Permaculture Demonstration Site

We are working to develop Heathcote as a Permaculture demonstration site!  Our permaculture students have helped us create several permaculture plans over the years, and we are slowly implementing our permaculture projects as labor and funding allow. Our photo gallery has pictures of many of these projects.

Site Overview

Heathcote has 44 acres of land on 3 parcels.  It is mostly wooded with a stream running through the valley and steep slopes on each side, so there is not much open agricultural land.  There is one residential building on each parcel.  Each residential building has its own well and septic system.  The land is in the School of Living land trust.


Heathcote has a 1-acre farm where we grow organic vegetables, berries and mushrooms for the community using permaculture and biointensive methods.  Our vision is to develop the farm so that we can grow enough food to sell some in the local community.  Our farm infrastructure includes:

  • One large (96' x 24') greenhouse made of wood from our land and re-used wooden shipping crates.
  • One smaller (40' x 24') high tunnel.
  • One small attached greenhouse where we start our seeds.
  • Several outdoor growing areas with about 1 acre in production.
  • A small edible forest garden with fruit trees, berries, and herbs.
  • Shitake logs.


We strive to project our local stream and conserve water as much as possible.  Here are a few of the water-related projects we have undertaken:

  • Reforested the riparian buffer to protect our stream.
  • Installed rain barrels on several buildings to harvest rainwater.
  • Installed a lined catch basin to store rainwater from our strawbale house which is used to irrigate our large greenhouse.

Nutrient Recycling

Of course, we recycle and compost. Several different composting systems are located near the main garden and are used in our education efforts as well as serving a practical need. 


We currently have 3 residential buildings, a large barn, and numerous outbuildings.  Most of our buildings were constructed over 100 years ago, so much our work has focused on improving those buildings to make them more energy-efficient and comfortable.  We also built a new strawbale house, which was the first to be constructed in Baltimore County.

Heathcote Mill

Our Mill is unique because of its historical significance: as a grist mill built in the mid-19th century and as a School of Living center promoting alternative lifestyles in the late 60's and early 70's. It currently houses our education center and community common spaces. We've been slowly restoring the Mill one step at a time.  Here are some of our main achievements:

  • Stabilized the north stone wall of the Mill which had been cracking.  This project was supported by a grant from Preservation Maryland.
  • Restored many of the Mill's original windows and installed storm windows.  Our master carpenter Bob Geissel made a special weather lock to make the windows more air tight.
  • Renovated the entire downstairs floor to create an expanded community kitchen and dining room.
  • Renovated the bunkroom including insulation, new drywall, and hard wired smoke detectors.
  • Renovated the bathroom and installed an improved septic system that can accommodate the community plus 20 resident guests.

Polaris:  Our New Strawbale House

In 2002, Greg and Juji moved to Heathcote Community (HC) with an interest in building an eco-friendly/green residence.  At the same time, HC was interested in creating additional living space for its members.  With the assistance of an architect, Sigi Koko, natural building interns, workshop participants, community labor (significantly Charles, Michael, Christopher, Dominic, Peggy, Thia, Bob, John, Karen, Greg, and Juji), and much outside assistance, the result is Polaris - a strawbale residence designed for community living.

There is a variety of eco-friendly elements incorporated into this building.  Some were straight forward, others had steep learning curves and involved trial and error.  Below is a list of some of the eco-friendly elements of this residence.

Eco-Friendly Features of Polaris

•Passive solar - south facing orientation with lots of glass on the south side to capture the energy and light of the sun

•A single-family house with three living units incorporated on one foundation and under one roof, sharing one heating source, washing machine, etc.

•Strawbales from farms in the mid-Atlantic region as insulation for the walls yielding around an R-40 insulation value

•Structural insulated panels (10 inches of Styrofoam) for the roof – petroleum based, but high insulation value saving lots of energy over the lifetime of the building; also do not require trusses so all space under the roof can be efficiently utilized

•Masonry stove heater – highly efficient wood burning stove, burned once or twice a day, which holds the heat and slowly releases it throughout the day 

•Earthen plaster walls - interior side of the exterior walls – 2 inches of a mixture of sand and high clay content soil excavated from the site on top of the strawbales; provides thermal mass to store and slowly release heat captured from the sun and masonry stove

•Lime plaster walls – exterior side of the exterior walls – 2 inches of of a mixture of lime putty and sand providing thermal mass; covered with a natural lime wash

•Rubble trench foundation – using crushed stone and requiring significantly less concrete

•Flooring - Homasote subfloors – a recycled newspaper product instead of plywood, some marmoleum – a natural linoleum made of linseed oil instead of petroleum, bamboo – a fast growing, readily renewable plant

•Local lumber – some of the interior finish lumber (oak and ash) came from community land – sawed by a local portable bandsaw; some pine came from local sources; chestnut window seats were made from wood salvaged from HC’s mill restoration

•Eco friendly paints and stains – on second and third floors some interior walls were finished with a natural milk paint made by Juji (using skim milk, lemon juice, lime putty, and natural pigments); other finishes were purchased for their low VOC/natural/non-toxic qualities

•Second-hand materials – a variety of materials purchased from places like the Habitat Restore

•Tankless/On-demand water heaters – heat hot water instantly without storing hot water and keeping it hot 24 hours a day

•Low wattage lighting – a number of fixtures utilizing LED light bulbs, a few with compact fluorescents

•HC craftsmanship – The first floor entry door and the second floor round window were made by HC member Bob.  A number of other details were made by others.


Heathcote is still on the grid, but we are slowly working to get off of fossil fuels and produce more energy on site.  Most of our buildings are located in a valley with limited solar exposure, so that is a challenge.  Here are a few energy-related projects we have undertaken: 

  • In 1997 we constructed a solar shower, a solar oven, and a solar food dryer. Rebekah wrote an article summarizing her adventures in passive solar appliances at Heathcote
  • We use pellet stoves and wood stoves in several of our older residential buildings.
  • As noted above, our new strawbale house is heated with passive solar energy and a masonry stove that burns wood from our land.

Social Permaculture

Heathcote's greatest strength as a permaculture demonstration site is social permaculture.  We'll be adding some information about that soon.