We begin again!

Hello again!

The Raw Culture blog is starting back up with new faces in new places!

We are Maria and Thalia, currently living and working on a developing homestead just outside of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.

Maria in our front yard

the greenhouse...soon to be two stories ūüôā

inside the greenhouse (cob walls)

bodega > veggie beds > greenhouse

Air vents from the root cellar, located under the bodega, run beneath the veggie beds into the greenhouse to ventilate and cool it during the hot summer months.

Half of the bodega is a seed bank and the other half is our room ūüôā

our humble abode

more houses on the property

The palapa roof is made out of carrizo, a plant native to the area, similar in appearance and function to bamboo, but not as strong.  Perfect for creating ecological and economical roofs.

view from the roof

the mountains behind the property

view of the presa in the front of the property

The land has many in progress projects and exciting plans for the future (more info to come!) This blog will document our progress and work here on the land as well as other projects in and around the San Miguel community.¬† Our intention is share inspiration and information related to sustainable and regenerative living and create a blog that is not only interesting but educational. ¬†This week is super busy for us because we are helping to organize “Being Green Week”, a week long series of lectures, workshops, conferences and tours related to sustainability and sustainable initiatives going on in and around San Miguel. ¬†We will post more on these events as they occur.


My Independent Study for Summer, 2011

My independent study project for my University was to create a dry land fruit orchard in the semi arid mountains of central Mexico. The project involved the strategic planting of selected fruit tree varieties on the face of a hill, with the implementation of water harvesting earthworks.  I worked on this project with one other co-designer and other helpers to assist in the manual labor. Our site was in central Mexico, at about 6,000 ft above sea level.  The climate we were working in is as much temperate as it is arid. There is a very, very wet raining season in the summer, and an extremely dry season throughout the rest of the year.  The sun is extremely strong and days are hot; but nights can get cold and in winter frosts are common. The objectives of the project were to create an edible orchard and lay down the foundations for a future food forest, as well as regenerate the water table on the site to enable self-irrigation in the years to come.

Our site during the dry season

We approached the project with a lot of confidence.  I had spent 6 weeks in Arizona learning how to create water-harvesting earthworks for trees.  My co-designer Alex had spent the past 4 summers working for a garden and landscaping business in the greater Boston area, so he had planted thousands of trees and knew quite a bit about tree care.  As with most projects of this nature, it turned out there were quite a bit of unforeseen changes in plan and challenges that developed along the way; mostly originating from the manner in which we began the project.

We decided to undertake this project about a week before the owner of the land told us a backhoe was going to the land the next day to dig holes for the tress.  We then realized that we had to go out in the morning and figure our where the holes should be dug, on the spot, without any prior placement planning or slope and contour measurements.  This was a very undesirable to begin this project, but our boss said it was the only day the backhoe was available.  We later discovered that assuming we even needed a backhoe was also somewhat of a mistake.  I will elaborate on this later.

We placed the holes in a diamond pattern on the hill, using strides to measure the distance between them.  This way we had plenty of room between the trees, about 4 meters, and we also had room to create basins and swales in front.

After our holes were made we had to decide what types of trees we were going to plant based on the resources available.

The following highlights the steps we took after the initial holes were created:

The Backhoe

displays the hole placement

Part 1: Surveying and Design

Gaining a thorough understanding of the land and available resources was the first step in deciding what trees to plant.  The soil, annual rainfall, climatic temperatures and native plant life all had to be taken into consideration before we could make selections.  Our site was approximately 800 sq. yards located on the bottom half of a southwest facing slope.

The soil of San Miguel de Allende has a very alkaline ph level, many rocks and a high percentage of clay.¬† The high alkalinity is caused by the high amount of minerals and salts leftover from water that evaporates during the dry season.¬† The soil and climate of this area in Mexico are very similar to parts of the Mediterranean; sunny, warm days, cool nights, dry air and alkaline soil.¬† Therefore we were able make tree selections based on what we know grows well in a “Mediterranean climate”, such as citrus, avocados and olives.¬† The soil we surveyed contained a high amount of black and red clay.¬† Ideally soil will contain a balance of both large and small particles, with a higher amount of larger particles to promote water drainage.¬† Unfortunately our soil‚Äôs high clay content would make water drainage a slight issue.¬† Adequate drainage is vital for fruit trees, as many of these plants will rot or completely die if water is not able to flow freely away from their roots.

Rainfall was the biggest concern and consideration we had in planning for this project as well as the resource that was the primary influence of our design.  Our goal was to develop water-harvesting earthworks and use the slope of the hill to direct and control the flow of rainwater in order to allow for passive irrigation of the trees. The winter, spring, and part of the summer in San Miguel are dry with little to no rainfall.  Generally beginning in May there is rainy season that extends into September.  During this time period there is rainfall almost every day that transforms the land and plant life from a dry desert into lush grasslands and forests.  Our overall goal was to harvest the maximum amount of water during the rainy season in order to recharge the water table, which would then supply water to the trees through the dry months.

San Miguel has a very high elevation of about 6,000ft above sea level.  During the winter temperatures can reach as low sixteen degrees Fahrenheit, and during the late spring and early summer, as high as one hundred degrees Fahrenheit.  Accordingly, the months without rainfall are extremely dry and the months with rainfall are dry to moderately humid.  This is important for two reasons:  the dry climate makes for very fast evaporation, making water all that more difficult to store and be absorbed into the soil.  Also, the extremely low temperatures that can be reached are a limiting factor for tree we can plant.  Although the average temperature in San Miguel is quite warm, many of the heat loving plants that one can find farther south, such as avocados and mangos, would not survive through the winter.

The final aspect of the land that we studied was the already existing plant life.  Like much of Mexico, San Miguel is home to many varieties of cactus.  Another family of spiky plants that are abundant in the area is Acacias.  These plants can be as small as one-foot tall shrubs or as large as fifteen-foot tall trees.  Mesquite is a tree that is part of the Acacia family and grows abundantly in the area.  However our particular site was a slightly higher elevation than most and Mesquites could not survive the winter frosts.  Instead our land was full of Wuisache, or sweet Acacia trees.  Both Mesquite and Wuisache are leguminous and produce pea pods that eventually fall to the ground.  For a while we thought that the Wuisache trees were Mesquite.  Although they look very similar and both produce pods, the pods of the Wuisache are not edible like the Mesquite.  However they are still beneficial because they provide the soil with a constant supply of Nitrogen, which is a crucial element in the development and growth of food crops.  These native legumes would act as our nitrogen fixers and also provide shade and wind break for our young trees.

Part 2: Tree Selection

Taking into account all of the above information, we were able to narrow down the type of trees that we could plant.  We needed trees that were cold hardy, could thrive in alkaline soil, did well with strong sun and a dry climate, and could withstand droughts.  Initially this seemed like a tall order to fill, but from investigations into what other people were growing as well in the area as well as similar climates found in other countries, we were able to generate a diverse list of fruit trees.

A feature of the San Miguel area that holds true in many parts of Mexico, that I really found inspiring was the enthusiasm and support of organic, small scale farming.  Unlike the large scale industrial agriculture found in the USA, much of Mexico’s food is still produced by small farmers and then sold directly in the nearby communities and cities. Because of this we were able to find many small scale farmers in the area to give us advice about trees.  In fact there was a farmer that lived directly next to our site and he turned out the be the most helpful because he brought to our attention that the slightly higher altitude of that site made a big difference for which trees could make it through the winter.  He advised us not to plant any avocados, guayabana and only a small selection of citrus.  Initially we wanted to plant several nut varieties, but we were told that most nut trees did not fare well and that the safest bet would be Pecans.  Our research told us to stay away from plums because they like acidic soil.  However we spoke to a local farmer that said they grew well on his land and recommended we plant them.

The fruit trees we ended up planting are as follows: Pomegranate, Peach, Plum, Olive, Mandarin, Pecan, Apple, Apricot, Pear and Limon (a native Mexican variety of Lime).  In total we planted 40 trees.  These trees had characteristics that were best suited to the climate of our site.  For example, Olives, which come from the Mediterranean, are an excellent choice for our site.  They love a dry and hot climate and can withstand the colder temperatures of the winter.  Similarly, Pomegranate is well suited for a dry climate and Mandarin’s, being the hardiest citrus variety, would do well in the hot climate, but also make it through the harsh winter.  Other plants such as Apples, Apricots, and Peaches were also shown to be tolerant of the local conditions.  The rest of the plants, the Plums, Pears, Limon and Pecan, were originally not our first choices but because of the advise of local farmers we decided to plant them.

Part 3: Planting and Land Amendment

An important part of this process was finding methods that would necessitate the least amount of energy input with the greatest amount of benefit.  When deciding how to dig the holes for the trees, for example, we initially thought it was much more efficient to use a back hoe to dig the holes instead of digging them by hand.  Although this meant using heavy equipment and burning fossil fuels, it would ultimately save a good deal of time, money, and human labor. All of the holes were dug roughly two to three feet deep and four feet in diameter, with some being even larger.  It turned out we ended up spending a great deal of time filling the holes back in with dirt because they were dug too big.

It is still debatable whether the backhoe was a good or bad idea.  On the one hand it broke up the very dry earth and made it much easier to create earthworks and prepared the soil for the tree roots.  On the other hand we spent hours refilling the holes and then later discovered a study that said the popular belief that you must create a meter-by-meter hole when planting a fruit tree is actually myth.  I think ultimately the backhoe was helpful but it dug the holes way too big.

After talking to people in the area and doing our own research we decided we needed to plant the trees on raised mounds and form a basin in the front for water catchment.  In Bill Mollisons Permaculture book he shows a picture of a sloping hill with a swale and berm formed on a contour line.  The trees are then planted in the raised earth below the swale.  Since the drainage of our soil was poor due to high clay content this was not an option.  Also it would not have been possible to work with the contour line because it was so inconsistent across the slope due to large rock clusters and boulders.  Instead we created individual swales in front of each tree.

This way the swales would still harvest water, but the force of gravity would prevent over saturation of the roots. In addition we created spillways that directed over flow into the swales below.  We also made sure to plant the most drought tolerant trees, such as Olive and Pecan on the top of the hill because they would get the least amount of water.  The more water loving citrus, apple and pear trees were planted at the bottom of the hill.

Before planting the trees we soaked their root balls in a micro rhizome bath. After planting the trees we top-dressed the mound with two buckets of compost mixed with a ¬ľ cup phosphoric rock.

the micro rhizome bath

mixing the phosphoric rock and compost

We were a bit nervous about the clay content being to high, but after doing research and talking to local farmers we learned that the trees would be just fine.  We only put compost on top of the tree because if compost is put in the hole the tree roots will linger in the nutrient rich area and not expand outwards.  The compost on top would slowly leach available phosphorus into the soil over time and not prevent root expansion.  A friend also told us it would be best to allow the trees to adapt to the existing soil and not make any amendments.

Creating the mounds, swales, and berms took up the majority of our laboring hours.   After we completed the planting process, we then used the abundant supply of rocks on the land to create a natural form of mulch, adding a layer of small rocks on top of the mounds to hinder weeds and keep moisture and hat from escaping during the dry winter.

basin and rock mulch

In addition to the swales and berms, we created spillways to direct the over flow from one basin to another. We also lined these with stones to deter erosion.


spillway lined with rocks

Part 4: Results

We started the planting process at the beginning of the rainy season.  When we began planting the land was yellow and dry, and lacked vegetation.  By the end of our project, the land had transformed into a rich, lush, green oasis with a wide variety of plants, shrubs, and trees.

our site before the rains

After a month of rain

Similarly, the trees followed this transformation.  As more water fell, the soil began to moisten and become enriched, making it more suitable for the trees to grow.  All of the trees quickly took and began to flourish, except for the pomegranates.  Much to our disappointment and surprise, only two out of the seven Pomegranates we planted survived.

apple blossom

apricot tree

Mandarin Tree

browning pomegranate

A number of factors could have contributed to their deaths. The man who sold them to us gave us one for free and had somewhat questionable merchandise.  Most of our trees came from an organic fruit orchard but the pomegranates, pecans and olives were purchased on the side of the highway.  They were not hearty or of good quality and were most likely grown with synthetic fertilizers.

Fortunately, many of the plants took to the land better than we had planned.  The Apricots and Pears, for example, flourished the best, with little to no leaf loss or yellowing, which is customary to newly transplanted trees.  As expected, the olives took well without a hitch and quickly established themselves.  The citrus plants, the Mandarin and Limon also took well, but our main concern was their ability to survive in the colder months.  If it gets too cold and there are consecutive frosts, the plants can be burnt and damaged, which could lead to growth difficulties or death.

Many of the plants lost a few leaves, but that was expected.  Taking everything into account, at the end of our time with the land we were very pleased with our work.  Almost all of the trees we planted took to the land well.  The water catchment systems we put in place immediately started to gather water.  The rock mulch looked beautiful, deterred weeds, and added to the moisture content of the soil.


The amount of learning and hands on experience I gained from this project is immeasurable.  Having the opportunity to completely control and make decisions for a project of this size is very rare and therefore I feel even more grateful that I was able to take part in this.  The ability to work in another country and experience the people, culture, and different ways of thinking completely gave me a different perspective on the way I view my studies and what I want to do with my life in general.

What I gained most from this is the importance of thorough research and planning.  If we had not taken the time to contact several sources about what we were doing, we would have never had the success we experienced.  And even still more research and planning could have been done.  Creating this orchard with the intention of providing food for years to come was a wonderful experience. I think the most important thing I learned from this whole experience is that learning never stops and I will continue to be surprised, challenges and inspired for the rest of my life.

Miguel Maya’s Fruit Tree Farm and Watershed Restoration Project!

Today we visited an organic fruit tree orchard which was started by a man named Miguel Maya around¬† San Pedro and Humilpan, Quer√©taro, Mexico.¬† He started a land restoration project in the area in the early 1950’s in order to regenerate the landscape and water table.¬† The watershed of Rio Laja that provides water to Queretaro, San Miguel and other areas has been seriously depleted from deep wells and watering from all the farms in the region.¬† The decline of water causes cracking in the earth and therefore allows harmful chemicals such as fluorine and arsenic to deposit into parts of the water table, causing serious health problems for those who drink it.¬† This problem of non-potable water creates the need for filtered water in so many areas of Mexico.¬† However San Miguel and many other regions in Mexico with similar climates are capable of regenerating their water tables through using large and small scale water harvesting eartworks.¬† Since the 50’s, Miguel Maya has been developing and restoring his land in a way that conserves water, rebuilds¬† erosion and regenerates the water table

On his farm, he uses plastic and glass bottles to line the sides of his smaller beds. The bottles all have very small holes in them which slowly leak water overtime into the gardens; he fills these bottles very infrequently, about every 3 weeks.¬† This method conserves water by allowing the plants to get just enough water they need and eliminating over-watering and run-off water that isn’t absorbed by the plants.

Miguel Maya is able to grow a little less than 2,000 fruit trees with swale and basin irrigation.  In other words Maya uses contours in the land to harvest rain water to irrigate his trees instead of directly applying ground water.  Swales are channels that are dug into the land that prevent run-off and store water, therefore distributing it into the soil below and making the most of every rainstorm.  Central Mexico has a dry, arid climate.  However it gets spring rains and has a rainy season in the summer when rain occurs daily.  It also has many aquifers.  However due to poor water management it faces water shortages that get increasingly more serious every year.

Through sustainable land management and restoration practices Miguel Maya is able to grow many fruit trees in this climate where they usually would never survive (fruit trees are usually grown in humid, warm, moist climates) without any ground water.

can you see the swales?

Flourishing fruit trees in a dry climate?!

In order to provide water for the cultivating fruit trees and many other plants on the farm, Miguel Maya dug a pond, in Spanish called a “bordo”, similar to the one in progress on Luke’s land.¬† This water is used for the farm and also¬† water in Miguel Maya’s home.

Cows drinking from the bordo

In addition to the fruit trees, Miguel Maya also has a variety of plants and flowers growing in beds on the farm.¬† The raised beds retain water because of they are surrounded by blocks that help to keep the water from leaking out of the beds.¬† All of the plants grown on Miguel Maya’s farm are organic and are grown with a low environmental impact.¬† Miguel also harnesses the sun’s energy with a solar dehydrator that is used for fruits and other foods.

Thalia and Luc

Solar dehydrator!

Up the mountain a bit from the farm, Miguel Maya restored an area of slopping hillside with a series of terraces, berms and a dam.  Hundreds of years ago when the conquistadors came to San Pedro Huimilpan area, they deforested the land for construction which caused serious soil erosion and consequently run off.  The roots of living trees prevent erosion, but since the land was almost completely deforested, it became more and more degraded over time.  To reverse this damage,  Miguel has built a series of terraces that prevent erosion and allow the water to slowly seep back into the hillside.  Miguel also constructed a rock dam in the middle of the wash that runs in the center of the land which collects all the organic run off that comes down the mountain.   Every five to seven years, Miguel gathers this soil to make compost that he then returns to the elevations that have experienced the most erosion.

a view from the top of the hill


The terraces are built in such a way that channels the rain water into a series of outlets that then filter through the dam. This dramatically decreases rain water or organic matter run off during any given rain storm.   Although the project is not yet completed, there is already evidence of more fertile soil!

the stone dam

About 500 feet from the dam is a natural spring.  The landscape is dry and brown at this time of year but the 30 surrounding the spring are lush and blooming.

the spring

This water conservation project has taken Miguel Maya over 50 years to build.  However, he did this project nearly by himself with the help of a few others.  These techniques can signficantly restore so many areas that are suffering from erosion, deforestation and lack of fertility, which in reality is much of the planet.   There is not an endless supply of usable water here on earth and this will become increasingly evident in years to come.  Miguel Maya work is evidence how effective land restoration can be, and the potential for degraded landscapes.  Even a climate that gets less than 20 inches of rain a year can grow food for a community without depleting the water table.!


Today we went up into the mountains surrounding San Miguel to Cabras, where our friend Luc and his family are constructing their own commune based on the permaculture and biodiversity practices, land restoration and organic and biodynamic agriculture. The goal of the community is to live harmoniously with the environment, use little energy and create an interdependent landscape where the resources are recycled and used sustainably to support the living components in the environment. ¬†Biodynamics is an approach to agriculture that was pioneered by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, in the 1920’s. ¬†Steiner founded a philosophy called Anthroposophy.

Anthroposophy is a human oriented spiritual philosophy that reflects and speaks to the basic deep spiritual questions of humanity, to our basic artistic needs, to the need to relate to the world out of a scientific attitude of mind, and to the need to develop a relation to the world in complete freedom and based on completely individual judgments and decisions.

Based upon this philosophy he believed that a farm should be its own self-sustained entity with its own individuality. ¬†In the early 1920’s a group of practicing farmers, concerned with the decline of the soil, asked Steiner for advice. ¬†He responded through a series of lectures and conversations held at Koberwitz, Germany, in June 1924, there emerged the fundamental principles of biodynamic farming and gardening, a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth-organism to that of the entire cosmos. This approach has been under development in many parts of the world ever since. Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, who worked with Dr. Steiner during the formative period, brought biodynamic concepts to the United States in the 1930s.

more on biodynamics

Rudolf Steiner

Lucs grandfather was a pioneer of biodynamics in France.  Luc and his father grew up on a 200 acre biodynamic farm school and training center in France.

A circular house was already built when they bought the land and will be used as a community house when the commune is finished. The main house contains one big open room with a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom with a shower. The house also has an exterior drainage system that allows rainfall to drip off the roof into drains that empty into an underground cistern an is the used for irrigating food crops.

main house with built in drainage system

underground cistern

In order to prolong the availability of the crops grown on the organic farm that will be developed on the land, Luc and his dad decided to construct a root cellar. A root cellar is a structure built underground (or partially underground) that is used to keep vegetables, fruits and other foods from spoiling for a long a amount of time. Because of it’s location underground, the root cellar sustains a constant low temperature and high humidity (of about 50% to 98% depending on the food). This keeps the fruits and vegetables moist and prevents them from shriveling up. This root cellar will have compartments with different humidities to maximize the variety of what the root cellar can store. ¬†The root cellar is ventilated to provide constant air flow so the foods do not spoil. Back before fresh produce was constantly made available in grocery stores, almost every home had a root cellar to preserve foods.


Cabbage…….3-4 months

Brussels Sprouts…..3-5 weeks

Jerusalem Artichokes..1-2 months

Carrots……..4-6 months

Chinese Cabbage…1-2 months

Eggplant……..1-2 weeks

Parsnips……..1-2 months

Rutabagas……2-4 months


Radishes……..2-3 months

Tomatoes…….1-2 months

Cauliflower……2-4 weeks

Broccoli………1-2 weeks

Beets……..4-5 months

Pumpkins……5-6 months

Potatoes………4-6 months

Turnips…….4-6 months

the future root cellar

the early stages of the cellar wall

Locally mined rock is a very sustainable material.  This rock is from the area and costs about $90 usd per truck load.  That is extremely inexpensive and since it is naturally occurring it does not require fossil fuels to make.  Because a root cellar is a sub-terrestrial structure, one must use cement as the mortar rather than an earthen based substance.  The amount of cement is small as is the environmental cost when you consider the sustainable and economic function of the root cellar.

The root cellar will have different levels in order to store all types of foods that require different temperatures and humidity levels to keep from spoiling for a long period of time.

In order to catch and store rain during the monsoon season, Luc and his dad expanded an already existing pond into a larger, terraced pond in order to collect more rain water.  This pond will not only catch rain water, it will also support a microclimate and synergistic ecosystem developed through permaculture and aquaculture principles.  Aquaculture increases biodiversity in the land by keeping the land fertile in order to grow plants and produce food, while attracting microorganisms, collecting water to be reused for irrigation and energy. Water is not utilized sustainably in our modern society, but rather exploited and polluted. 80 percent of the rivers on our planet no longer support life!

The pond will be surrounded by trees that will keep humidity and also be irrigated by the water.  The pond will also contain fish and water plants.  It will be terraced so that when the water level goes down in the dry season, the microorganisms and fish will survive in the lowest level of water.

It is interesting to notice the difference in color between the top soil and sub soil.  The top soil is black and almost looks like asphalt.  The sub soil is the lighter brown beneath.  The top soil that has been dug up will be placed create a nutrient rich boarder around the pond for the fruit trees to grow.

Another amazing thing about the project being done on Luc’s land is that all the dirt, clay and silt that is being excavated from the land will be reused to make the additional earthen based houses on the land. ¬†We tested the soil using the jar method and it is about 15 percent clay with very little silt, and coarse sand particles. ¬†Perfect for cob!

the "ready mix" sub-soil for the earthen building projects

earth blocks

The houses will also be made out of earth blocks, like the ones explained in the last blog.  They have also started to build up compost piles containing cow and goat manure along with hay to prepare for constructing the organic garden that will allow them to sustain the community.

wild crafted mesquite chips

A local man provided these mesquite chips. ¬†The wood begin to grow beneficial fungi like mycelium, that will aid in the decompositional process of the compost. ¬†“Mycelium is the neurological network of nature can expand to thousands of acres in size in cellular mats achieving the greatest mass of any individual organism on this planet”. ¬†This Book¬†Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by Paul Stamets,¬†provides great information on this magical part of biology.


Manure provides Nitrogen to the compost.  The two most common things that go wrong with home composting is not enough nitrogen and not enough water.  In an arid climate like central Mexico watering compost is a necessary practice.


clay pots (ollas) for maintaining moisture in the compost piles

the carbon material for the compost

For compost manure is a good nitrogen source.  Dried plant matter like corn, straw and leaves provide carbon.  Vegetable scraps are well balanced and contain a good carbon/nitrogen ratio.  Next blog we will explore the wonders, ease and philosophy of composting humanure, a practice we all can and should be doing!

Well that’s all for today, community living! Isn’t it awesome and totally worth it??

This developing site is a great example of the potential for synergy and symbiosis between people and their environment. ¬†It includes some new and innovative technology, but mostly this type of existence depends on restoring our natural connection and relationship with the earth that has existed for as long as humans. ¬†Our civilization has lost this connection and awareness, not fully, but to a level that has seriously damaged and degraded the planet that sustains us. ¬†We need to reconnect, reintegrate and regain our ability to be harmoniously self sustaining within our environment, our collective future depends on it ūüôā

Tierra y Cal Field Trip: Green Building

Earth and Lime

Today we went to the site of the non-profit organization Tierra y Cal, which directly translates to earth and lime. This organization is a non-profit organization that “envisions a global resurgence of healthful and sustainable rural communities, rooted in cultural tradition and a shared sense of belonging and responsibility.”¬†¬†They provide workshops for people to learn how to build sustainable homes and are working to develop an institute on the site where students can come live and study.

Earth blocks are “Non-toxic, environmentally friendly, renewable, soundproof, bugproof, fireproof and even bullet proof!” These blocks are comprised of sand, clay and a small amount of either lime or cement and they are compressed using a hydraulic machine and fired using an on site kiln and also made of earth blocks. The soil and clay are filtered through a screen and then combined with the lime or cement.

The extremely large screen

Earth blocks: different shapes and sizes

Building with earth blocks helps combat climate change.  Construction with mostly cement is a large contributor to global warming. When producing cement in industrial factories, the lime and other ingredients are heated at a very high temperature which changes calcium carbonate into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere in high quantities. Additionally, the process of cement manufacturing requires large amounts of fossil fuels, either coal or natural gas, which also release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In terms of green house gas emissions, cement manufacture contributes 71.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, this is more that vehicle emissions!!! With earth blocks, these processes are almost completely eliminated, making it one of the most sustainable building methods.  Earth blocks also do not use manure or silty soil (as with some but not all methods of adobe), which are valuable natural resources that are good for growing food.

earth block press

Via Organica is hoping to share ¬†a portion of the land with Tierra y Cal to expand their farm school and create an agriculture department in Tierra y Cal institute. ¬†Growing food is a fundamental part of sustainable living. ¬†Including an agricultural component in the school would greatly benefit all of the students and the future food security of the area. ¬†The agriculture would have a large¬†focus on permaculture and native perennial food plants like Mesquite, which already were growing strong around the land we were told was the “future food forest”.

the future food forest

Upon arriving, we were given a tour of the land beginning with the dormitory they had restored from an old building using earth blocks and natural plasters. The dormitory consisted of three bedrooms for students, a common room/dining room and a bathroom with a dry (composting) toilet.

Front of Dormitory


the dormitory originally looked like this building

After touring the dormitory we moved onto a model house that Tierra y Cal is developing on-site.  The house is made of earth blocks and natural plasters and also has passive solar heating system using a slight modification of a popular technique.  On the front of the house there are indented portions in the wall where sheets of glass will be placed, leaving a space between the wall and the glass.  The glass covered portion will be painted a dark brown so that it attracts the sunlight.  The sunlight will penetrate the glass, heating up the space between and then eventually heating of the earth block wall, which will hold and radiate heat far after the sun has set.  On the front of the house, there will also be an awning that can be pulled down during times of extreme heat to prevent the space from over heating during the hot summer months.

front of house


inside the house

the space where glass with cover

After touring the model house, we trekked across the land and surveyed where the farm would be located. The land is very spacious and beautiful, and has a lot of potential.  There is a seasonal river that boarders the land, which is a good thing when you are living in an arid climate.

A vista from the agricultural space

the kiln

The land is on a gradual slope down to the river.  The future institute will be build on the top of the hill. It will include labs, a dining hall, classrooms and offices for the Tierra y Cal green building school.

outline for the institute building

Hopefully we will start working up here soon.  Look forward to more news in the future!


Out with the Old in with the New: El transplante en el invernadero.

Today was a very exciting and productive day out at the greenhouse! We started transplanting many crops and herbs to prepare for the switch from the colder season to the warmer season; the last frost is usually at the end of March in Mexico. Transplanting is a good way to utilize the old plants and the nutrients they have given the soil and make way for new plants that will benefit from them. Permaculture focuses on this technique and many others in order to sustainably grow food and plants. Rotating crops helps to avoid the build-up of pathogens in the soil. In the greenhouse and garden, we plant crops in a rotation of feeders and doners. Feeders, which are mostly crops that produce fruit, eat up nutrients and therefore supply their fruits with high levels of nutrients. Doners plants, such as legumes, provide nutrients to the soil for the feeder plants that will come after. Luke, put it very simply:

“You can’t have hungry people without a cook, just like you can’t have feeder plants without doner plants”

Another way of planting is with associations, like the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. You can plant crops together that complement each others needs. The three sisters are a perfect association because the corn provides a ladder for the beans to climb, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil for the corn and squash to feed off of and the squash provides shade to the soil to prevent weeds. The best way to plant would be “rotations of associations”. For example, you could plant three heat-tolerant association plants and rotate them with three cold-tolerant association plants to best utilize the soil.

Today, we focused on pulling out the parsley, cilantro and a few other cold-tolerant plants and transplanting romaine lettuce, jericho, cressida and a few different types of basil which are all heat-tolerant plants. When harvesting the parsley, we cut the sides of the plant down leaving the heart remaining to transplant outside. What was cut was saved and sent to Via Organica to sell in the store.

Once only the hearts of the parsley were remaining, we dug them out and brought them outside where they were bunched together in an irrigated spot in order to “stress them out a little” so they would propagate. We will then be able to not only get their seeds, but still have perfectly good parsley to harvest later.

Once this task was completed, we then moved back into the greenhouse where we began moving the chervil, which is an annual herb similar to parsley, from one bed to another bed which was just harvested. In the bed where the chervil was, we planted cressida which is an herb that tastes similar to watercress and belongs to that family. It has a strong, spicy taste and is really good in sandwiches!

We transplanted chervil and cressida using the no-till method. No-till farming does not disturb the soil structure and allows organic matter to remain in the soil, furthering carbon sequestering and decreasing the environmental impact of farming. In Mexico, utilizing the no-till method is especially useful because in the desert, there is hardly any organic matter in the soil because of the dry climate. The soil in Mexico mainly consists of minerals and with the no-till method, old roots and decomposing plant parts are left in the soil and naturally fertilize new plants that are put into the soil.

While I was transplanting chervil and cressida, Manuel was planting a few different types of basil. We did this in order to see which variety of basil would grow the best in the climate of Mexico. One of the goals at the greenhouse is to test different varieties of plants in order to share the information with small, local farmers who experience the pressure to compete with industrial American farming. If we can supply them with the information of what grows best, they have a better chance of utilizing their time to grow the best food instead of having to experiment with different types of plants. Here’s a variety of basil that we transplanted:

After transplanting, I planted carrot seeds in a bed alongside lettuce. While I was planting the seeds, I noticed that there were many pinecones in the bed. I asked Luke, “Where did these pinecones come from in San Miguel and why are they in the soil?” He responded that the pinecones add acidity to the soil. The pH level of the soil is the most important thing to consider when growing plants. If the soil acidity is too high or too low, it wouldn’t matter how many nutrients were in the soil, the plants still would not fair well. Soil pH determines the structure of the soil and the biological and chemical compounds of the soil. Certain plants can tolerate certain levels of pH. In the high desert of Mexico like in San Miguel, there is a very high soil pH level because it is so dry (about an 8 or a 9; very alkaline). By adding the pinecones, we are adding acidity into the soil and lowering the pH. In tropical Mexico however the soil has a very high acidity with a pH of about a 4 or a 5. Most of the time, the soil pH should be between a 6 or a 7 (similar to what a human pH level should be).

Carrots are not only a very hearty, nutritious crop but when harvesting them, they also provide the soil with oxygen because of how they are pulled up. It’s like tilling without completely disturbing the soil!

Once the carrot seeds were planted, Luke and I moved outside where we planted beans in a bed with peas and stinging nettles. We planted the beans really close to the nettles so that they could receive the nitrogen the beans would be putting into the soil. Upon doing this, I was stung a bunch by the nettles but it was totally okay because being stung provided me with formic acid! Stinging nettles have many medicinal properties. I usually injest them in the form of tea or a tincture for pain and discomfort. Nettles are also used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever and kidney problems.

Beans we planted.

Stinging nettles!!!

Anyways, thats it for today! Go organic gardening! Yay!!!!

Los Flores Comestibles

Today we spent the day in the greenhouse harvesting edible flowers and herbs along with many different types of vegetables. We started off picking snap peas for the Via Organica store and filled up a 5 gallon bucket just from a few rows! The produce for the store is picked fresh daily and sent to the store before 9 am. Once that was completed, we made our way out into the garden where we proceeded to pick rue, dill flowers, arugula flowers, borage flowers, margarita flowers and calendula.

Jackie with all the flowers

pansies, arugula flowers (lower left), borage in the middle and dill flower to the right

We harvested these flowers for local restaurants that use them to add beauty and color to their salads, as well as unique flavor.

Pansies (Flores del Pensamiento) are fleshy and have a mild, minty flavor.

Arugula (r√ļcula) Flowers taste like arugula leaves but they are spicier and more pungent.

Borage (borraja) flowers are edible and taste like cucumber.  Borage is a good companion plant and said to improve the flavor of other plants.  Medicinally its leaves can be used to regulate metabolism and hormones, as an anti-inflammatory, to alleviate head colds, respiratory infections and bronchitis.

Rue flowers have a very interesting scent, very aromatic, strong, and sweet.  A bit musty, but pleasant overall.  It is native to the Mediterranean, the national flower of Lithuania and used by Italians to flavor liquor and beer.   A rue plant can live for hundreds of years and is referred to as a plant of patience and endurance.

In addition to these, we also harvested some arugula, cilantro, rainbow chard and lettuce.

our morning harvest

Rainbow chard is so beautiful!!

Once everything was bundled and sent to the store we began to plant carrot seeds in one of the greenhouse beds. We did this by turning up the soil and slightly compressing three rows in which the seeds were planted in a zig-zag pattern about and inch apart. This is done to utilize as much space as possible in the beds.

freshly seeded rows

After planting the seeds, a garden tour arrived and Luke and Thalia gave them an explanation of what was happening in the greenhouse.  The visitors seemed really excited to be learning about organic gardening and were impressed with the work Via Organica has been doing. The tour moved outside where they were shown the outdoor gardens and compost pile that consisted solely of fruits, veggies and hay.

an outdoor garden

the snail garden with more transplanted

We also recieved a large delivery of organic waste that would otherwise most likely be sent to a landfill.  We are going to begin composting it next week.  Hopefullly film a bi-ligual compost tutorial as well.