Saturday, July 30, 2011

Books for sale: field guides, gardening, and more

We have lots of books for sale, mostly gardening books, field guides, and foraging books related to the mainland US, which won't do us much good in Hawaii. See my Discount Permaculture "Books for sale" page for a full listing with prices. I'm keeping the list pretty well updated as people buy them.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reflections on This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman

My strong interest in the realities of homesteading and community living drew me to Melissa Coleman's This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone; her gripping story of her family's disintegration with its familiar childhood perspective kept me reading until I'd finished the same day. If you have any interest in these subjects, I highly recommend this as an engrossing, quick and easy read.

Besides saying that, I don't want to review this book so much as jot down my reactions and reflections. You can read more detailed synopses of the book elsewhere, but in short, Melissa describes her first seven years growing up on a rural Maine homestead with her parents Eliot (well known in organic agriculture circles) and Sue Coleman, next to and on land purchased from their mentors Helen & Scott Nearing. Much of the book revolves around the accidental drowning of Melissa's younger sister in a pond on the property, and the assumption of blame for her death.

My Thoughts & Observations

Homesteading in Maine is difficult. I don't want to work so hard during the short growing season of summer and fall to prepare for a bitterly cold, long winter. Not that I didn't already know that.

Organic agriculture is difficult. I don't want to cut down an acre of mature forest by hand, then cut off the roots of the stumps to pry them out by hand, just to create growing beds I have to dig every year to grow vegetables I have to plant, water, and weed every year. Not that I didn't already know that.

Trying to get a homestead up and running with a newborn baby is difficult. Not that I hadn't already guessed that.

Trying to keep a homestead running with a 3 year old and a newborn baby is even more difficult. Usual comment applies.

Trying to keep a failing marriage from deteriorating further and a homestead running with two children and yet another newborn baby is...go figure...even more difficult yet. Usual comment, plus some head-scratching at the seeming inability of otherwise rational folks to understand the effects of popping out babies. (I can never contemplate global demographics for very long; I quickly scratch my scalp raw.)

Interesting that besides the seasonal reappearance of sparrows each spring, and some wild berries, Melissa doesn't talk about their landbase. Perhaps she just didn't want to add that theme to an already dense book, or perhaps this reflects the disconnection from landbase that seems to regularly accompany agriculture.

Melissa mentions a couple of times early in the book that their family bought in a lot of staple foods like nut butters, oils, and grains; plus occasional luxury items like oranges from Florida. Later on I think she mentions growing potatoes, but otherwise doesn't address staple crops again, so it's not clear whether they ever transitioned to growing their staples. I'm guessing they only grew or foraged their produce, root crops, milk, berries, and fruits; selling extra veggies to pay for imported staples along with other cash expenses like their car. So they never really achieved the sort of homesteading self sufficiency we're seeking.

The Colemans' adherence to a vegetarian diet made life harder than necessary. Besides possible nutritional imbalances causing or exacerbating Sue's depression and Eliot's hyperthyroidism, the diet led to inefficiencies:

  • The family only needed one male goat for fertilization, so Eliot killed and buried any male kids as soon as they were born, a waste of substantial energy invested by the mother goat.
  • The Colemans originally kept chickens for their eggs, but after a few years decided the chickens were too many extra mouths to feed during the food-scarce winters, so got rid of the whole flock. This baffled me since our own hens provide our most labor-efficient protein, fat, and calorie harvests. Eventually I figured out that since the family wouldn't eat their chickens, they couldn't utilize the normal temperate climate adaptation of slaughtering most of the flock in fall or winter, keeping just a few hens and a rooster to rebuild the flock the following spring.
  • They probably missed out on labor efficient opportunities to hunt deer or other meat, which one of their neighbors did to the disgust of the vegetarian Nearings.

Don't design a system that requires you to operate near maximum capacity almost 100% of the time. (Or fall into such a system through lack of design.) Limited slack means any significant disruption has extreme consequences. See the history of China for example, with its population maxed out with all land cultivated as extensively as possible, leading to serious famines somewhere in the country almost every year for two thousand years. For the Colemans, who were running at full speed with just Melissa and the homestead to deal with, the expected arrival of their second daughter drove Eliot to exhaustion building an addition to the house. This apparently started his decline in health. Even worse, it initiated or expanded a chasm with Sue as he couldn't meet her need for connection.

Eliot constantly pushed himself. As an athlete in college he kept seeking the next mountain to climb, and apparently he took on homesteading partly as a "mountain with no top," a challenge he could never fully conquer. As soon as he achieved some success with homesteading, he threw himself into advocacy of organic farming, first publishing newsletters and organizing at a regional level and in later years taking multiple long research trips to Europe. This workaholic approach, so often respected as a model of modern success, trashed his health and his marriage as he used work as refuge from emotions and his growing distance from Sue. Eliot reminded me a little bit of myself in years past when I moved from obsession to obsession (Roger Zelazny website, bootleg taping, Kucinich campaign, etc) to distract myself from the pain of civilization. I've slowed down and opened up in recent years, though at times I've used the house project to avoid dealing with relationship challenges.

In the early years Sue generally shouldered all the necessities of child care plus heavy work loads, but even early in Melissa's life Sue had occasional breakdowns and mild depression from the strain and stress of their endeavor. Her exhaustion grew with a second and then third child, Eliot's decline in stamina with his health problems, and his increasing absences as he pursued teaching and research away from the farm. She grew emotionally distant from Eliot, eventually suspecting him of involvement with the cute young interns present every summer, but unable to discuss it with him. She became less and less capable of engaging with life and her children, spending more time sleeping, fasting for the resulting blood sugar spikes, or just emotionally "checked out" as she went through her day.

Sue and Eliot's marital break-up despite fairly successful homesteading demonstrates the overwhelming importance of communication and relationship in these projects. The "hard skills" of growing food, building shelters, and providing water are fairly easy to learn and implement; us modern civilized folks have a much harder time learning to live together and resolve conflict.

Personal Reflections

I see Tulsey going through some of Sue's struggles. When I met Tulsey working on the Kucinich campaign she seemed strong and fully capable as we ran the Portland office. But as I got to know her better, I learned of her brittleness following a long difficult marriage and divorce, years of overworking herself at the small business she and her husband owned, and her mother's death. In the years since, Tulsey has bounced between breakdowns and confident accomplishments, happily with the balance tipping much more to the latter as she's healed herself from past stresses. The house project of the last two years has rekindled a lot of stress, and though Tulsey is mostly coping with it well, it's taken its toll. Reading Melissa's story emphasizes the importance of keeping our workloads manageable in Hawaii, not trying to do too much at once. Always good advice (one of the principles of permaculture, in fact), and even more important when starting from a depleted state.

I also see my mom in Sue's story and myself in Melissa's. As the oldest of three siblings, and with our parents' relationship following a similar trajectory, Melissa's descriptions of her parents' stresses and her own fears and loneliness (felt in the gut more than intellectually recognized) felt painfully familiar to me, raising several tears and even outright crying two or three times. Looking back now, I can better appreciate the strains my mother must have felt working multiple jobs to care for the three of us, breaking down from time to time with the stress of it all.

Towards the end of the book and her parents' relationship, Melissa describes a memory laden with emotions difficult to articulate but so poignantly recognizable from my own long unvisited, time blurred memories of childhood. Coming home from a school where she doesn't fit in, longing for her parents' attention as their limited spare energy goes to her younger siblings, and living with constant background anxiety about her family's future, Melissa trips and lands hard. Convinced that she broke her arm, she rushes home in search of sympathy. Discovering both parents gone, she begins running back and forth, back and forth, cradling her arm even as the diminishing twinges reveal the insignificance of her injury, wanting to preserve her fresh moment of pain and need until a parent returns. She runs, conscious that it makes no sense, but continuing anyway, unable to understand why she does. That confusion resonated so strongly with me I put the book down and bawled.

Final take-home lessons for me: probably good that we're moving to Hawaii instead of northern California, for a much easier transition to fully self sufficient homesteading. Take it easy as we go. Focus on communication and relationship. Carefully scale in the addition of people who will demand more of the community than they can immediately repay (children), making sure the community can integrate and support them without undue strain. And enjoy ourselves!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Life Changes in Hawaii

When we move to Hawaii and purchase land, we expect to live a very primitive, self sufficient life, with no use of fossil fuels, and electricity limited to one or two solar panels directly charging something like one laptop, one cell phone, and some batteries for headlamps. We'll stop purchasing food as soon as possible, instead foraging, hunting, and growing everything we eat. To help prepare myself for the new lifestyle we're embracing, I jotted down all the life changes I expect for myself as a result. (Tulsey's theoretical list would be similar to mine, but not identical.) The shortness of my list and achievability of everything on it pleasantly surprised me; my attempts to wean myself from civilization while stuck in the city must have done some good! Here's the list, with some notes, loosely grouped by categories:

  • 'Awapuhi (shampoo ginger) instead of commercial shampoo
  • Natural or no soap (perhaps use 'Awapuhi for soap as well?)
  • Limited hot water - generally bathe with cool or sun-warmed water after working up a good sweat
  • Make all our own clothes eventually - not a high priority for us, but eventually required.
  • Make our own baskets for storage & transportation - somewhat higher priority than making our own clothes
  • No toothbrush and toothpaste - use chewing stick and perhaps some sort of natural toothpaste. See also the 'zine on primitive tooth care.
  • No sugar or grains - I've pretty much weaned myself from grains, but my sugar/sweet addiction rages strong.
  • Hunt our own meat. We'll use guns initially, but eventually want to transition to handmade implements like bow & arrow.
  • Different foods to learn to eat.
  • No freezer. I barely use our fridge, but have relied heavily on our freezer especially for bulk meat purchases.
  • New plants & climate & growing conditions to learn.
  • Limited irrigation - we don't want to install a bunch of plastic pipe & breakable parts; we plan to mostly rely on rainfall which will require more careful attention to what & when we plant
  • Pigs will eat root crops and damage gardens - we've never really dealt with pests larger than slugs.
  • Mongoose prey on fowl, during daylight hours - we've only had to worry about nocturnal predators here.
  • Raw salads have the potential to harbor rat lungworm disease, a pretty nasty & currently mysterious illness.
  • Walking barefoot potentially makes me vulnerable to rat lungworm or other diseases.
  • Open drinking water potential source of pathogens - supposedly no surface water can be trusted, even potentially infecting you from just standing in it.
  • High sun exposure - will need to develop a tan, perhaps wear a big shade hat, and adopt patterns of sheltering under trees during the most intense exposure hours.
  • Mosquitos in abundance at lower elevations - mostly a problem for me for sleeping outdoors.
  • No TV, recorded music, or movies for mediated entertainment - will have to develop our own skills at storytelling, dancing, composing music, etc.
  • No regular internet access
  • Limit computer use
  • Artificial lighting limited to headlamps with solar powered batteries - explore use of candle nuts (kukui) as light source.
  • Sleep with sun
  • Limited bus service, and no car - rely mostly on biking and walking. (We don't drive much now, but I use the bus as my primary transport.)
  • Metal eventually rare - plan for long term independence of metal tools, machetes, cookware, etc
  • Learn to cook without metal cookware - in earth ovens, on open fires, in gourds or water tight baskets, etc
  • Cooking with fire instead of on natural gas stove - requires more advance planning for meals and often more maintenance of fuel as food cooks
  • Limited medical care
  • Limited access to civilization's waste streams - we've grown very accustomed to getting almost everything we need for free or cheap. Much harder to do when we're removed from the city, and when the city is much smaller than Portland. Plus energy descent will reduce the waste streams.
  • More difficult to get to stores for the things we still need to buy in early years - requires more careful planning of trips and advance planning for what we need
  • Less useful library system - Portland's is about as good as it gets, plus we'll have more difficult physical access to libraries in HI
  • Limited social interactions - Fewer people around and less likely to run into them than in the city. On the other hand, we can probably form much deeper relationships

Monday, July 25, 2011

Escape Plan From Civilization - Brief Update

For several years we planned to implement our tribal escape plan by moving to far northern California, somewhere along the Klamath River between Happy Camp and Orleans. We even made an unsuccessful offer on land in Somes Bar in spring 2009. When that didn't work out, we decided to fix up our current house to improve salability while we kept an eye out for other attractive properties.

In August 2010, as we hit the half-way point of our house project, our friend Wade returned to visit Portland after eighteen months on the big island of Hawaii. He convinced us to take a closer look at Hawaii, extolling the ease of growing food (plant a cutting and two years later you have bananas!), the ideal climate, and the abundance of people living alternative lifestyles. I had considered Hawaii years ago, but wrote it off as too island-like: very little room to move as climate change, energy descent, and economic collapse unfold. Wade pointed out the relative ease of growing enough food quickly to feed the current inhabitants, the diversity of microclimates along two nearly 14,000 foot tall mountains, and the remaining abundance of land even after, say, a 50' rise in sea levels.

So Tulsey and I spent five weeks from early November into December on the big island, getting a feel for the current self sufficiency activity; the tropical environment; the foragable foods such as breadfruit, coconuts, mangos, and avocados; the forest reserve system (somewhat equivalent to national forests on the mainland); land for sale; hunting opportunities; and overall potential of the landbase to support its inhabitants. Plus a bit of outright sight seeing on the dry side of the island. Our friend Jasmine, potentially interested in the tribe or at least in living nearby, joined us for the last 10 days.

We have reservations about Hawaii, but overall we liked what we saw enough to move there instead of CA. The decision mostly comes down to ease of living in Hawaii vs lots of landbase to support a very small human population in CA; and even more fundamentally to prioritizing horticulture (permaculture) over hunting & gathering. Both subsistence methods can work in both regions, but horticulture is much easier in HI while in the short term CA more easily support hunting & gathering. Surprisingly, it generally costs a bit less for land in HI than in CA, especially when you consider the potential of tropical vs temperate production.

A few months ago we made a new friend; Jonathan attended a few of our classes and expressed interest when we mentioned our tribe and Hawaii plans. We've spent a lot of time getting to know each other since then, chatting about visions and goals and past experiences while continuing to plug away at the house project with Jonathan's help. He's decided to move to HI With us where we'll continue to build our relationship while exploring and looking for land to purchase. Jonathan has a lot of experience living in community, which should help a lot as we formalize our vision and procedures for people to join our tribe. And we definitely want several more people to join us soon, with a long term target of 10 to 25 folks of all ages.

We're now in the final stages of our house project, perhaps three weeks from having an open house and actively marketing it for sale. We plan on a short trip to the eastern US after the house sells to bid farewell to our families, then off to the big island. Jasmine will probably fly over with us and spend another ten days on the island to make her own decision about whether she wants to move there.

Once in Hawaii we'll exercise patience as we learn more about the microclimates and available land and our own needs, before actually purchasing a parcel. We'll spend the time until then caretaking or WWOOFing. Once we buy property of our own, we'll observe the site for a year before designing and implementing our long term structures, orchards, animal paddocks, etc. So it'll be quite some time before I've learned enough to make many meaningful Hawaii-related posts to this blog. But I have a lot of knowledge I still need to share from my experiences in Portland, so keep checking back for that!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ecoroof Grant Report

Here's the report I wrote for the City of Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services, which gave us a $5 per square foot grant to implement our ecoroofs. You can also download a PDF (1 MB) of this report.

Update: addendum to the original report as a blog post or as a small PDF download.


Project Summary

We implemented four ecoroofs on our residence at 4510 NE Going St, covering a total of 1000 square feet with ecoroof soil mixes sourced from Philips Soil Products in depths ranging from 3.5" to 8". We implemented and planted two in October 2010, and two in June 2011. We have another 660 square feet of house roof we deemed too difficult to beef up adequately to support an ecoroof. We roofed this area in metal, and it all drains onto the sunspace, front porch, and carport roofs.

About Us

Tulsey Latoski and Norris Thomlinson have experimented at this site since 2006 practicing sustainable, low-work food production via a food forest, perennial vegetable garden, and chickens and bees.

Read more about our projects in general at

Read ecoroof-specific blog posts at

View food harvest logs from our ecoroofs at

Email us at

Design Goals

  • Food production - We planned the ecoroofs for production of food crops either naturally adapted to our seasonal rains, or drought tolerant to make it through the summer.
  • Reasonably low maintenance - We hope for minimum irrigation requirements, no more often than once every week or two. Once the perennial plants have fully established they shouldn't require much weeding.
  • Human hang-out areas - We included space for humans to spend time eating, reading, or watching the ecoroof or the rest of the neighborhood below.
  • Bird & insect habitat - Our food producing, perennial plants provide a diversity of flowers for insects through several seasons, and various seeds for birds to eat.
  • Potential rabbit or chicken fodder - We envision rabbits potentially grazing on the roofs with human supervision. We planted a few plants which can either serve as human food or be cut and dropped to the chickens below.

Four Roofs - Details


392 ft² (13' 3" x 29' 7"): A newly expanded room whose roof we rebuilt from scratch. This roof slopes south with 1/12 pitch, and we constructed it with an ecoroof in mind. The west end receives full sun year round; the east end receives dappled morning shade from black locust trees from late spring through mid fall. It holds 5.5" of intensive B-4 soil mix.

~290 ft² of metal roof drains into this roof, evenly distributed along a ~28' line, depositing into the upper end of the ecoroof.

Since we have the quickest and easiest access from our kitchen to this roof, we planned it as our zone of most frequent harvest, concentrating leaf and flower crops here for frequent picking. The central 2' wide path extending the length of the roof doubles as a sitting area. The south, lower end of the roof overlooks the back yard, where our chickens free range, allowing for possible harvest and dropping of fodder to the chickens below. Rabbits may eventually range here, but they would require a ramp to get to it from their likely dwelling area on the garage roof.

Front Porch

136.5 ft² (7' 3" x 18' 10"): The front porch roof slopes north with about 1/12 pitch. It receives full sun year round. It holds 8" of intensive B-4 soil mix.

To access this roof, we have to walk from the sunspace roof up and over 20' of metal roof, so we planned this roof for less frequently harvested crops such as root crops, seeds, and berries.

~265 ft² of metal roof drains into this roof, with about 2/3 of that evenly distributed along a ~19' line dropping water from above into the upper end of the ecoroof. The other 1/3 coming into the ecoroof meets the soil perpendicular to the slope, allowing very little infiltration; this water mostly runs straight down the side of the soil to a drainage pipe directing it to the gutter.


245.3 ft² (11' 6" x 21' 4"): The garage roof slopes south with about 1.5/12 pitch. It receives afternoon shade from the house and from late spring through mid fall much of the roof receives dappled to heavy shade the rest of the day from black locust trees. It holds an average of 1.5" of extensive-E soil mix, but we created mounds of soil 3 - 3.5" high in between paths and areas of no soil.

We have a hang-out area for three or four people to gather and sit together in the sun, plus the path lower in the roof in the shade of the locusts allows one person to sit. As with the sunspace, the south end of this roof overlooks the chickens and could be used to grow fodder plants, though the thin soil depth limits the possibilities.


227.2 ft² (11' 9" x 19' 4"): The carport roof slopes east with about 1/12 pitch. It adjoins the garage roof. It receives afternoon shade from the house. ~85 square feet of metal roof drops its water into the upper edge of this roof, with about 75% dropping into a single spot.

Two paths run the length of the roof, allowing for sitting in the sun or during the afternoon in the shade of the house. It holds an average of 1.5" of extensive-E soil mix, but we created mounds of soil 3 - 3.5" high in between paths and areas of no soil. The thin soil depth and mostly full sun exposure doesn't allow for much more than succulents and Alliums.

Structure & Layers

Structural Engineering

We worked with Ken Safe and Jeff Hartman at Miller Consulting Engineers to determine the necessary structural modifications to support a minimum additional ecoroof weight of 35 pounds per square foot (psf), allowing 5.5" of intensive soil mix:


We had already built the sunspace with 2x12 joists on 16" centers, spanning ~12', sheathed with 7/8" tongue & groove OSB. The north wall of the sunspace is a standard 2x4 stud wall, with a 2x12 ledger attached with lag bolts to carry the joists. The south wall is a window wall, with multiple windows 34" wide with 2x6 studs between them on 3' centers. A 6x8 header spans the windows and rests on 6x6 posts (one 9' and one 12' span between posts).

Miller determined that the 2x6 studs between the windows were too weak to handle the load from the 6x8 header, and the header couldn't make the full 9' and 12' spans on its own. They recommended the retrofit of adding a 2x6 LVL to both the inside and outside face of the header to stiffen it up. They also had us add SDS screws to attach the 2x12 ledger to the house wall, as the existing lag screws weren't strong enough. Because the window wall had too few areas of plywood sheathing to provide adequate shear strength, they had us add plywood to the interior north wall of the room, calculating that the shear load could be transferred via the OSB roof sheathing to that interior wall.

Front porch

Our porch roof had existing 2x6 joists on 16" centers, spanning 67", sheathed with 1/2" plywood. One end of the joists hung from a 2x6 ledger nailed to the house studs; the other end rested on a 4x6 beam supported by 4x4 posts. Miller determined that we needed to use a 4x12 beam instead of the 4x6, and 4x6 posts set in poured concrete pads instead of the 4x4s on pre-cast pier blocks. They also had us add SDS screws to attach the 2x6 ledger to the house wall. These changes permitted 50 psf.


Our garage roof has 2x6 joists on 24" centers spanning 10' 1", sheathed with 1/2" plywood. One end of each joist hangs from a 2x6 ledger lag bolted to the house; the other end rests on a 2x4 wall. Miller determined we would need one extra joist between each existing set for a final spacing of 12" on center, and we would need to strengthen the 2x4 wall.


Our carport roof has 2x6 joists on 24" centers spanning 11' 2", sheathed with 1/2" plywood. One end of each joist hangs from a 2x6 ledger lag bolted to the house; the other end rests on a 4x6 beam support by 4x4 posts. Miller determined that we needed to add two joists between each existing set for a final spacing of 8" on center, and do something to strengthen the 4x6 beam, such as adding metal C-beams. The 2x6 ledger against the house should have SDS screws added to attach to the house studs.

Scale-Down of Garage & Carport

We originally planned to implement the garage and carport roofs similar to the sunspace and front porch, with at least 5.5" of intensive soil mix to support food crops. However, these two roofs were built right up to the property line in the past, so to put ecoroofs requiring permits on these structures would have triggered requirements to bring various aspects up to code. We didn't want to deal with that, so we decided instead to implement very light ecoroofs of 30% of the allowed dead load value. Therefore, we did not add any joists or strengthen the beams for these roofs.


From bottom to top, the ecoroof layers consist of:
  • Sheathing (1/2" plywood on all roofs except the sunspace with its 7/8" OSB)
  • Feltex (light-weight substitute for tar paper)
  • EPDM pond liner (45 mil Firestone Pondgard. We purchased sheets large enough to fit onto each roof without having to join multiple pieces together, so as to avoid potential leak spots.)
  • Rotting wood (on sunspace and front porch roofs, to act as a physical dam slowing water down as it works down the roof, and to hold and store water and nutrients. Though the wood was already rotting and soft, we placed a thin layer of soil mix under the wood as an extra precaution to protect the pond liner.)
  • Soil mix (Intensive on sunspace & front porch; extensive on garage & carport)

We figured that the roofs had sufficient slope (1 or 1.5 in 12) to move water via gravity through the soil mix, so we didn't include a separate drainage layer.

We created "raised beds" by using 2x6 and 2x8 boards around the edges of the roofs, running the pond liner up and over before capping the boards with metal rake edge protecting the edge boards and the sheathing, extending down at least 2" into the fascia boards attached under the sheathing. We secured the edge boards with 4"x4" right angle brackets, and placed scrap pond liner pieces or foam padding over the exposed metal to prevent the main pond liner layer from being damaged by the brackets.


The front porch roof already had a gutter attached, so we worked with that for our overflow drainage. We lifted the lower "raised bed" edge board an inch off the surface of the decking, then cut slits in the pond liner to allow water to run under the board and into the gutter. We placed filter fabric all along the slit with a layer of river rock to retain soil.

For the other three roofs, we cut holes at the bottom edge of the roof through the decking, large enough to allow a 1.5" diameter PVC or ABS pipe to fit through. We cut the pond liner in an "X" pattern over the drainpipe, folded the flaps down into the pipe, and secured and caulked it with P&L Roof & Flashing Sealant. (For the garage & carport roofs we inserted a plastic ring to help hold the flaps against the inner wall of the pipe.) We used one hole each for the garage and carport roofs, and two holes for the sunspace roof.

Over each drainage hole, we placed a ~10" diameter coffee can with holes drilled or cut out all around the sides of the can. We cut one hole in the bottom of the can to match the hole cut through the pond liner. We wrapped each can with filter fabric then a ring of river rock to minimize loss of soil, and caulked the bottom of each can to the pond liner to secure it and prevent soil from getting under the can. We painted each can with rustoleum.

The excess water from the roofs drains to different places:
  • Sunspace: waterfalls into three bath tub ponds, which then overflow away from the house
  • Front porch: waterfalls into a large pond constructed of the scrap pond liner pieces left over from the four ecoroofs
  • Garage and Carport: trees and shrubs near their respective downspouts


Sunspace & Front Porch Planting Plan

The deep soil of the sunspace and front porch roofs supports a relatively broad palette of plant species, and hopefully allows for productive cropping. We designed these roof plantings for polycultures of edible plants providing nearly 100% soil coverage throughout the year. Mostly we aimed for each patch to include an evergreen ground cover with evergreen or deciduous plants rising above.

For ground covers, we planted Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Fragaria chiloensis, Rubus calycinoides, Viola odorata, Campanula portenschlagiana, C. poscharskyana, C. cochlearifolia, Gaultheria shallon, G. procumbens, Vaccinium angustifolium, V. vitis-idaea, Valerianella locusta, and Sedum telephium. For taller plants, we planted many Allium species including garlic and elephant garlic, Astragalus canadensis, Linum perenne, Hemerocallis sp, Agastache foeniculum, Asphodeline lutea, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, Sedum spectabile, Anthriscus cerefolium, Papaver somniferum, Oenothera biennis, several ephemeral bulbs in the Camassia, Triteleia, Brodiaea, and Erythronium species, and a few miscellaneous others. See our Ecoroof Final Planting Plan blog post for full details.

Carport & Garage General Plan

We didn't design the carport & garage roofs in as much detail, since we only had about 3.5" of soil depth to work with. We obtained numerous cuttings of Sedums and other succulents, mostly of unknown species from similarly thin-soiled, dry conditions. We also planted several Allium cernuum plants, one Fragaria chiloensis, a large Origanum vulgare, and a large unknown species of Thymus. In areas of the garage roof which receive heavy summer shade from the black locust trees, we planted Viola odorata and Campanula glomerata, since the protection from the sun may allow a wider diversity of plants to grow in that area despite the thin soil.

Mid-summer report

For an ongoing record of harvests from the ecoroofs, visit

Sunspace & Front Porch

Our one plant of Vaccinium moupinense died within a month of being planted. Our seeds of Lepidium peruvianum (old seed), Valerianella locusta, and Papaver somniferum never germinated. Otherwise, the plants on the sunspace and front porch, planted in October 2010, survived the winter and now flourish to a greater or lesser extent. The wet spring and summer this year have sustained growth with no irrigation on our part except for a few recently added plants, and occasional spot watering of some of our more valued experiments (Vaccinium angustifolium, V. vitis-idaea, Gaultheria shallon, G. procumbens, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, Akebia, and Astragalus canadensis).

The Fragaria chiloensis has impressed us with its rapid growth and precocious berry production; this species may make sense as the primary ground cover, since it stays evergreen, grows low, fills in gaps between taller plants very quickly, and tastes delicious! Large swaths of the Arctostaphylos uva-ursi died off following its transplantation from our yard below, but the portions that survived have made a few berries. Unfortunately, the berries of this species don't taste very exciting so it makes an inferior ground cover in our food-focused system. The Rubus calycinoides is establishing fairly slowly, though a few plants have produced flowers. The Vaccinium angustifolium is producing a few berries.

The garlic and elephant garlic seem to have done very well, producing numerous scapes followed by reasonably sized bulbs. We haven't weighed them all yet, but it looks like a very good yield. The other Alliums are establishing fairly well, but with much less vigor so far.

The Chenopodium bonus-henricus has produced a tiny amount of seed; we'll need to wait until next year to assess the production potential of established, mature plants. The Linum perenne made numerous flowers but only a handful across all the plants set seed; we're waiting anxiously to evaluate convenience of seed harvest and their taste. We're disappointed that the Papaver somniferum didn't germinate, as we would have enjoyed that as a seed crop. We have one Oenothera biennis plant flowering profusely, which should result in a reasonable number of seeds for ourselves or for the chickens.

Hemerocallis (daylily) is proving itself very tough, already producing numerous flowers for harvest.

Many other plants have flowered over the last two months, providing an ongoing diversity of blooms and making the roofs pleasant hang-out spaces and valuable for foraging insects.

Carport & Garage

We didn't plant the carport and garage roofs until late June 2011. A month later the cuttings and plants seem to be establishing well.


We found it fairly straight forward to implement everything. For each roof, once we had the structural supports in place as designed by our structural engineer, we removed all the old asphalt roofing, tar paper, and roofing nails. We swept up all the dirt and debris to create a clean surface. In places with more than 1/8" gap between plywood we added shims so the pond liner wouldn't get stretched down into the crevice.

Once we had the plywood surface cleaned up, we laid the feltex on the decking in the same manner as tar paper. Then we placed our pond liner, running it under the flashings of the roofs above (sunspace and front porch) or up the wall of the house (garage and carport). We worked it up and over the "raised bed" edge boards, and cut off the excess. We adjusted the liner to minimize any bubbles in the middle of the roof, and folded the extra material at the corners.

The hardest part of placing the liner was dealing with the wood stove chimney projecting through the sunspace roof. We cut an oval hole about 2/3 the size of the chimney flashing, and worked the pond liner down over the chimney, making small cuts as needed to get the pond liner down to the roof. We had to make sure the pond liner stayed 2" away from the actual chimney, so we could only bring it up the flashing to that point. It proved difficult to cut the hole in exactly the right place, so we wound up with a slit in the pond liner extending upslope from the chimney for a few inches. We protected that by adding scrap pieces of pond liner, caulked to the chimney flashing underneath the storm collar and to the main layer of pond liner. To minimize water approaching from upslope, we placed two pieces of plastic to divert water to either side of the chimney. (We also initially placed a ring of drainage pipe and river rock around the chimney, but removed them later when we suspected that rainfall was splashing off those and getting under the storm collar.)

Next we placed the rotting wood for the sunspace & front porch, then soil for all the roofs. And finally, of course, we planted the plants!



Since we planted the sunspace & front porch roofs last October, and have had a wet spring with rains extending into June, as of July 12th we've only watered a few spring-planted additions and (perhaps unnecessarily) some of our more valued experimental plants (see "Plants" section above for details.) Since we completed the carport & garage plantings at the end of June, we expect to water two or three times a week to allow establishment.

The metal roofs condense some water during humid summer nights. We don't know yet whether that will provide any meaningful moisture input, but we hope that the plants at the upper edges of the sunspace and front porch roofs will benefit.

We expect to provide occasional (perhaps once a week) irrigation in future summers to maximize crop production, though certainly we have the option to not irrigate and just accept whatever harvests are possible.


Most of the future maintenance should be simply harvesting greens & flowers two or three times a week, plus seasonal harvest of root crops like garlic, camassia, and yellow asphodel.

Further experimentation

We'll adjust the crops planted based on how well they perform. If new plants suggest themselves as good candidates, we'll try adding them.


Hopefully most unwanted plants will be excluded by the establishment of a solid canopy of desired plants. After that, we just have to keep those desired plants in balance, which may mean rearranging some polycultures or selectively harvesting greens of certain plants more heavily to set them back.


The sunspace and front porch roofs will require ongoing fertilization to replenish nutrients taking during harvest. We can easily accomplish this by occasional application of urine during harvest trips.

Lessons Learned

Early loss of silt

The runoff water from the sunspace and front porch roofs obviously carried a lot of silt for at least two weeks after the beginning of the fall rains. Perhaps the ideal time to install soil and plant would be mid spring, so that plant roots could grow quickly while the soil was still moist, but without heavy enough rains to carry off so much silt and presumably fertility.

Excess water flows

Due to the extra water coming from our existing metal roofs, we had two problem spots. On two occasions of the heaviest rainfall last winter, the water flowing onto the sunspace roof backed up enough to get past the flashing and into the interior wall of the house. We added two drainpipes, one towards each end of the ecoroof, buried and running under the path directly down the roof. The pipes are wrapped in filter fabric with the upper ends protruding past the upper end of the soil for water to easily enter. This now allows excess water to safely drain away.

On the front porch roof, moderate rains caused a stream of water to overflow the lower edge of the "side channel" where some of the metal house roof meets the edge of the ecoroof perpendicular to the ecoroof slope. We built up a higher "dam" with metal caulked to the existing edge, which now allows excess water to enter a drainpipe running from that spot towards the gutter. The picture on the left shows eroded soil piled up against the original, shallow edge at the far right.

Gutter vs Drainhole

We found integration with the front porch gutter to be more awkward than the drainholes we created for the other roofs. We made a mistake by not caulking the pond liner down to the feltex along the slit we cut for discharge into the gutter, so water initially wicked back upwards under the pond liner and leaked through nail holes in the sheathing until we corrected the problem. The gutter will require more ongoing maintenance to keep it free of leaves than will the drainholes with their small cans.

Surprising absorption of rainfall events

We've been impressed by how much of the rainfall the roofs can hold before discharging anything into the overflow, especially the sunspace & front porch which receive so much extra water from the rest of the house. We haven't made precise measurements and observations, but it seems that if the roofs dry out a bit, they can fully absorb at least a .25" rainfall.

Difficult to buy low-cost plants

We were disappointed to find that we couldn't source low-cost sedums or other ecoroof plants. The wholesalers with good prices apparently only sell to retailers, not directly to end users, even if you can meet the minimum bulk requirements. Luckily, we found friends who allowed us to take cuttings of their sedums.


With the help of friends, we did all the labor ourselves, so we only had to pay for construction materials, soil mix, plants, structural engineering, and the permit. We located used material as much as possible via the Rebuilding Center, craigslist, etc. Our total cost was about $5400:

  • $700 - Structural engineering
  • $94 - Permit
  • $180 - Concrete (front porch pier pads)
  • $129 - Dump fees for old roofing
  • $1023 - Lumber - structural posts & beams, sheathing, edge boards, etc. (We would have bought some of this lumber anyway for the sunspace, but it wouldn't have needed to be so beefy had we not put the ecoroof on it.)
  • $108 - Nails & fasteners
  • $157 - Brackets (to attach edge boards)
  • $403 - Rake edge to protect edge boards & match existing metal roofing theme
  • $148 - Feltex (light-weight tar paper equivalent)
  • $849 - Pond liner
  • $692 - Soil mix
  • $906 - Plants & seeds
  • $15 - Drain pipe for water overflow