Kids and Other People

IMG_5222This Spring Ampersand is blooming with children. I enjoy their enthusiasm and lack of focus (which sounds weird right? More on that a bit later). Great local families showed up for our Community Homestead Day. A bunch of urban families made the trek to Ampersand for our Homeschool Homestead Day. We are very much looking forward to hosting a group from East Mountain High School in a couple of weeks.

We don’t have kids of our own, so were learning basic things like: kids like to dig (who knew?), they like to contribute and they are proud of accomplishing even small things. Making solar cooked banana bread in an outdoor kitchen is loads of fun, and when the clouds unexpectedly take over the sky, the kids are so engaged with smearing mud on walls that nothing is lost. That’s the specialness of not being overly focused. Not one of them notices when the parents drag them home that they are giving up their slice of the pie (or banana bread) for those willing to wait.IMG_5228

Kids thrive on the specialness of things. That’s perfect for us. With all the time and energy we have put into creating this compound of resourcesfulness, you better believe everything is special. The rain, the sun, the earth, the wind. I’m coming up with ways to bring the teachings of Ampersand to school environments. The children are showing me it can be done. This could be the beginning of a mobile sustainable living curriculum. Stay tuned and let me know if this interests you.IMG_5039

Our next class might enable you to bring this home to your kids. I’m excited to offer the Solar Cooking and Sustainable Kitchens class on Sunday May 25. You will get to experience how we do it all here and figure out which piece would work to integrate into your lifestyle and family, perhaps leading your own children on a path of self sufficiency.IMG_5238

Written by Amanda Bramble

Spring Planting

Raising young plants from seed is maybe my favorite thing to do in life. Tending plants is a task that never makes it on my to-do list. The plants seem to be an extension of myself. If I didn’t live off rainwater collection, raising plants would take up a lot more of my time and water. But living on a rainwater budget makes every drop sacred, as are the seedlings that grew from those drops.IMG_4847

This year I was inspired to get started early with my seed starting. I planted in the greenhouse in stages from the middle of February on. The flats of seeds covered every free surface in my small greenhouse, even the pathways. I grow seedlings for the Madrid Community Garden, and I was envisioning the abundance of greens that would fill those beds. March has been a good month for getting these in the ground.

I planted lettuces, kale, collards (and took cuttings of my perennial tree collards who live in the greenhouse year round), parsley, chard, broccoli, and cilantro.

I had always thought of cilantro as a summer plant until several years ago when I got them started really early, just to try. Cilantro can go to seed so quickly when the weather turns hot. Sometimes this happens before they have made many leaves to harvest. I’m happy to get a good crop of coriander seeds, but the best would be to get a good crop of cilantro leaves too. Cilantro can also dislike transplanting, but I have had some success.

The day that I transplanted my cilantro seedlings, along with spinach and lettuce, into my garden, I noticed a volunteer. A cilantro volunteer! In our dry climate, this is amazing. Right out in the open, under the solar panel for our outdoor shower, which helped give this plant a good dose of water when it rained. It was already bigger than the cilantro I was to transplant, and it had taken some hard frosts. Volunteer plants can be the best teachers. Now the cilantro that I transplanted has caught up and I think this will be a leafy cilantro spring. Now for getting those tomatoes to produce at the same time…

The Terrace Garden has it’s shade cloth outfit for Spring and Summer. Many gardeners grow under the white row cover year round. I prefer to keep a better eye on my babies.

The planting out was done in stages.  This year I discovered the benefits of postal crates as temporary cold frames.

The planting out was done in stages. This year I discovered the benefits of postal crates as temporary cold frames.

The shade enclosure opens in panels.  For now, white row cover gives them extra protection while establishing.

The shade enclosure opens in panels. For now, white row cover gives them extra protection while establishing.


These plants are happily established, thanking us for our special treatment with gifts of salad greens. The ollas are also planted in the ground to help establish deep roots.

written by Amanda Bramble

Solar Cold Frame

Ampersand’s cold frame is usually the favorite stop on our site tours.IMG_2474 If you have ever grown in one, you know that a cold frame is a season extender. It’s a way to create a milder climate so that we can grow outside all year round.
Our cold frame is made out of an old shower door, it is sunken into the ground on the north and west sides and it is insulated along the walls. The north wall holds a stack of bottles filled with water, adding thermal mass to our design in order to further stabilize the temperatures. If they were painted dark, they would collect more heat, but we have not needed that with this design.P15a
All that makes a great place for frost tolerant greens to overwinter or make use of the spring and fall seasons. But the funnest thing about our cold frame tender is the opening mechanism.
It’s important to open the cold frame in the morning and close it at night on sunny days. We don’t want to turn our cold frame into a solar oven. We built a Passive Solar Cold Frame Tender which allows the sun to do this for us.
Here’s how it works: When the sun rises over the hill in the morning, it heats up this 5 gallon blue water jug, which has about a gallon of water in it. It pressurizes, just like a closed water bottle that is left in your car in the summer will. The pressure builds. There is only one place to release this pressure, and that is by sending water up the clear vinyl tube into the old vinegar jug that hangs on the outrigger, an extension of the lid of the cold frame.

Our cold frame has gone through many incarnations.

Our cold frame has gone through many incarnations.

Water flows up into the jug and adds just enough counterweight to open the cold frame lid.  In the evening the blue jug cools down, depressurizes, and sucks the water back in. Voila! No need to worry about frying our plants.
Propped open in the summer with shade cloth over it works well too.

Propped open in the summer with shade cloth over it works well too.

This is what it looks like now with the latest repairs and upgrades.

This is what it looks like now with the latest repairs and upgrades.

We saw this design in our friend Lu Yoder’s back yard many years ago.IMG_4818 He and Steve Baer designed this system. Lu and collaborator Dawn created a great zine on how to make it yourself. Now it’s posted online so you can make your own!

Signs of Spring

Yes, I agree.  It’s a little early for spring.  But when the Apricots are blooming, it’s undeniable.

I grafted another apricot variety (Scout) onto one of our volunteer apricot trees.  It turns out these grafted branches bloom sooner than the canopy of the tree.  Having two different blooming times gives us better luck of escaping the danger of a hard frost after the blossoms open. Crossing our fingers for fruit!
I went to town this year with the early seed starting.  I’m growing kale, chard, lettuce, broccoli, collards, cilantro, and parsley for our outdoor gardens, for the Madrid Community Garden, and for a few special friends.  The greenhouse is full to capacity. Our Watershed Restoration Campaign during February went amazingly.  We exceeded our financial goal and have gotten a good start on the work.  We created a Zuni Bowl at the top of the head cut that had formed during the flooding last September.  There is still plenty to do, but this accomplishment is major.  Thanks for everyone’s support! And last but not least, Spring brings text messages like, Do you want a case of organic bananas?  Well, not every Spring.  We are pleased to put the dehydrator to use again, taking advantage of the next few days of sun.  And because we didn’t seem to fit him into the online fundraising, our kitten, Sunshine. Written by Amanda Bramble

Water Collection

[youtube=]This video is of our trial run for the new rain catchment system on our shop. The shop structure was originally conceived just for getting more water into our cisterns. But we stalled on the rain collection aspect, because our cisterns have been so full it wasn’t a priority since the legendary September rains, that we seem to be talking a lot about these days.
Snapshot 2 (2-10-2014 4-32 PM)Finally we used enough water from our tanks to make space for collecting more. Ideally we will install another cistern near the shop. But funds are tight right now, so we are making the most of our current infrastructure. The water drains from the shop gutters onto the roof of the main house. Our design distributes the water over a large area of the roof so that it may gently drain. We don’t want to pour it all on in one spot and have our precious clean rainwater overshoot the gutters. From there it goes into the existing gutters and down into the main cistern.
Water is the basic element for all biological life. As we are biological beings, weSnapshot 1 (2-10-2014 4-32 PM) find this fairly important. We love how our main rain collection cistern is right outside our front door. It’s been placed centrally as it is a major priority. Just as one would do well to monitor one’s bank account, we keep close tabs on our water budget. The tank gauge hangs just at the height of the water level inside.
I like to put stickers on the cistern. I write the date and stick it just IMG_4416at the level that the guage is hanging at. Then in a week, or a month, or whenever, I’ll put another sticker up again at the level of that guage. That way I can easily monitor our rate of usage.
I took this photo before this recent snow started melting. I had just put on the lowest sticker. That way I could calculate, by looking at the gallon measurements along the side of the tank, how much we had used in the month between putting stickers on. And I would be able to see how much water we collected from the melting snow.
Here’s the results: In 28 days we used 350 gallons between the three of us who live here now. On average, this is 29 gallons per person per week, or 4 gallons per person per day. Many of you are thinking that’s quite low. Indeed, it’s at least 70 gallons per day less than the average American for indoor domestic water use. How do we do it? We use composting toilets, take short showers, and do laundry in town sometimes.  And we have created our infrastructure to make it easy for us to conserve. But we also keep our food garden thriving in the greenhouse, and we are drinking this rainwater after it’s been filtered. And this is at a time when our cisterns are nearly full, and we are not trying to be extra conserving. This is just all we need to use.
After the snow melted, our gauge reported we had collected nearly 200 gallons! To get water collection equivalent to an inch of rainfall, it needs to snow 10 to 14 inches. That is, if it melts before it blows away. Our new shop roof slants towards the South, which encourages faster melting. Considering we only got 2 to 3 inches of snow, we are feeling quite pleased with our collection for this storm episode. We have increased our collection area, and also sped up the beginning of our snow melt. These are the simple pleasures of celebrating water.
Speaking of budgets, ourIndiegogo Watershed Restoration Campaignis still going!
And visit our friends at  They are a great online resource for all things water.
Written by Amanda Bramble