Where We Are
This is the primary residence on Sunflower River. It is a 900 sf conventionally constructed house, that came with the property. It serves as the Riparians’ primary meeting place, kitchen, and library, and it also contains two bedrooms.
While not technically part of Sunflower River, Caer Aisling, a house a half-mile away that Tristan & Billy owned from before we began Sunflower River, is also home to Rev, and often helps us manage having a lot of people and a small amount of indoor space. Caer Aisling is graced by a magnificent labyrinth in the yard, a graveled walking-path lined with flowerpots.
In 2012, we purchased the house next door, just to the south of our main property. It came with another half-acre, and a 1500 sf “fixer-upper” of a house. We are now nearly finished remodelling that house. It features a large community kitchen, a large common room where we host events of various sorts and community meetings, two bedrooms, an office/homeschool classroom, and two more bathrooms. A thorough photo-tour of the Mahazda renovation process and end results is available on our flickr, here.
Prior to joining Sunflower River, Kat had spent some of her weekends for about 3 years building a yurt, under the guidance and with the assistance of Mattie Greenman. So when four people moved together into a two-bedroom house, we were able to quickly build a deck and set that yurt up in the backyard, where Kat still resides in it. Alan liked it so much, he commissioned his own yurt from Matt a couple years later. Kat’s yurt cover is a custom design from Colorado Yurt Company; Matt made Alan’s cover. If you’re in NM and you want a yurt, we would be delighted to put you in touch with Matt. Everything you ever wanted to know about yurts is very likely to be found here:
Alan’s Yurt (affectionately called “The Midden”) was built in 2010 in response to the growing housing needs at Sunflower River. It has since become his personal “Zone 0,” around which other infrastructure services orbit. As the resident permaculturalist, Alan’s Yurt is the focal point for research in replicable, ecologically integrated housing. The Pond, Sunflower River’s first aquaponics system, was built nearby to experiment with sustainable water infrastructure. Ongoing experiments deal with passive cooling and heating, greywater, and how human activity can improve, rather than degrade, ecosystem services.
In 2012, Alan got interested in a type of temporary housing structure that originated in the Burning Man community, called a Hexayurt. Made of portable insulation panels, this is not a true yurt, but a long-term temporary structure that can provide shelter from the elements, but which does not have an internal frame. We have built two hexayurts in our green belt area, near the fire circle. One of them, more hastily constructed, suffered a structural failure and collapse in a windstorm in March 2015. The other one, fully-maintained and built more sturdily, lasted for 5 years before it began to collapse, and we decided to take it down in Spring 2017. Interns camped in these during the warmer months, April-October. The hexayurt provided a good season-extension for camping in spring and fall when the weather swings wildly between warm and cold, and shelter from the elements during the summer. Although the experiment was deemed successful, we wanted something more permanent to replace it, so when we took it down, we put up a Dome.
Some years back, we were given a dome that that been to Burning Man and back a few times. When we took the hexayurt down in Spring 2017, we set the dome up. It’s much sturdier because it has an internal frame, and should last for many long years. We are in the process of outfitting it with a heavy-duty white tarp-like cover, to protect it from rain and wind, over which we’ll layer the (not-rain-proof) olive green parachute fabric that was its Burning Man cover. We have outfitted the dome with some furniture infrastructure, such as shelves & tables. Some people prefer to bring an air mattress and simply camp in it, and others prefer to pitch a tent inside the structure, so that it creates a separate living & sleeping area.
We maintain a quarter-acre organic vegetable garden, where we grow an assortment of chard, kale, lettuces and other greens, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, peppers, beans (dry and green), amaranth, peas, onions, garlic, sunberries and whatever else comes to mind in a given year. We grow the vast majority of our plants from seed, either through direct-sowing, or through starting seeds in our greenhouse, and we use organic heirloom variety seeds, which we acquire mostly from the Seed Saver’s Exchange, or through our own and others’ seed-saving efforts from year to year.
This garden is almost entirely fed by recycled greywater from the laundry system, and rainwater. It includes a small assortment of medicinal and culinary herbs, including tarragon, rosemary, echinacea, clary sage, mallow, three kinds of yarrow, feverfew, valerian, Egyptian walking onions, and an ornamental rose.
Kat built raised beds to serve as potato beds, allowing us to have a dedicated potato-growing space that would hopefully involve less digging in the harvesting process. This theory proved to not work under cottonwood trees – the tree roots are more powerful than anything we have ever tried growing in these beds. For a while, we tried using them as cold frames in the fall/winter, too. This hasn’t worked out at all as we planned. The doors of the beds are too hard to open and close, and the nearby cottonwood trees have penetrated the landscape fabric under them, so the beds are full of thirsty, dense, cottonwood roots. Using these beds as cold frames has proved cumbersome largely for the lack of a temperature-sensitive automatic opener of some kind, as we cannot reliably get them open and closed at the right time of day in the unpredictable New Mexico temperatures. We have taken down the two east beds and are replacing them with duckweed tanks (yet to come). The other two raised beds are permanent strawberry beds. That part works better.
Originally, this garden was designed to grow dye plants. It wraps around the Main Ritual Ground, acting as a border between it and the pasture beyond. This garden is located further from human dwelling than any other garden on the property, which has affected it’s care and design. This distance from human dwellings means that the garden has not receive daily care. Many plant species have thrived in this environment, while others have struggled. Madder and Praire Flax have been unexpected successes, while Black-eyed Susan and Coreopsis disappointing losses. The biggest surprise from this garden, however, is the impact it has had on the surrounding environment. The garden has escaped the bounds of the area prepared for it, and nearby soil consistently grows larger and healthier plants. This phenomenon has become a pattern for building swales and other restoration structures around the land.
This 8×10 double-wall polycarbonate greenhouse was a gift from a friend when we bought the farm. It has served us incredibly well as a place to start seeds for our large garden. We had heat regulation problems for the first few years, and which we solved by installing the modular thermal mass system shown here (ie: 250 gallon milk jugs full of water) for daily thermal regulation. The water heats during the day, and disperses heat at night, keeping the tempterature better-regulated than the plastic walls alone can do. We are now in the process of replacing these with some kind of larger-scale thermal mass (stock tanks or similar) for longer heat/cool cycles, to create more of a climate in there. The milk jugs got us through several winters without a single night below 32* in the greenhouse, which is good enough to start spring seeds, such as greens and brassica.
The Barnyard is home to the barn itself, which is workshop, feed storage, and general storage. The rest of the barnyard is home to the chickens, turkeys, a brooder for raising baby birds, and a peacock pen & shed, as well as some lumber and other construction supply storage. The barnyard has the most “actively working” look of any place on the farm, in that it is always in process, and always changing a bit, and seldom very tidy because of those things.
The Pond is Sunflower River’s first aquaponics system. Aquaponics is commonly conceived of as a symbiotic relationship between lettuce and tilapia. However, because we live in a drylands, this system acquired special meaning: water soothes and nourishes, making this place a favored location for humans and wildlife to congregate. This oasis-like quality further means that the productive capacity of this system became valuable beyond the system’s boundary: we quickly found the temperature too hot and the grasshoppers too hungry to grow lettuce, but the system is perfect for starts, transplants, and root cuttings.
The Pond has evolved into a system which continuously expands its own boundaries: plants are stored or started in the system until they are ready to be planted. Leaves and other biomass are composted in the system, and this material accompanies a plant to its final location on the property, providing the rich soil a plant needs to thrive. Finally, the water in this system is openly available. After we built the pond, bird species we had never observed on the property before began to congregate; as did juvenile toads, skinks, and snakes. Water use in this way benefits both the human inhabitants of Sunflower River as well as the wild creatures that also call this place home.
In 2010 we decided to build an earthbag property wall around the north and east sides of the front acre. This project was extended across the front of Mahazda in 2014. The first round of the wall was actually built, with full-time engagement by the Stewards and the assistance of dozens of interns, in 2010, however, parts of it suffered structural failure that winter and had to be rebuilt, and we recognized that other parts of it were going to fall down. So we spent the following summer taking down and rebuilding the parts we had done poorly the first time. Construction was fully finished in 2016. We attempted to plaster it with earthen plasters, with which we had constant weather trouble — earth plaster is not sufficiently stable outdoors to resist a strong thunderstorm, which are common in summer here, and eventually we had to let go of the idea of earth plaster and use cementatious plaster (basically homemade stucco) instead. After three years of failed attempts, learning opportunities, and struggle, we hired Perez Plaster Company to complete the plastering on our north wall. They finished it in a week and we learned a lot from watching them, which we then applied to our Mahazda wall extension. We have had interior bas-relief sculpture as an ongoing art project for some years, on which we made great progress in 2018. We hope to finish the wall plaster art in 2019 and apply a color-coat to the wall.
The water that flows through the acequia comes from the Rio Grande. These channels teem with life, yet the water here is drawn from a threatened river. When water arrives to our fields we owe its return to the river: by soaking it in to our soil, creating nurishing habitat, and letting Sunflower River be the river as much as the acequia is. Flood irrigation expands riparian habitat for migratory and aquatic species by spreading the river water, through irrigation ditches, over miles of fields. The day we first irrigated our pasture, ducks and other migratory birds appeared almost immediately to take advantage of the moving water. Studies have also shown that flood irrigation water eventually does return to the river, downstream. This is our primary source of agricultural water, which is supplemented by rainwater and our well.
Handfastings are held here, as well as the annual Ostara (spring equinox) ceremony. Other types of ceremonies and events are also sometimes held here. This space was originally occupied by a small forest of very small, exotic-invasive elm trees, which were encroaching on the root area of the Grandfather Cottonwood. One of our first actions here was to remove the thicket of elms, opening up space for the health and growth of the old tree, and creating a human-use space under the tree’s canopy. Just beyond the Grandfather Cottonwood’s drip-line, we have planted a row of orchard trees — two peaches, two apples, and three cherries — as well as the Dye Bed Gardens (see the Garden section, above). This photograph shows the Ritual Ground in July of 2009, a few days before Kat & Alan’s handfasting. Since then, more native grasses have grown in, and the mulch layer has lost much of its definition.
The pasture is the largest open expanse of Sunflower River. When the Stewards arrived in 2007, this part of the property was in the early phases of secondary succession, and consisted almost exclusively of annual plants from pioneer species, such as wild morning glories. Work began on restoring this field to pasture in 2011, when we built berms and installed a gate along the acequia. Irrigation started that year as well, though near the end of the season. This area is now a working pasture for several tractors-full of meat chickens every summer.
Future Root Cellar
We have this fantastic hole in the ground for two reasons. We needed dirt for the earthbag wall. And we have a long-term plan to build a root cellar. So we went ahead and dug the hole to get the dirt and open up the space to create the root cellar at the same time. Now we have this best of all possible playgrounds: a hole in the ground. It’s a fantastic kid-magnet at our various public events.
Sunflower River has a long-term plan to create a walking labyrinth, whose paths are possibly lined with xeric plants in a style not unlike that of the labyrinth at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, in this open patch in our green belt. In the meanwhile, we have a walking labyrinth at Caer Aisling, which is lined with flowering plants in terracotta pots.
The fire circle is an area kept free of vegetation, but surrounded by a screen of trees, for purposes of ceremonial and social fire circles, potlucks, etc. We generally hold our Harvest Festival potlucks in this area, as well as hosting a few pagan fire circle ceremonies a year here, and summer LongDance. This area is our secondary orchard, containing two semi-dwarf almond trees, a honeycrisp apple, a plum, a cherry, a pear, and an eastern bigtooth maple tree.
Stick Pile Former Stick Pile
This is where we
store used to store our sticks. No, seriously. We have an ongoing need to prune deadwood from overgrown areas, including the cottonwoods and elms, and the wood has to go somewhere. With two wood burning stoves (in the yurts) and occasional outdoor fire circle use, we always have a purpose for firewood good firewood, though not for cottonwood. Some wood goes to other projects as well, such as fence posts, use in the poultry yards, ornamental purposes around the farm (especially the lovely bendy cottonwood branches — if you’d like some for an art project, please contact us!), and future hugelkulture beds*. In the meanwhile, the sticks create mulch where they are, and provide habitat for insects, rodents, and small birds, which also has the effect of attracting beneficial predator species, such as road runners, to the area.
Update. In Fall of 2017, we took out a thicket of dry scrub, put the resulting brush in the stick pile, and realized we had a really, really major problem on our hands. Drought+dry climate+acre of sticks and brush=very real fire hazard. So, in late December, we rented a landscape chipper over the long weekend, and made an epic, 2+ day work party out of it. Ten people over the course of two days ran the chipper for a cumulative 12 hours, continually feeding it brush, logs and sticks. The result is a vastly reduced fire hazard, a pile of mulch taller than your average shovel, a new plan for this field, and a new process for handling sticks. In spring 2018 we sowed 3 pounds of wildflower seed here, right after our first flood-irrigation day, and spent the summer enjoying the resulting wildflowers and butterflies. We’re planning on planting shrubs and trees for the future. Sticks, hereafter, will be chipped in the small chipper or diced down for firewood, immediately upon discovery/creation, and weird cottonwood art branches will either be deployed or given away to others for artistic deployment. whew!
*hugelkulture does work in other parts of the world, that get more than 10″ of rain in an average year. it turns out that in this part of the world, a stick pile with dirt on it, flood-irrigated twice a month Apr-Oct, will still be a stick pile with dirt on it 9 years later. Very little decomposition happens, it’s just too dry.
The bottom photo shows the reclaimed space.
Sunflower River is 150′ wide, but 1,500′ long. Our backyard goes on for a fair way. By the time you reach the back fence the ecosystem has transformed: shrubs, trees, grasses, and flowers abound in the landscape, and you have the clearest view of the Sandia Mountains you’ll find on the property. This area serves as a meditative, contemplative space, and a very good place to spot the wild creatures of the bosque.