the voyage to Petaca

Today I went too visit my friends at the Ex-hacienda de la Petaca.  Unfortunately I got of the bus too soon and ended up walking about three miles down the desert highway and then about ten minutes on a dirt road.  Luckily today was not that hot.  I finally made it to the hacienda about an hour late.  I found Keli, Mike and Jaime up on the hill mapping out berms with this interesting leveling tool I had never used before.  Jaime gives Keli and Mike hands on lessons every week.  I do not know him very well but he sells mesquite at the farmers market and is very knowledgeable about native foods, land restoration, water-harvesting earthworks and permaculture.  I am hoping to learn from him more during my time here.  Jaime created a table that determines the necessary drop and spacing between terraces on a slope relative to its grade.  He made these calculations for this climate specifically that gets less than 28 inches a year.  In a rainier climate, the spacing would be much closer.  Because we do not have large machinery to form terraces, we will instead use available materials to create berms along the contour lines at appropriate intervals.  Because the grade of this slope is 4%, every 24 meters there will need to be a 1 meter drop.  This means the berms will be 24 meters apart and built to be 1 meter lower from the previous.

Jaime's table

The intention of building these berms is to restore the land by preventing further soil erosion and harvesting rain water.  Burning seems to be common practice here in Mexico and it is very detrimental to the health and vitality of the soil because it kills all the beneficial microorganisms and depletes nutrients.  It is done mostly to prevent wild fires by clearing out dry grasses in a controlled manner, but also for other reasons.  The land we were working on today had a few areas that had been burned by people trying to harvest trees for firewood and other uses.  They had burnt the trunks instead of cutting them, my guess is because it was easier than using a machete.

the burnt patches

The berms are going to be constructed out of tree branches, rocks, and dry vegetation.  There is an invasive air plant species that infests the trees around this area of Mexico called Paschtle (Tillandsia recurvata).

paschtle in a tree

Here is some information I got from the blog of my friends at the ex-hacienda about this plant:

Paschtle is an epiphyte (not a parasite) that blocks the photosynthesis of a tree. The thorns and rough bark of the mesquite provide a very secure surface for the the hairy seeds of the Paschtle to attach to. The paschtle is looked upon as a parsite, and pest, however, it is a blessing waiting for our harvest. The paschtle is high in nitrogen and can be used as animal fodder or compost material. In these arid lands, building soil is our number one priority, paschtle can help us. We also utilize paschtle to build terraces to retain soil. There is some basic research into the use of ball moss extracts for anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory uses.

check out their blog:

In permaculture every problem is also a solution.

We used a measuring stick and an binocular with a built in level in the lens to find the contour lines that the berms would run a long.  I have done water harvesting earth works before but used a type of water level sometimes called a bunyip.  I had never used this system before.

Mike finding the contour line

Keli in the distance with the measuring stick

To use this system you first find where your eye level hits the measuring stick when standing next to it.  When you look through the eye level, there is a middle line and vertical level to the left in the lens.  If the middle line is at your eye level mark on the marker and the level bubble is in the middle, the line between the two points is a contour.  Read my posts Earthworks and Bunyip for more information on water harvesting earthworks.

Here are photos of the berms that Keli and Mike built in the mesquite grove.  The soil in this grove is very silty and high in organic matter, making it valuable for growing.  They plan on planting perennial shade tolerant herbs beneath the trees and adding in swales.  Swales are dug out indents that collect rainwater and distribute it to the surrounding root systems.  Berms are raised barriers.  Both slow down water flow and protect the soil from erosion while simultaneously harvesting water.

The Paschtle Berm

a stone berm

All the Nopal (prickly pear) cactus were starting to bloom.  The fruit is called tuna.

blooming tuna (prickly pear)...the buds remind me of rubies


Not So Organic Cosmetics!

The Organic Consumer’s Association is currently leading a campaign called “Coming Clean” which is petitioning against falsely labeled “organic” cosmetics. Although consumers are walking into Whole Foods and other health food stores thinking that they are buying the best in organic cosmetics, the US government does not regulate cosmetics for safety, health threats or environmental damage. Therefore, cosmetic companies are able to falsely label their products “organic” even when they are not USDA certified organic. Companies such as Avalon, Desert Essence, Earth’s Best, Giovanni, Head, Jason, Kiss My Face, Nature’s Gate, Physician’s Formula and Stella McCartney just to name a small percentage, are all advertising their products as “organic” and “natural” when in fact the main ingredients are harmful chemicals and they are not officially deemed organic by the USDA. Check out this link to see just how hazardous these products actually are:

Many of the companies have actually been bought out by large corporations. For example, did you know that Burt’s Bees was sold to Clorox and Tom’s Toothpaste was sold to Colgate??!! Avalon Organics and Jason Natural Cosmetics are owned by Hain Celestial Group, Good Stuff Organics is owned by pH Beauty Labs and Nature’s Gate is owned by Levlad corporation. Contained in mostly all of these products are cancer causing chemicals, developmental toxicity and user warnings. Pretty surprising for something that claims to be organic isn’t it? You can read up on many other cosmetic companies on

Most likely the answer is no. We do not know how harmful the ingredients are that are in our so called “organic” products. The companies claiming to be organic that are listed above all manufacture products that contain similar harmful chemicals: ethanol, retinol, and melatonin all cause cancer. Citronellol leads to immunotoxicity and irritation, octinoxate cause endocrine disruption along with oxybenzone and salicylic acid causes neurotoxicity. These chemicals are contained in the highest percentage of the products these companies are producing along with many, many other harmful chemicals. If these companies are labeling their products organic, exactly which ingredients are actually safe to be used on the body if there are so many harmful ones?

Dr. Bronner’s stands to be the most reliable in certified organic cosmetics with the lowest skin-deep hazard levels. All of it’s constituents are certified organic, with the main ingredient being hemp. Along with being USDA certified organic, all Dr. Bronner’s cosmetics are also Fair Trade Certified. Along with Dr. Bronner’s, companies such as Alteya, Baby Bear, Badger, Bumble and Bee, Organic Essence, Purely Shea and Origins Organics are all USDA certified organic. In other words, just make sure you are checking the labels of the products you are buying to see if they are actually USDA certified organic!

Whole Foods Market just recently created a new policy that will be in total effect in June 2011 in which they stated:

“We believe that the “organic” claim used on personal care products should have very similar meaning to the “organic” claim used on food products, which is currently regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Our shoppers do not expect the definition of “organic” to change substantially between the food and the non-food aisles of our stores. Accordingly, the following requirements apply to all personal care products which use the word “organic” in any way on the product label”.

All personal care and cosmetic products sold at Whole Foods Market that claim to be organic must show documentation of certification by the USDA in order to be sold and labeled as organic. This requirement is a very big step in properly labeling products for many companies and is setting an example for other large companies such as Trader Joes, Stop and Shop and many more to also properly label their “organic” products.

Take the next step and refuse to buy products that aren’t properly labeled and set a precedent for others to follow! Read more with the link below and take the quiz to see if you really know who is in control of  your “healthy”  products!

the snail garden continued and adobe bricks

We have already begun to transplant artichokes (alcachofa) and creeping camomile (manzanilla) in the outermost layer of the snail garden.  Both are hearty perennial varieties.  Artichokes can withstand cold temperatures and the creeping chamomile can handle light foot traffic.  San Miguel is at about 6,300 ft above sea level.  There is one monsoon season in the middle and late summer and occasional spring rains, but otherwise it is a very dry climate.  The temperature also changes dramatically, you will fry during the day, but need a sweater at night.  These factors make growing food more challenging.   This garden is a perennial food and medicine garden so we must pick plants that can handle this extreme climate throughout the year.  We also submerged the ollas, which are the porous ceramic pots that maintain humidity in the soil.  They are an ancient design brought to us by the Chinese, muchas gracias.  They are so very helpful in reducing water use and increasing the viability of gardening in a desert climate.  Here are some photos of the work we did on the circle garden in the beginning of the week.  We have since made more progress, I just didn’t get a chance to document it.

las ollas

fixing the edges

the center of the garden, ollas in the right corner

I also had the pleasure of visiting the construction site of my new friend Ombertos adobe house.  He is making all the adobe bricks himself, using dirt and manure.  The manure contains fibers which bind the dirt particles together much like cob, but on a smaller scale.  The different types of earth building are interesting to explore.  There are so many methods and variations that use fundamentally the same ingredients.

hand-made adobe bricks

the materials, manure in the back and the dirt to the right

Ombertos soil is very silty, good for growing food, but not for making his bricks, so he gets his dirt from about a quarter of a mile down the road.  It is amazing how dramatically the soil can vary from place to place even as close as 50 feet apart.  In the spring Omberto grows the three sister, corn, beans and sqaush in the fields surrounding his casita.

the three sisters field

close up of the bricks

The bricks and the binder between them is made of the same proportions of dirt and manure.  With all earth building the materials are cheap, sometimes free, but the labor is demanding.  Think about hand making enough bricks by hand to build a house, or building a cob house handful by handful.  It is definitely a process, but when you consider its environmental cost in comparison to conventional building it is well worth the trouble.  Plus earthen buildings breath because they are alive 🙂

Please check out this video!  Part 1 of the UMASS permaculture project documentary…

Ex Hacienda de La Pataca

without corn, there is no country

The planting of GMO crops is illegal in Mexico and faced with great opposition by the people.  Viva la Revolucion Organica!!!

Yesterday I brought the Frida corn mural to the farmers market.  A local artist that works with Via Organica drew it.  It kept getting knocked over by the wind so we eventually put it away.  After I met up with Keli and Mike, who I met at last weeks Tiangese.  They are both staying at Keli families Hacienda that is about 20 minutes outside of San Miguel.  His family bought the Hacienda with the intention of turning it into a retreat for Hari Krishna devotees, but it didn’t end up that way.  Now Kaylee and his family, and his friend Mike and the occasional guests live at the Hacienda.  Some of the local kids exchange lessons and internet use for help around the land.  Kaylee and Mike have transformed much of the land into gardens and have wonderful plans to plant a forest garden in a pre-existing mesquite grove.  The hacienda is beautiful and has the potential to become something wonderful like a self-sustaining community with a school.  I am really excited about working on the land and seeing how things unfold.

the interior hall

the interior courtyard with food gardens


Wouldn’t that make a cool swimming hole!

a fenced in garden

Kaylee and Mike told me las ardillas (squirells) eat all the crops except onions and root vegetables so they had to fence in the garden.  Ardillas are in reality an excellent and tasty food source commonly eaten by native peoples up until more recent times.  We were trying to figure out the most humane and quick way to trap and kill a squirrel for food.  We did not decided on the best method, suggestions welcome.

this old water trough now acts as a compost bin

Mike in front of the main building

the mesquite grove we will transform with water harvesting earthworks and perennial planting

Mike and Keli are taking lessons with an older mexican man named Jaime on permaculture, native foods and land restoration in that area of Mexico.  They invited me to join, so hopefully I will be going with them this Thursday.

Walking around this property was magical.  The Hacienda was built 300 years ago!  I was envisioning all the green vegetated areas being brought back to like by the spring rains and further planting.  They are going to have a harvest festival in the next few months where work all work together during the day and then celebrate all night.

el jardín caracol

From 8 am to 12 pm I worked up at the jardín planning out a perennial herb and food garden.  The garden was a circular shape broken into four sections with a circular mound in the middle.  We decided to spiral an access pathway for harvesting through the garden and make some smaller radial pathways that connected to the spiral.  We decided to call the garden el caracol, which means snail.  Luc had prepared the compacted soil by simply covering in it mulch (mostly straw and dried stalks) and watering it every 3 weeks for 4 months.  This process moistened and loosened it to a consistency ideal for planting without needing to till.  We first began by removing all of the mulch and then used pitch forks to aerated and loosen the soil without turning it over, which degrades the soil by exposing its biology and nutrients to the environment.  After the soil was prepared we drew our pathways and began digging them out.  There were some dry patches in the garden that we replaced with wet soil from the dug out pathways. Luc and I managed to finish half the garden.  Because this climate is so dry this time of year we had to make sure to recover the prepared beds with the mulch.  We also mulched the pathways to avoid further compaction and promote beneficial microbial growth.

removing the mulch

Luc digging the path

Luc reapplying the mulch to prevent moisture loss

mulching the path to prevent compaction

At noon we left the jardín to go meet with a young nutritionist woman who is, with our help, teaching a group of students about urban gardening.  Luc asked for my help in designing the curriculum for the class.  These students have no prior knowledge of the material we are going to cover so we decided to begin the class by familiarizing them with the concepts cycles, systems and interconnection found in nature and society to give them a better understanding of the work we will be doing.  We will then focus on the basics needs of plants; water, sun, and healthy soil.  The second class will be a praxis where each student will plant two companion species in a recycled fruit grate with a ceramic pot for continuous watering.  They will learn to mix soil and we will also cover the nutritive properties of the plants.  The third class will cover making soil blocks and mini greenhouses for germination and plant characteristics and stages.  The final class will focus on Native Foods that grow in the area, most of which will become abundant with the spring rains.


urban gardening workshop and more

Monday and Tuesday I helped Luc teach an urban gardening workshop to a group of college students and graduates who want to be able to teach other people how to grow their own food.  It was a very comprehensive workshop that covered a large amount of material in two days.  We learned about composting with worms, making soil blocks for germination, making different soil mixes, seed saving, making mini greenhouses for germinating seeds as well as many other gardening techniques and methods.  The workshop was taught all in Spanish, which was challenging but fun for me, luckily many of the spanish words sound very simular to english, for example: microorganismos, plantas, composto, ect.  I can feel myself getting more and more comfortable with the language each day.  Here are some photos of the two day workshop.

the workshop schedule

work compost

We cut up the compost into smaller pieces so that the worms would work through it faster, all of it will become rich humus in a few weeks.

the work compost with humidity control

The clay pot is pourus, allowing water to travel through it into the soil at a steady rate.  Using these pots maintains the moisture level and does not allow leaching of microorganisms and nutrients that can occure from conventional watering.  These are very valuable for growing food in arid climates.  Some plants can go two weeks between water refills.

mixing soil (4 parts moldy leaves, 4 parts dirt, 2 parts compost)

painting the inside of the ceramic pot

We planted a mandarine tree in this pot.  First we painted a layer of non-toxic, non-petroleum based acrylic paint on the inside of the pot to prevent moisture from escaping through the porous ceramic.

Manuel planting borage around the mandarine tree

Borage will act as a flavor enhancer for the mandarine tree.

student making the mini-greenhouse for germination

the lightbulb will heat the greenhouse at night

Today I worked up at the farm.  First I transplanted chamomile (manzanilla) into outdoor beds.  Then Luc and I mixed a pile of thermophilically composted material, wood and leaf mulch to create microorganism rich compost for soil mixes.  Luc was explaining to me the technique that they are using to make compost without having to add a nitrogen source, other than the food scraps.  All compost needs a good c:n ratio, which is roughly 30:1.  Manure is a good source of nitrogen, but it also costs money and can carry diseases.  Instead we made a compost pile that is rich in microorganisms that make nitrogen more available in the soil.  The composted food scraps already have a good c:n ratio and molding leaf mulch and rotting wood which are rich in mycelium.  We layered and mixed the three materials into a square shape, but boards around it to contain the moisture and structure and stuck 4 clay pots in to maintain the humidity level.  Then we shaded it from the sun.  After that we transplanted soil blocks of rhubarb and valerian into larger pots.  Tomorrow we are going to begin the design of a circular perennial garden using permaculture principles.  Here are some photos of the greenhouse and gardens up at the farm site.

the greenhouse, germinating seeds in the front, beds in the back

outdoor beds


the sunny side of the rooftop garden above the Via Organica store

the shaded side

food for a changing climate

I was able to take the afternoon off because I worked on Saturday at the farmers market.  Tonight I am going to go out with a friend from homes mother, who I happened to run into while working at the Farmers Market.  Saturday I am going out to see the earthbag house I helped build, but have not been back to for over 7 years.

3 days in Mexico

I arrived in San Miguel on Thursday night to a party at Casa Angelitos (check it out) that was being held in honor of a famous author.  I immediately was introduced to some young people who are currently constructing the largest super adobe (earthbag) dome ever created outside of San Miguel on the campus of a Waldorf School.  They are also staying at Casa Angelitos, so I will be able to work with them on their project while I am here.  Yesterday I harvested greens in the early morning and then went and sold them as well as a variety of seedlings at a farmers market that is the only organic farmers market in San Miguel.  It was really fun and challenging to speak to people in Spanish about all the varieties of plants and greens for sale.  There also were a lot of older American Senoras and my English came in handy when talking to them because Manuel, the man I was selling with, only speaks Spanish.  I also ran into the parents of some of my old friends from childhood, which was really bizarre and surprising.  Today I found myself in the living room of Rose and Ronnie Cummins, who are the founders of the Organic Consumers Association in the United States and are also involved with Via Organica.  I had not previously made the connection but have admired and followed the OCA ever since I became interested in agriculture.  It was really exciting to be able to talk to both of them about their work and then also to realize I would be working with them.  Ronnie said something interesting about his experience with Mexican farmers, which is that unlike many American farmers, Mexican Farmers are extremely interested and eager to learn about organic farming and growing sustainable food.  We talked about re-greening projects in Mexico, seeds, Monsanto, and the important role animals play in our collective future.  Monday and Tuesday I am helping with two agriculture workshops that are being held at the Via Organica store and greenhouse.  The group that is building the super adobe dome went to Guanajuato for the weekend to teach a workshop on bio-intensive orchards and rooftop gardens.  They will be back later today and hopefully we will head out to their site sometime this week.  I also met the man who is living at my earthbag house yesterday at the farmers market.  I am hoping to make arrangements to go out there and get some water harvesting earthworks going asap.

My last week at Bean Tree was pretty mellow.  We did some natural plastering on the cob wall me and the other interns built.  We cooked down some nopal (prickly pear) cactus pads by boiling them in water to extract the mucopolysaccarides to use for the plaster.  Muchopolysaccharides are microscopic fibers that bind the sand and clay particles together giving the plaster a smother texture and also increasing its durability.  Here are some photos of the natural plaster…

the plaster (clay, sand, water and mucopolysaccharides)

trawling the wall

note the smooth texture given by the metal trawl

Trawls smooth and shine the plaster.  They should be used when the plaster is leather dry, meaning not still wet, but workable enough to be smoothed by the trawl.  Barbara says cut up yogurt containers make excellent trawls.

Bean Tree was a magical place, I will remember my time there forever.  There is an amazing ridge of volcanic rock right behind the central site that I would hike usually everyday and sometimes to watch the sunset.  Here are some photos of this beautiful piece of Sonoran desert…