I recently had the chance to visit with Amanda Bramble of Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center. She and her husband, Andy, have created an amazing living system around their home on 38 acres just north of Madrid, which is completely off the grid – without even a well. They have lived on this land for 10 years and are now able to grow vegetables, fruit trees, fruiting shrubs, and other perennials, based entirely on natural precipitation (14 inches per year) and water catchment from their roof. The property is an inspiring demonstration site for hands-on learning about sustainable design and construction.

Everything here is designed to work as part of interconnected systems, and as a part of that system, the Brambles are keenly aware of their resource usage. They have annual vegetable gardens near the house as well as a small greenhouse attached to the house, fed by 5,000 gallons of rainwater storage. Even their drinking water comes from a rainwater tank plumbed into the house; a solar water heater provides hot water, and greywater feeds into the gardens. The house is designed to take advantage of passive solar heating and cooling, and solar panels provide electricity, but they cook all their food using a variety of solar cookers, including an awesome solar wall oven! As Amanda says, “I’m sure we’re more frugal than most people, but it doesn’t feel like we’re skimping or suffering.”

Ampersand hosts workshops, internships, and volunteer opportunities, and this year they plan to start offering school programs. Past workshop topics have included solar cooking, mushroom cultivation, water harvesting, permaculture gardening, straw bale and cob building techniques, passive solar design, and watershed restoration to slow and catch the water in an arroyo that cuts through the property.

Amanda also offers consulting services. One hot Friday afternoon, she visited my 1/8 acre downtown lot and talked with me about how my urban garden could take advantage of rainwater catchment and use less water overall. In her own garden, she uses a combination of pumps and gravity feed to water her plants; for my flat site, she recommended a pump that would work with my drip irrigation system and a way to make it easier to access. She helped me solidify my understanding of how to use mulch with the irrigation to retain water and build the soil as it breaks down, and even how I could use it to control bermudagrass. Then we planned out a food forest to be planted around the fruit trees in my backyard. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her knowledge is vast, but it’s clear she’s still learning and experimenting, as the best teachers always are.

If you’d like to visit Ampersand, there’s a Native Plant Hike this Sunday, September 7. Other upcoming events include a Homeschool Homesteading Day on September 19, a Natural Building Volunteer Day on September 20, and an Arid Land Restoration class through Santa Fe Community College on September 27. For more information, see www.ampersandproject.org.

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