What works: food

As I described in my prior post, water is a big deal for humans, as it is for all life on Earth. But food is pretty important, too. Currently, most Americans store large quantities of food in the form of body fat. The primary storage facility for unconsumed food is right down the street, in the nearest grocery store.

I think we’re nearing the end of the line for both classically American storage facilities, and that it’s time to start making the recently proverbial other arrangements. Even business leaders recognize the irrationality of not preparing for peak oil and its economic implications, but there are many other reasons for growing your own, including purging the high-fructose corn syrup and other industrial toxins from your grocery list. This post describes our systems for producing and processing food at the mud hut.


Perennial plants are much easier to work with than their annual cousins. After the perennials are established, there is no need to weed, and watering is a breeze. Fertilizer is still necessary, and woody plants need the occasional pruning. But in general, I prefer the lazy nature of perennial plants over the back-straining events of tending a garden.

The mud hut has gardens, not farms. After all, Eden was a garden, not a farm. The difference is primarily one of scale. We have no interest in developing an empire, although we’ll barter with neighbors.

Our perennial plants include about three dozen fruit and nut trees, including cherries, apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, pluots, pecans, and Asian pears (i.e., Asian apples). We have a fig, a pomegranate, and several citrus trees. Trees are fertilized with humanure from the composting toilets I mentioned a few days ago.

Unprotected citrus will not survive the cold winters here, so we have four dwarf varieties growing in a greenhouse (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit). The greenhouse is filled with 55-gallon drums brimming with water, which keeps nighttime temperatures about 25 F warmer inside than out.

At two years of age, the citrus are already bursting out the greenhouse, so I am building a partially subterranean straw-bale greenhouse to ameliorate temperatures and give the citrus trees room to grow. It should also allow production of tomatoes year around. When the new greenhouse is finished, we will use the existing greenhouse to grow greens in the winter, start peppers and tomatoes in early spring, and dry various fruits and vegetables during the summer.

In addition to the trees, we have several varieties of fruiting shrubbery: raspberries, blackberries, table grapes, kiwis, blueberries, and native rose (for tea). Blueberries thrive in acidic soils, so we amended their beds heavily with compost made from pine trees. Non-shrubby perennials include asparagus, horseradish, artichokes, and rhubarb. All plants are protected from pocket gophers with hardware cloth. Roots of woody plants are protected by the three-foot cone of hardware cloth around the roots, and herbaceous perennials and all annual plants are planted into beds surrounded by a “basket” of hardware cloth, as I described early last year.

Because the honeybees of the world, and especially those in North America, are suffering from colony collapse disorder, we have our own bee box. We aren’t not particularly interested in their honey. We just want reliable pollinators.

We have two cold frames (also known as hot boxes). They produce abundant greens during the winter, and we will use them for summer vegetables, too. I didn’t slant the roof enough to allow sufficient light, so I cut gaps in the front of the cold frames, covered the gaps with plexiglass, and added shiny insulation on the inside walls of the cold frames. And I was wise enough to leave a few bags of concrete mix outside during a rainstorm; these serve as counter-weights for the extremely heavy windows comprising the roofs of the cold frames (shown below without the new gaps in front or the insulation).

In addition to the gopher-proof beds, we have two large areas protected only from large animals such as javelina. We grow large quantities of potatoes in these areas and, starting this year, Valencia peanuts. We simply give up some of the plants to the greedy mouths of the omnipresent pocket gophers (last year we lost 3% of the potato plants). We will eat the goobers and feed the aboveground portion of the plants to the goats.

We have two adult females and a kid housed in a fully insulated shed. They spend their days lounging in a nice paddock, and they provide about a gallon of milk each day in addition to considerable entertainment. We drink the extremely high-fat milk, make yogurt, and we’ve been trying our hand at a few different kinds of cheese, so far including soft chevre, Colby, cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan. The aging process precludes grand proclamations of success, so far.

Fowl include eight Khaki Campbell ducks and ten chickens. The six duck hens produce, on average, five eggs each day. They require no special accommodations besides a poultry-netting subfloor beneath their house to keep the skunks from digging for supper. The ducks spend most of their time in the nearby irrigation ditch, so they are easy to keep and inexpensive to feed. We’re transitioning to Red Star chickens, which are weather-hardy and reliable layers. We have successfully incubated eggs and kept birds alive through the adult stage. We installed into the chicken coop a corrugated roofing tin subfloor that slopes away from the entry door, into a gutter, and then into a drain pipe that empties into a shallow basin the chicken excrement (i.e., fertilizer). So far, this arrangement has been more trouble than it’s worth. In total, we produce a dozen eggs each day, which gives us plenty of barter material for our neighbors who prefer humanely treated, free-range, healthy fowl.


A deep-chest freezer holds a wide variety of foods with considerable convenience. We can a lot of the harvest and stack the jars in the pantry. Finally, we store much of the bounty in three root cellars, one dry and two humid (because no combination of apples, onions, and potatoes should be stored together, according to the books and articles we’ve read). The dry cellar is a cargo container surrounded by cinder-block walls and buried beneath a couple feet of soil. The humid cellars are relatively simple holes in the ground, marginally protected from critters with hardware cloth, pressure-treated lumber, and snap traps.

When I write “simple,” I mean conceptually. Digging the holes and constructing the cellars has been anything but simple for my old, worn-out bones.


We have an outdoor kitchen complete with dining area, wood-fired cook stove, two double sinks, plenty of scavenged counter tops, orno (Earth oven), and a hand-cranked mill. General sloth forced me to add a motor from an evaporative-cooling fan to power the mill.

While we have grid-tied electricity, we continue to use the electric oven in the mobile home, particularly during the winter months. We have a microwave oven in the off-grid, straw-bale house, too. We often ignore these newfangled electric-powered ovens and the two ovens in the outdoor kitchen, opting instead for cooking with the power of direct sunlight.

When we started this endeavor, about two years ago, I could barely distinguish between a screwdriver and a zucchini. And that tells you all you need to know about my construction skills as well as my gardening skills. As I’ve pointed out many times before, if I can do this, I can hardly imagine somebody who can’t. But you’d better get cracking. The time to plant a garden is not when you’re hungry.


This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin, Island Breath, and Boulder County’s Eat Local! Resource Guide and Directory.

Comments 31

  • Those solar ovens work like a dream in AZ! Your two humid root cellars sound interesting. I wonder if they’d work in Brazil. Might result in too much humidity given the rainy season here? Hmmm ~

  • In many places in the world human fertilizer is valued.In Germany we referred to the wagons that sprayed human manure on the soil as “honey
    pots”.Believe the same held true in Japan.

    Waste not.

    Frank Mezek

  • Yikes, Frank, noooo…. the European honey wagons have animal manure… humanure, you gotta let compost. Not safe direct on the fields. Or you can just move the privy and plant a tree there…

  • Hey Guy. Another great post! Every one of the things you describe is like snipping off one more tie to the Economy-That-Consumes-The-Earth. Bravo. Again, very inspirational. — Dan :-)

  • Guy,

    These are wonderful posts. Don’t let the lower volume of comment responses have you think we aren’t listening. I hope the Energy Bulletin picks them up…


  • Greening of Gavin (http://www.greeningofgavin.com/), a bloke in Melbourne, Australia, has posts about making cheese… it’s worth a gander.

    Am enjoying your thoughtful posts.


  • Guy,

    I was delighted to find that you have taken the same approach we have in fighting your quadrillion pocket gophers. I know, I know, there is nothing delightful about pocket gophers. I do have a question about your beds. You note in the linked post that you removed the soil, installed straw bales around the outside of the bed, placed a basket of hardware cloth inside the bales, and then replaced the dirt. Here’s the question, what is the straw for? I’m guessing it is to define the beds and by taking up space in the hole they also raise the level of the reintroduced dirt. We use untreated 2×6’s two deep (one above ground level and one below), the hardware cloth (stapled to the boards), and as much compost as is necessary to raise the level of the soil to the top of the boards (ground level plus 6 inches). Your straw bale idea does not require the purchase of boards, which last about 6 years. It also would contribute organics to the soil over time as it rots. Are there negatives? Does the straw rot and cause the hardware cloth to flop over? Does it attract mice (fast gophers)?

    We have tried hardware cloth and chicken wire both for our trees. I’ve always used a pocket rather than a cone. How big is the cone? Do you have any thoughts on how the tree’s root systems cope with growing through the hardware cloth? Also oyster shell mixed with the planting dirt helps, the sharp edges deter the gopher’s digging (I have no idea who I stole that idea from). We’ve also tried the battery-powered vibrators with mixed success (sounds bad doesn’t it?).

    Hmmm, I have heard that a Dupont Spinner works for fishing, maybe it would work for gophers too.

    Michael Irving

  • Good questions, Michael Irving. I’ll try to address them, in order:

    Straw bales serve three primary purposes: (1) structure, to make it easy to work with the hardware cloth and the soil, (2) they raise each bed a few inches above grade, thereby deterring gophers from getting into them over land (gophers are all about down, so even a 1″ high barrier is an effective deterrent), and (3) sponge, to allow water flowing overland to permeate the bales … and as the soil dries, capillary action pulls moisture from the bales into the soil The disadvantages: (1) the bales take up a lot of space that could otherwise be filled with plants, and (2) the bales are more expensive than no bales at all, and (3) the bales will decompose over time. I suspect the buildinq-quality bales we used will last a decade or so. With respect to decomposition and the attendant flop-over of the hardware cloth, we had some poor-quality, five-year-old bales rot away, and we simply filled the gap with dirt — the hardware cloth is holding up fine.

    With respect to planting trees, I should have used the term “cylinder” instead of “cone.” We plant bare-root stock into a cylinder of hardware cloth. The cylinder is 3′ tall (using a 3′ roll of hardware cloth) and about 1′ in diameter), and we leave 6-12″ sticking up aboveground (depending on the energy of the hole-digger and the size and number of rocks he encounters). We’ve planted about 50 woody plants into these cylinders, and lost one or two to gophers. The tap root will extend down through the cylinder, and fine roots will get through the 1/2″ mesh hardware cloth with ease.

    Oyster shells! That’s a great idea.

    A Dupont Spinner likely would work. But there’s not enough meat on a gopher to make it worthwhile :)

  • vera:

    A clarification.In Germany,if you go thru any small village you’ll see the large compost heap adjacent to the houses where the humanure is composting prior to being used in the honey pots.At least that’s how I
    remember it from 50 years ago,but maybe it’s changed since then.

    Frank Mezek

  • You know, I remember days when some of the privies were pitched over the manure heap and both types of manures mixed together. I doubt they allow it nowadays.

    Mostly I remember permanent moldering privies that were emptied every so many years. The manure heaps were used just for stable manures in my village. But folks were not too particular in those days… I remember the old steam-locomotive trains; the toilets had a movable bottom and the loaf was simply dumped on the tracks. Ew! :-)

  • “We have two adult females and a kid housed in a fully insulated shed.”

  • What happened to the rest of them?

  • Guy,

    We recently completed a community-wide exercise in Portland, mobilizing neighbors to prune fruit and nut trees together to collect scions for grafting in march. We distributed 100+ free fruit trees to the community so we can track these new food bearing community assets.

    People still have the choice whether they want the fruit for themselves or to share it, nullifying the issue of property rights. After all, people should ask permission before just going and taking someone elses fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains or other food growing on their land.

    We have been documenting these efforts at Bright Neighbor TV. Thank you for getting your expertise out there!

  • Good question, Robin Datta. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it short. For about four months, we were merely tending the three pregnant goats, for neighbors, until after mothers delivered their eight kids. In exchange for our efforts, we were given one of the does and one of her kids. The other two adults went back to the neighbors, and they distributed the remaining seven kids to various other neighbors. We picked up another adult doe, so we have her (Lillian), the doe we were given (Cocoa), and the latter doe’s kid (L.E. = Long Ears = Ellie).

    Randy, thanks for your first-time comment (if memory serves) and for the link to the youtube video.

  • The Hadza of Tanzania: A glimpse of humanity before agriculture


  • vera:

    What was the name of your village and where was it located ?


    Frank Mezek

  • Frank — Location: Wallachia (Czech, Valašsko, northern Moravia). One of the villages near Slušovice. I am hesitant to name it lest bad luck comes of it. I prefer to think of it as it once was, before the days of the internet and all the bad changes of modernity.

    I looked at it in google earth recently… people have pools now, there are “suburban” type houses here and there, and the chapel that used to ring noon and dusk is gone… Where was your village?

  • vera:

    We are countrymen/women!!! You know my last name,so you can see what I mean.

    Mine is hardly a village—Chicago.I grew up very close to Barack Obama’s house on the South Side of Chicago.Although it always seemed
    to me that we had a financially comfortable life,my father got a new Cadillac every other year,just like every successful businessman,and
    he played golf and was a member of the South Shore Country Club,but he
    built our house next to the rail road tracks,accross from a stone factory.This was in 1937.

    Please forgive the existential,stream of consciousness rant.

    Frank Mezek

  • Michael Irving: With regards to the straw bales, from a garden space standpoint, assuming the bale is 14 in. wide and the interior of the bed is 4ft wide. On a 20 ft. row the bales take up over 40% of space. On 100 ft row the space devoted to a bale barrier is slightly less at 38% of the garden bed.

    One would have to have some serious crop losses each year to justify devoting that much work and energy to straw bales instead of having extra-wide bale-free beds and increasing production and hardware cloth accordingly.

    I’m sure Guy has enough space to devote to bales, but for me, if I have to lift soil, I want it to grow food.

  • Hey, Frank, jsme krajane! :-)
    I had thought that your folks came via Germany, from your previous comments. So… where were they all from? Moravia too? I guess you grew up when Chicago was the Bohunk town, eh? All the good bread and sausages and all… I can only dream…

    I finally made to it Cedar Rapids IA a couple of years ago, where there used to be a big CS community in the old days, but all that remains is an dilapidated street with a butcher, and struggling restaurant whose “Czech” recipes were really not quite. And a museum. It made me so sad.

    If we ever meet, I’ll bake kolace! :-)

  • Guy, how many years have you been growing potatoes and how do you propagate them? I have been buying seed potatoes every year and wondering how to get around that dependency.

    The problem (outlined here for anyone who didn’t grow up in potato country) is this:

    Seed potatoes are grown from stocks that are relatively disease-free. Plants from the seed pieces we buy become infected by aphids and other disease-transmitting mechanisms, and the incidence of disease in the potatoes produced may go from 1% to 30%, and the next year to 70%, and the next to 100%. In the case of most virus diseases, the plants are not all killed, only severely stunted, and thus perpetuate the disease. In the case of some bacterial diseases, the disease does not kill the plant, but destroys the stored tubers. If it does not kill all of the plants, the titre, or concentration within the plant, may remain low for a few generations before becoming destructive. And while none of these potato diseases are harmful to humans, if it weakens your stock every year and eventually kills your crop you lose a food source.

    In the pioneer days, they had no choice but to use this year’s crop as seed for next year’s planting. They did have a lot of disease in their crops, but it’s all they had. Of course, disease organisms, like other organisms, migrate to expand their geographic range, so there are more diseases now than then. So it’s worse now than it was in the “old days”. I see this as one example of how we cannot simply revert to the way things were done in the pioneer days or stone age.

  • Wendy, the issue you raise is one of many that fall within the realm of “no going back.” Consider, for example, surface water, which was formerly abundant and potable but now is rare and too contaminated to drink safely. We’ve been growing potatoes only one year — last year. We used 18 pounds of seed potatoes (3 varieties) to grow about 110 pounds of potatoes. We secured the seed potatoes from neighbors, and will returning the 18 pounds before we plant our own this year. As with many things we’ve Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition, we’ll be forced to muddle through, paying the price for actions conducted by others long ago. As you suggest, though, it’s better to do it now than wait another few years, until the predicament becomes even worse.

  • Did your neighbors buy the seed potatoes, or do they have the complicated mechanism for growing good seed? It is indeed a dilemma. I’ve been cursing the surface water issue for a couple of decades, every time I go camping or hiking. To think I actually remember when you could just drink from any mountain stream…sigh.

  • Wendy, regarding the neighbor’s stock of potatoes: Dunno.

  • I’ll be interested to know how your crop turns out this fall.

  • Hi Guy!

    It was good to meet and talk with you a couple weeks ago when you were in the valley. These last few blog entries on “What works” have been fantastic. Very useful. Though I doubt your ineptitude could be as great as mine.

    What kind of fruit production are you getting from your trees? Any yet? And how long does it usually take to grow a plentiful amount of fruit after planting the tree (I am assuming you purchased the trees and transplanted them)?

    And are you managing the beehive? I was under the impression that if you didn’t, they would produce another queen and start a swarm. But maybe that’s not undesirable.

    Sorry for the many questions. Really enjoying the information.

  • Thanks for your kind comments, Lance.

    We planted the fruit trees from one-year-old bare-root stock during late winter 2008, 2009, and 2010. None are producing yet, but we expect to see some fruit this year from the oldest trees. We expect abundant fruit in less than five years on these relatively productive soils.

    We are minimally managing the hive, with assistance from a neighbor who’s been doing it for years. We expect no honey — we just want the pollination. I’ve not heard about the potential for a rogue queen and a new swarm (insert your own Sarah Palin joke here). Some of the locals start their hives from native swarms, so I don’t think it would be a bad thing, at least not completely.

  • Hi Guy,
    I was wondering what kind of canner you use to put up food and whether you have a separate pressure cooker to reduce cooking time/fuel.

    I love your blog–thanks for the kick in the butt!

  • Kelly, so far we’re using a standard hot-bath canning method that requires no pressure cooker. We have a separate pressure cooker — I do not recall the brand, and I seem to have lost track of it — but we haven’t used it yet. Thanks for your kind comment, and for the question.