In Food, Greenhouse, Methods of Design & Patterns, Solar

Healthy soil, healthy plants.

Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on transforming our urban home, I want to look this week at the other elements we tended to on our property over the past decade: The soil, the solar collectors, the greenhouse, and the cob oven.

The Importance of Soil

When we took over this tiny backyard, I had my doubts on what we would be able to achieve. The soil was like concrete and despite all my learnings and readings, I was skeptical on if permaculture principles were going to work. But we put in the work and slowly but surely, the soil began to improve. Four years after we started, we sent our soil into Soil Food Web Lab for testing. I still remember the technician calling me (which isn’t something she normally did) and telling me that it was the best garden soil she had ever tested. You can read about the soil sample HERE.

In permaculture we have this mantra around blue, green, and brown. First, fix the water (blue) and the plants will thrive (green). When the plants are happy they will exude carbohydrates which will prime the soil microbes and enrich the soil food web (brown). It is this food web repairing and nourishing the soil that leads to nutrient-dense food.

I believe gardening this way is one of the most profound examples of how humans and ecosystems can benefit each other. Gardening with permaculture principles can lead to more complexity in nature. This means that human beings are not intrinsically destructive agents, just misguided in design. If we can get this right, we can be a positive force instead of a negative one. The choice is ours.

Solar Thermal Collector

One of the ways we capture heat energy for our home is through the use of a solar thermal collector. It runs off of a DC pump which is powered by a small photovoltaic panel mounted on the top. This ensures that the collector runs independent of the grid, thus improving the system’s reliability. The system also has a built-in power-free heat dissipation system, which ensures the collector never stagnates. These two features make this assembly one of the most reliable solar collection systems on the market.


Solar thermal array.

Currently, the 30-tube collector provides close to 90% of our domestic hot water. So while there are people in the renewable energy industry that claims solar thermal is dead (I disagree in this video here) I think they can still play an important role in sustainable home design. If you want to learn more, check out Simple Solar based right here in Calgary.

Passive Solar Greenhouse

The passive solar greenhouse is probably my favourite element on the property. As I wrote in my previous blog series, it allows us to grow 3-4 seasons out of the year and is an insurance policy against crop damage from hail. It’s also a wonderful place to hang out and catch some sun when things are still a bit chilly outside.


Our rocket mass heater in the greenhouse.

Inside the passive solar greenhouse we also have a rocket mass heater. Rocket stoves are incredible DIY wood heaters that cost as little as $200 to build. I love them for their efficiency (they burn clean and hot) and their effectiveness (they work very well in storing excess heat). For a primer on rocket mass heaters, check out this article on them HERE.

The Cob Oven

If there’s one element on our property that has led to long-lasting friendships, it’s our cob oven. This oven has cooked thousands of pizzas and has served as a catalyst for countless conversations.  It’s this community that’s most important when it comes down to it; it’s what builds resilience. Human beings are a social species, and to pretend that we can just disappear into the wilderness and live off the grid misses the importance of this very basic need.


Outdoor kitchen and cob oven.

When we first started working on this project we didn’t even think about building community. But after being at this for more than a decade, I think I can safely say that it ended up as the primary rewards of building out this property. Money in the bank is subject to market whims, interest rates, algorithms, and stocks traded in abstract places. But relationships appreciate independent of market forces, and are the results of what you invest into them.

Community is the one of the things nobody expects to get out of a Permaculture Design Course, but it is one of the most important things we help people to find.”

For every dollar we have in the bank I feel like we’ve made thousands of dollars in relationships. As we move deeper into the digital age, forging real face-to-face connections become more and more important. Taking on this project has made me a millionaire in a way I could have never anticipated. Ultimately, here are some key takeaways from our little experiment:

  • We can decide if the footprint we leave behind is positive or negative.
  • Humans can be as strong a positive force as they can be a negative force.
  • The sum of small changes is what ends up transforming the world. This always has and always will be the case.
  • One person can make a difference, but a community of people making small changes is what gets the job done.

I’ll end this series with this mini-documentary. As always, thanks for reading and watching!

When you’re ready to begin your permaculture journey, start by downloading our free 60-page e-book primer that all PDC students receive at the start of our 72-hour design course:

PDC primer
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