for the rain barrel, using the only flat surface within a half-mile radius.
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Setting up the base. One side sits on cement blocks, while the other side sits on ice and rocks. It’s what we call MGEP (Mostly Good Enough, Probably) — the impeccable standard to which things are built on Serenity Valley. Actually, I’m not entirely confident it’ll support the weight of a full 300gal tank (2400lb). I guess we’ll find out!
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Ta-da!!
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Close-up of the rain diverter and tank hookup. The green hose is the overflow, which could also be hooked up to a second tank.
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Halloween in Serenity Valley

I managed to escape the city and head up to Serenity Valley for Halloween weekend, which was a real treat. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons up in the mountains, with the beautiful colors, the damp smell of the woods, and perfect 75-degree weather. And this most recent trip also turned out to be a quite productive one to boot…

On Saturday, I was walking down the dirt road to go visit my neighbor, when I stopped dead in my tracks. What did I see? Acorns! And tons of them. Now, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of Oregon White Oak on my property, you’d think it’d take more than the sight of acorns to get me excited. But, the truth is, I haven’t noticed very many acorns in the past. Sure, I’d see maybe a few worm-holed and mildewy acorns here and there, but I’d never seen shiny plump acorns littering the ground the way I saw this time.

So, I did what any sensible member of a hunter-gatherer species would do: I started gathering. I’d heard that Native Americans ate acorns, and with not much else on my property that’s edible, I was excited to finally come across a native edible crop.

As I filled my bag with these shiny orbs, giddy as a kid on Halloween, I started wondering: why haven’t I seem so many acorns in the past? And why so many acorns under this one particular tree? None of the trees neighboring this one tree by the dirt road had any significant number of acorns under them. Odd…

I stood up, stretched my back, and pulled out my iPhone to do some research. As it turns out, oak trees don’t start producing acorns until they are 20 – 50 years old. Many of the trees on my property are small and skinny, and might not be that old yet. Additionally, it could take trees 2 years or more to save up enough energy to produce acorns, and that’s assuming a late frost doesn’t destroy all the buds. Indeed, further exploration of my property confirmed that while not all of my oak trees had acorns, many of the larger ones did.

Within an hour or two of casual gathering, I had collected several pounds of acorns. But what exactly are they good for? Well, on their own, not much. I cracked open one of the acorns, and the nut inside looked juicy and inviting. Of course, a small nibble confirmed what I already knew: they’re mouth-puckering-ly bitter. I also tried roasting some on my wood stove, which made them edible, but just barely and only if I were desperate. To get rid of the bitterness, they need to be leached with water. It appears the easiest way to leach them is by first crushing them into acorn meal, then repeatedly soaking and straining them until all the bitterness is gone. You can then dry the meal over a fire or in an oven. The resulting acorn meal can be consumed as-is, or can be milled into flour and used for baking.

So, as far as edible crops go, acorns aren’t exactly the easiest to consume. But, I could see how they could be useful as a food source nonetheless, simply because of their abundance and ease in gathering, as well as their (presumably) high caloric content. They apparently don’t keep very well due to their high fat content, but I could see an autumn harvest of acorns lasting through the cold winter, and providing valuable calories during those lean months. It’s also exciting to know that if I grew some corn, I could use corn meal and acorn flour to make bread, without “importing” flour.

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The other big news is that, my neighbor came up to help, and we (finally) got the rest of the cement board siding up! As far as I’m concerned, the exterior siding is mostly aesthetic, though it’s definitely more fire resistant than the previously exposed insulation boards, quite weatherproof, possibly somewhat insulating, and it might add a bit of rigidity to the structure, so it’s good to have them up. There’s still some parts that are exposed, so I need to cover those bits up, then put trims on the corners and around the windows, paint the whole thing, and I’ll finally be able to call it done. It’s a project that’s been 2 years (and counting) in the making, but it still feels good to make progress…

Anyway, I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

My neighbor came up to helpMeasurements for all the custom-cut panelsNow with more siding!Hut 2.1 - Now with more siding!

I planted a cherry tree!

On a recent trip to Serenity Valley, I planted a cherry tree. Now, planting a fruit tree in the high desert, where there is no rain nor running water for half the year, may seem foolish. And maybe it is. But I planted it anyway. I think of it as an act of commitment; I’ve planted a tree, now I have to keep it alive.

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A couple of recent developments make this decision slightly less foolish than it may sound at first. One is that I got a 300 gallon water tank, which I plan on hooking up to my gutters to collect run-off this Winter / Spring. There’s usually 20-30 inches of precipitation in the wet months, and even if I manage to collect 10″ of that, I should be able to harvest around 1000 gallons off my cabin roof alone. (If you want the math, it’s 0.6 gal / 1″ of precipitation / 1 sqft of surface area. So, 0.6 gal * 10″ of precipitation * 170 sqft roof = ~1020 gallons.) If my math is right, my 300 gallon tank won’t capture all the available water, so I’ll probably add more. The other recent development is that I (or, rather, a neighbor) found a couple of sources of water closer than the gas station in town, some 17 miles away. It turns out there’s a volunteer fire station 3 miles down the road that has its own well, where locals can take as much water as they want for a very small monthly fee. There’s also apparently a local who owns a water tanker, and will deliver water (if he likes you). So, between my rain barrels and an abundant water source just 3 miles away, I’m fairly confident I can keep the cherry tree watered for the foreseeable future.

Selection

So, why a cherry tree? Because I like cherries. Well, first of all, not all fruit trees can survive the cold winters we sometimes experience up here in the mountains. While not common, temperatures can drop down into the negative (Fahrenheit), with record lows down into the -20Fs. So anything that can’t withstand -20F won’t make the cut. At the local hardware store, that narrowed the selection down to: apricots, apples, and cherries. Of those, I like cherries the best. I suppose apples might be more versatile, since you can make cider and apple sauce, use them for baking, and the fruit lasts a long time if kept cool. (Hmm… maybe my next tree will be an apple tree.)

The next step was to choose a variant. They had a few options, including famous sweet variants like the Rainier cherry, but all the sweet variants need pollinators (i.e. another cherry tree). So I ended up picking a Montmorency cherry tree, which is a self-pollinator and semi-dwarf; two characteristics that should work well for me. On the other hand, the sour fruit that the Montmorency bears will only be good for canning or baking. It’s a bummer I won’t get to eat sweet fruit right off the tree, but seeing how cherries have a short shelf-life, having a variant suitable for preservation probably isn’t such a bad idea.

Planting

Planting a tree isn’t terribly exciting in and of itself. Digging the hole ended up being a lot of work because I encountered a rock-hard layer of clay that I decided to try and bust up  — by repeatedly driving a pitch-fork into it with a sledge hammer. A pick-axe probably would’ve made things easier, but I didn’t have one.

Once I had the tree planted, though, I decided to try something new. I’d read that Native Americans and others living in arid regions were known to mulch their plants using rocks. The theory is that the rocks would slow moisture evaporation, dampen extreme temperatures by acting as a thermal mass, and possibly also improve the soil by slowly leeching minerals. I know that moisture evaporation and extreme temperatures are a concern where I am, so I decided to give it a shot. I also placed 3 drip irrigation heads (of which two you can see in the photo) between the rocks. Incidentally, the drip irrigation is the same gravity-fed system hooked up to my water tower that I set up in previous years, which keeps my garden watered while I’m away with the help of a garden timer. Finally, I covered the whole thing with straw to provide further shade from the harsh sumer sun and cold winter frost.

So, we’ll see how that goes. If all goes well, we’ll start seeing cherries in a couple of years…

BootstrapSolar needs your support!

In my previous post, I mentioned that I was working on a solar power pack. I’ve since completed the prototype and tested it, so I’m almost ready for production. But in order to get there, I could use some help…

My solar power pack contains a 6000mAh LiPoly battery, big enough to recharge an iPhone four times over (or an iPad up to about 70%). It has two USB ports, of which one is configured to support Apple devices with output up to 1000mA (that’s equivalent to the iPhone’s AC adapter). The kit also comes with a 5W monocrystalline solar panel which can generate enough power to completely recharge an iPhone in two hours. Furthermore, the power packs can support up to 10W of solar panels for heavy users (or cloudy days). And it’s enclosed in a bamboo enclosure, which is a much more sustainable material than the plastics commonly used.

Basically, I built what I wanted for myself. It’s the kit I wish I had in Japan. It’s the kit I wish folks had in Japan in the days that followed the earthquake and tsunami when the power was out. I took this kit with me to Burning Man, and wished everybody had one.

Right now, I’m in the process of raising funds to pay for a small production run. The Kickstarter campaign that I started two days ago already has over $3000 in pledges, though I need $7500 for the campaign to finish successfully and to start production. If you’re interested in a kit, you can “reserve” one by pledging $90 or above, which is substantially less than what the final retail price will probably be (or how much you’d pay for a similar commercial product). Of course, even if you’re not interested in a kit for yourself, I’d appreciate any help getting the word out as well. Also, if this kit succeeds, it’ll give me the funds to work on other kits, so you’ll be supporting a larger project that aims to make solar technology available and accessible to more people. So, any support would be greatly appreciated, whether it’s a pledge on Kickstarter, or a simple “Like”.

Thanks!