Got a Cob On – Building a Natural Kitchen

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Morgan’s Gift for Cob Building

I was presented with an exciting opportunity this week. I got talking to Morgan, who up until now, has built all of his structures with wood and bamboo grown on the property. However, we’ve been discussing expanding the menu and offering more roasted dishes along with pizzas with homegrown ingredients.

He suggested that it would be a nice project for me to build a cob oven with the garden guys. This is brilliant for my permie learning journey as I wanted to expand into toying with natural building next, so it gives me the perfect opportunity to try my hand at a new skill, while also giving me another design to add to my portfolio.

The day after we discussed this, he threw a book at me called ‘The Hand-Sculpted House’. It’s a guide to working with cob and although I read some things here and there, this is one of the most comprehensive guides I’ve ever read. Not only does it discuss the physical methods of completing it, it also talks about the psychological improvements to one’s life with cob design, as well as the philosophical underpinning and historical background. It’s a great read for anyone looking at diversifying into cob building.

So hold on to your seats as you start to see that project develop over the next couple of weeks.

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Inanitah – Social Permaculture in Action

This past week I took the opportunity to go and visit a property on the island called Inanitah. Wow.

I knew about this property before I came here because I wanted to check out other permie projects on the island, both in order to garner ideas and seeds but also to create a sense of community for myself. With my permie journey in mind, I’ve also got my eyeball out for the next step on my learning path as a spot to learn a new skill; namely natural building.

Inanitah is stunning and an exceptional example of what can be achieved through employing self-sustainability practices. On a physical level, the examples of permaculture are second to none. Every building is made from cob, sourced locally on site, roofed with palms grown on site, and furnished with handmade timber furniture, also grown on site.

When it comes to the agriculture, it is obvious that a large majority of the greenery is casually edible while also adding to the beauty of the place. The kitchen is teeming with food, all grown and produced on site. Bulging pumpkins and pungent herbs surround you, with leafy greens ready for the picking and juicy fruits and veggies stored and preserved everywhere you look. Within my first five minutes of being there, I was treated to dinner time with home-made coconut milk being whipped up in front of me.

I took a stroll around the property and was dumbfounded by its sheer locational beauty. Perched high up, there is a jaw-dropping view of the volcano ‘Concepcion’, which can be enjoyed from their biopool and accompanying solar hot tub.

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Solar Pool

One of the major things that struck me about the place was the feeling of tranquility. Every person that I met went out of their way to greet me with a hug and barrage of questions. Everybody immediately knew I was new to the scene, which demonstrated the close bond between volunteers and customers alike. One thing that really gave me tickles in my tummy was that several people greeted me with the phrase ‘Welcome Home’. That gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling that draws me to social permaculture; the magic in being able to create bonds between people by dealing with everyday life to address conflict and create harmony.

In previous interactions with permaculturists, I have been baffled by their inability or unwillingness to help me. They’re often arrogant or strangely competitive, which is against everything I thought we were meant to stand for. However, this place was not like that at all. When I arrived, I immediately met their new in-house permaculturists, Piers, who previously worked at Rancho Delicioso in Costa Rica. He took a good chunk out of his day to walk me around the garden, explaining to me what each plant was and its uses. Their garden is a combination of native and non-native plants, yet native plants dominate to increase sustainability and help prevent the barrage of bugs that demolish non-native plants. This was a great lesson for me as it gave me deep insight into the best plants I can use in the garden, especially in relation to leafy greens. I was very honoured that he’d take the time out to take me around. He also gave me seeds and cuttings for everything I would need, which has really beefed out my own garden, something he didn’t need to do but has really cut back on my costs and helped to accelerate my development.

Further to this, I got a chance to see a group of them work together in their community. So people often ask that with a totally efficient garden and shelter, what do you do with your day all day? You go have fun! These guys took me to spend the afternoon looking for edible mushrooms and it was both educational and fun. There’s something so satisfying about running around on a wild goose chase, scouring for food for your dinner that nobody knows about, like a well-kept secret.

This is what permaculture is about to me. Looking at these people working together harmoniously, welcoming strangers into the fold, and willing to share their knowledge is a breath of fresh air to be a part of. Not only have I managed to further my garden, meeting these people has created a new community for me to be a part of and to seek knowledge and advice from. That’s why I’m drawn to social permaculture; if we want this to work, we need to make the people work and Inanitah has really nailed that down.

Not only that, having set out the permie learning journey for myself, being able to make new connections opens doors to further my remit of knowledge and being able to be a part of new exciting projects. One of the problems that keeps us static in our lives is our inability or lack of motivation to seek out the next step. With my steps categorically laid out, I know what I’m searching for and Inanitah may well be the next stage for me, and I would be honoured to work with those bunch of gooduns!

Feeding the Forest – The Right Thing to Do

Since I’ve been here a couple of weeks now, I’ve had a great deal of time to explore the property and understand the inner workings of the plants that live alongside me here. Morgan, the owner of the hostel, has had the property for 12 years. When he arrived there was nothing here; now it looks pretty similar to the neighbouring jungle around it. However, from closer inspection and from lengthy chats with Morgan, I have come to realise the purposefulness with which the plants were chosen.

Although many of the backpackers don’t seem to notice, we are surrounded by an abundance of food and useful plants. I’d like to give you a wordy walk through of what we have here.

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Papaya Canopy

What’s in the Forest?

Firstly, we have an amazing amount of food. Morgan has planted lots of coconut trees. The meat is used for food and for making milk and oil, the water for drinking, and the trees themselves provide much needed shade for the hostel. The property itself is considerably cooled by the canopy layer that the coconuts provide. Under this very high canopy are large fruit trees, such as mangoes, bananas, plantains, breadfruit, and jackfruit, which again provide shade and food. The bananas also serve as food for the chickens and turkeys, who not only eat the fruit, but scratch underneath them to find bugs. Neem trees are also abundant and are used to make insecticide for the garden, as well as providing shade. There are also many smaller citrus trees and papayas. We’ve been considering increasing the use of these fruits by making syrups and juices for the bar, and perhaps making a still to make home-made moonshine for the customers. Equally, papaya stems are hollow and make incredible natural straws, creating a phenomenal replacement for the horrifying damage done by plastic straws in our natural water sources. There are also several trees planted for timber, which has been used to craft the entire hostel, while palms are used for the roofs.

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Neem

When it comes to the bushy layers, lemongrass and cuban oregano can be spotted, used both for culinary purposes and for their medicinal properties. There is also a smaller bushy tree, often confused for papaya, but it’s actually called chia. Not like chia seeds, but pronounced with a capital ‘I’ – ChIa. This plant has big spiked lobed leaves like papaya, but the leaves can be cooked up and served in the same manner as spinach.

There are quite a few creepers crawling along the ground including a wild tiny melon and squashes. Down on that ground level, you’ll also find an abundance of what appear to be weeds, but are actually edible greens, such as wild peanut and an odd succulent type plant that seems like samphire but less salty.

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Squash

Punctuating the green sea are beautiful flowers, both edible and ornamental. Of the edible flowers I recognise are hibiscus and canalillies. Morgan told me that they previously used flowers in the salads but it dwindled away over time. My penchant for beauty in food has led me to encourage him to take this back up again, which I’m excited for. It motivates me to learn more edible flowers so I can scavenge them on site or plant them.

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Canalillies

For those that have a good eye for rhizomes, there is a blanket of yukka/cassava that lines the pathways, creating shade and providing starchy goodness for the restaurant’s fries. They serve excellently to break up the soil, which although relatively sandy, can become quite compact after a heavy rain.

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Bananas and Yucca

Winding up the trees you will find dragonfruit, passionfruit, and malabar spinach. I’m in the process of adding loofahs to this and more spinach.

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Breadfruit

I’m very overwhelmed by the fruitfulness of this place and the potential it provides to take Morgan’s hostel one step closer to self-sustainability. When I asked him about why he plants all these things but doesn’t market the ecological side of the property, he said he does it for his son, so that his son will have everything he ever needs right in front of him: food, building materials, medicine, beauty. He followed this up by saying it was the right thing to do. Sometimes I feel like we get caught up in the complexity of creating a perfect design, forgetting the reason for why we do these things. We do this because it’s the right thing to do to help the future generations. We’re out there in all weathers, brains ticking over, trying to push the imagination to find more ways to increase the yield in a regenerative manner, not to prove that we’re the best permaculturists, but because it’s the right thing to do.

For me, being able to see it in action has really spurred me on. Often we visit permaculture sites which are ‘on the way’ but never getting there, or we meet permaculture teachers who bounce from place to place never dedicating themselves to the implementation, leaving the follow-through to fall through. It’s humbling to stand with a normal guy, who doesn’t brand himself as some kind of ‘save the world’ permaculture expert, and hear him profess he does this because it’s the right thing. Because it is, and when you see it in action, you feel it more than ever before.