National Parks

I’m very grateful for the traveling I have gotten to do and the ability to see so much of our amazingly beautiful country! I am very impressed with how well our National Parks are maintained and the wonderful programs that they offer. I am slowly checking off the parks I’ve been to and hope to one day see them all.

So far I’ve been to:

  • Hawai’i Volcanoes
  • Yellowstone
  • Badlands
  • Yosemite
  • The Grand Canyon
  • Carlsbad Caverns
  • Arches
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  • Great Sand Dunes
  • Rocky Mountain
  • Mesa Verde
  • Grand Teton

…And also the Dinosaur National Monument

One of the things I’ve recently found is how much fun becoming a junior ranger is.  The program is designed for kids usually 12 and under, however it’s actually a lot of fun to do as an adult! All you have to do is ask a park ranger for a booklet at a visitor’s center. Many of the national parks have very interesting geological formations and the junior ranger booklets can teach you about how the park was formed through fun activities. Mesa Verde National Park is known for it’s cliff dwellings and I learned all about what the people who had lived in them ate, wore and what kind of tools and art they had created. Even though all of that information is always on signs and in visitor’s centers, it’s easy to pass over it without thoroughly reading everything. The booklet is a great way to retain the information because you have to find answers to all the questions! Once you complete the booklet you get to turn it back into a park ranger and you get sworn in as a junior park ranger! This can be quite comical to do as an adult because sometimes you have to promise to clean your room and eat your vegetables…

Getting sworn in!

Getting sworn in!

It’s always fun to start a collection, and something I’ve been collecting that is relatively inexpensive are patches! I always pick one up from the visitor’s centers and anywhere else that I happen to see one even if it isn’t a national park. They are the perfect memorabilia for traveling because they are lightweight, easy to store and usually only cost between $3-$5.

If you are interested in visiting a national park here are some tips!

  • If you know you will be visiting 4 or more parks or national monuments in a year you should pick up a national parks pass! You can purchase one at a national parks entrance, online at or at your local REI! They cost $80 and will let you into any park or monument for a year from your date of purchase. It pays for itself in about 4 visits.
  • If you want to camp in a national park know that you are going to need to make reservations on the government website many months in advance unless you are going in the off-season. It usually costs about $15 a night for a camp spot with amenities and some parks have hotels or cabins you can rent as well. If you are like me and don’t always know when you will be somewhere, you can always get on to find the closest free campsite to the park. You can usually find something that isn’t too far!
  • Know that you can’t have your dog with you on any hiking trails in a national park. So plan accordingly so that you don’t have to miss out on some great hiking!
  • Always have plenty of water and make sure you have a full tank of gas. Some parks have a couple stores and gas stations but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
  • While it’s usually worth seeing the main attractions, I like to get away from the touristy spots and do some back country hiking. If you are into overnight backpacking you can pick up a permit from a park ranger to do multiday hikes. Or if you want to just know a good hike for your abilities talk to a park ranger about what might be good for you. Also, REI just came out with a new national parks app that has all the best hikes, gems and maps for many of the parks so download it for free and do some research before you go! 
  • Lots of parks are great to visit in the off season. You can check calendars online to see when the off season starts for individual parks. Parks in Utah like Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches are all better to see around fall and winter anyways because of the heat in the summer. It is always nice to have parks be less crowded and get to have more of that beautiful nature to yourself!
  • Always make sure to pack out what you pack in and leave no trace! Don't take rocks or pick up flowers, stay on the trail and throw trash into trash cans! Respect our parks, they get a lot of traffic and we want to make sure they stay as pristine as possible. 

I really encourage everyone to get out and make a trip out to whatever national park you would like to visit. I hope you enjoy the pictures and get out to take some of your own! Also make sure to check out the national parks service site for details on individual parks and planning your visit!

Conventional Stick Framing

I am still in Gunnison, Colorado building a straw bale house in Crested Butte. We have made a lot of headway and are currently putting up siding. It has been about 4 months since we finished our foundation and framing alone took up a month and a half of that time. Framing made me realize just how much of a kinesthetic learner I am.  I really struggled with comprehending the framing process from the talks Dusty, our construction supervisor, was giving us. 

In a constant look of confusion...

In a constant look of confusion...

However, once I jumped in and began working things slowly became clearer. Today I am going to do a blog on the process of conventional stick framing.  There are many minor details to the process so I am just going to explain the general steps.

The fabulous Dusty aka the only one who actually knows what's going on...

The fabulous Dusty aka the only one who actually knows what's going on...


So the very first thing we had to do was deal with finding square on the concrete. Whenever you pour a foundation it always moves slightly after it solidifies and it is almost impossible to have it end up perfectly square according to the plans. As framers, it is our job to figure out where we will put down our bottom plates that will match up with the plans and make things easier for ourselves as we continue to build upwards.  This is the most important part of framing; if you do this incorrectly it will effect the rest of your upper floors and the roof. It HAS to be exact.

We used our retaining wall (the vertical concrete wall) as a constant because it can’t be moved. The process of finding square is kind of confusing and I won’t go into details, however we did it using a laser level. If you don’t have a fancy laser level you can use the Pythagorean theorem , a2+b2=c2,  to find your square as well. (I never thought I’d actually end up using this in real life!!) 

One of the most important things to remember during the process of framing is to BUILD TO THE NUMBER.  Your plans give you specific details of exactly where everything should be and you should always follow it before you try to make things plum or level.


Once you have finally figured out where on the concrete you will want to be building on to make things correct, you snap chalk lines to mark where your bottom plates (which are just 2x4s that will be directly on the concrete) will go.

You can see the two bottom plates on the concrete

You can see the two bottom plates on the concrete

If you read my blog on foundations you will know that we put in anchor bolts into the concrete, this is how we will connect the bottom plates to the foundation slab. All of the bottom plates are done with treated wood so that they don’t rot from the concrete absorbing moisture. We also put sill seal underneath the boards, which seals any air spaces that might be between the concrete and the board. Once we build our walls we will stand them up on top of the bottom plates so that we will have double bottom plates. Our house will end up having both double bottom plates and double top plates.


So the blue prints will let you know exactly how each wall will need to be built. Let me first explain some common terms so that it is more easy to understand.

Stud: Spans from top plate to bottom plate, these are what make up the majority of the wall systems.

12 on center: The first number can be replaced with any number, it just means that from the center of one stud to the center of the next is that number.

King Stud: This is what is used for making windows and doors, it is the long stud that will also go from bottom plate to top plate. Most windows and doors take several special studs put right up next to each other to make it stable.

Jack Stud:  Goes from bottom plate to door or window header

Header: A horizontal support that distributes weight. It goes at the top of a window or door.

Sill: The bottom plate of a window

Cripple: Short board that stands vertically underneath a window

Rough Opening: The opening between the jack studs that is for a window or door

The process of building a wall is to first cut all of your studs. They might vary in length depending on which floor or which unit you are on but as far as for example, the west unit first floor; they will all be the same height. So you can get them all pre cut before you put your walls together.

Once all of your boards are cut then you can lay them out on the ground. You will have a bottom plate and a top plate and then your studs will go in between them which whatever spacing is asked for in the plans. Most of our walls are 24” on center.  You will want to have most of your walls built before you stand anything up.

When laying out your studs you want the spacing to start on the south end of the building (we are pulling south to north) and continue consecutively uninterrupted despite doors and windows. So if it is 24” on center you continue to have a stud ever 24” on center no matter if there is a king or jack stud from a window right next to it so that you create an even grid.

You can see on this wall with a window, the King stud is on very outer parts of the window, the jack is in the middle, stretching to the header, and the cripple is just underneath the sill going down to the bottom plate.

You can see on this wall with a window, the King stud is on very outer parts of the window, the jack is in the middle, stretching to the header, and the cripple is just underneath the sill going down to the bottom plate.

For walls that have doors and windows you have to pay close attention to how many king and jack studs the plans ask for and make sure your rough opening is the exact dimensions that are asked for.

Note: One of the reasons it is so important to follow the plans about the spacing of the studs is because of the drywall. The drywall is a specific length and if you don’t space the studs correctly you won’t be able to add it. (All of our interior walls will have drywall; our exterior will have the straw bales and plaster.)


In our situation because we are building a duplex home, we have a party wall which is the wall separating the two units. By code, this has to have a fire separation, which is drywall. The drywall went on while it was still on the ground and then we all worked together to get it in place and stand it up. We had to add drywall plaster to any cracks to make it a complete fire barrier. A fire wall was added on both sides so that they were pressed against each other. We braced them to hold them up until the rest of the walls were able to go in.

It’s best to have many walls made before you stand them up because then you only need minimal bracing. The walls obviously support each other once they are up so it’s best to get them all up in a day so that you don’t have to worry about creating other support for them. You usually start with the outside walls and then put in the interior walls.

Note: Any walls that are going against concrete have to get flashing tape on the boards touching because you can’t have untreated wood touching concrete due to the moisture absorption.

What's more important, holding up the walls or posing for the camera? Why not do both?

What's more important, holding up the walls or posing for the camera? Why not do both?


Once all of our walls are up and we have done everything to the number we will check for plum level and square. The importance of doing everything to the number is that if everything is equally off as far as being plum or level goes because you’ve gone to the number, then ideally when you adjust one wall, all of the walls will follow it to become correct.

Dusty trying to explain how we were going to get level...we were really thrilled to get to fix that

Dusty trying to explain how we were going to get level...we were really thrilled to get to fix that

The way we fixed the plum (which isthe vertical level, level being the horizontal level) is by essentially just pulling and pushing the walls to where they needed to be and putting in braces to hold them. To get things level, you could shim everything up but Dusty didn’t want to do that so he decided we would wait until we put the floor for the second level in and shim that up which is easier.


Once our walls are in place we mark lines for sheeting. Once the walls are sheeted they will no longer move and you will no longer need bracing. The lines for sheeting makes sure they are all going on at the same height so that they are all put on evenly. We want to put them all up in the same orientation, only changing their length but keeping the height the same. This makes it look nicer and overall easier to put on because you won’t have to make as many custom cuts.

NOTE: Windows were cut out with a sawzall after they were put up as full sheets

NOTE: Windows were cut out with a sawzall after they were put up as full sheets

The crew

The crew


We will have rim joists that will go around the border on top of our first floor framing. These are very big and thick structural pieces of wood that support a floor or ceiling. The rim joists are what eye joists will attach to. Eye joists are long pieces of wood that is what the floor will actually sit on. These have to also be either 12” on center or 24” on center. The eye joists stand up right, running across the building in whatever orientation the plans call for.

These are the eye joists, you can see at the very end of them they are connected to the rim joist. Also note the blocking in between them.

These are the eye joists, you can see at the very end of them they are connected to the rim joist. Also note the blocking in between them.

Once these are in place, this is where we shim up to get level. We used the laser level again to find high points and work off of that. We will want to shim our eye joists up to the highest joist and get it all even. We also had to get them flush with the rim board so that the floor can go on level.

Once all of our eye joists are level we will ad blocking in between them at the ends to add stability. This keeps them from bending over.


Once the joists are finally all level and in position, we can get up and add plywood to create the floor for the second story!  The process of laying the ply board is first putting glue on to the eye joists. You drop it down and get it flush to the framing underneath, and then nail it in. When you add the next piece you want to make sure it’s tight everywhere, you can do this by using a sledgehammer to get it snug. Each board has a female and a male end so that they can fit in to each other nicely. You do have to make sure that you move quickly though because the glue begins to dry quickly.

Women builders, just as a competent but a bit more stylish...

Women builders, just as a competent but a bit more stylish...

I guess the view is alright...

I guess the view is alright...

Once your ply board floor is on you basically just start the whole process over again for the second and then third floor!


We started to add Tyvek once we got our second floor up. Tyvek acts as a drainage plane. With the temperature difference between the outside and the inside being so different it creates condensation so you have to have something to get your water outside so it doesn’t create mold.

To make it look nice we put all the Tyvek on in the same direction.  To apply it you just roll it out across a snap line you have made for yourself and then staple the top first to keep the line. Then just staple all the way down and repeat.


So there were definitely parts of framing that I really enjoyed and parts that I definitely hated. I found that I really enjoyed doing the dry wall plaster. I also liked having to read the blue prints and figure out how to build the walls correctly and then getting to put them together. I also felt that the flooring was pretty enjoyable. The things that were the worst in my opinion were the squaring and the shimming. You have never felt real frustration until you have found that no matter what you do nothing is ever square the way you need it to be.  Also trying to get everything shimmed to being level took forever and was another thing that never seemed to end up correct. Overall I enjoyed framing, however, whenever I build my own house, I only want one story.


-Our third floor has vaulted ceilings, the way we framed that so that we didn’t have to make walls that were all custom heights is we framed it to the lowest point and then went back in and added framing above the walls that went to the ceiling.

-We had a few other huge structural beams called GluLams that sat on PSL. The GluLam or Glue Laminate, is what supports the roof. It sits on a PSL or Parallel Strand Lumber that distributed the weight downward into special points on the first floor. The engineer is the one who figures out where this is needed and how to get the weight distributed to make the house be able to stand and support the roof and snow load.

-Our windows and doors needed what were called window and door bucks. This is a surface around the windows that is 12” out that meets flush with the straw bales once they go in. The window bucks were the last thing before finishing the vaulted ceilings that made our framing complete!

Window Buck

Window Buck


Our engineer came out and talked to us to answer some questions in mid June. Here are some of the things we were told.

-An engineer is actually more important than an architect when it comes to building a home. An architect creates the design of the house but the engineer figures out how to make it structurally sound and doesn’t fall down.

- They designed our house to be able to hold 100 lbs a square foot of snow. That is roughly about 10-12 ft.

-We frame everything first and don’t use straw bale as anything structural so that we can get a roof on so that when straw goes in it is protected by the elements.

-Light post and beam (a type of timber framing) is the way to do a straw bale home with the least amount of material. However, it is much harder to frame and it doesn’t work very well with multiple stories.

- 1/3 of an acre in Crested Butte with nothing on it will cost you between 600k-1.2 million.  Which is why affordable housing is so important!

-Affordable housing houses can only increase in worth by 3% a year so that they will always stay affordable housing. They also will only be able to sell to people that fit in the affordable housing qualifications.

-Straw bale and Straw cell don’t have much difference in R-value. However if straw cell is done right then it can have a little bit more.


So that is the basic process of conventional stick framing.  I’m grateful we had three stories to frame because I don’t think I could have fully comprehended it if we had had only one story to learn from.  There are many different types of framing and everyone does things slightly differently. This was the most practical way to do this build for our climate, environment and budget. Thanks for reading!


I am currently working with a non-profit organization called Community Rebuilds in Crested Butte, Colorado. We are building two, three-story duplex straw bale homes for lower income families as a solution to affordable housing. The foundation was supposed to get poured last fall, however the concrete company in the area was behind and instead we have gotten to be a part of it so I thought I would blog about the process.

1. Concrete Form

Our first job was to build the form for the concrete.This was a very tedious process because you have to get the whole thing level and in the correct position. The way you do that is by using survey points. Survey points are legal points that are put in by surveyors and we are not allowed to move them. This is because if the house ended up being over the property line then we wouldn’t be liable.

So initially we set up all of the walls that created the form using long pieces of wood. We would find the survey points and create our corners then drive stakes in behind the wood so that they would stay in place. Then once the shape of the house was created, we would move it to get it exactly where it needed to be according to the blueprints. Once the form was in the correct place, we then had to level it. This required a laser level. We had to walk around the form and add or take away dirt to get it all the exact height. Once that was completed, we had to again fix the position of the form and get it where it needed to be. This took us several days to accomplish.

Once that was complete the plumber came in to lay in the piping, only a few of us got to go up and help him with that. 

The completed form with some interns helping install plumbing

The completed form with some interns helping install plumbing

2. Radon Pipe

Finally once the forms were set we had to lay our radon pipe. The radon pipe was a black perforated tube that is laid into the ground and surrounded the entire foundation area.

Note: Radon comes from the uranium that is in the ground. You usually have to deal with radon in mountainous areas. Radon is atomic so it can come through the smallest of spaces. You have lay several layers and special tubing in the foundation to redirect it out of the house. The legal limit of radon is 4 and it is the 2nd most common cause of lung cancer with smoking being the first. Because the tube is obviously hollow, the radon will go into it because it will take the path of least resistance. The pipe will lead out of the house with a fan at the end of it to suck out any radon that has entered. Therefore preventing radon from entering the home.

3. Gravel

Once our radon tube is laid we added gravel.The purpose of the gravel is for drainage and it should cover the radon tubing. The gravel also had to be leveled evenly.

4. Plastic

Next was a layer of plastic.The purpose of the plastic is to create an extra barrier for the radon to have to travel through.

5. Insulation

After that we laid a layer of blue board foam for insulation. It’s important in places with climates like Crested Butte to have lots of insulation in your foundation to hold heat energy.

Note: Looking at the blueprints there were certain spots that we had to leave open with no gravel or blue board. That is where there will be main support for the roof and to create the strongest structure possible it needs to be directly on concrete and compacted earth with no gravel or blue board underneath.

You'll notice how hard we work...

6. Rebar Grid

After the insulation was added we created a rebar grid. Concrete isn’t strong enough on it’s own to withstand pressure so you have to add rebar to create stability and structure. Our rebar grid was 16”x16” squares. This was another tedious process of getting the rebar laid correctly. We had to cut the pieces to the correct length with an angle grinder and a rebar bender.

Then we had to lay them out and pull out our tape measures and tie them with rebar ties. The north and east walls had to have “L” shaped rebar connecting to them that stood vertical so that we would have something to connect to retaining wall to. We have to build a retaining wall because of the height of the dirt behind the house. However you can’t build the retaining wall until the bottom slab is finished and since concrete dries chemically and not mechanically, you have to have a way to connect the two masses. (Something that dries chemically can never go back to it’s original state, something that dries mechanically, like cob, once dried can have moisture added to it to become soft and shapeable again)

You can see the "L" shape rebar in the back that form a teepee shape. The blue is the blue board and the white piping is the radiant heating. You can even see the open space where we didn't fill in.

You can see the "L" shape rebar in the back that form a teepee shape. The blue is the blue board and the white piping is the radiant heating. You can even see the open space where we didn't fill in.

7. Radiant Heating

Once the grid was created the plumber came in and laid radiant heating that will heat the concrete and floor of the house. Radiant heating is amore efficient way of heating because it heats the mass rather than trying to heat the air.


8. Pour concrete, add anchor bolts, smooth

Once all of that is completed then the concrete is ready to be poured. They brought in one concrete truck at a time and began the pour. The process was to pour, smooth/level, clean the tube, change trucks and repeat.  They began by filling the outside first. Once the outside was filled up level with the form they used that to scree off of and fill into the middle. They then smooth it out with magnesium trowels and a really long float called a bull float. After the bull float has been used they place anchor bolts where they need to go. Anchor bolts are how you connect the house to the foundation. They stick a few inches out of the concrete and when you go to frame, you drill holes into the bottom of boards and connect them to the anchor bolts. The blueprints mark where they should be placed. You want to make sure they don’t get put in doorways and you want them to be within 12” of corners and buried 7” into the concrete spaced 48” on center. Once the anchor bolts are in place and everything has been smoothed they use a power trowel or finishing machine that almost looks like a push lawn mower with a big fan that spins on the bottom, with each fan blade being a trowel. After that someone will put on trowel skis so that they can crawl out and smooth out any bumps that were left from the power trowel.

Note: The wood that connects to the anchor bolts has to be pressure treated or it would rot being on the concrete.

Here is the power trowel or finishing machine

Here is the power trowel or finishing machine

9. WAIT!

Now all you have to do is wait for the slab to set!

10. Control Joints

The very last thing that gets done once the concrete sets is someone has to come in with a concrete saw and add control joints. Control joints are lines that are put into the slab so that if the slab was to move due to movement in the earth then it would crack at the joint and not spider web throughout the slab.

Here are some pictures of the process of the grid and form for the retaining wall going up as well as the entire finished product. 

Now that the process of a foundation is explained, I want to talk a little bit about concrete.

I didn't think concrete was a green product...

Since we are doing natural building I'm sure you are curious about the choice to use concrete.. Obviously as most people know concrete foundations aren’t exactly “green”. A concrete foundation has a pretty high embodied energy. Embodied energy being the amount of energy associated with the mining and processing of materials, manufacturing, transport of product and production.  In our situation we have to follow codes so we didn’t really have many other options, however there are a few to choose from if you are building on a smaller scale. First though, let’s discuss the pro’s of a concrete foundation.

Pro's of Concrete...

So the positive side of a concrete foundation with the insulation we added to it is that because it is a monolithic slab it has a huge amount of mass, and mass holds energy. So although it has high embodied energy to begin with, the amount of heat energy it saves can potentially make it more sustainable in the long run because you won’t have to heat your home nearly as often. Your mass will hold heat rather than letting it get lost. So you are using less fossil fuels long term and in the end is much more efficient. Other benefits are that it has the potential to last longer and is more structurally sound.

Here are some points to be aware of with foundations we learned from our construction supervisor Dusty Sylvanson

You must…

  • -Get below the frost line
  • -Eliminate soil moisture
  • -Look at capillary breaks (a barrier so moisture can’t get into building)

You must consider…

  • -Site conditions
  • -Loads
  • -Drainage
  • -Building design materials
  • -Energy and material efficiency
  • -Long term or short term structure
  • -Code jurisdiction requirements

A good foundation is…

  • -Economical
  • -Low embodied energy
  • -Well insulated
  • -Well drained

Foundations for Straw bale…

  • -Wide platform
  • -Capillary break
  • -Minimum 6” from grade (grade being the ground surrounding the house)
  • -Plaster stops
  • And always remember that bales should never be below grade because they will rot!

Here is a picture of the blueprint model of what we did. At the very bottom the hatches are the compacted soil, then you see the next layer is black diamonds which is the gravel. Then lines which is blue board. Then you see the long black lines with the dots, that represents the rebar. The bottom is obviously the bottom slab and the vertical one is the retaining wall.

So lastly let's discuss the alternatives to concrete foundations. There is another form of conventional concrete foundation that we could have used that includes a crawl space and is less concrete, however it doesn't have as much mass and therefore doesn't hold as much heat energy. 

So... the alternatives

 Here is a picture of a power point Dusty showed us. These are some of the alternatives that include:

  • a shipping pallet on a gravel pad
  • straw bale directly on gravel pad
  • sandbags topped with cob or concrete
  • framed box filled with stone and concrete
  • stabilized adobe, rammed earth or field stone
  • the Earthship approach which is used tires with rammed earth
  • railroad ties and gravel
  • rock-filled gabion 

So while these can all be acceptable foundations in certain situations depending on climate and terrain, there are still several issues you could potentially face. If you are having to deal with codes and regulations you could be very limited on your options. Also, many of these options aren't good for load bearing which means you are limited to the size of your structure. So if you just want something small one of them could be perfect for you. They also may not last quite as long, unfortunately these options aren't guaranteed to last. 

Sadly there isn't another material out there yet that works as well for a foundation as concrete. Some people have mentioned hempcrete but it is not nearly as structurally sound. However, there has recently been a new product that has been found that apparently is stronger than concrete, but they haven't found a way to mass produce it yet. Below is the attached video if you are interested.


Hopefully in the future we will have better alternatives to concrete that will be able to be up to code for neighborhood regulations. Until then, this is the foundation we created and we all learned an extensive amount in the process. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, I hope you found it to be informative.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

What started as a small group of families gathered around a kitchen table in 1979 has blossomed into the nation's leading voice on mental health. Today, we are an association of hundreds of local affiliates, state organizations and volunteers who work in your community to raise awareness and provide support and education that was not previously available to those in need.

- See more at:

NAMI: May is Mental Health Month

Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental health condition.

During the month of May, NAMI and participants across the country are bringing awareness to mental health. Each year we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care. Each year, the movement grows stronger.

We believe that these issues are important to address all year round, but highlighting these issues during May provides a time for people to come together and display the passion and strength of those working to improve the lives of all Americans whose lives are affected by mental health conditions.

1 in 5 Americans will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime and every American is affected or impacted through their friends and family and can do something to help others.

- See more at:


I am currently at Pun Pun Organic Farm outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. They promote self-reliance and provide many workshops for both Thai people and foreigners. They do everything from seed saving to natural building and are a really amazing community of people! Recently I have been getting more interested in fermenting and was very pleased when one of the women here wanted to show me how to make kombucha. So, I thought I’d do a blog so everyone can see how easy the process is to create this healthy and yummy drink!

First off, lets answer the question...

What is kombucha?

Kombucha is essentially just fermented tea that is made using a SCOBY (Symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). You might hear some people also refer to the SCOBY as “the mother”. It is said to have derived from China and the literal translation of the Chinese word for “kombucha” translates to “mushroom tea”. However, the SCOBY in kombucha is not a mushroom, it just resembles one.  So, in making kombucha when you add sugar and tea to the mother it results in B vitamins, probiotics, antioxidants, and wonderful fizzy yumminess!

Note: Many people are very passionate about the positive health benefits that come from consuming kombucha, however, there are some arguments on whether or not kombucha is scientifically proven to improve your health. So always remember it’s important to do your own research and be conscious of where your sources come from! Even with that being said though, I think it’s safe to say if you are a soda lover and crave the fizz that coke provides, kombucha is a much better alternative!

How do I make it?

The first thing you need is to acquire a mother culture or SCOBY. Fortunately, it’s easier to get one than you would think! So don’t fret if you don’t have any kombucha making friends to gift you one. All you have to do is go buy a bottle of kombucha from the store. Drink half of it and then pour the other half into a large sterilized jar. Put cheesecloth over the jar, held down with a rubber band so that no dirt, bacteria or bugs can get into it. Leave it out on your counter for a few days and it will start fermenting all on it’s own. You will notice a thin clear jelly layer forming in your jar, and that’s your mother!

So the thin layer that will show up is your very first mother, you COULD go ahead and make your first batch of kombucha with this, however it’s best to get her matured first. You can do this by just brewing black tea and sugar and adding it to the jar and letting it ferment for a few days. (You will want the tea you brew to be sweeter than anything you would normally drink) Start tasting it every day or two and see what’s happening. As long as it’s still sweet, it still has a ways to go. For your first round you will want to let it get past sour so that you will have a strong culture to work with. You will notice that your mother will get thicker and thicker and eventually turn white.

But aren’t I supposed to be staying away from sugar?

Well, since the mother is a mixture of yeast and bacteria, the yeast eats the sugar and turns it into alcohol. Then the bacteria eat the alcohol and turn it into lactic acid bacteria, which, like yogurt, the bacteria is supposed to boost immunity and overall health. So you are basically being left with little to no traces of sugar. Once you’ve gone from sweet to sour, you’ve got your kombucha! (This process of the yeast and bacteria is fermentation)

Once you have a nice, thick white mother culture you are ready to make the kombucha you will drink. You should pour off about 60-80% of what’s in your jar, leaving behind your mother. The amount you pour out depends on how strong your kombucha is. If it’s SUPER sour you might want to pour off just a little more. Also, if you have a garden, don’t throw it out! Pouring the kombucha on your growing vegetables works as a great fertilizer!

Now you’re left with a little bit of sour kombucha and your mother. You are officially ready to experiment! You can use any kind of tea, herbs, fruit juice etc to your kombucha. Just be aware, not everything you try will end up tasting good.  I recommend using a recipe for your first time so that you end up with something tasty! Here we made a chai kombucha and it turned out very delicious. Or as they say in Thai, “Aroi!”

Here is a chart from Pun Pun of the process. I will also type it out just as an overview!

  1. Boil water
  2. Add tea of any kind with sugar (make it stronger and sweeter than you would normally drink)
  3. Let it cool completely
  4.  Add tea to the mother and some mature kombucha liquid left over from previous batch
  5. Cover with cloth tied with elastic bands so that it is open to air. Leave for 7-15 days depending on local temperature. (I’ve found some sources online say as much as 30 days) If left in a dark place it will become fizzy.

Just make sure to taste it every few days to see how it’s going!

I will attach the recipe we used, but first let me note some things that were stated by the people here at Pun Pun.

  • Any sugar is good to use, however be aware that some sugar is sweeter than others so you may need to adjust your recipe depending on what sugar is available to you. Also, you cannot use honey or stevia as a replacement for the sugar, but they can be added for flavor. If you are interested in using honey check out Jun Tea.
  • After making multiple batches, if the mother gets too big, take the top layer out and give it away or use it for compost.
  • If the mother looks gross or ugly just wash it with kombucha or vinegar to clean it, however don’t use water.
  • Make sure to clean your container very well and sterilize it thoroughly so your kombucha doesn’t get contaminated.
  • If you see any mold on the mother, throw it away along with the kombucha. The mother should always be clean and white in color.

ALSO – some helpful tips

  • If you are adding hard spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves etc you should add those as your water is boiling for your tea. Soft herbs like mint should be added with the tea once the water is already boiled.
  • If you want to add fruit juice, add it to your culture at the same time you add your tea

Now, as I said earlier, there are many said health benefits! Including but not limited to:

  • Improved digestion and bowel health
  • Cleansing and detoxification
  • Increased beneficial bacteria in your digestive system
  • Immune support

Last note!

Please be aware that the sanitary conditions of brewing kombucha are extremely important. Drinking contaminated kombucha can make you sick so only drink kombucha that you know comes from a sterile and safe place.

Also – because kombucha is a fermented drink there are traces of alcohol. The longer it ferments, the higher the alcohol percentage. What you buy in the store has to be regulated so that it is under the legal alcohol limit but just be aware if you make it yourself that you won’t know the accurate levels of alcohol content.

So like anything – drink in moderation and enjoy!

Ingredients for Chai Kombucha

  • 1 Gallon of water
  • Brew tea with:
  • 4 Black tea bags
  • black peppercorns
  • Cloves
  • Star anise
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • 1/2-1 cup of sugar depending on the kind of sugar you use, just make sure it’s extra sweet

I hope that you felt this was informative and helpful and that you take the initiative to try making kombucha on your own! Don't be discouraged if it doesn't turn out well your first time, it can be a lot of trial and error! Have a wonderful day! 

Understanding Soil pH

If you are new to gardening you might not understand the importance of soil pH levels in your soil. While it is still something I am learning about, I thought I would do some research and write a blog on it to also help with my understanding of the subject.

So first off, what is soil pH and why does it matter?

The nutrients that plants need to survive are absorbed through their roots. The way plants receive those nutrients is by absorbing them once they are dissolved in water. If the mixture of the water with the nutrients is either too acidic or too alkaline, the nutrients won’t be able to easily dissolve and the roots will be incapable of absorbing them, making the plant unable to grow.  This is where your pH level comes in. Soil pH is the measurement of the amount acidity or alkalinity that is in a soil.  pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, 0 being pure Hydrochloric acid and 14 being pure sodium hydroxide, which is alkaline. No plant can survive in either of the extremes, however some plants do better in soil that is more acidic than alkaline and vice versa.  Neutral pH is 7, and most plants do best when they are in the range of anywhere between 6 and 7.5.  You can find out the pH level of your soil with a test kit that can easily be found in any gardening store, nursery or online. So, soil pH level is important because if it is off, you're plants can't absorb any nutrients and they won't survive. 

That being said, it is important to test your soil to find out if you need to adjust your soil so that your plants have the best possible chance of survival. However, be aware of what you are planting. HERE is a link to see the list of plants that thrive best in certain levels.  If your test shows that the number is more than a .5 difference from what you need, you are going to need amend your soil.

Once you find out what level your soil is at, if it is not what you need it to be, you are going to need to figure out how to adjust it.  Be aware that it can take months to adjust the pH level of your soil.  You should test every 2-3 months and only expect about a .5 unit of difference in that time. Every time you test, you can add more amendments. Also, be conscious about the fact that adding extra amendments can cause more harm than good. If you are adding anything that comes from a bag, make sure to follow the directions exactly. Too much can be damaging.  It is usually best start testing and amending in the fall time so that hopefully by spring you are ready to start planting. You will make it easier for yourself if you choose plants that thrive best in the soil you already have.

Now, to adjust your soil, lets first say your soil is acidic. This means that the pH level is lower than 7.  With acidic soil it means that your soil is lacking in calcium and magnesium. The most common organic fixer for soil with high acidity is Lime.  There are two different lime amendments. Dolomitic limestone is for if your soil has tested low in magnesium, and calcitic limestone for if your soil is low in calcium. Other things that work well for acidic soil are eggshells, oyster shells, clamshells, calcite, or hardwood ashes.  

Next, lets pretend your soil is too alkaline. This means that your pH level is above 7 and that your soil is low in iron, phosphorous, and zinc.  The best way to handle high alkaline soil is to increase the nitrogen. Things that are good to add nitrogen are sulfur, acidifying fertilizers or peat moss. Again, make sure to follow instructions on your bag. However, you can never add too much organic matter such as compost, animal manure, or worm castings. You can add any kind of organic matter on as often as you want to because it will only continue to help your soil. It is also good because it is providing food for the microorganisms that are living in your soil, and you need microorganisms because when they digest the matter, they create nutrients for your plants and help create great soil structure. Click HERE to understand in depth why microorganisms are important.

Note: Peat moss is controversial because the way it is obtained is not very sustainable. Coco coir is a good alternative however it ‘s pH is closer to neutral so for using it to try and lower levels it might not do anything.

So, once you have decided what amendments to add to your soil, all you have to do is follow the instructions on the bag and apply! Or in the case of adding organic matter, just cover your bed completely. Then till it all in and you are good to go until you need to test again. Now, many people believe in no-till farming and that is another subject but I think technically if you leave amendments on top it’s considered mulch.  This will over time amend your soil but it takes much longer to decompose.

  I hope now you have a better understanding on what soil pH is and why it is important. I encourage anyone with a garden who hasn’t tested their soil to do so and maybe it will answer some questions if you are having growing some particular things! Thanks and have a great day!

Making Halloumi Cheese

I am currently WWOOFing with a woman named Sue Arthur who owns Over The Moon Dairy in Putaruru, New Zealand and her partner Neil Willman. Sue is a professional cheese maker with award winning cheeses and Neil is a cheese making teacher and judge from Australia. He has also written a book called The Guide To Making Your Own Cheese. I have been interested in learning how to make cheese and now am getting to learn what an art it really is!

Last night we made Halloumi cheese. Halloumi is popular in Greece. It is a cooked cheese and one of the few cheeses you can eat the same day you start it. It doesn't require a starter culture and is very easy to make at home! 

BeforeI get started I want to point out the two things Sue said to remember that are THE two most important things in cheese making. 

  1. Temperature - Make sure to have a good thermometer that can tell you EXACTLY what degree something is
  2. Cleanliness and sterilization - You don't want any bad bacteria getting into your cheese

I will be following the recipe created by Neil from his book.                                                                                                   Here is what you will need:

  • 2 Litres pasteurized, non-homogenized cow or goats milk
  • Rennet
  • Salt
  • Herbs for taste (optional)
  • 3 of the same size 2 liter containers, one with holes poked in the bottom
  • Cheese cloth or some other type of cloth with small holes for drainage in it
  • Saucepan 
  • Frypan
  • Whisk
  • Knife
  • Strainer
  • Thermometer
  • Dropper

IF YOU ARE VEGETARIAN                                                                                                             

Note: Rennet comes from the fourth stomach of new born calves. The calves do have to be killed to supply the rennet, so if you are a vegetarian you can use vegetarian rennet which is what we used to make our Halloumi. Ours was a microbial rennet that comes from a fungus and is called Chymosin.

So that being said, let's get started! 

The first thing you need to do is heat your milk to between  109.5°F and 113°F. (These are converted from Celsius) We did this by just putting the milk in the microwave. Because there is no starter added,  109.5°F or 43°C is the temperature that the rennet works the fastest. 

So once you've warmed your milk, pour it into one of your containers. Make sure it's one without holes in the bottom! Use your thermometer to find out what the temperature is. Make sure it is no cooler than 109.5 and no warmer than 113. 

Next you will need to add the Rennet. We used 2mL of Chymosin rennet. Use your dropper to measure out how much you need. Make sure as you add it you are stirring your milk. Also, don't add it all into the same place, drop it all around while you stir. Once it is all in, continue to stir for about 15 seconds, then let it sit for about two minutes. 

While that is sitting go ahead and get your cloth out and lay it inside of the container with holes in the bottom. It should be the same length as the container and cover the bottom. Cut it so that it just hangs out over the top a little. Once it is like the picture below, just place that container into another container, one without holes. 

Once that is done, you will need to test your curd see if it is ready. To do this take your knife and cut it just a little a couple inches out from the edge. 


Then take your knife and turn it on it's side, sliding it in at the edge of the container, lifting up to see the consistency of the curd.

It wasn't ready on our first cut, this time it is! That's pretty much how it should look when it's ready. 

Next you are going to want to take your knife and put it straight down in to the curd. You will slice it back and forth through the curd both long ways and short ways to cut all of it it into corn sized pieces. Then take your whisk and gently spin it back and forth to make sure everything is cut into small enough pieces.                                                                                                         

Note: The longer you stir your curd and the smaller the pieces get, the firmer the cheese will be, the shorter, the softer. 

So now you have your curds and whey! Curd being the chunky bit and whey being the liquid. 

Next you will need to strain your whey out using your strainer. You will need to make sure to get as much of it out as possible. Also, make sure to strain it over your sauce pan, you will need it for later. 

Once it's in the strainer and the whey has drained out, this is when you can add your herbs. Make sure not to mix them in too much, just sort of fold the curd on itself a few times. (You should do this even if you aren't adding herbs to make sure the last of the whey is out)

Once you've got the whey strained out, take the saucepan and put it on the stove and get it heated up to about 203°F, just below boiling. 

Now take your strained curd and dump it into the container with the cheese cloth. Level the cheese out then take the extra cheese cloth and fold it over on top of the curd. Fill up your third container with water and set it inside of the one with the curd so that it acts as weight to press any remaining whey out. Leave it there for about 30 minutes, if you want the cheese to be a little more firm you can leave it for an hour.

You can see how the remaining whey is going through the holes in the bottom and being collected in the bottom container. The cheese cloth just prevents the holes from getting clogged with the curd. You want the final thickness of the curd to be about 1 inch. When it is ready, take off the container of water and press the top of the cheese cloth to feel the consistency of the cheese. It should feel a bit like rubber.

Next, tip the slab of curd out on to a cutting board or plate. We just dumped ours onto the lid of one of the containers. Now cut it into big sections. 

Next, place them into the almost boiling whey. Put the whey on medium heat so it doesn't get any warmer, you don't want it to boil. You will notice the curd pieces will sink. Eventually after a couple minutes they should rise to the top. If you feel like it's been a while and they haven't risen, try moving them around a bit and make sure they haven't gotten stuck to the bottom. 

While waiting for them to rise you need to get your salt bath or brine ready. We used 1/2 cup of salt and 1 1/2 cups of water to make the brine. You want to make sure your brine isn't too weak or the Halloumi will become slimy on the surface. (I thought the cheese had a nice flavor with this amount of salt)

Here, you see they have risen to the top. 

Next you need to put the pieces directly into your brine. Be aware that because there are no starters in Halloumi, there is no acidity which is what preserves cheese. So you need to make sure to be very hygienic once you've removed the pieces from the hot whey or harmful bacteria could get on your cheese. If you don't plan to eat them immediately, put it directly into the fridge after it's gone in the brine. 

You should let them sit in the brine for 1-3 minutes depending on how big your block is and how salty you want it. We left ours in for about 2 minutes. Once you take it out, either let them air dry for a minute or pat them dry. 

Lastly, just slice each bigger piece in to smaller pieces and cook them on the pan until each side is nice and brown! If you have a good non stick pan you won't need any oil. 

And now you've made Halloumi cheese! Enjoy!

Also, just so you know. While different cheeses have different starter cultures, recipes, aging periods etc, once you learn how to make one kind of cheese, it is somewhat of a similar process to making others. It's kind of like learning to bake a cake, once you have the basic gist of the steps, you alter the recipe and baking times and you come out with a different cake. So while cheese making is most definitely an art of it's own and takes a lot of practice as well as trial and error, after making Halloumi, you now have a basic understanding of how to make cheese. I encourage you to look up some other recipes and try some different kinds!

Here is a picture from Neil's book of the recipe we used and some more pictures. 

An extra bit of info:

If you are curious to know why Halloumi cheese doesn't melt, there is a scientific explanation.  Starter cultures produce lactic acid, which subsequently dissolves calcium, which is then removed from the protein or casein.  So depending on how much of the calcium is removed determines whether your cheese will be soft and crumbly or tough and rubbery as well as all the textures in between.  In milk 2/3 of the calcium is bonded to the casein protein and when none of the calcium is removed during cheese making the cheese will be very tough and rubbery like halloumi. With cheeses with starter cultures the acidity produced by the starter cultures dissolve some of this calcium from the casein enabling the protein structure to be weaker and become more elastic like stretchy mozzarella, or total removal of calcium from the protein causes the structure of the cheese to be crumbly or chalky like feta. So the message is that because you haven’t removed any calcium from the protein in halloumi it’s rubbery and squeaky in the mouth and doesn’t melt. 


Planting a Tree

I am currently at Marahangia, a permaculture farm in Otoko, New Zealand outside of Gisborne on the east coast of the north island. I have gotten the opportunity to plant a few trees and I thought I would blog about the process since it's relatively easy and a great way for anyone to be able to make a positive difference on our planet.

So the trees we are planting here have been growing in pots, Adam, our host, buys them grafted from a local company. Depending on what kind of tree you have depends on what time of the year you should plant it. Deciduous trees should be planted in winter time when their roots lay dormant. An evergreen tree, which is what we are planting today, should be planted in late spring when it is warmer and the roots won't freeze in the dirt, but before the heat of the summer when it's too hot. However, our tree was ready to be transplanted so we went ahead and did it even though it is late summer. It isn't ideal to do this, but if you need to just make sure to use A LOT of water and plant later in the day when it is cooler outside. 

So to plant a tree you will need a few different items:

  • A sharp spade
  • Gardening fork
  • Bucket
  • A tub of water (big enough to soak your tree in it's pot)
  • Tarp
  • Some kind of mulch 

So the first thing you need to do is soak your tree. It's going to need lots of water to survive!

We just soaked ours in a big trash bin and that worked really well. 

(Note: Adam gets all of his water from rain catchment)

Next thing to do is pick out a space where you want the tree to go! You are going to be digging a square hole that is about three spades wide and one deep so make sure you will have enough room to dig. If the area needs to be weeded then do so so that it will make your digging easier. The easiest way to weed your area is to lay your spade flat on the ground and shave the weeds with the end of it. 

Here is our space!


Future home of a fig tree!  

Future home of a fig tree!  

If you don't want to lose any dirt while digging then lay out a tarp that you can shovel your dirt on to. It also makes it easier to get all your dirt back into your hole at the end by just lifting one end of the tarp and letting gravity do the work!  

So next, start digging!  



You want to make sure that the walls on in your hole are vertical and not slanted, also try and make your corners as sharp as possible rather than being round. I will explain in a moment why this is important. Also, so you know, you are digging a square hole because it provides good drainage so water doesn't collect around the roots. 



Once your hole is about a spade deep the next thing you will need to do is fork the soil so that its nice and loose. You want the roots of your tree to have an easy time making their way through the soil so your tree can grow!  



You will know your soul is forked enough when you can stick the fork all the way into the earth without much effort. You'll notice the lighter color soil means I made it to the subsoil. 

Once all your soil is forked the next thing you want to do is take your spade and cut all four corners of your square as well as a few slots on each side. This breaks up the dirt more so that the roots can more easily make their way out of the hole. This is why it's good to have vertical sides and sharp edges, to make the cuts easier. 

It is easier to have the spade half way in the hole and half way in the soil. Just push it all the way down and wiggle it a little so there is a nice cut in the earth.  

It is easier to have the spade half way in the hole and half way in the soil. Just push it all the way down and wiggle it a little so there is a nice cut in the earth.  

Then it's time to get your tree out of where it's been soaking and put it in your hole!  



Make sure it's sitting firmly in the hole and that the top of the hole is an inch or so beneath where the tree's base meets the soil it's already in. You want the trunk of the tree to be slightly above the original ground so when you add water the trunk won't be sitting in it and rot.



Massage the dirt a little to get the roots loosened up.  



Then, fill the hole about half way back up with dirt. 



Next, fill the hole with about 3 or 4 buckets of water! You do this because you want the soil to settle, you will notice tiny little holes in the dirt once the water goes down. The water helps take away any air pockets. This is important because if the roots of your tree hit an air pocket they will stop growing. So fill fill fill! 



Once you've put multiple buckets in and the water is totally drained, add the rest of your dirt!  



You can make a kind of shallow bowl shape with the soil because you are going to need to add more buckets of water! The bowl shape helps keep the water in the area where you want it to be, but make sure it is shallow so the trunk doesn't sit in water. Then once again, add 3 or 4 more buckets!  



You will let this sit overnight. When you come back the next day, add your mulch around the tree to help prevent weeds. We also added comfrey plants around the base because they add a lot of nutrients to the soil. Here's a picture of an orange tree I planted a few days ago that is all finished. 



Make sure once your mulch is on and if you want to add some comfrey plants that you again add a few more buckets of water. You want your tree to be totally hydrated to have the best possible chance of becoming a strong, healthy adult. You can also add a plastic tube or tree protector around the base of the tree so that it is protected from animals. 

Now one day, Adam will have some very tasty figs!  


I hope you enjoyed this blog and that you take initiative to go plant a tree of your own! Have a beautiful day!  


Lokahi Garden Sanctuary-Hawi, HI

This farm is on the Big Island in Hawaii. I loved being here mainly because of the people in the community of Hawi. The owner of the farm was an older man who was extremely grumpy and passive aggressive. He never directly told me what he wanted and we were always a disappointment to him. He never appreciated our work and talked down about us behind our backs. He made us feel less than him and kept us at a distance from his family. He did let us come have dinner with them once a week but he wouldn't say much and you could feel that you weren't welcome. However, his wife was very sweet and loving and always played the role of the peace maker. You could tell she cared about us to a certain extent and invited us to her yoga classes. I did learn a little about growing asparagus and a good way to manage tomatoes in a green house but that was about it. In the end my experience here was only amazing because of how much I loved the people in the town. I would absolutely recommend anyone going to the town itself to spend time but i do not recommend going to the farm itself. However despite all of the negative aspects of working at this farm, I learned a lot about the importance of managing those who work for you. It really does make a difference in someone's work ethic when you treat them with respect and gratitude!

Earthship Biotecture-Taos, NM

This was my first natural building internship. I had a wonderful experience here, partially because the other interns were so awesome, and also because what we were doing was so fun. The experience was a lot what you made of it because you weren't really directed what to do, you just had to keep asking. It was all very hands on building, continuing onto an Earthship that was already started. I packed tires, did a lot of shoveling, learned about roofing, and helped with a bottle wall. I learned a lot about basic construction, however if you are genuinely interested in building your own Earthship I would definitely say that doing the academy would be more beneficial than just the internship. The academy is more classwork and really understanding how to build an Earthship from start to finish. However, it is quite pricey. Overall I would say this was a really great learning experience and I made a lot of awesome friends. Unfortunately this is not free, but I absolutely recommend it to anyone who has the money for it. The internship cost $400 and I think was well worth the cost!

Check out the website!


Healing Ponds Farm-Buxton, OR

This farm is owned by a very nice older couple who I really enjoyed working for. Their main focus for the farm is raising animals for meat and dairy products. The animals included cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, and bees. The day  I arrived they got a newborn calf and it  was my job to raise and bottle feed him. I also had to help milk the adult cows and goats, feed all the animals, collect eggs and help with cleaning the kitchen. One of the few things that bothered me a little was that the man who was hired to work on the farm thought women should have the role of cooking and cleaning.  So while Mark, the owner of the farm, was working at his shop in town,  the hired man wouldjust have me inside cleaning rather than letting me help with the farm work. I do wish I had had a little bit more opportunity to be outside getting dirty, but other than that I had a really great experience. I loved raising the calf and Mark was able to answer all my questions I had to ask. I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed my time. Mark's wife was a very soft spoken and sweet woman who I really grew to love . In the end I would definitely say this was a great experience and would recommend this to anyone interested in learning about raising animals.

Check out their site!

Sojourner Farms LLC- Olean, NY

Sojourner Farms was the very first farm I ever worked on back in 2012. My mom met Pierre, the owner of the farm, at a medical meeting and he invited me out to come work. This was what made me fall in love with farming and decide I wanted to do something with it long term. However, at the time I was still very unsure of what that would look like. Their farm was an animal farm that had cattle, pigs, laying hens, and  meat chickens. My job was to feed the animals and move the cows from pasture to pasture everyday so they would have enough grass to eat. During my stay I also learned how to make soap and bake bread from scratch. I got to work at my first farmers market and had an overall amazing experience!

Check out their site!