Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Work Parties Build Sustainable Homesteads and Community

We used hyperadobe to berm an earth-sheltered geodesic dome which will be a massive aquaponic greenhouse.

Guest Blogger: Christian Sawyer

Howdy. I’m Christian Sawyer — an organizer and homesteader in the Douglas Basin of Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County..

In the early Fall of 2021, I went on a three-hour bike ride to a potluck. My car had broken down but I *really* wanted to be at that potluck. I was invited by a family whom I had only met once, briefly, and wasn't sure if I'd get another invite if I turned this one down.

The reason I was so dead set on attending that potluck was because I had come to the conclusion that, living rurally and somewhat remotely, building community relationships was going to be one of the most valuable investments of my time and energy. You don't get invited to potlucks every day out in the valley. So, I popped in the Google map address and rode off into the sunset.

I did get to meet some great people that night who were building their own homesteads and were deeply invested in doing it sustainably. Some new friends even offered to give me a ride home when it started to rain.

I got another message from the hosts a few months later. They wanted to start a local group to help each other build sustainable housing, a shared interest among many in our mutual friend groups. Some had already begun such projects; others had been involved in the practice professionally. This was right up my alley as a sustainability nerd and someone looking to put down roots in the area.

Our inaugural meeting, January 2022

I brought five people with me to the inaugural strategic meeting for this project. About 14 people attended in total. We sat in a circle and traded ideas. Thankfully, we didn't get bogged down with endless ideas and paralysis analysis. We decided on a simple scheduling structure. Every first and third Sunday of the month we would meet up at someone's property to help them build. The host would organize the tasks for the morning, tools needed, and make lunch for everyone.

Our process hasn't changed much since then. The only big difference is the size. We recently set our record for most attendees at a work party, 75 people - including children. (See pic on top of page.)

Our community most commonly builds with geodesic domes, hyper-adobe, and strawbale. Hyper-adobe is the most common material/technique. It's a recent variation on the "super adobe" technique made popular by CalEarth where bags or tubing are filled with dirt, compacted, and then secured to each other with barbed wire -- a kind of low-tech rammed-earth process. Hyper-adobe instead uses mesh tubing that allows the dirt in each layer to congeal with the other layers, creating monolithic earthen walls which don't require barbed wire and use less tubing. As a building material, it doesn't get much more sustainable than dirt. It's local, there's lots of it, it's cheap, and it can decompose right back into the ground if needed. Earthen walls are also highly fire-resistant; but they don't provide a high insulation value, leading local home builders to increasingly pursue submerged or "earth-sheltered" homes which are typically four to eight feet deep into the earth and capped with a geodesic dome. This greatly increases the insulation of a structure, and the surrounding earth provides passive temperature stabilization. (At twelve feet of depth, soil is typically a stable temperature year-round, which is around 67 degrees in our area.) The academic literature typically claims a roughly 75% reduction in energy demands for earth-sheltered houses. Our anecdotal evidence in the community, comparing the energy efficiencies of different homes, supports this.

Geodesic domes are popular because they're incredibly fast and relatively affordable to construct. The steel-bar frame is put up in one day, then covered with fabric and sprayed with insulating foam in one or two additional days. The basic shell of these homes is roughly $10,000-20,000 depending on the size.

earth-sheltered greenhouse addition to a tiny home

After our first couple of "work parties" (that's what we call it when we get together to build homesteads), I had heard that there was a similar group of homesteaders in the Willcox basin, the larger northern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley. At that point they were only meeting to discuss alternative homesteading at potlucks. I got myself a potluck invite, drove up, and introduced their lead organizer to the "work party" concept we had adopted in the south valley. The north group immediately began hosting their own work parties on every second and fourth Sunday.

A key factor in this story is that, over the last five years, Cochise County has begun to attract increasing numbers of people interested in sustainable home building because of our county's "Rural Residential Owner-Builder Opt Out Amendment.“ This special permit was created in 2006 when the county transitioned to the International Building Code standard and some locals petitioned the county to create an allowance for building outside of existing code in rural areas.

The key lines from the amendment read:

“The purpose of this amendment is to exempt a Rural Residential Owner-Builder with a Category D property of four acres or more from compliance with the Cochise County Building Safety Code."

By allowing owner-builders these options, this amendment is intended to encourage the use of ingenuity and personal preferences of the owner-builder in allowing and facilitating the use of alternative building materials and methods.

As the lead "political guy" in an area that is often skeptical of political activism, and in a world where politics are so broken, I find respite in my work party community. It's a group of people from all walks of life, various political attitudes, social issue positions, religious backgrounds, and lifestyles. People avoid talking about contentious issues and focus on what we have in common: a desire to build and live in beautiful ways, in a beautiful place, with beautiful neighbors. These people give me hope that we can heal the cultural wounds and afflictions which seem to only grow more severe every year. I hope to see more such communities popping up around the country. That may depend, of course, upon securing the liberties to build alternatively and sustainably, such as we have down in Cochise County.

Today you can find many popular YouTube channels of alternative builders in Cochise County. The most well-known is probably Tiny Shiny Home by the Longnecker family. Although my friends Mark and Heather might be up and coming YouTube favorites as their most recent video garnered over 1 million views in just a few days.

Find out more information by joining a Facebook group, like Cochise County Alternative Home Building, Supporters of the Cochise County Opt-Out Permit, and Cochise County Homesteaders.

I've recently begun publishing a newsletter for the alternative/sustainable homesteading community called The Ground Party Papers, covering groundwater issues, local politics, and, of course, alternative building.

You can contact me at:

Saturday, June 8, 2024

What to do with all those dried poppies

A few days ago I noticed a bunch of dried poppy plants in a neighbor's yard. We were already using our dried poppies for mulch since most of our woodchip and horse purslane mulch had broken down into soil or was taken away by some productive ants. We love to keep as much organic matter as we can in our basin. This time of year it helps to protect the soil from the harsh sun. And the birds and native bees appreciate it too. Also notice the dried native grasses that we keep for food for birds and bunnies. 

So the next day I ambled up to the front door and asked if I could grab their dead poppies to use for mulch in our basin. I had a nice chat with our new neighbor. I found out that she had been leaving them there for the birds, but thought that some other neighbors didn't appreciate it, so they were planning on doing some yard work on Saturday. She said I was welcome to take them before then. So I was out this morning at 7 a.m. (before it got crazy hot) gathering dried poppies. After the first load I put on my straw shade hat and got a drink of water. I was quiet as a mouse so I wouldn't disturb them. Well...until I sat down on a rock covered with ants! But I dusted the ants off and went back to work.  I gathered six plastic buckets full! And pulled some other weeds for them for good measure. I made sure not to include any foxtail seeds in my buckets. 

I broke the poppy stems into smaller pieces and spread them in our basin.

When I got back to my computer I noticed that there was a warning of strong wind today at 2! Doh! My timing! I didn't want them to fly away in the wind so I wet them down to make them heavier. (I figured it would be good for the soil underneath anyway.) 

I hope that will keep them from flying away in the wind. But if you see few straw-like stems in your yard, consider leaving them. It's good for the soil. Your plants will appreciate it.

While I was out there, I went ahead and put some more water out for the critters. It's hot out there! 

After seeing a baby bunny in our yard yesterday, I put this watering bowl in the ground
by the Habitat at Home sign. 


Helpful Hint: You can also put dried poppies in your compost pile or use them as mulch in your garden.

More information:

The life cycle of a Mexican poppy

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Appreciating our Cisterns During this Dry Spell

It is no secret that my favorite rainwater harvesting feature is catchment basins. They can sink in more water than our largest cistern can hold while nourishing the soil and providing food and shelter for birds and other desert critters. But I have to admit that during this long dry patch, (our last wet day was the hail storm on April 1st) I am extremely grateful to have several cisterns to keep my new plants and moringa alive in this extreme heat. (As I write this, there is a heat warning in effect.) 

Every morning before the temperature reaches 80 degrees (the temperature when plants stop taking in water), I am outside watering my baby plants with my watering can filled with rainwater from our cisterns. I have already emptied one slimline cistern and the other one is nearly empty.

Fortunately, I still have water in our biggest cistern in the backyard, but that requires me carrying it through the house. (See pic at the top of the page.)

I get water from the big cistern to daily water the newly planted hibiscus in the greywater basin and to deep water our heritage, desert adapted pomegranate tree, the hibiscus and two curry plants. We're excited that the pomegranate finally grew big enough to support some fruit this year! 

5 gallon buckets with 2 holes in them deep water pomegranate and hibiscus 

We also have a medium cistern by the garden that gets water off of our kind neighbor's huge roof. The few plants I have in my veggie garden only require one watering can a day to keep them going. (I usually have more planted there but I didn't get around to it with my broken wrist.) 

A few years ago, I asked someone at Watershed Management Group if there was any point in putting in rainwater harvesting cisterns when we are getting less and less rain. They replied that you need even more cisterns to get you through the dry months. I have to say I am absolutely a convert now. We are so grateful to have gutters that direct the water from our roof into our rainwater harvesting cisterns to get us through this dry spell and heat wave. Thanks to the cisterns, we haven't had to use any city water in our yard so far this year. 

If you want to try out rainwater harvesting you can start with a little 55 gallon water barrel for a reasonable price.  Here is our first one that we used to water a few veggies. Dan directed a downspout from the gutter into the blue barrel below.

To find out how much water you can harvest at home, try out this simple water budget calculator from Watershed Management Group.

Learn more at Watershed Management Group's Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Classes:

Read another cistern story:

Racing to get our cisterns installed before the monsoon storms

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Harvesting Moringa for My Mom's Tea

Moringa Bouquet for Mom 

I'm so excited that my mom is coming to visit for a few days.  Our moringa plant has been growing nicely (with a little help from a recent deep watering with rainwater from our cistern) so I went ahead and harvested some to dry for some nutritious tea for my mom.

It's super easy to snap off the branches. The moringa actually likes to be pruned this way. It encourages new growth.  

Next I wash it over our metal dish pans. (That water will go on our Mexican Honeysuckle.) 

I wrap a twist tie around the stem and hang them in a bunch to dry on a rack in our guest room. It takes about 4 days for them to dry that way. The smell of fresh moringa fills the room! 

I remember when I first planted it by seed in our (then) new right-of-way basin. Oh, the memories...


After the leaves are dry, I take them off of the branches.

Here's how much tea it made for my mom. 

Then they are ready to be scooped into a tea ball to seep in a cup of boiling water. 

Can't wait to share a nice cup of moringa tea with my mom.

NOTE: Our moringa are planted in the right of way basin - which is great when it rains. (It grows up to 6-8 feet after the monsoon rains.) But not so good in the winter since it has no protection from the cold. It always dies back when we have a hard freeze so I harvest the leaves before then. But we're always excited when it comes back in the spring. 

More moringa memories: 

Why is moringa good for you?

Saturday, May 25, 2024

My favorite places in Tucson to bring visitors

Gazing at Brad Lancaster's house and cisterns in Dunbar-Spring neighborhood

After a day exploring the rainwater and greywater features on our yard, the sun went down. We decided to harvest some tasty (and slightly sour) barrel cactus fruit to prepare for Watershed Management Group's Family Saturday event. 

Slice and bake barrel cactus leaving the seeds in place

The next morning, we were off to Watershed Management Group where I gave Lillie a quick tour of the Living Lab and Learning Center. Check out the chicken coop that Dan helped to build. The chickens compost the lab's kitchen and garden scraps so they can be used for fertilizer for the nearby food forest. 

Also on the campus is a big underground cistern that holds 10,000 gallons of water collected off of two roofs on the campus. The wooden hatch in the foreground is the access cover to the cistern.

And in the background is their stylish blue bathroom with composting toilets that provide humanure for the many trees at the Living Lab. 

Since Lillie is a civil engineering mayor with an emphasis on the environment, Dan figured she would benefit from an explanation of their water filtration system. The water pumped out of the underground cistern is filtered so it can be used for drinking. 

Those are just a few of the conservation efforts demonstrated at the Living Lab. You can learn about more on the Living Lab Tour. Dan might even be your guide! 

Always the trooper, Lillie was game for a tour of Brad Lancaster's Dunbar-Spring neighborhood

We saw a roadrunner enjoying a path shaded with native palo verde trees in rainwater harvesting basins.

On the path was a sign that showed BEFORE AND AFTER the rainwater harvesting features were installed. The area in front of Brad's house used to be nothing but hard, stark ground. Now there is a lush desert food forest and habitat for all kinds of desert critters! 

We were inspired by the community spirit in this neighborhood as well as the street art, rainwater and traffic calming features that the industrious neighbors installed. 

We saw the famous "garottage" (garage cottage) where Brad lives. Dan explained the passive solar that the positioning of the house provided. 
Sign explaining passive solar

I couldn't wait to show off the many rainwater features like the curb cut that directs water into the rock-lined catchment basin to water that native mesquite tree.

This is on the same street where Brad installed the first guerilla curb cuts that are now legal and eligible for rebates in Tucson and are part of neighborhood Green Stormwater Infrastructure projects being installed by the city.

Just look at all the shade this traffic calming chicane provides the neighborhood! 

Water from the street nourishes the native trees and plants in this chicane

Jeremy reminded me that they need to be able to explore for themselves.

Jeremy and Lillie explore a traffic circle that serves as a habitat for desert critters.

And make their own discoveries... 

But it always comes back to this...

We celebrated with a yummy dinner at the nearby La Indita restaurant on Stone. 

Then it was off for a well deserved day of fun at the Desert Museum!

Where Lillie made her own discoveries...

But we can't help to point out the reason that all of that water conservation matters. From a platform at the Desert Museum, we spotted the Central Avra Valley recharge basins. Our CAP water is pumped 326 miles from the Colorado River which we share with seven other states and Mexico - who are also suffering from a severe drought. 

Rainwater harvesting is one tool for water security in Tucson and helps to cool our neighborhoods. 

Central Avra Valley recharge basins from Desert Museum

It was great spending a few days exploring some of the most inspiring places in Tucson with Jeremy and Lillie! 

To find out how much water you can harvest at home, try out this simple water budget calculator from Watershed Management Group.


Friday, May 24, 2024

Sharing my passion with the next generation

I always enjoy sharing my knowledge about sustainability with the next generation. So I was especially excited to give a tour of our rainwater basins to my son Jeremy's girlfriend Lillie, a civil engineering major with an emphasis on the environment. Can Jeremy pick 'em or what?!!! Jeremy tagged along to find out which plants to water when Dan and I go away on vacation. He took some photos while he was at it. Thanks, Jeremy! 

Our first stop was filling up my water bucket at the slimline tank. I explained how we get a lot of rainwater off of the roof (nearly 11,000 gallons a year.) Some of that water is directed from a gutter to a downspout and into our jujube basin. Gutters also direct water to the various cisterns around the house. 

I was delighted to share how the nearby jujube trees had grown three feet last year on just rainwater collected in the basin. And they were starting to bear the first fruit of the season. Even after this long dry spell! 

I had recently chopped and dropped some dried native plants (that some people might call "weeds") into the basin to create organic mulch. That observation inspired this story. Five years ago, Dan had removed a row of aging oleanders and dug a basin there for three baby jujube trees. The one planted farthest from where the oleanders were grew four times as fast as the two planted in the soil poisoned by the oleanders. But native grasses, organic matter (chopped weeds and fallen leaves) and rainwater mitigated the soil, so now the other two trees have caught up with the biggest tree!

The next stop was our shallow front yard basins. (See the pic at the top of the page.) The wood chip mulch has mostly broken down into soil. (We need another truck load.) So a bunch of poppies and native grasses grew there. When they died, I broke the stems of the poppies into hay-like mulch and left the dried grass (that had gone to seed) to feed the ants, birds and squirrels. 

Doves eating grass seeds in the shade of a desert acacia tree by the PLANTS FOR BIRDS sign.

Here I am pointing out the bird bath in the mesquite guild. (It is so important to provide daily water for the birds - especially in this heat!) The mesquite tree acts as a nurse plant providing shade and nitrogen for the nearby hackberry and a young saguaro. Notice that even during this dry spell, the native trees are green and thriving.

Next we visited the right of way basin where our moringa is coming back nicely after dying back in the hard freeze. Lillie gamely tasted the leaves of the nutritious "horseradish plant." 

Then I filled up my watering can and watered our flowering hibiscus plant that we recently planted in the greywater basin. There it benefits from greywater from our outdoor washing machine. The drought tolerant heritage pomegranate in the basin was also bearing fruit! It's always good to have that extra washing machine water for higher water-use plants like fruit trees.

I pointed out how the big slanted roof on the neighbors house had directed so much water into our yard that it had dissolved a wooden shed. Our kind neighbor gave Dan permission to install a gutter there to direct rainwater into a cistern to water our little garden. 

Jeremy followed me and Lillie into our fenced-in garden where he took this picture of his loved ones and learned that I use one watering can full of water on our little veggie garden. 

Lillie learned that the Palo Verde trees shade the garden from our hot summer sun and provide nitrogen to the soil. Bird netting cages keep the squirrels out of the chard (that grows year-round here.) And we use our dirty dishwater (with salt free soap) to moisten our compost pit. Every drop of water is precious in the desert.

It was so fun sharing my passion with Lillie. Can't wait to see what the next generation does... 

Continue our tour of my favorite places to bring visitors here:

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