Deep Mulch Method for Building Soil in Deserts

Yesterday I watched a video on how to build healthy soil in desert areas such as Arizona. A lot of our readers are building earthbag houses and gardens in similar environments since land like this is often quite affordable.

The forest garden in the video looked fantastic, however I was shocked to learn the owner has been applying 4’ (yes 48”) of wood chips and grass clippings every year for almost 30 years! That’s mind boggling. While this method obviously works, it is very labor intensive and it’s not scalable. There’s not enough wood chips to supply thousands of homeowners in desert areas.

I’d suggest getting Brad Lancaster’s bestselling book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond to learn of additional ways to build soil in desert areas.

Here’s one other option. I’d probably shape the land in advance with one or two mini-excavators: one to dig trenches for hugelculture beds on contour and to sculpt shallow swales in between (remove some clay), and a second excavator with a big auger to drill tree holes several feet apart until the site looks like Swiss cheese. Export all this clay and fill the swales and tree holes with mycorrhizal rich compost/top soil mix.

In between your new fruit and nut trees, consider planting fast growing soil busting/nitrogen fixing trees and plants to build soil and help shade the slower growing fruit trees. These can later produce biomass by chopping and dropping leaves and branches, and they can be removed when the main trees get larger.

For more free information, search our blog for keywords building soil or degraded land. There are quite a few examples now of people who have restored the worst soil imaginable. My example above is a bit extreme (machine intensive) but it would speed the process and get you off to a good start to establishing a forest garden or similar type of edible landscape around your home. You’d definitely save many hundreds of hours of very hard work. You could rent the machines to save money.

Kentucky-grown hemp will insulate the walls of this house

“Hemp enthusiasts attending a two-day workshop in Lexington began working Friday on what is touted as the first house to be insulated with Kentucky-grown hemp.

Participants in the “Building with Hemp” workshop, which coincides with Hemp History Week, learned about the history and uses of hemp before getting their hands dirty making insulation from hemp for a house under construction at 168 York Street.

“There’s a lot to be figured out, and I think this house gives us the opportunity to look into that,” said Josh Hendrix, director of business development and domestic production at CV Sciences, one of the partners for the workshop.

Hendrix, who grows hemp on his farm in Mount Sterling, said he hopes to one day build a guest house on his farm using hemp as a building material.

Kris Nonn, director of design and construction at North Limestone Community Development Corporation, organized the workshop along with Hendrix.

“What we’re trying to demonstrate is how a locally-sourced product can help the local economy,” Nonn said. “There’s a potential for jobs, for green jobs specifically.”

According to Nonn, hemp is an “insulation alternative that doesn’t have major drawbacks.”

The material, known as “hempcrete,” is hypoallergenic, resistant to fire and insect damage, and “allows moisture to move through it,” according to Nonn.

Read more here:
Special thanks again to Alex and Gail who keep finding good stories for us to enjoy.

Worst Places to Live with Minimal Building Codes: Fracking, Oil, Mining Regions

We have a whole series of articles about the best places to live with few or no building codes in the US. The other day I came across a video about oil shale fracking called Shale Cowboys. Then I remembered that the current Administration is pushing for US energy independence using oil shale and coal deposits. These areas would be among some of the worst places to establish a sustainable homestead in my opinion. Once the water table is polluted then the area is basically uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

Map of US oil shale deposits

Map of US oil shale deposits

Image source:

Earthbag Dome Building Online Calculator

“I would like readers to help validate a part of my PhD research. In this phase, I created an online tool to design earthbag/SUPERADOBE volumetric domes. Please try it and fill the form about your experience.

The earthbag dome online calculator is available at (Sound is very hard to hear.) I´d appreciate if you can share with your contacts. PS: It doesn’t work on cellphones, just computers.”

Related: Earthbag Dome Materials Calculator

S.T.U.N. Permaculture – Sheer. Total. Utter. Neglect.

Mark Shephard’s Farm is thriving using Sheer. Total. Utter. Neglect. permaculture principles (STUN). The main job skill apparently is the ability to eat popcorn on the couch with one hand and flip channels with a remote with the other. Hmm. I think could do that.

Regenerative agriculture by Mark Shephard

Regenerative agriculture by Mark Shephard

Mark Shephard, of Restoration Agriculture Design, shows us how to make money AND heal the earth with S.T.U.N. Sheer, Total, Utter, Neglect! Mark Shephard’s permaculture network has thousands of hours of free podcasts and videos that explain their agriculture techniques in detail.

Another fantastic video by Justin Rhodes on YouTube (seems like one of his best)
At 17:36 in the video, Mark Shephard shows a tree belt that has withstood 150 years of Europeans trying to kill it. After all that abuse it is now thriving and producing 16 different food crops. Now that’s resilience. He rarely drives his $2,000 beat up tractor, but does enjoy watching his neighbor drive back and forth growing GMO corn and soybeans with a $100,000 tractor. Summary: The GMO crop growing neighbors will either switch over to STUN principles or go broke when their soil is dead. Which will come first? [Grabs popcorn.]

Restoring Paradise with Regenerative Agriculture

“Regenerative agriculture offers a future for sustainable farming in line with nature’s needs, by using holistic management and organic/biodynamic practices and even sequestering carbon in the soil – so important in the fight against climate change. At Mangarara, in New Zealand’s beautiful Hawke’s Bay, Greg Hart and his family are in the process of restoring 1500 acres of land conventionally farmed for over 150 years into the paradise it once was.”

Take a drive down the highway through agricultural areas and there’s a 99.9% chance the farms you’ll see are using conventional modern agriculture methods with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. that gradually deplete the soil. In 25 to 50 or 100 years from now those farms may very well be abandoned when the soil gives out. This problem is happening across vast areas of the world (millions of hectares). So it’s very encouraging to me to see videos like this of long term farms that are successfully making a living and improving the land at the same time.

100 Mile Home: First Straw/Clay home permitted in Eugene

100 Mile Home is Eugene’s first permitted residence with a natural light straw/clay wall system.

100 Mile Home is Eugene’s first permitted residence with a natural light straw/clay wall system.

“A 100 Mile Home is Eugene’s first permitted residence with a natural light straw/clay wall system, and it’s being built at Emerald Village Eugene!

This innovative dwelling demonstrates a natural building process that uses minimal industrial materials and incorporates local labor, skills, knowledge, and the rich resources of the Willamette Valley.

It will showcase aesthetic elements of a naturally insulated, plastered, and finished home and set a public example, within the village model, of how natural building, affordable housing, and community involvement work symbiotically to provide a solution to today’s critical housing crisis. DirtChiQ’s goal is to make natural building, now embraced by much of the Eugene community accessible to renters and low-income residents.

Committed to the concept of sourcing non-toxic, regional materials, this home will be a working example of how urban micro-homes can be built affordably with natural, reused, and local materials. In addition to meeting code and incorporating a wall system comprised of loose straw coated in clay slip, this design is easily relatable to conventional builders.

To provide easy access and replicability the design, process, and permitting documents for this home will be available as a model for other architects and tradespeople committed to building affordable homes.”

Square One Villages
Special thanks to Alex and Gail for sending me this article. I really appreciate good articles like this because it’s impossible for one person to keep up with all the new developments.

Open Frame Shipping Container Housing

You can buy just the frame of a shipping container and finish it however you want.

You can buy just the frame of a shipping container and finish it however you want.

“Shipping containers have their pros and cons. What if you can take the pros and leave the cons behind?

Ever hear of “open frame shipping container”? Basically it is the steel frame without the siding, roof, and floor. A base steel fame to build on that is solid as a …. well shipping container. They can also cost a lot less.

Here is one company I found that embraced the idea. They are building their own frames but you get the gist of it.
Give someone a solid frame and they can bolt/screw on their siding, floors and roof of choice. Saving heaps of money and using more friendly materials. I even found a couple available that are 3.3 meters wide (10 ft). Let the factories do what they do best to mass produce an affordable solid welded steel frame. The frame or base is the hard part of building a house for most people. It would make a lot easier (cheaper) for people to meet code. People have a hard time starting from ground zero so give them a base to build from, literally.

For my own self I have always looked for something portable or movable but not a trailer. It just doesn’t fit me. Let’s face it, we are and will continue to be a more mobile society in the future. People have built some amazing houses but if they move or sell it they get next to nothing for it. I’ll use my own self as a case in point. I bought a house that only had a shower. I did up the bathroom very nice. I put in marble tiles, nice fixtures, a spa bath, heated mirror and underfloor heating. I got some of that back when I sold the house but not all of it. So bottom line it was not a good investment of my funds but I did enjoy it immensely for a while. Bottom line I don’t want to repeat that mistake if I don’t have to.

So why not make it so you can move your house with you and not one of those POS (piece of s__t) mobile homes. It could be there is an economic turn down in your area you didn’t see coming or maybe you are ready to retire to the country or just want to move closer to the parents temporarily as they get older. Point is you can pack up your house and go. Now you may need to hire a container truck and trailer to move but that is cheaper and easier than starting completely over. Plus all the investment you made in your house in both sweat and money stays with you. You can even move to another country. But you might need to convert your 120V to 240V but you can do that for the whole house so nothing else new to buy. You can rent an empty piece of land cheaper than an apartment or house rent.

One more thought I had on the open frame shipping container. You could do your build in your driveway or backyard. Then when you are done you can move it to your initial location and move in.

Many people have an issue with funds when they try to build and maintain an existing residence at the same time. So for a young person living at home could do the build in their spare time at their parent’s house as it isn’t permanent then move on when it’s completed. A doable scenario as I don’t think it would infringe on many zoning laws, a home owner association in an upscale neighborhood could be an issue.

You can do anything from earthbag or straw-bale infill to wood. I originally had a thought a long time ago using vertical half round timber, cheaper than dimensional lumber but you need to be sure you have a strong base structure as it gets very heavy when it gets wet. I thought vertical as shorter lengths are cheaper.” [Check out T&G cabin siding.]

Special thanks to Cliff, a long time reader, for this great idea. This looks very practical and I think it might catch on. It reminded me of a previous story about steel framed tiny houses.