After many months of defining and redefining our objectives and thousands of miles traveled in search of the right property, Tasha and I finally found a place in northwestern North Carolina. Actually, we bought the place in November and have been so busy with other tasks--directly or indirectly related to this move--that I've felt I hardly had a chance to write about it. Today's a snow day and we're making the final move in less than a month, so here's where we are.
We purchased 10 (mostly wooded) acres of land in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Mount Airy, North Carolina. After considering relocating to West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Missouri, North Carolina seemed like the obvious choice: People are friendly, the cost of living is cheap, it's not too far from either of our families, and the locale is gorgeous, with many opportunities for climbing, hiking, trail running, etc, as well as lots of vineyards and wineries close by.
The existing property is a single-wide mobile home, built recently, with a wood stove and a heat pump/air condtioner. There are several other outbuildings, including a tractor shed, chicken coops, canning shed, etc. We currently plan on custom building our ideal house from local materials sometime down the road, when we have the time and have other systems pretty well established.
So, we're having a 600-kW photovoltaic system installed on a shipping container dug partially into the hill behind the existing house to meet most of our power needs. Further up the hill, we'll be building a greenhouse from a kit, about 12x26 feet square. This will be one of our first major projects--levelling, grading, pouring the foundation footings, building the concrete block knee-wall on which the actual greenhouse will sit. All these things we'll need to start on ASAP, so we can get our seedling starts started.
We have experimented with various gardening methods in the backyard over the past couple of years, including an intensive planting scheme. This time, since we have a cleared, fenced vegetable garden built by the previous owners, we're going to try John Jeavons' Grow Biointensive method. This technique involves double-digging the garden beds to loosen the soil, closely spacing plants--usually seedling transplants--in tight patterns in beds (to prevent weeds, control moisture loss, etc), and companion planting on a well-defined schedule. There are other aspects, too, such as planting a certain ratio of "calorie crops", "compost crops," etc. It will be a lot of work initially, but it seems like the best way to immediately produce a lot of food to (hopefully) meet most of our needs in our first year.
The greenhouse will allow us to extend the growing season, ideally throughout the year. I have a plan, based on a method invented by Jean Pain to heat the greenhouse using decomposing wood chips. I have been able to generate temperatures as high as 160 degrees Fahrenheit in my backyard compost pile, so I built a small proof-of-concept "Jean Pain Reactor." I was able to heat water to over 100 degrees over several days by burying a coil of PEX in a working, thermophilic compost pile.
The water fed from a rain barrel and was drawn upwards through the coil by a thermosiphon effect, because of the temperature differential between the water in the coil and the cooler water in the rain barrel. Anyway, nerdiness aside, others have managed to build much larger piles from woodchips, of which we have many, and a few hundred dollars of flexible plastic piping, and generate hot water for up to 18 months at a time, depending on the mass of the pile and its insulation from heat loss. We think we can heat our greenhouse--and generate hot water for our hot tub, to boot--using this simple source of free heat. At the end of the decomposition cycle, we have mulch/compost which we'll use to expand our gardens and orchards.
After we get the vegetable garden up and running, the next order of business will be to cover crop the rest of the cleared land. We'll plant soil builders and nitrogen fixers like clover, vetch, daikon radish, and pea; and fast-growing permaculture "nurse" species like black locust and Russian olive. Tasha has selected 10 wine grape varietals to plant on the steeper sections of the property, all bred for pest and mold resistance without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. These are lessons learned from our failed attempt at trying to grow big production varietals like Zinfandel and Cabernet in our backyard. We have a few mature peach trees on the new property as well as some cherry. We hope to transplant the figs, apples, kiwi, plum, persimmon and peach that we started in the backyard over the past two years, since they are semi-dwarf and as of yet immature. Higher up, in clearings on the forested slopes of the property we'll plant berries like currants as well as raspberry and blackberry transplants from the backyard, which spread like weeds.
In and surrounding the wooded areas, we hope to establish food forests, when the soil and water conditions are right for it. We also want to plant fast growing nuts like hazelnut along with not-so-fast growers like walnut and chestnut. We are in the heart of what used to be, until the blight of the '20s and '30s, American chestnut country. Billions of trees were lost to this fungal blight and the species is all but extinct, except for a few isolated hold outs. The American chestnut used to be a regional staple of the economy, used for food, pig forage, and timber in the regional economy of the Apalachians, and especially in areas like southern Virginia and western North Carolina.
The existing trees on our property are all smaller mid-story and understory growth. While it's likely the area was logged in the past 50 or so years, one scenario I imagine is that this forest was mostly American chestnuts that succumbed to the blight, hence the absence of a mature forest canopy. There are several ongoing breeding projects working to produce a blight-resistant American chestnut, and I would like to try and reintroduce what used to be a native mainstay species of the forest here. Of particular interest, Paul Stamets in his "Mycelium Running" mentions the successful use of fungal inoculants to induce blight resistance in the American chestnut and other species.
On that note, we also hope to start producing mushrooms--Shiitakes and Oysters at first--on wood from some of the smaller hardwoods in our stands of trees. At the bottom of the property we have a small, spring-fed pond that is humid, shady and generally well suited to mushroom production, and it's here I'm thinking we'll have the best luck with inoculated Shiitake logs. We hope we'll find delicious edibles we recognize like chicken-of-the-woods and morels on our property, though these can be introduced from outside as well, as described in Stamets' books.
This is becoming an epic post and I've only just scratched the surface of our plans. Guess it will have to be a two-parter. Anyhowe, we'll complete our ongoing move onto the property the last weekend in March. My employer has graciously allowed me to telecommute from North Carolina with an occasional trip up to the office and to visit my family. Our internet connection there, while a step down from what I'm used to, will allow us to work remotely and to continue to keep in touch with family and friends. In fact, that's one reason for this post: To rekindle this blog and make a renewed attempt at maintaining it regularly. Tasha and I have discussed more ambitious video blogging plans, to document some of the projects we'll be undertaking and sharing our experience. We'll see how that goes as I continue to work 40 hours a week remotely and undertake the projects I''ve mentioned here, while hopefully exploring some of the great crags and trails and opportunities for adventure nearby.
Both of us are beyond excited as we stand on the threshold of starting this new life. One reason we've chosen to do this is to have more time to devote to the things that really matter to us, like writing and immersing ourselves in the natural world. I am hoping this blog will become an outlet for some of that and that I can maintain a commitment to it. Of course, it's something we hope will keep us connected with our family and friends initially, as well as an incubator for our writing and photography projects, but we hope to reach like-minded people wherever they are and however they find us. I'm hoping to add a Book Reviews section to this site as well as a blog roll and see what happens. In the meantime, I'll see if I can manage to regularly update and improve this blog as time permits. And I'll add some pictures to part two of this post.
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