Solarize me!

Solarize Anchorage is about to enter its second summer.  Basically, this program facilitates a match up between a solar installer and a neighborhood to get a bunch of solar on neighborhood roofs in one season, generally with price incentives for high participation.  Last year it was wildly successful in the Airport Heights neighborhood of Anchorage, this year it will be implemented in 4 Anchorage neighborhoods, including my stomping grounds of Spenard!  How exciting!  Here I need to make a full disclosure before I continue.  I recently started working for Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), which along with the Alaska Center is shepherding the program forward.  I have helped with some tech support to the neighborhoods who are currently choosing which installer to work with on the program.  What follows is all from my own point of view of how I would best take advantage of this or a similar program and doesn’t reflect ACEP positions or, indeed, what might be best for you!

So, first of all, as a 4-plex, the Ecoplex is officially a commercial building, code-wise, since it is not a duplex or single family home, so my installation rates will probably be a bit higher (the municipality will require an engineering stamp for code approval, for instance).  The Solarize program is aimed at residential, but installers have the final say on who can participate, and I have verbal assurance that I can.  Not having posted here in 2 years, my big news is that I have another possibility for a home to participate in the program: I moved in with my partner this year, a mile south of the Ecoplex.  I am a bit sad to not live on site for now, but family and friends (and my fruit trees) live there so I visit nearly every day, and there is a good chance we’ll end up living back at the ‘plex someday.  So, while the roofs of what I will call the Newcastle House are not as well situated and shade free (and need a good re-shingling first), there might be a second option for the program this year!

But back to the known quantity of the roof of the Ecoplex – does it make economic sense to go solar this year?  One push is that a 30% federal tax credit will start to phase out after 2019.  For the last few years I have had to keep a somewhat large savings account since I had very high deductible marketplace health plans for my son and I, and needed that security.  Now that I have a much lower deductible employer health plan, I’ve got a bit of money I could spend.  I can probably handle the $10,000+ outlay for professionally installed grid-tie solar, as long as there aren’t any surprises in my life or installation costs.  The other big things I would consider spending my money on this summer would be paying down my property loan or getting a high efficiency boiler to replace my 82%-ish efficient cast iron one.  Maybe I’ll reproduce the math in another, nerdier post, but a quick back of the envelope gave me a barely over zero internal rate of return for the boiler replacement (given that my current boiler aint broke).  The ‘plex has a sub-4% interest rate, and some of that is tax deductible as an expense on the rental property.  Surprisingly, putting up solar, correctly sized and with the 30% tax credit, came out to a 6% rate of return!  The best deal of those I’m considering.

In my next post, I am going to talk about how I would size my own roof solar photovoltaic system, and my assumptions behind the rate of return.

2016 Beginning Organic Gardening Classes

Source: 2016 Beginning Organic Gardening Classes

Muscovy Ducks in the Urban Food Forest

I have had muscovy ducks in my backyard for about 4 years now…at first penned up with the chickens, and then penned up in the back of the yard, where only the raspberries and weedy grass grew.

Muscovies foraging in the Yard

Muscovies foraging in the Yard

Just this year I have fenced the whole back food forest to let them forage a little more widely and it seems to be a good experiment so far!  It’s early days, and they weren’t on the yard in the early spring as young plants were making their tender way in to the world, so I am curious to see the effects throughout next year and the following years, but these are my observations so far:

Throughout most of the summer I didn’t notice too much change due to the ducks – extra poop everywhere, and some trampled areas where they liked to bed down for the day (they liked open ground, so my newly planted asparagus bed, which for some reason was not well mulched, suffered.), and some holes in the woodchips where they stuck their bills in and sifted for protein snacks.  I fed them fairly daily with barley grain as well – about a quart for 4 adults and a baby.  As fall rolled around, and I started realizing how well they have been finding their own meals (and since the wild seeds are in profusion) I sometimes go a few days without feeding.  If I go too long they figure out how to escape the yard, but they are doing a much better job of mowing down some of the plants I want them to now (mainly quackgrass).  I have wanted to eradicate grass from my plantings for years, but now I see its value as forage…and of course this foraging pressure will cut down its dominance!

It seems their preferences have been, sorta in this order (at least of what is available in the space): insects (including worms, slugs, flies, etc etc), berries within reach, red clover, tender grass, kale, comfrey, (probably chickweed and dandelions about here), turnip greens, tougher grass, turnip stems, mature lambs quarters seeds, chives, horseradish leaves, valerian leaves.  They have not seemed to damage in any way strawberry plants, trees and shrubs and raspberry canes, russian tarragon, yellow toadflax, lupine, or motherwort.  They have smooshed, to varying degrees, some small, young transplants of asparagus, native artemisia, french sorrel (they probably ate this too), lovage (though this isn’t in that bad of shape, just walked on a bit), and haskap.  All of this could have been prevented with a low fence around the plants, but so far the area and number of plants affected is small.

I have great hopes that this arrangement will lead to healthier ducks, fewer pest insects (especially hopeful on slugs, currant worms and leaf rollers), naturally mowed grass for a ‘cleaner’ look to the yard – for those who care, low effort fertilization of the fruit trees, and less food expenses for the ducks.  For more thoughts on the subject, I found 10 reasons for and against muscovies in the back yard in this great post, which mostly mirrors my experience!

10 non-rose family fruits for the Northern Forest Garden

Many of the fruits we rely on in the temperate regions come from one family.  Believe it or not apple, pear, plum, cherry, quince, and even raspberry, service berry, aronia, mountain ash and strawberry all are in the rose family.  Many of our ornamental bushes are in this family as well.  As a food forest gardener seeking biodiversity, I want to plant and gather from as wide an array of genetic material as possible.  Plants in the same family can concentrate pests that they are vulnerable to – fireblight, canker, insect predators such as leaf rollers, even damage from mammals such as voles, rabbits, and moose (the bark and leaves of the rose family are pretty universally tasty to these browsers – I’ve even seen a young moose angrily put up with a rose’s thorns to eat the branches, stomping the plant in between mouthfuls!)  To be fair, there are benefits to family relationships too – by rights my pear and sweet cherry shouldn’t bear fruit, because neither has a pollinator tree from the same species (and different but compatible cultivar), however they do bear some fruit.  I’m guessing a sour or bush cherry helps with pollinating the sweet cherry and mountain ash with the pear (and maybe there is some very limited self pollination.)  In any case, here are 10 fruits that I do, or possibly could grow in my zone 4 (max of about 1000 Growing Degree Days, just over 100 Frost Free Days) Alaskan food forest – some require favorable microclimates, most are worth a try, some might be a big stretch!  My observations are for growing (or trying to grow, or contemplating growing) these plants in Anchorage, Alaska.

1. Rhubarb (Polygonaceae family) – here is a standard Alaskan fruit, that of course is not biologically a fruit.  great!  No leaf roller, easy to propagate by splitting, early availability.   Jams, pies, crumble, ice cream topping, lemonade substitute, savory sour soup ingredient – What’s not to love!

2. Currants (Grossulariaceae family) – A nice prolific bush fruit that comes in white, red and black.  I love the black for their sweet, somewhat skunky taste, and their resistance to currant worm. This saw-fly larva does defoliate white and red currants, and gooseberries as well, so those are a bit more problematic in my yard.  I eat them straight, freeze them, and make sweetened juice concentrate that then is easy to make into home-fermented soda.  They self root where branches touch the ground, so are easy to spread around.  This link is my whole post on my love of black currants 🙂

Green gooseberries subbing for limes in this mojito!

Green gooseberries subbing for limes in this mojito!

3. Hardy Kiwi (Actinidiaceae family) – a small non-fuzzy fruit with a soft kiwi taste when it finally ripens in the fall.  Great for fresh eating, these grow well for me!  I am hoping to root some vines so I can propagate to other parts of my yard.  But don’t pick too early or they are astringent and hard!

4. Highbush Cranberry (Adoxaceae family) – this native viburnum is ubiquitous in the local birch forest under story.  I love the tart taste, though the big seed is best spit out and milled out of sauces.  There are other viburnums such as nannyberry that might do well here too.

5. Honey Berry (or Haskap, or edible honeysuckle – Caprifoliaceae family) –  A good sub for the harder to grow blueberry, well at least in color!  Honey berries are a pretty blue oval blob with a sweet and accessible taste.  Unfortunately, I’ve had bad leaf rollers the last two years and they have ruined most of the berries before they can ripen, but as my plants get larger and pest populations ebb I expect great things!  I do have a couple of blueberry plants (Ericaceae family) too, another non-rose family, but they limp along in my yard, and it is great to get up in the mountains and pick the much tastier wild blueberries by the gallon in the fall.

Alaskan Blueberries!!!!

Alaskan Blueberries!!!!

6. Elderberry (Adoxaceae family – same family as highbush cranberries!) – red are native, and a better bet than blue or black to grow in your yard in Anchorage.  The flowers make good fritters, or juice/soda/wine, the berries are the only thing I’ve ever made wine out of – tasted like Boones Farm, but nicely alcoholic!  I’m trying a couple of domestic blue plants, but I’ve failed before with these, so may be difficult to grow this far north.

7. Mulberry (Moraceae family) – probably require more Growing Degree Days than we have, but global warming/microclimates might help!  I planted one from St Lawrence Nurseries this year, we’ll see if it makes it through the winter and does anything fruitful in the future!

photo (18)

A male Sea Buckthorn in search of a female!

8. Elaeagnaceae family – Goumi, russian olive, Sea buckthorn, etc – Sea Buckthorn definitely fruits here, and tastes a bit like tang, or Hawaiian passion fruit orange juice.  Yum!  Russian olive is widely sold here as an ornamental, but mine died. Other members of this family might work!






9. Wolf or Goji berry ( Lycium family) antioxidant rich, faddish ‘super’ food – for what that’s worth.  Hardy to zone 5, some maybe to 3 – but do we have a long enough season?  Maybe worth a try!

10. Pawpaw (Annonaceae family) Temperate member of an otherwise tropical family.  A large, native fruit depended upon by early inhabitants of the eastern US.  Nutritious.  I’ve never tried it.  Low water content like a banana.  Needs water and probably way more Frost Free Days and Growing Degree Days than we have in Anchorage…but I can dream because,  according to the internet, Pawpaws have a creamy, custard-like flesh with a complex combination of tropical fruit flavors.  But it is on my list to put in a tree and see…someday, because this is a stretch!

I also dream of persimmon and various nuts (chestnuts, heart nuts, hardy hickory) that would be serious experiments.  I have some hardy hazelnuts that grow well, and even have male and female flowers, but so far have failed to set any nuts. One of my problems is that I have an urban yard and can only experiment with a couple of trees in most cases.  For plants on the very edge of being in acceptable growing conditions, one would need to plant a huge number of genetically distinct plants to roll the dice on finding a collection of genes that might be adapted to our conditions.  What crazy fruits or other perennials have worked for you in the far north??  Let’s learn from each other!

Mini Earth Bag Dome Duck House

I’ve been wanting to make an earth bag dome forever (and click that link if you want to know what the heck that is or how to do one right!)  I’ve been saving poly woven bags since my days collecting soil samples in them for work.  I finally had a project to use them for: there are too many poultry on site to shove them all back into my chicken house for the winter so I needed to make a duck house.  I have 5 Muscovies now, and even though they need less protection than chickens in general,  it’s extreme enough in Anchorage that they needed a warm place to sleep in the winter. IMG_4034 I started by shoveling off the turf and topsoil (less than 6 inches) in a circle.  I scribed the circle with a stick on a string attached to a centrally placed pole.  Then I filled bags with the gravelliest soil I could find on my lot.  The inside diameter of this first ring is a little less than 4 feet. IMG_4039 I was running low on gravelly soil, so I went to the home improvement store and bought about $40 of pea gravel (10 bags) to do the next level.  This creates a barrier to moisture wicking up into the rest of the structure. Then I had the brilliant idea of using wood chips in the rest of the bags instead of soil.  Mostly because they are lighter and easier to move and I have a ton of them.  They would be more insulating that soil…think straw bale, kind of.  They would not have the strength of soil bags though, and have a high danger of decomposition and the resulting instability.  I also had 7 bags of ready mix concrete that were getting a little solid from sitting around for a while. Maybe woodchipcrete would be a little more stable?  SO I mixed in one 50 lb sack per wheel barrow load: IMG_4048   IMG_4049   This worked for most of the layers in the dome, until I ran out of concrete mix for the last couple of layers, but everything seems pretty stable…for now. IMG_4067 Here is a selfie of me standing on the top: IMG_4069 And here is a door detail: IMG_4061 I used a big cottonwood log as a form for the door, but it wasn’t as wide as the bags so things did settle to a little smaller than I would have liked, but still big enough for a duck. Then I covered everything with 6-mil poly (builders plastic/visqueen) to hopefully keep the rotting to a minimum: IMG_4071 And threw the top soil and turf back on: IMG_4085 And lo and behold, after baiting it with some canned salmon, the ducks finally trusted it enough to go in at night! IMG_4092 So we’ll see (and I’ll let you know) how things go. There is no ventilation other than the doorway. I will have to pull the poopy bedding out with a potato fork since even a rake is too big to get through the door. If they lay eggs in there that I don’t want them to hatch, it’ll be fun trying to get them out. My moisture management could fail miserably and things could settle or collapse in catastrophic ways (which could lead to a big pot of duck stew in a worst case scenario). I will have to shovel snow out of the entry. Next year I’ll have to get some sort of stucco over the non-dirt covered part of the entry so that it doesn’t photodegrade. It really didn’t take much time, energy, money, or materials to build, so I figure the risk is low for this experiment!

Yields from an Alaskan Forest Garden

I have evolved into primarily a forest gardener.  As a child, I had some fairly unsuccessful gardens in the shady margins of the yard, and relied on carrots from my mom’s raised beds to sustain me.  Mostly, I was oblivious to the effort to turn out an edible yield.  When I first started to garden seriously in grad school , I quickly realized that gardening threatened to turn me into an enemy of wilderness.  My young self had once waxed poetic about delicate, trumpeted bindweed flowers and mischievous raccoons, and my Kansan farmer grandma had responded with a ‘bahh, I’d poison ’em all!’.  I was indignant.  That was until I started cutting slugs in half with shears, and realized the nature of her antipathy.

My front yard

My front yard

I have worked hard to try to not let my unconditional love of wilderness, all of her, be slowly turned by a sense of battle against her for my own needs.  In that vein, I chose no-chemical, no mow, low energy methods without even a thought.  Through extensive reading and experimentation, I have evolved my own Alaskan forest garden style.  In general, forest gardening involves the extensive use of edible perennials and easy reseeding annuals arranged much as nature would, with layers – plants that have extensive roots, low ground covers, herbaceous plants, bushes, vines and trees (and possibly multiple stories of trees).  No gardening method is really low work.  More ecological methods tend to involve a lot of work and/or money up front (digging big holes, sheet mulching, gathering materials, buying trees, etc) and the hope is that it evolves into a low input, self-sustaining system.  You won’t be tilling every year, buying as many new plants, adding lots of fertilizer, etc.  In practice, I am usually still filling in where trees didn’t make it, pulling quack grass, mulching, spreading compost, re-wood chipping paths, and other things every year.  But the way the work is distributed really fits my nature – my motivation runs in cycles.  I can happily spend all day in the yard pulling invasives and mulching one day, only to spend the next week unable to leave the house.  This doesn’t usually phase a forest garden.

Often annual vegetables are also grown in the forest garden in their own spot or under young trees.  I have a big sheet mulch bed just for veggies and often fit more around some trees.  This year I was out of town all spring though, and didn’t get any starts going.  I did eventually, in June, push most of my old seeds into the earth somewhere in the yard, and some things came up and did well.  I’ve had all the butter crunch lettuce I want, big radishes, lots of field peas (great as edible green shoots or small flat pods in salads when young, shelled peas later), turnips.  The favas and squash are mostly just enriching the garden as living mulch, though I do stir fry young squash leaves and flowers.  But this has been a good test of what my yield would be if I didn’t plant anything new in the spring, and here it is:

  • IMG_1404Berries and fruits – unsurprisingly, since I have concentrated on planting and nurturing trees and bushes I have gallons upon gallons of apples, currants, raspberries, strawberries, juneberries with lesser amounts of aronia, improved mountain ash, and arctic kiwi.  Hopefully soon my cherries, sea buckthorn, apricots, pear, and cherry-plum will bear – again or for the first time (most of these need me to plant a good pollinator).  I make pie, juice, soda, and preserves.  We eat a ton straight from the bushes, and freeze the rest for later.  My roommate makes great fruit leather and ciders/wines.
  • Herbal Teas – My son loves to pick the self-reseeding annual german chamomile and add vanilla and honey to make tea.  My favorite is roasted ground dandelion root – just as good as coffee to me!  I really love the rich aromatic satisfaction of starting my day (or ending it) with a steamy cup.  I also am drying rose hips, currant and raspberry leaves, sea buckthorn leaves, mint and others for tasty, healthful herbal tea for the winter.  I am trying out dandelion leaf and horsetail (my do I have a lot) as a diuretic tea to help with PMS bloating and the sinus headaches that causes me every month, we’ll see if it helps.
  • Weeds, uh I mean Greens – I make huge batches of pesto with weeds.  Sure, basil or arugula (which does self seed in my yard, but I need to give it a bigger space, it got crowded out this year) is the best, but lacking that my abundant dock, dandelion leaves, lambs quarters and chickweed make great pesto!  It’s bright green and mostly its the oil and garlic you taste anyway.  My recipe is simple – blend a few garlic cloves and walnuts (or other nut on hand – I use the nut closest to the nexus of cheapest and most sustainable I can find), add a bunch of olive oil, a quick pour of salt, and as many leaves as I can cram in the blender.  I also put all these things in salads.  I’m not a big fan of bitter greens, but a few is ok and lambs quarters are great for having a mild spinachy flavor.  They also get sautéed or stir fried and added to eggs or any recipe that can take a green.  Or blanched and frozen…basically they are all nutritious greens that I couldn’t keep from flourishing in my garden if I wanted to.  Not having other choices really helps me utilize them.
  • IMG_3958Eggs and Poultry – My chickens and ducks eat barley that I buy for them and salmon guts and waste and table scraps.  Other than that they are on the yard all summer, eating grass and weeds.  The ducks are in a big pen, the chickens in a movable tractor right now.  I get regular eggs and baby ducks (male muscovy ducks don’t make loud noise and can be kept in town, unlike roosters).  This year there are three baby ducks, and a couple of those will probably become dinner, depending on gender.  Two of my three laying hens are bad at laying in their old age too, and will probably be saved the long cold winter by becoming stew hens.  They will be replaced with chicks in the spring.

As you can see, I am not aiming for some pipe dream of self-sufficiency.  The bulk of my calories is still from grain products bought at the store.  I also eat a lot of meat and occasional dairy – from fishing, the store, local farmers, what have you.  I would love to cut down on this and am getting there…  I have a small plot of land in the city.  I could grow a lot of potatoes, and usually do have at least some, but I don’t find it too hard to justify eating whole grains and other products from other places.  It saves a large amount of expense and the woes of our current food production system for me to produce most of my own fruit, eggs, greens, and beverages.

Black Currant Love

Black currants (ribes nigrum) are my favorite fruit right now!  I am growing 3 big bushes – Titania, Consort, and an unnamed variety from the local farmers market.

1.5 g from unnamed black currant

1.5 g from unnamed black currant

The unnamed bush gave me 1.5 gallons/ 8 pounds of fruit yesterday.  The Titania was a little overripe already, but I got 3/4 of a gallon that hadn’t fallen and rotted yet.  The Consort is less ripe and I’ve only picked about half a gallon off of it, but there are more to pick.  It is also in the shade and currently (hah!  get it!) has some mildew problems.

I like black currants because they are vigorous and hardy and produce a lot.  They grow well about anywhere I plunk them down in my yard in Anchorage – right under an apple tree’s shade, out in the sun, wherever.  They are a great permaculture guild plant; I have a corner with an apple tree, black currant right next to it, white currant next to that, and arctic kiwi twining through the whole thing.  Red clover surround this dense mix, and everything produces well and catches just about all the light before it gets to the ground!  Unlike my red and white currants and gooseberry, they don’t get touched by the totally defoliating currant worm.  They get a few leaf rollers (or tent moths or whatever you call them) in a bad year like this, but nowhere near as much damage as apple and other fruit trees.  They are very easy to propagate.  The branches that touch the ground root and can be clipped off, pulled up and replanted elsewhere.  If no branches have done that yet, you can always pin one down to root, but most of mine have a very sprawling habit and are rooted all over the place.

They are pretty easy to pick, the fruit is on stringers that can be plucked or cut off as a cluster.  They are less of a pain to pick than strawberries and raspberries, where the fruit are a bit more separated and ripen over a longer period (I lose a lot of straws and rasps by not going out every day in the season to pick).  They are harder to pick than my apples since my apples are bigger, at standing height, and less hidden under leaves, but for small, easy fruit they win!  Generally, I can pick some into my mouth for a couple of weeks, then choose a good day, like yesterday, and go out and harvest almost all of the crop and process them in one day.  And be done with black currants!

I tend to like to eat them fresh – they have very very high vitamin c content and are quite tasty.  You may need to develop a taste for them, they are a little skunky, but that grows on you more and more!  I’m sure it is this spicy skunkiness, that is also in the leaves, which keeps the chewing insects at bay.  I love brushing by the leaves in the spring and getting a whiff of that wonderful perfume!  I also can juice concentrate for italian sodas with them.  This is more likely to be consumed by my son than jam, and I think most people would find it tasty…mellowed by sugar.  I’m going to try to make a little fermented soda this year by throwing some yeast in a bottle of juice concentrate and water and see what happens…hopefully not a broken bottle!  My roommate makes a good black currant fruit leather.  They can also be frozen for later use if you can’t decide what to do with them, or want to throw them in baked goods or something in the winter.

Quackgrass – who’s in control?

Every gardener, even those who have embraced weeds, likely has their nemesis plant.  That one garden invader that holds on tenaciously, spreads like honey on a hot day, can’t be eaten, and crowds out or poisons the ‘good’ plants.  Mine is quackgrass ( Agropyron repens ).

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

A bed of equal parts strawberries and quackgrass

Strawberries from this bed.

Strawberries from this bed.

There are all kinds of great suggestions to control quackgrass, I’ve failed to take any of them to the level I would need to.  In my desire to garden gently and make conditions as much like a normal forest as possible, I am adverse to chemicals, tilling (this may be a good thing as the grass rhizomes can spawn a huge number of new plants when they get chewed up and spit back out), and mowing.  I have generally attempted to turn the lawn that came with my house into forest garden by sheet mulching and cover cropping.  If I had been able to sheet mulch the whole grassy area at once with at least 3 layers of overlapping cardboard/thick newspaper and mulch on top, it would have helped.  I would have also had to do something along the approximately 180 feet of the perimeter of the lot that borders the neighbors’ grass.  Instead, I only had the materials and time to tackle a section at a time, and the grass spreads back onto my mulched area in less than a year.  In fact, the rhizomes seem quite happy snaking along the cardboard, through its crenelated pathways, to pop up again in the specially prepared fertile, sunny middle of the sheet mulch.  Perhaps newspaper would work better, but the grass apparently likes a hard surface below soft soil to spread along, hardpan or old yard surface – each does the trick!

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

grass growing up in a sheet mulched bed.

I also have too much area to be very successful with mulching – even when I score bags and bags of leaves, I never seem to have enough to even come close to mulching over a foot in all the affected areas as recommended.  I also have so many tender young plants that I have to be light and careful mulching around these keepers.

I have spent five years in battle now – sheet mulching, pulling grass around plants and throwing it to the chickens (so that it doesn’t reroot, as even dried up pulled plants can), trying my best to totally eradicate grass in my yard.  But my approach is softening.  For one thing, my perceptions are gently shifting.  My reading had led me to the conclusion that this grass had not much going for it – not edible (by humans anyway), invasive, creating a tough root mat that outcompeted other plants for nutrients and perhaps exuded something that inhibited other plant growth (I can’t find much on this online, so it may be total bunk).  But as I look around my garden today, I see a pretty functional food-production space that still happens to have a lot of quackgrass.  My strawberry patch is chock full of it, and yet still produces abundant strawberries.  In fact, strawberries thrive amongst the grass in various parts of the yard, competing well without totally outcompeting it.  My fruit trees are also surrounded by healthy rings of tall grass without seeming to be too put out.  I have tried planting dense rings of bulbs (mostly tulips) around my trees to keep grass from encroaching, but not all of the bulbs make it and grass grows happily among them.  In fact, I think I set an apple tree back with one round of my bulb planting, impacting too many of the shallow tree roots.


Apple tree, strawberry, spent tulips and quackgrass, partying it up.




same thing, wider view.

same thing, wider view.

Various techniques allow annual gardens to flourish – raised beds, good weeding, getting things to grow before the grass invades the newly mulched or dug beds.  But I am leaning more and more towards pure forest gardening with time.  The fruits and berries that result are more likely to be consumed than turnips anyway, and I have plenty of weeds to eat when I need vitamins (dandelion, dock, chickweed, sheep sorrel, lamb’s quarters to name a few), and fruit is more expensive at the farmers market than broccoli and greens.

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

raised bed with chamomile (surrounded by wood chips and red clover

There are areas where I have managed near total eradication – generally where I have managed to temporarily remove all surface traces of the grass and then get other things that really shade the ground going.  Most successful of these cover crops is perennial red clover, with other things sometimes able to mix in.  Not successful is sheet mulching a large area and not planting it right away – like the garden bed I prepared last fall and didn’t plant until after a trip to europe this summer, or the swaths of ground and path I have tried to keep wood chipped.

red clover, parsnip, lupine.  Very little grass.

red clover, parsnip, lupine. Very little grass.

Also, my chicken tractor is a help.  By itself, it does not eliminate the grass, but the chickens do eat it and dig up the ground enough to give me a dirt patch to try to get other things going in.  And if I could repeatedly tractor all of the grass every time it got five inches high it might exhaust the grass’ resources.  The chickens have been scratching enough of their barley into the ground that it is mostly barley thats been sprouting up after I move their tractor.

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Chickens working on weeding a small patch

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Barley grass and brassicas growing up in the wake of the chicken tractor

Sometimes, sitting in the garden in the failing light of day, I have caught a glimpse of the tall seed heads of my quackgrass.  And I have been filled, not with repugnance, but with the visual lullaby of wind made manifest in the patterns of nodding grass.  Truce.

Photos of the Finished Bike Parking Rack

Behind in posting as usual, but somewhere between the first and second snow last month we finished the roofed bike parking! Here are some photos, after them I’ll sketch out construction methods and approximate costs:

View from the parking lot, lightly screened against casual viewing from street by old fence boards.

View from the parking lot, lightly screened against casual viewing from street by old fence boards.

There are 5 bike racks and room on the side for trailers

There are 5 bike racks and room on the side for trailers

View back toward the 'plex.

View back toward the ‘plex.

Polycarbonate roofing panels to keep the snow and rain off, let light in and through!

Polycarbonate roofing panels to keep the snow and rain off, let light in and through!

Basic covered structure is: Treated 4×4 and 4×6 corner posts for a shed roof (salvaged from a fence I am tearing down and other sources).  Back 2 posts are the 4×4’s buried about a foot in concrete, sticking up 3 feet.  Front 2 are 4×6’s buried about 2 feet in concrete, sticking up 6 feet.  Treated 2×6’s are bolted across the front and back posts (2 in front, 1 in back – but could have just used 1 in each location).  Approximate floor space dimensions are 8 feet deep by 16 feet long.  10′ 2×4’s are the rafters, spaced every 2′ with salvaged 2×4 blocking at least every 3′ along the rafters to support the polycarbonate 2’x8′ roofing panels (partial panels finish off the 10′ run of the rafters).  Some brass sheeting left over from something was bent to cap each of the upper rafter ends.

Materials (with prices where remembered!):

(3) 20′ treated 2×6’s – $74

(10) 10′ 2×4’s for rafters

salvaged 2×4’s for blocking in between rafters

salvaged treated posts ( (2) 4′ 4×4’s and (2) 8′ 4×6’s)

(12) 2’x8′ polycarbonate roofing panels – approx. $300

wiggly wood (our name for it – the wooden pieces that are shaped like the crenelated panels to support them on the blocking)

special expensive screws with rubber washers to screw the panels down – luckily I was given a bunch left over from a friend’s project

For the bike racks themselves: 5 inverted ‘U’ shaped racks were made from 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe and 90degree elbows. The U’s (or n’s) are 5′ long but 2′ is buried in concrete in the ground with 3′ sticking up. They are 1′ wide and spaced approx. 3′ from each other (as per city of Boston recommendations I found online).  A bike can be locked to each side of each inverted U, for an easy 10 bikes, with plenty of space in between to avoid locking peddles and handlebars.

Materials (total cost for these is about $300)

(10) Galvanized steel 90 degree elbows – 1.5″ threaded inner diameter

(5) 12″ long 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe, threaded both ends

(5) 10′ lengths of 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe, threaded both ends (for no extra cost, the Home Depotarian will cut these in half for you, so that an unthreaded end can be buried in concrete, and a threaded end at the top can be screwed onto an elbow.  Much cheaper than pre-cut threaded sections at the box store)

enough 50lb sacks of ready-mix concrete for use in setting posts.  This was fun because you don’t have to premix with water – you just pour in your hole around the post, spraying with water every 1/3 fill or so.  I think it took somewhere around 15 bags?  That’s the problem with delayed blogging and lax record keeping!

Last but not least – the invaluable help of my friends and fellow ecoplexetarians!  Thanks everyone!

Financial Independence through Owner Occupied 4-plex?

(note: this post was first written Feb. 27, 2013 but not published, some current details have changed, but not the gist!)

The view from the 'plex, sometimes.

The view from the ‘plex, sometimes.

Some of you might be familiar with the book ‘Your Money or Your Life’, or in some other form contemplated financial independence. I’ll loosely define financial independence as not being dependent on traditional job income to get by. This could be from traditional retirement, early retirement, whatever. Who hasn’t dreamed of not having to work for a living, at least sometimes or at some point!

The eco-plex is my current best chance at retiring someday before I’m dead. It certainly didn’t start as a financial choice, but I think it’s turned into a good one for me, not probably the most lucrative, but it fits my current proclivities and personality. I sometimes think everyone should do it, but I know the market has changed, Anchorage is unique, and there are things I like to do or can handle that not everyone is into, so this post isn’t a how to (please please do your homework if you are planning to go this route – I’m actually not at all savvy or knowledgeable on investing in general, and there are, of course, headaches and real risks to owning rental property). But I will explain below, with a fair bit of detail, how the ‘plex is working for me financially. Long story short, good enough that I have to rationalize living off the back of my tenants, all capitalist pig style (I’ve rationalized that I don’t, really, and read below for details of this rationalization).

I’ve always had, or knew I could have very low expenses (I’m healthy and able, I’m not a shopper, I grow some food, I don’t need to and have rarely owned a car, I like living in small spaces with lots of people, I am fine with mismatched and worn goods, and while I always plan to shop at the thrift store for them, I even more often get given things or find them in the dumpster, etc, etc). I still remember my original plan when I was contemplating quitting grad school was to find a good job making $100K a year (I’ve rarely made anywhere close to this – but it was a possibility with the education I received – loan free by the way, I was very lucky with scholarships and need based grants and I do feel blessed for that). I planned to live on $7K of that per year (dumpster diving, sharing small spaces with folks, whatever…I had it all calculated in any case, and though I probably only managed that one year of my adult life, I was within a factor of 2 of that in grad school and some other times). But ultimately I decided to choose work based on my heart rather than the money, and I’ve similarly spent plenty on travel, my child, and other happy events. Not that I am immune from impulse purchases and unnecessary restaurant meals when the money is there. I’m an incessant budgeter, but I don’t sweat it too much when I break my budget, as long as I don’t go into debt – I don’t carry consumer debt, never have.

OK, so I dreamed of the eco-plex for quite a while, at least for the 2 years that I worked a normal job making somewhere north of $50K per annum saving up money and job history to buy it. I wanted the 4-plex to fit with my low budget life, but mostly I wanted it as a project – a way to live in community, a way to have a garden while keeping the shared walls and smaller apartment sizes of my renter lifestyle, and a building that I could make as energy efficient as possible as a demonstration and also nest in a bit – making it beautiful in ways that mattered to me.

I wanted as many units as possible while still qualifying for an affordable mortgage (1-st time homebuyer with 2.5% down – FHA), thus the 4-plex – to spread my influence and the efficiency of having shared walls the furthest. I wanted to be in a walkable neighborhood, near work (I’ve changed jobs 3 times since the purchase, but always been able to walk to work – the farthest was 2 miles away). I had to be able to afford it – and with my income history, this was the only one that fit the ticket – luckily I liked it too (see early posts in this blog for more on this topic). I bought it for about $275K in 2008, with only 2.5% down as I said (and over 6% interest).

For the first 2 years I owned it, it certainly did suck money, but mostly because I allowed it to. There were plenty of small repairs, etc (most detailed somewhere on the blog), and I spent about $30K out of pocket, after home energy rebate, on insulating the building better and other big ticket energy efficiency improvements. I was still at my good paying (for me) job, and living pretty simply, so I had the money to do this and the loss on my taxes (from depreciation of the property and my improvements, higher expenses than income, etc) of a few thousand dollars was pleasant at tax time. During this time the units were definitely not modern and immaculate, and they still aren’t, but for the right person they have a certain charm. Rents were pretty much rock bottom, and it was easy to attract tenants with this plus the allure of a ‘green’ rental and garden space. I did have some non-ideal tenants, but everyone has been reasonable and personable, and I have been lucky enough to not have to evict or lose rents or have tenants who caused even semi-major damage. I think living in the building has helped a lot – I know exactly who is there and what is going on, I know my tenants personally, and any problems can be discussed and worked out before they become unmanageable.

The next two years were much closer to break even. My tax accounting still shows a loss (and I don’t cheat, so this should be accurate), but it got smaller and smaller. I was still remodeling units and upgrading appliances and other above and beyond improvements (the sorts of things that depreciate on your taxes instead of being expended away), and also taking care of a lot of deferred maintenance. Sometimes I called someone in, but often I did the work myself (usually with the help of friends and family). Over this two year span I frequently did feel overwhelmed – mostly from having my unit torn up and always feeling like I should be finishing up a house project. This was common among my friends with project houses, and mine is certainly a project – as intended. Usually the more routine 4-plex maintenance was much easier to handle and took up a much smaller part of my time and energy. Yes, there were plumbing emergency calls late at night, but not frequently and the frustration and worry was usually quickly replaced by the satisfaction of a fix. Often these got called out to plumbers, but I still always feeling good when the work is done and I’ve paid the bill. Many of my tenants have been short timers – students or seasonal employees, or couples who had a baby and moved on, so I’ve had my share of move outs and move ins, but these are often quite smooth. I do take this opportunity to do the last landlord’s delayed maintenance on the units and make some improvements while they are vacant, so there can be some work and stress there, but again it feels rewarding to me in the end. I have it down so that I rarely have much of a vacancy anymore – maybe a week if I want to make improvements, sometimes less than a day. I use craigslist to find tenants.

Last year I did a streamlined refinance to 3.9% (a bit higher than the rates at the time, but that covered rolling my closing costs in). I’ve also come a long way in making the building efficient and choosing good tenants and I’m starting to feel serious financial benefit. According to my schedule E, I actually made money on the place last year. Only about $1k, but it’s a start (of course, my unit is not considered in the IRS rental property calculation, so the portion of the expenses for my unit aren’t taken into consideration).

So how am I doing day to day? This is the way I look at it: I wanted to have a big space to garden and the ability to do energy efficiency improvements and nest. Maybe I could have gotten a nice, small, condo to do this, but probably not with significant garden space. Likely my more traditional choice would have been buying a single family home. Rock bottom for a small one in my neighborhood probably runs about $170K (after a quick search on Zillow), for a mortgage of $755/mo plus utilities, insurance, and taxes. Certainly more, in the end, than the $800/mo I was spending on an apartment before I bought this place. In any case, I would have put plenty of money in upgrades to improve the efficiency and durability of this house, and I would have nested at least a bit (ok, maybe a lot – by which I mean aesthetic improvements). My mortgage is about $1200/mo, ~$1795 after insurance and taxes. My utilities (remember I’ve worked to make it efficient, but there is more I can do) average about $450 or less per month. I’ve estimated that if I wasn’t upgrading, just replacing and repairing things as needed, my monthly set aside for that would be about $250. That totals to $2495/mo. My rental proceeds are currently $2400. So I pay $95/month plus whatever I pay to make my desired improvements. Seems like a good deal to me.

Update on 11/17/13 – My rental income is a bit higher now, mostly because my son and I both have our beds in one big bedroom of the basement unit, and rent the second room to a good friend. I also finished upgrades (at least the ones that were in progress) on the middle unit, so it is worth a bit more than any unit was before. Repairs and needed improvements (like bike parking for all our bikes!!) do take more than I budget sometimes though. Partly because when I discover a window is not closing all the way anymore, and can’t easily be fixed, I replace it with a top of the line, insulated fiberglass frame, triple pane window. I am trying to only do necessary repairs and real efficiency-boosting projects now.

Honestly, I am a bit burnt out on house projects and didn’t originally publish this because I wasn’t really so sure, despite trying to convince myself, that owning an old building was a sane life strategy! Most of the time, it seems great, but it seems that when emergencies do happen, they come in groups (I discovered a roof leak, a toilet leak, and a couple of other problems all within one week a couple of months ago!). And despite some preventative maintenance, and trying to replace things with durable, fool-proof fixes, the small emergencies don’t seem to be decreasing with time. But my knowledge of how to deal with them generally is, and I do more myself than in the early days. Generally, upkeep is cheaper than in the beginning, but someday big things like the boiler and roof will need replacement, and so I need to be banking those savings. I also get a lot of help with my projects – especially the dirtiest, trickiest, most labor intensive parts, which is wonderful. I have no illusions, and neither should you, that this is a one-woman against the world project!

And for the conclusion on the financial independence aspects (which I never really finished elaborating), right now it allows me to build equity while trading my original investment, ongoing sweat, responsibility, and some influx of ‘hobby’ money. In plain terms, unless something big breaks, I don’t really have to spend any money beyond rental incomes each month on living accommodations or utilities or small repairs. In return, I handle emergencies, shell out for supplies big or small, manage the place, shovel snow, etc, etc. Sometimes manageable and pleasant, sometimes overwhelming! If I sell before I pay off the mortgage I will have cash equity I can take with me (if markets don’t crash). Otherwise, I will have a modest rental income when the mortgage is paid. I think it’s been a wise choice, all in all! With my down payment, I could have built a tiny house with tiny utilities and been in a similar place, maybe, today – but without the friends who live with me, the shared walls, and the equity building. I have friends with single family houses that rent out all the extra rooms and also live rent free, and this seems like a great strategy too – only slightly less equity building and fewer plumbing problems to fix! I might take that trade off!