Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Neighbor I Never Knew

I had been going to my wife's parents house all the way back to when I was around six years old. They lived in a small lake community on the edge of town and I always thought the place was oddly developed with houses being built anywhere they would fit. The whole place is filled with thick wooded rolling hills finally making it's way down to the waters edge. The pot hole filled gravel roads wind their way through trees and around houses giving you the feeling of being completely lost until it emerges back on the main paved road and once again civilization. In the community's heyday it was a 60's weekend fishing retreat with Quonset huts dotting the landscape. I am sure the stories it could tell would be something.     

Practically growing up over there and later when the wife and I started dating, I spent most of my free time just hanging out with her at her house. I always noticed her neighbors but never paid much attention to what they did. One neighbor in particular that lived directly behind her house stood out the most. The guy was always out and building odd looking structures. I guess at that point in my life I was not interested in anything but the reason why I was there so I would shrug it off and not think twice about this guy or his projects. Even if I was interested I am sure the man would not waste his time on a punk kid with mullet styled hair asking him questions, so I never did.

Twenty one years later, I can't remember where, I ran into his wife. She came out to the house a year or so ago and was surprised to see some of the solar builds and other projects I was doing. She told me to get with her husband because he was doing all the same stuff. She then started to send me pictures of some of the projects they had done and told me about some of the concepts. I started to get interested and at the same time kicking myself for not sticking my nose in his business earlier on to learn some of this.

Deciding I needed to see some of his work I invited myself to his house last weekend and was given the grand tour.
One of the first things I was interested in was his gardens. He built Chinampa  which is a rectangular shaped area of fertile arable land used for crops during the Mesoamerica era. Though labor intensive to build, they give off a more abundant yield than a traditional garden.

"I like to think outside the box" he added while giving me detailed instructions on how he placed the blocks and bamboo to construct his own.

I stood taking notes and patiently listening while looking around his place. He must have noticed my focus was now on to the next item and he quickly changed gears and walked me over to the Dome while talking the whole time. He called it his Geodesics Dome. The 9x16 hex growing house was built out of crisscrossing PVC pipes and covered with a twenty foot Chinese Military Parachute. A hole in the top and a reflective emergency blanked directs the the sunlight onto the plants and wherever else it is needed.
"This is the prototype of what I want to start selling and custom building for customers" he stated.
His goal on the growing houses it to expand his business and sell the pre-made kits plus install them for people who like the design and want them in their back yards.
I personally liked the fact you could have a garden bed all the way around the inside plus hang all your Herbs or other plants from the supports. If built right, this could be a self contained Terrarium.

I asked him what his main goals for building all this and why he is doing what he does.

"I want to be able to eat out of what I build for a least a year", he added "and I really want to be a resource to the solution of the growing problems we face."

Now the conversation was getting into some deep thought so I had to put on my "A" game and listen.
He continued, "I want to be able to influence schools to teach these types of programs to the students so they can learn to be more self sufficient"
All I could do was stand there and shake my head in agreement while trying to write this stuff down.

"People will get tired of eating the poisons the government is feeding us one day."

With that he spun around and took off walking yelling back "Watch your step and follow me, you will like this"
Down and around we came to a traditional hoop house where inside he was building a Aquaponics system. This system uses nutrient filled water from fish to flood the garden beds every so often and then drain back into the fish tank. You do not use traditional soil but a mixture of pea gravel and clay balls also know as Hydroton. His plan is to also build these as a package where anyone can buy one already made with easy assembly and have it in their backyard. This really got my attention because I have been designing my own for a while now. This was the first time I had actually seen one in person and in the process of being built was a added bonus for me.

Needless to say I stayed in there so long studying every aspect of the design he got bored, left and was now showing the wife some more stuff. Having my questions ready to be answered, I went out and found them at what he calls his Saxophone. It is the Hydroponics system.
This is a closed system pumping nutrient filled water constantly through the plants roots. For the water he soaks a bag of compost in a bucket making a compost tea and then pumps the water through the pipes to later return to the holding tank, mix with more nutrients and off again. The cups have holes in the bottoms for the water to soak the roots. After the plants have started and gain a root system they are then transplanted into foam and the roots hang free into the flowing water.

Both of these systems are great and produce around four times the plant yield normal garden soils do. It is like steroids for plants but it is all safe and organic.

"What are you going to do with all the extra produce you grow?" I asked.

"I have had a good life so I want to give something back. I want to donate the food to soup kitchens and homeless shelters."

My meeting ended with a handshake and a promise to be back in a couple of weeks to see the progress. I am shocked at the fact all this was going on so close to me all those years and I never knew it. Like I said, I am sure age had a lot to do with not knowing or even caring as far as that goes, but I can't stop thinking only if I would have thought to stop and see what all that building was about then I might be a lot further along than where I am today on my knowledge of all this.
It just goes to show, one day you might learn something from the neighbors you might not know.  


  1. What an interesting man! Hydroponics is kinda complicated, he's got a golden mind.

  2. Here are some pics of a Geo dome off a website I was directed to when I asked an acquaintance about the ones he built.

    His turned out great.


  3. MDR, you've probably seen this, but your post reminded me of this video. This fellow uses a similar idea, with fish and chicken to fertilize his plants.

  4. Wow, that's a great setup he has. I especially like the Aquaponics.

  5. i am sooo glad that you were able to go and have a walk-around and learn from this ingenious man....tell him you posted about him on your blog and that strangers from far away places are impressed as heck.

    spend as much time with this man as you can, learn everything that he knows and please come back and share that knowledge with us.

    thanks MDR, buddy!

    your friend,

  6. This is incredible stuff. Sounds like he's spent years putting all of his ideas to the test. Gotta love people like that. So many of us have good ideas, but the ones who are the movers and the shakers in this world are the ones who are acting upon those ideas.

    That neighbor sounds like a priceless discovery!

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Mandy - I agree, he is valued.

    John - Yes they are. Thanks for the visit.

    SW - Thank you for the links.

    Matt - Thanks for the link.

    Stephanie - Thanks for commenting. The Aquaponics system is the one I plan to build.

    Kymber - Everything I wrote about was with his permission. I did email him last night and told him the post was up. I just hope I did him justice.

    FLL - I agree we are all filled with things and ideas we want to do, but the ones who act upon those are the ones who stand out.
    Thank you for stopping by.

  8. they hind sight is 20/20 and your mind was scrambled eggs back when you were younger and going over the your now wife's parents house all you thought about was having a good time not how to grow plants in the future so quit beating yourself up over it

  9. This is awesome! I hope to be that guy one day.

  10. Thanks for the comment Tony.
    I think we all want to be more self sufficient however that may be.