How To Build A Cob Wall
By Kirby Fry
After working with natural building materials for 25 years, the cob or “puddled adobe” wall system has become my favorite of all the adobe wall systems. I define a natural building material as one that is locally available and non-manufactured. This how to do it yourself guide will describe 4 different forms of adobe wall systems, explain why the cob wall system is my top pick, and tell you how to build a cob wall.
Types Of Adobe Wall Systems
Adobe is generally made from sand, clay and straw. Adobe wall systems include handmade adobe blocks, compressed earth blocks (engineered adobe), earth bags (flex form adobe), and cob (puddled adobe).
The handmade adobe block is perhaps the most traditional system for building an adobe wall. It is made from sand, clay and straw. Fresh, clean horse manure is often substituted for the straw component. Adobe blocks are 10” wide by 14” long by 3 ¾” tall. A clay slip is applied between each course of adobes. The adobe block wall system can be either 10” thick or 14” thick.
Compressed earth blocks (CEB’s) do not have to have straw in them, and are made by a machine that compresses moist sand and clay at a pressure of 1,200 to 1,600 pounds per square inch. Often 6% of the mix is portland cement to keep the CEB’s from eroding during the construction process. CEB dimensions are the same as the handmade adobe block, 10” wide by 14” long by 3 ¾” tall.
Earthbag wall systems are also referred to as flex form adobe or superadobe. This method includes mixing sand and clay together, getting it moist, and packing it into continuous bags. Earthbag walls are about 16” thick. When this method was first developed by the Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili he was using a solid nylon or plastic bag, now earthbag builders have gone over to using the Raschel weave continuous onion bag that you commonly see being used to sell onions in at almost every grocery store.
Cob or puddled adobe wall systems are made from sand, clay, and straw that is mixed together and then dumped on top of the wall system. Cob is an old English word that means “lump of dough” and because it is put into the wall system while still wet, the builders can only raise the walls up 4” or 8” per day before it begins to slump. A cob wall may vary in width from 12” to 18” depending on how tall or long the wall is.
Why Cob Is My Favorite Adobe Wall System
After working with all of these adobe wall systems my favorite is now cob, and here’s why:
The cob wall system is monolithic and does not require a concrete bond beam at the top of it – a bond beam is made from concrete, steel, or wood and in adobe block and CEB wall systems a bond beam is necessary to hold the top of the wall system together.
The cob wall system is ready to plaster when it is finished. Earth bag, and CEB wall systems require more preparation for plasters like filling in between the bags, and or chipping up the face of the CEB’s.
The cob wall system is more efficient for smaller job sites. Making 5,000 to 10,000 adobes or CEB’s all at once on a job site is a big logistical chore and requires a lot of space. Making adobes off site and hauling them to the job site is also a huge logistical chore. Making cob on site is slower, but requires less space, and makes less of a mess.
Lastly, cob wall systems are a more ergonomic building material for the builders. The cob is easily dumped out onto the wall system a half bucket at a time. Ladders and scaffolding keep the crew working between their knee and chest heights. By contrast, filling earthbags means that you are standing on top of the wall system, holding a 5 gallon bucket with the continuous earthbag attached to it, walking backwards on top of wet adobe under your feet while 2 or 3 people dump the fresh adobe into your bucket.
How To Build A Cob Wall System
All buildings require a solid foundation, and the immense weight of an adobe wall system is no exception to that rule. Traditionally for a 14” wide cob wall system an 18” wide by 24” deep rubble filled trench with a concrete or mortared-together masonry footer has been used. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to pour an engineered concrete slab for building a cob wall on top of.
I highly recommend that the roof for any natural building be a hip roof where there are protective eves on all four sides of the building. A single gable roof leaves 2 sides of the walls exposed to catching more weather which can significantly damage lime and clay plasters.
Keep your cob wall system relatively low, somewhere between 8’ and 12’ tall. A second story on top of a cab wall is possible, but above 8’ to 12’ in wall height, I recommend going over to a more conventional 2” x 4” stick frame.
Once the grade beam or concrete slab has been constructed, it’s time to have the materials delivered to the site. Here is what you will need to begin; 10 yards of manufactured sand, 10 yards of clay, 10 yards of decomposed granite, and 12 straw bales. These materials need to be close to the work site, and you need to be ready to have more truckloads of material brought in again and again in the proper order.
On smaller job sites our crews mix cob on a 4’ by 4’ plywood mixing board with a mortar hoe. Initially we were mixing the cob on blue tarps but after just 2 weeks the tarps fell apart and everyone on the crew preferred the mixing boards anyway. On a bigger job site a large gas powered mortar mixer is the only mixer that will turn over the heavy cob. Some crews will also use a skid steer loader with a mixer attachment but I have never used one of those before.
So let’s start our first batch of cob with a ratio of 1 to 1 to 1. That’s 1 half bucket of clay, one half bucket of manufactured sand, and 1 half bucket of decomposed granite. The straw is chopped up into 6” to 10” lengths with a machete on a board and 4 large handfuls will be added into each mix. First dry mix the clay, manufactured sand, and decomposed granite. When all of those ingredients are thoroughly mixed together in dry form, then add about 4” to 6” of water in a 5 gallon bucket to the dry mix. Next, wet mix those ingredients. When all of those ingredients are thoroughly mixed together add 2 large handfuls of chopped up straw. When all of those ingredients are thoroughly mixed together add 2 more large handfuls of chopped straw (total of 4 large handfuls) to get the final batch of finished cob.[Images 10 through 18 show how the cob ingredients are added to and mixed on a 4’ x 4’ mixing board]
Load the cob into 5 gallon buckets filled only half way. Never fill a bucket up all the way as it becomes too heavy. Always try to carry a half filled bucket in each hand so as not to strain one arm by carrying just one bucket at a time. Dump the half full buckets of cob directly on to the wall system and begin to evenly work the cob out onto the wall system. Press the fresh wet cob down onto the foundation or onto the dried cob beneath it by using a cobber’s thumb, which is usually just a 1” diameter by 10” long branch or old tool handle. The aggregate in the cob is deliberately sharp and will quickly tear up your hands and fingers if a cobber’s thumb is not used.
If the cob is dry enough, one should be able to build 4” to 8” in height of cob wall per day. When the cob begins to slump, it’s time to stop adding material to it. The next day, yesterday’s slumped cob will need to be trimmed off and reused. Every morning, without exception, the cob wall will need to be trimmed, and the wall system kept square and plumb.
Wooden door and window frames called “bucks” will need to be framed and set flush to the exterior of the cob wall. A 3’ 0” wide by 6’ 8” tall standard exterior door should have a door buck with dimensions of 3’ 2” wide by 6’ 10” tall by 4 ⅝” deep. A 2’ 6” wide by 5’ 0” tall standard window should have a window buck with dimensions of 2’ 6 ½” wide by 5’ ½” tall by 4 ⅝” deep. The window bucks are typically set at a height of 6’ 8” and down in order to match door heights, and are held in place with wooden cleats or pegs attached to their sides called “dead men.” The doors and windows themselves will be set into the bucks after all of the cobbing has been finished.
A structural header or piece of timber framing is set over the door and window bucks to carry the load of the cob wall above it.
When the cob wall reaches its final height a simple top plate, not a concrete bond beam, is embedded into the wall using more wooden cleats or “dead men.” The roof’s rafters will sit on this top plate.
The electrical wiring is notched into the wall system after the cob wall is built. This cob building was permitted and inspected by the City of Austin and the city required this method of wiring because it did not want the wiring to be buried behind the cob allowing them to visually inspect it.
The exterior walls were plastered with a lime plaster and the interior walls were plastered with a clay plaster.
My advice to anyone building with cob for the first time is to start on a small scale. Building with natural building materials requires just as much, if not more, skill and caution than building with conventional building materials. It will also require more time than building with conventional building materials, and cost about 30% more.
Do not be daunted by these suggestions and warnings though, the rewards of living in a home made from natural building materials and or that you have built yourself are infinite and your life will change for the better because of it!
October 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Plant: Asters/Symphyotrichum genus species
Focusing on a few of the most common species for central Texas: Fall Aster/Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, Drummond’s Aster/Symphyotrichum drummondii var. texanum, Tall Aster/Symphyotrichum praeltum var. praealtum, White Heath Aster/Symphyotrichum ericoides
Fall flowers are a soothing reprieve after the stifling summer heat, and a vital necessity for many creatures that are preparing for migration or winter.
Drummond’s or Texas Aster
Fall Aster is perhaps the most well-known and ubiquitous of this genus in central TX, and with it’s manageable and small woody shrub-like form and happy demeanor, it is an essential garden plant for the hardy native landscape. Fall Asters spread well through their roots to form wide colonies, though not as vigorous a spreader as Tall Aster, and a bit hardier. Their habits, needs, and their radiant bunches of little purple flowers compliment very well with other fall blooming native plants. Their roots are also easy to transplant to make a whole new patch, and their above-ground structure is often better able to infiltrate rainfall into the soil than some asters – some of the other species are really meant to grow in a prairie-like matrix with the surface structures and roots of many other species filling in the gaps for the other, as well as providing physical support. Every species has its strong points, and by combining as many plants of complimentary growing habit together as possible, we can allow for stronger roots systems that soak in more rainfall, feed a more diverse group of soil micro-organisms, and create a more resilient and complex layer of nutrient-rich humus comprised from the various qualities of all the different types of leaves.
Featured Woodlot Tree – October 2019
Common Name: Southern Live Oak – Species: Quercus virginiana – Family: Fagaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry – Photo by: Elenore Goode
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese proverb.
Live oak trees are iconic trees here in Central Texas, they are evergreen, extremely strong, and make beautiful and effective shade trees. The first tree house I built was in a live oak tree in our backyard. The tree house was three stories tall with operable doors and windows, carpeting, and electricity. It took three of my friends to wrap our arms around its trunk.
If you could plant a tree and see it thrive, which one (or ones) would it be? I would plant a live oak, a magnolia tree, and a bald cypress. We should continue on with our plans to plant forests and woodlots that we can build houses with, that function as windbreaks and erosion control, and that enrich natural regions.
Which trees and timber products do we need the most? Let’s take a stroll down the lumber aisles of any Home Depot, Lowe’s, or McCoy’s. There we find framing lumber milled from spruce, pine, and fir. The next aisle over we find sheets of plywood made from pine, oak, birch, and maple. The next aisle over we find trim boards made from oak, cedar, pine, and poplar. Visit a specialty lumber store and you find oak, cypress, ash, maple, and mesquite among many others for furniture, cabinetry, and countertop production. Not all of these species of trees can be grown here in Texas but many of them can.
In a sustainable human settlement, one management objective would be to plant enough trees to replace the lumber used to build your home. A 1,000 square foot home requires approximately 6,300 board feet to complete. A mature pine tree at a height of 80 feet and width 2 feet will yield 754 board feet, so 8 or 9 mature pine trees are what we need to build a 1,000 square foot home.
Each tree species grows into a different form and will vary on how many board feet it yields when mature, so a woodlot consists of a variety of different trees – oak, pine, cypress, ash, maple, and hickory, and those trees are used for a variety of different functions in the house – framing, planks, trim, and doors and windows.
The southern live oak tree has historically been used for ship building (because its trunk and mature branches are curved), and tool handles. It can also be milled into posts and beams, and lumber for trim.
The acorns from live oak trees should be collected in late October as they begin to fall from the tree, and then be planted directly into the ground. The best acorns for germinating will still be on the tree. The larger the acorn, the more likely successful germination will be. Remove the acorn caps and any other debris, put the acorns in a bowl of water and discard the ones that float because the shell has been breached and air has gotten inside of it.
Sow the acorns in good, well-drained mineral / sandy soil with a 1 inch layer of compost on top. The acorns will not need cold treatment or stratification. Partial shade on the west side is helpful, and moderate, consistent watering is essential. Squirrel proof caging or exclosure for the seedlings is recommended.
Transplant your live oaks in the early spring. Prune the roots of the tree to make transplanting easier and encourage a flush of new root growth closer to the root ball. A wide shallow hole is best for live oaks. Water moderately and consistently for the first year, and do not add soil amendments or fertilizers. Keep the top of the root crown 1 to 2 inches above the surface of the ground.
Pruning & Maintenance
As your live oak grows, moderate branch pruning is recommended, removing just the lower branches to ensure a knot free trunk up to about 8 or 10 feet in height. Proper wound care is required by minimizing the number of branches pruned back each year – 3 to 9, keeping the pruning cuts to the smallest diameter possible, and spraying a pruning tar on open cuts and wounds to prevent fungal infection.
The live oak tree will be mature in 50 years, however in a woodlot your cultivated trees are harvested at earlier stages in their life cycle for fence posts, tool handles, and smaller posts and beams.
September 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Goldenrod/Solidago spp., Solidago canadensis/Tall Goldenrod
Late summer in Texas is a tough time for a plant to begin to flower, and the many perennial species of Solidago that grow across the state are some of the most dependable plants for wildlife to find blooms on at this time, despite any heat and drought. Growing everywhere from wetlands and prairies to drylands and cliff faces, Goldenrods are a very adaptable and diverse genus of plants that have much to offer humans and wildlife. The different species also have a variety of growth habits, from small clumping species, to some that will spread quickly through their roots, and go as far as they can reach.
Their bright yellow hues are a welcome sight for pollinators at the end of a tough summer. Goldenrods can be counted on to tough out the worst and still show their best colors. Solidago blooms are often super loaded with a great variety of pollinator species buzzing around them, since they provide a vital surge of rich pollinator forage at a time when many insects and other plants may be trying to recover from a harsh summer before winter.
Goldenrod’s flowers and leaves have also long been recognized as having useful medicinal qualities, and remain popular as a hardy wild remedy plant in many pollinator gardens.
The drought endurance, ability to grow in poor conditions, and rapid-spreading habit of some species may also make them too vigorous for companion planting in vegetable and herb gardens. However, these same qualities make those species ideal for re-vegetating ecologically-degraded areas with beneficial plants for wildlife, and are a great choice for areas with poor soils and low species density. Even in gardens, they can be carefully introduced (especially in more depleted soils that need organic matter) and used to suppress other plants like Bermuda grass, or to provide just enough shade for herbs and veggies in late summer, when not allowed to smother them.
These hardy but aggressive species of Goldenrod are great as support plants, and excel in wildflower borders, hedges, and tall grass prairie settings. They do best when they are allowed to grow in dense colonies, or with other tallgrass prairie plants for structural support.
September 2019 – Crop of the Month
Pecan – Scientific Name: Carya illinoinensis
Written by: Kirby Fry
The pecan tree is iconic. It is a tall, beautiful and agriculturally productive native tree.
The pecan tree is also the state tree of Texas.
Since the 1880’s the United States of America has become a major producer of pecan nuts, which are actually drupes or stone fruits, harvesting 264.2 million pounds of pecans annually as of 2014. Mexico and the US of A account for 93% ton of the world’s pecan production.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, my second story bedroom was perched over our neighbor’s single story house which had a metal roof on it. I remember hearing pecans falling from their pecan tree and hitting that roof all throughout the fall. During those fall and winter months there was also a wooden bowl that sat out in our dining room which was full of pecans. Nearby was an assortment of tools used for cracking open the shells and picking out the delicious fruit inside, we had contests to see who could “shell” the most intact pecans.
Right around the fall equinox, pecans are ripening here in Texas. This is a really good time to start thinking about planting your very own pecan trees.
The pecan tree can be planted from late December through early March and will do well in every county of Texas. They are typically sold as bare root stock with a 24” to 32” long intact tap root.
The roots of a pecan tree should be kept moist from the time of purchase to the time of planting.
At least 2 or 3 different varieties should be selected and purchased for cross pollination.
Cultivar pecan trees are grafted and chosen for the sweetness of their fruit, the thinness of their shell, and the alternating years that they produce. Pecan tree growers are careful to select trees that yield pecans during alternating years, as a pecan tree will produce one year and then possibly skip 1 or 2 years of production.
Several varieties of pecan trees are recommended for Central Texas. These varieties include – Sioux, Choctaw, Wichita, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Forkert, Cape Fear, Kiowa, and Caddo. They have all adapted to river and creek bottoms, preferring deep well drained sandy and loamy soils, though I have also seen them do well in clayey soils that have good drainage.
Select a site to plant your pecan trees that is at least 20’ away from your house, and away from driveways where cars will be parked. Pecans are large trees that tend to start dropping large branches after 20 or 30 years of growth. If planted close to your home, they will need careful pruning later on in their life cycle.
Pecan trees should be planted 35’ apart from one another in order to give their massive root systems plenty of room to develop.
The hole you dig for them should be as deep as the tap root is long (sometimes 32” to 48” deep), with the objective being to replant the tree as deeply as it was planted at the nursery. The soil line on bare root trees can be determined by the color of the bark.
Because the hole you will need to dig for a pecan tree will be deeper and larger than most fruiting trees, the tap root should sit firmly against the bottom of the hole you dig to avoid undesirable settling. The hole should be carefully back-filled and watered in, in order to prevent branching roots from settling or sinking too much as well.
The tree should be watered in with at least 5 gallons of water per tree immediately after planting.
The time needed for the tree to begin production takes close to 8 years, after which the tree will begin to yield 10 pounds of pecans per year and up.
Tree Fertilization and Maintenance
A nitrogen fertilizer should be the only soil-applied amendment that your pecans need. Alfalfa meal, feather meal, bone meal, and/or blood meal should be applied in small amounts throughout the growing season. These are low or moderate sources of nitrogen and you could easily double the amount applied when compared to high nitrogen fertilizers.
About 1 pound of high nitrogen fertilizer (21-0-0) per inch of trunk diameter should be applied each year. Keep high nitrogen fertilizers away from the base of the trunk in order to prevent tissue scalding.
As the trees mature into their 7th or 8th years of growth, avoid applying high nitrogen fertilizers after June in order to prevent a flush of new growth getting frozen back in the fall.
During the first 7 years of growth, a zinc nitrate solution should be applied in a liquid form to the surface of the leaves, 2 to 4 teaspoons per gallon of water or 1 to 2 quarts per 100 gallons of water. Pecan trees deficient in zinc will have smaller, weaker leaves and leaf stems and in extreme zinc deficiencies the trees will experience a higher rate of die back during harsh summer and winter conditions. This zinc emulsion should be sprayed on the trees every 2 weeks or so during the growing season.
Water your pecan trees from March through September for the first couple of years after you plant them. During the summer time your young pecan trees may need 2” of water per square foot of growing area, one time per week.
Low emerging braches (a.k.a. trashy trunk) should be pruned back each winter, and care should be taken to select and preserve a central leader for the top of the tree. Try to avoid allowing a “V” to form in the tree’s trunk as pecans grow to be large and somewhat brittle, and a forked trunk will often crack and split.
Maintain the area under your pecan trees and keep it free of brush and tall grasses during the fall so that the fallen pecans can be more easily harvested. Once your pecan trees are established after 8 years or so, fertilize and water only as needed.
Harvesting pecans is a great way to supplement your fall and winter diet. Pecans also have a high market value and can be used to feed pigs during fall and winter months.
Take a look at your property, and find a good place to plant a few pecan trees.
Our PDC Grad Interview Series is back!
Our hope is to convey what a life-changing opportunity the Permaculture Design Course can be, while learning more about what first attracted these former students to sustainable design and how they have applied those principles since taking a PDC.
We’re continuing this series with small-business owner Michael Wolfert of Symbiosis Regenerative Systems – read more below.
1) How did you become interested in sustainable design? Please describe to us any moments in your life that piqued your interest in sustainable, regenerative, and holistic systems.
I had a deep feeling of despair in my late teenage years and early twenties. At the time I was mostly seeking ways to reduce my footprint and be an activist for policy change and reform. One day a friend of mine, Joshua Adair, called me up and said that there was a potential scholarship for a permaculture design course. I said, “what the heck is permaculture.” He said “It’s like gardening, natural building, community building and learning to live more sustainably!” and proceeded to give the details of the event. I said I would have to think about it. We hung up. I thought about it for literally 1 minute, called him back and let him know I was really excited to learn about this and incredibly grateful that there was a scholarship because I would not have been able to afford it at the time. I started to do some research and prepare for the PDC, though I still had no idea the rabbit hole I was about to enter.
2) What were you looking to learn when you signed up for a permaculture design course?
I didn’t have many expectations, having just stumbled upon the concept with very little time to consider the implications and the impact they could have on my outlook and life.
All Images © Symbiosis Regenerative Systems 2019
3) Who taught your permaculture design course and when? What did you appreciate about that course, and what would you have liked to have learned more about?
Kirby Fry, Gary Freeborg, Jenny Nazak and Ted Norris.
This course was a real turning point for me. Kirby led the majority of class time and he did a great job introducing me to the idea that we might actually strive to have a positive footprint instead of just trying to eliminate our negative footprint, and that in this practice we could aim to set up positive feedback loops, modeling our designs after ecosystems.
From that point forward, I knew what my driving focus would be. I would try my best to become a mutually beneficial symbiote with my ecosystem. An agent for making connections between the correlating outputs and needed inputs of the systems around me. Nudging ecological succession forward. Taking more responsibility for my family’s needs, consumption, and outputs. Striving to leave a legacy of regeneration in my wake. It’s a lifelong pursuit that I hope future generations will be able to carry forward.
4) What other courses, if any, have you participated in that have helped you to learn more about and implement sustainable design systems?
Working at Morning Glory Farm with Gracie Brousard and Richard Lindley was my first real-world continuing education. These folks were real eco-pioneers and all-around fantastic mentors. I was very lucky to find them and to be allowed to study farming with them. I worked there for nearly 2 years as a farmhand. During this time I lived primarily in a school bus with no running water or power. The meals Gracey would make from the produce they grew and goods they traded other farmers for really opened my eyes to what eating fresh and seasonal produce would be like. they were both extremely patient and kind. I learned a ton about gardening, farming, community building, and being a mentee.
Cypress Valley Farms was my second continuing education course where I worked as a co-farm manager in an attempt to start a profitable regenerative farm. I learned so much from this experience and the property owners that it’s hard to summarize. Some of the main takeaways were to focus equally on the business and marketing of your farm as you do on the growing of produce. Make clear agreements with all decision-makers – 1 hour of energy input here on the front end could easily save 10 + hours of confusion on the back end. Establish a healthy work-life balance and don’t let being a business owner consume and burn you out.
Hill Country Natives was my third continued education course. Here, I worked with Mitch Mitchamore to cultivate an intensive food forest in Leander, Texas starting with 6 inches of topsoil sitting on hundreds of feet of rock shelf. Mitch runs a fantastic nursery for natives and fruiting adapted plants but often says the main yield of his business is education, conversation, and connection. He takes as much time as needed to work with each client personally. He gave me a lot of freedom and trust to come up with experiments and implement them on the grounds at Hill Country Natives. Some days, we would be working at the potting trailer for many hours having wide-ranging discussions and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I learned a lot about leadership and problem solving from Mitch and a lot about food forests and native plants from the work we did together.
I worked for Paige Hill-Oliverio of Urban Patchwork as I was just getting my business started, doing landscaping installation and maintenance gigs in Austin. I learned about being a contractor, spreadsheets, and integrating art into a functional design. Paige does great work and I still enjoy collaborating with her on projects to this day.
Teaching a food forest workshop with Caroline Riley-Carberry, Food Forests For All, three years in a row was a powerful learning experience. We taught people the basics of food forest design and the underlying principles, lead them through a design process, and implemented the design over the course of three days. Some of the results are on display at the Whole Life Learning Center, where a field has been transformed into a thriving food forest that is managed by Caroline with help from the whole life-learners. Seeing the iterations and receiving critical feedback from the systems this course worked to design and install furthered my understanding of food forestry and permaculture in general. Caroline taught me a lot about facilitation and design. I believe some of the initial collaborators that started the permablitzes and eventually Earth Repair Corps first began putting heads together at FFFA 1. I love seeing a ripple effect of positive actions after good people get together and get inspired by a common goal.
I traveled to Michigan to learn from Mark Shepard with Pete VanDyck. I learned from Mark that the economics of large scale permaculture farming are tricky and that you have to be creative and strategic to make your way in this space. I learned that small farmers can leverage their power as co-ops to compete against big ag and revitalize agricultural communities. I learned about designing systems that can be managed by machines at scale in order to compete against big ag without compromising the regenerative metrics of success we strive to meet. I also hosted Mark to teach a workshop at our homestead when we had just started renovating the place and learned not to host workshops until your infrastructure is in good shape. The workshop was a success and I learned more from Mark about his philosophy, and made wonderful connections with local like-minded folks.
I was a participant in TexRex with Darren Doherty, where we learned the Regrarians method of property design. This was Darren’s adaptation of the Keyline Scale of Permanence, based on years of experience designing large scale regenerative properties. This method has been a huge help in systematizing my design process and presenting information to my clients in a clear, digestible package. I learned a lot about rotational grazing, mapping, keyline design and much much more. This is one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended in that I took home more practical advice and methodology than any other, had a lot of fun between classes, and the food was delicious! I gained a ton of inspiration from Darren, Lisa, and the other participants.
I’ve learned from the Permablitzes, and seeing the updates from those systems installed has helped me to have more iterative feedback to improve the designs that I create.
I’ve been running my own permaculture/regenerative design and installation business for nearly 6 years now. We have worked on over 100 individual projects, and being able to monitor these systems gives me even more data to draw on for improving the design, installation, and maintenance methods we use for all things regenerative.
I’ve been living on my own homestead for nearly 4 years and am constantly learning from observing ecosystem succession in outer zones as well as the inner zone experiments and systems we’re running out here. One standard question I have to ask myself when installing a new system is: will I be able to maintain this with my 3 kids in tow or even better get them to help me with it? How can I make this accessible and fun for our family flow? That’s a pretty fun design lense to look through.
5) Have you been able to apply what you learned from a permaculture design course to your life, and business endeavors? If so, please elaborate.
Yes! As you can probably tell from my list above, I dove in headfirst and never looked back.
I’ve been doing permaculture professionally for nearly 6 years. We have 8 full-time employees including myself and a great network of independent contractors we can call on for collaboration. We’ve continued to gain momentum and improve our methods each year. Although it is a marathon of hard work, I love it. The projects we work on, the team we work with and the clients who have chosen to lead the charge in this effort keep me constantly inspired, learning, and growing.
For the last 4 years, I’ve been living on a 25-acre homestead with my family. Even though I grew up in cities and suburbs, as I got older I never really felt like I could relax when I lived in the city. The frenetic energy, constant background noise, light pollution, air pollution, the heat island effect, it all just got under my skin and made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a place where we were so reliant on seemingly fragile systems. I wanted them to grow up with the freedom to roam in the woods, get muddy, grow food and see the magic of nature unfold over many years. I don’t know if they’ll thank me for it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way and the turning point was my PDC. Each year we are more self-sufficient as we find our place within this context and ecosystem.
6) Have you had the opportunity to teach, mentor, and/or pass on information about sustainable design to friends, family, or employees?
Yes, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, taught at least 100 students in workshops, have taught some co-workers, and worn out my mom with my ecovangelism. I’ve also learned a lot from these interactions and continue to meet really cool folks from all walks of life who all agree that sustainable design is a good idea.
Interested in obtaining your certification? Learn more about our upcoming Permaculture Design Course here.
Earth Repair Corps Teaches 2nd PDC at Texastopia Farm in Blanco, Texas
January through June, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
This past winter and spring of 2019 Earth Repair Corps had the privilege and honor to teach its second permaculture design course at Texastopia near the headwaters of the Blanco River. The design course consists of 72 hours of classroom instruction, group activities after lunch, individual and group design projects which are presented to the class, and a talent show on the last evening of class.
The classroom provided to Earth Repair Corps by Texastopia offers a great learning environment for both teachers and students. There’s comfortable seating and tables, a 4’ tall by 16’ wide dry erase board, a “close throw” projector with a pull down movie screen, surround sound, dimmable lights, and a fabulous air conditioning system. ERC couldn’t ask for more.
The course curricula covers the first 9 chapters of Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, and then goes over specific design systems for the home moving outward from there to the areas closest to the house and then out into the broader landscape.
One distinction of this spring PDC is that we have been making an effort to emphasize the difference between design methodologies and design systems, and so along with methods of permaculture design, Earth Repair Corps has also been teaching Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence 1 and Savory’s Holistic Decision Making Process 2 .
This spring, thanks to the speaking and recruitment efforts of Pete VanDyck, we had 3 members of the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) attend the PDC. Carol Patterson, Mark Hamilton, and Thomas Marsalia all attended representing EAA’s board, upper management, and field technicians. EAA has tens of thousands of acres on the Edwards Plateau in conservation easements that it oversees and is looking to implement soil and water conservation methods that were discussed during class on a model site. Their design project was phenomenal.
Along with many other great students were two of ERC’s partners, Randie Piscitello with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School, and Jennifer Goode with Texastopia and ERC attended the course and earned their PDC certification.
Class Curriculum & Activities
Our guest teachers included Shelley Belinko who taught about design principles and methods of design, Heather King who taught about annual vegetable gardening, Travis Krause who taught about running a family farm and animal systems, and Peggy Sechrist who taught about Holistic Management and intensive cell grazing.
One of the activities that the class participated in was using the radial laser level to layout two conservation terraces and a level sill spillway above Texastopia’s road leading to the Blanco River. Then, by the time the class resumed the following month, Pete VanDyck and Texastopia had installed the terraces, planted them with native trees, and mulched them with straw. It was a great design process for the class to be a part of.
About a quarter of the way through the course, day 3 or so, the students begin their design projects. This spring PDC we allowed a wide range of projects including group and individual projects, as well as onsite and offsite projects. This gives students the opportunity to work on designs for their own properties, and or work together as a team on site if they do not have land of their own. I was especially impressed with the design project that the EAA team presented for a piece of land that may soon become a lab and working model for soil and water conservation methods on the Edwards Plateau. All students are encouraged to make use of Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence and Google Earth Pro for their presentations.
The evening before the last day of class we held a talent show. Bill Mollison always had a talent show during his PDC’s and joked that if you don’t perform in the talent show you wouldn’t graduate. What I usually experience is students being surprised and a little uncomfortable before the talent show, but really opening up and having a fantastic time during the talent show. Not only did we have several musical performances, but people sharing with us what they are good at, and giving us “how to” demonstrations.
The spring 2019 PDC covered a wide range of topics and hopefully opened doors for its graduates to further pursue those topics. One of the main objectives of the course is that the graduates become better designers and hopefully better teachers of sustainable design. Those of us teaching the class get to make new friends, and support others in their efforts to create abundance through good design.
If you’re interested in learning more about our Permaculture Design Certification and obtaining one yourself, please read more here.
- Using the Scale of Permanence as a Tool for Land Evaluation
- An Overview of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making
June 2019 – Crop of the Month
Pineapple Guava – Scientific Name: Feijoa sellowiana, Acca sellowiana
Written by: Kirby Fry
The pineapple guava is native to the tropics of South America but has naturalized in subtropical and sub temperate regions all around the world. It is a well shaped, evergreen bush or small tree with attractive flowers that grows 10 to 15 wide and just as tall. It can be used ornamentally and even be pruned into more formal appearing hedgerows.
A mature pineapple guava can tolerate freezes as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but plants 3 years and younger can die back during freezing temperatures and should be protected with frost cloth for their first few years. The pineapple guava does very well in Central Texas cities where there is a “heat island” effect and along the Gulf Coast.
There are a few different varieties that are available such as ruby (red fleshed fruit), supreme (white fleshed fruit), Indonesian seedless, and crunchy white. These varieties are not always available in local nurseries though, and may need to be ordered from a catalogue or online.
The fruit varies in size and sweetness, and grows to be anywhere from an inch in length up to 3 or 4 inches in length. A young pineapple guava tree will produce half a bushel of fruit (4 gallons of dry fruit) by its third year. A mature tree will produce 3 or more bushels per year, or 24 gallons of dry weight fruit or more.
In Central Texas a pineapple guava will probably not achieve its full size and so can be planted 10 to 12 feet apart. It should be planted out of the way of freezing north western winds, and be given western shade. It likes well drained sandy loam soils with a little bit of clay in them.
Dig a hole twice the size of the container that it comes in and water it in well after planting. It needs a little extra water in the hottest time of the summer, usually two slow and deep waterings per week will suffice. Fertilize your pineapple guava with an organic form of nitrogen such as alfalfa meal during mid summer and early fall when it begins to flower. The fruit will begin to ripen mid fall.
Gradually prune your pineapple guava, removing branches growing straight out from the trunk less than 1 foot off of the ground. To shape it into a small tree remove the lower one third of the branches to encourage vertical growth. It can be pruned into a more formal hedgerow but more aggressive pruning will set back fruit production the following fruiting season.
The main pest for pineapple guava in Texas, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley, are root-knot nematodes, which can be addressed by adding organic matter fine mulch such as grass clippings) and compost over the plant’s roots.
June 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Scutellaria ovata/Heartleaf Skullcap and its subspecies
The delicate blue flowers of Heartleaf Skullcap provide a refreshing sight in late spring and into summer. Their bloom time compliments well in the landscape with other wildflowers that stop blooming sooner, and this overlap helps to provide food for pollinators throughout the summer. When happy, these reliable perennial herbs spread quickly into large stands through their rhizomes, like many other species in the mint family. They are easy to propagate by digging and replanting the roots, and though they can spread into large clumps, they are not particularly aggressive when growing with other plants. Heartleaf Skullcap is one of various Scutellari species that grow in Texas, and prefers slightly more moisture, soil, and shade than the average hill country plant to truly thrive.
Yet, they are still very hardy and can survive a drought even in poor/shallow soil once established, though their growth will be reduced in those conditions. In deeper soils, Heartleaf Skullcap can more easily thrive in full sun, and it often prefers well-draining soils over heavy clays.
This wonderful woodland edge plant follows a cool season life cycle, and in fall it will begin growing out many different stalks from its roots, which then maintain themselves as a low groundcover over the winter. This growing habit is very useful to incorporate with warm season plants that go dormant in the winter, so that both groundcover and photosynthesis/feeding of soil microbes can be maintained over the winter.
Heartleaf Skullcap starts to grow its stalks out in early spring, reaching anywhere from 1-3 feet in height before they bloom, depending on their growing conditions. Depending on latitude, light, and moisture conditions, they usually begin to bloom anywhere from April to May, continuing into summer, and will continue blooming longer with wetter conditions. Heartleaf Skullcap loves the cool weather, and typically goes dormant as the summer heat settles in, unless prolonged by cooler weather and periodic rains, or if growing in a cooler and moist microclimate.
Scutellaria ovata is becoming more common in nurseries thanks to its various beneficial qualities and growing habits. The beautiful silvery-blue-green, fuzzy foliage and soft blue blooms create a pleasant visual contrast in the landscape. Like many other Scutellaria species, Heartleaf Skullcap also possesses useful medicinal compounds, and can be used similarly to Scutellaria lateriflora, though they have their differences.
Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019
A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden. The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.
A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.
How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?
The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so. Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens. Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.
When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others. After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.
Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to. The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.
Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm
Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.
Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.
- Soil and Water Conservation. As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon. Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds. These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
- Perennial Food Crops. Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time. A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted. In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
- Support Species of Plants. Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop. We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils. Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils. Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
- Soil Amendments. Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish. Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals. We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
- Drip Irrigation. Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale. The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation. I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas. Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
- Mulch. At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually. Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available. A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.
Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX
The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site. A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks. The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.
Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.
The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.