Posts Tagged ‘self-sufficiency’

There are steps to creating a sustainable life.

In our society the realities of sustainability run up against the national character. Rigid self-sufficiency and individualism are the holy grail; in the words of Maxwell Anderson, how you can tell an American is that you cannot tell him what to do, even when it’s in his own best interest. In the current political insanity, any suggestion that we try to save our common heritage–like, for instance, the air–through sensible regulation, is excoriated as “removing choice.”

Enter the idea of the commons–those things that we own together, starting with the air, but also the water, the language, the creative works of humanity.

What I’ve discovered through the creation of the Peterson Garden Project, is that for many sustainable initiatives that revolve around community action, we lack a language. The language of communal action has been removed from the dialog, or vilified as “communist” or “socialist.” But some things, even most things cannot be done alone. The old saying that ‘your right to swing your fist ends at my nose” needs to be understood again to extend to our food and our health.

A new language does exist, in the old language, through the concept of the commons. What we hold together. What we all must use, but also spare, share, and save. Where our right to swing our so-called individual rights ends at the epidemic asthma in the inner cities because of pollutants, or the loss of aquifers because private owners have drained the wetlands that used to belong to all of us. We’ve allowed private bank accounts to be the fist, but haven’t stopped their swing at our collective nose.

Last week was the annual Good Fest Festival in Chicago (formerly the Family Farmed Fest), a really wonderful trade show all about restoring local, sustainable food systems to the urban landscape.  The exhibitors are all local farmers and food makers. It’s where I first learned how to change my diet to nearly 100% local food.

This year my friend LaManda Joy of The Yarden, founder of The Peterson Garden Project, was on the panel “Growing A Good Food Community”, about building urban communities through gardening and creating gardens by building urban communities. The interesting thing was that her fellow panelists were my old high school friend Jay Walljasper and Julie Ristau of On The Commons.

The panel, moderated by Megan Larmer of Slow Food Chicago, was beautifully constructed around the steps we need to take back collective ownership, working in a very American way, through individual action.

It starts, as I say, with the language. Jay talked about first, the need to start thinking again about the commons, and also laid out a basic way to think about the commons again. As important, he talked about how language can lead this new, old way of thinking, focusing right in on the difficulties I have had getting funders in particular to understand that what we’re doing is not a farm with a single owner or board, but collective action for individual benefit.

But it cannot stop with the language; only talking only works for academics. Enter Julie Riskau, founder and former publisher of the Utne Reader and current spokeperson for On The Commons. Julie talked about turning language into policy initiatives of the sort that lead to intelligent municipal ordinances which, for instance, stop creating criminals of people who put their edible gardens in their front yards because that is where the sun is.

But policy is only effective with an army of individuals putting it to work at street level. Which is where LaManda Joy and her Pop-up Victory Gardens come in, as well as the many other community gardening, and community preserving, and farmers markets, local school councils, in fact all of the community-based efforts that will save our cities and towns.

We need to restore the language, so we can affect the law, so we can own the activities that will make our communities livable.

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first blooms collage

So many of us are working our way toward a more self-sufficient lifestyle. With that in mind we wanted to share some general guidelines of what to plan for on a monthly basis. Whether you’re a gardener, a beekeeper, a forager, or you keep animals, hopefully our monthly guides will help you plan ahead for the month. Depending on your exact climate you may find you need to adjust your schedule plus or minus two weeks or more.

For us here at Unearthing this Life April can be the busiest month. We border on a USDA zone 6-7 so that means lots of planting, tidying up, and building. Here’s what we’ll be thinking about doing this month:


  • Tilling garden beds where necessary to work in compost and get rid of weed seedlings
  • Edging beds or digging the last of the new beds
  • Add supports to garden beds for plants like tomatoes, peas, gourds, roses, peonies, and beans.
  • Sowing outdoor hardy annuals
  • Sow last of the peas, potatoes, and onions. Continue starting beets, lettuces, cabbages, radishes, and carrots.
  • Planting rooted raspberry canes and strawberries
  • Hardening off and planting of vegetable seedlings
  • Plant any remaining saplings and transplants
  • Rake around fruit trees to help with invasive bugs and/or treat for them. Use treatments only after flowers are gone.
  • Questions about what to plant when? Go to Mother Earth News!

Outdoor house and yard Chores:

  • Clean up fallen branches and sticks, nuts, and leaves.
  • Hang bird/butterfly/bat-houses. If you’re not a beekeeper consider hanging a mason bee box. Set up bird baths and drinking holes for beneficial critters like bees.
  • Tidy up gutters and look for winter damage.
  • Bring out water hoses and setting up water barrels.
  • Repair screens check caulking/insulation around windows and repair if necessary.


  • Purchase/raise chicks
  • Consider any expansions and rotations for this seasons’ critters.
  • Repair fencing.
  • Add supers to beehives. Check brood.


  • Wash windows and curtains.
  • Organize and collect glass canning jars.
  • Clean out freezers and storage for this year’s crops.
  • Plan simple, yet filling meals for lots of energy.

What will you be working on this month?

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I was hesitant to write this post.  I was not sure if it fit in here with the chickens, homesteading, and gardening…but I have been asked so many questions about a recent remodel that we did for our newest rental I thought I would try to answer some of them here.

Why here?

Well the writers and the readers of this blog are an independent, hardworking bunch that don’t always follow the same path as the rest of the ‘normal’ world.  So discussing financial freedom through a less than common means seems appropriate here.

First of all we did not set out to own rental houses.  Just a year after we purchased our first home my husband took a job across the state.  We tried our best to sell our home but couldn’t.  We were left with no option that we could financially manage except to rent it out.  It rented quickly, we asked just enough to cover our  mortgage with taxes and insurance.  As complete novices we lucked out and got great renters that ended up staying there 20 years!

When we purchased our next home across state  it needed a lot of work...a lot! Being young and eager to learn we took it as a challenge to remodel our own home.  We learned to strip wood molding, lay flooring, hang wallpaper, re-plumb, re-wire, put in new bathroom fixtures, and a whole host of other skills that would serve us well over the next 2 decades.

When it was done we looked around and grinned at each other…”want to do it again?“.  So on to the next house we went.  Instead of selling the original home we decided to rent it out.  How could we afford a down payment without selling the other house? Well we saved up for the down payment,  just like people do on their first house.. Instead of doing the typical move up to a bigger and more expensive house we purchased another just like the one we were in.  In fact it was only 2 blocks away and a little less money than the first!  It again needed tons of work.  This time we tackled an addition as well as the usual jobs.  Mark some more skills off our need to learn list…roofing, siding, framing…check!

We again moved across state and ended up selling the home we had just finished and use the money for a down payment on the next house plus a decent nest egg to use when we found another real estate purchase.  The very first house was now a rental, the second was also a rental, the third was sold.

We did this 3 more times moving, remodeling, renting…we now had 5 rentals.

All the while we were searching for somewhere to build…somewhere in the country with acreage.

We had to search for a few years until our current property was finally found…flat place to build, south facing, no busy road, property for my parents, room for animals, and of course room for a garden! As the farmer who owned the property would not just sell us the 15 that we wanted we bought 38 acres in total.  I would have LOVED to have kept the whole 38 acres and lived there just my family and my parents.  But my husband wanted to have a home that was debt free…besides I think he might have been worried about how many animals I would acquire if I had that many acres to fill!

We sold 2 rentals to come up with the down payment we needed.

So we divided, improved, and sold 23 acres.  We made enough money to build our house without a mortgage.  This also gave us the freedom to be our own contractors, do much of the work and build at our own pace which would not be possible if a bank had been involved.  The skills we learned from remodeling were put to good use on the construction project.  It is an experience I will always look back on and be glad I did.

Now I am not going to try to fool you and say that owning rentals is for everyone.  We can make it work because we know how to fix a sink or patch a roof…if we had to hire this done it would be hard to be profitable.  We also are very diligent to screen our renters. Lastly we are fair landlords who ask a fair rent, enough to cover our expenses but we do not make lots of extra money each month.  We could ask more, but we don’t.  We appreciate that  affordable housing in nice neighborhoods is a rarity. We like that we rent to working families who treat our homes well in part because that have been treated well.

We have found that investment in real estate has been more dependable and more profitable than any other ways we have tried to invest for our future.  As long as you don’t speculate, flip, or otherwise try to ‘get rich quick’ with real estate, because this journey has been neither quick nor easy. We have spent countless hours on our knees laying tile, and fishing wire.  But it has been a journey of much learning and much reward.

Oh and by the way…we are still not done with our house! I am hoping to start baseboards this summer!

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When my husband and I built our house over 10 years ago we designed our own home.  As we poured over every inch to make sure it fit our family and its needs we also considered our dependency the outside world, utilities especially, when we put pencil to graph paper.

We knew from talking to neighbors that our area tended to have more than its fair share of power outages.  We also knew there would not be the usual amenities like garbage pick up and cable tv.  So with all this in mind we determined that to be more self-sufficient in our new home we would need to add or tweak a few things…

Wood heat…we have an almost endless supply of wind downed trees and limbs as well as those of neighbors and co-workers.  We purchased the largest most efficient wood stove we could find.  I wanted to be large enough to be able to lay in a fire and have it burn all night.  We have been more than pleased with its performance through the years.  Our furnace rarely comes on (its set at 60 degrees) unless I am not diligent with the fire. 

South Facing/Passive Solar…we oriented our home almost due south.  In keeping this in mind we put large window walls on the south side of our house.  When our design went through an energy audit those windows were all considered heat sources not heat losses as in most cases, all because we took orientation into account.  Not only do our windows provide warmth, they also keep up from having to ever turn on lights during the day, even when it is cloudy and rainy outside. Of course if you live in a hot climate you would orient your house differently

Another consideration is the actual depth of our house north to south.  Our house is very long East to West but is very shallow North to South…like a long thin rectangle.  This way in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky the rays of the sun will actually come in through the south and almost hit the north walls of the house.  It floods the house with light and warmth in the winter. A blessing to one like me that tends to get the winter blues!

Gas Cooking…in order to cook during the frequent outages we determined that we needed to have a gas cooktop (although we could also use the wood stove).  Since we don’t have any gas lines out here in the boonies we put in two large propane tanks with each tank lasting about a year.  I have cooked dinner many times to candlelight when the lights were out.  Besides I must say that cooking with gas rocks!

Water Storage…we are on a well, it takes electricity to run the pump for the well.  We considered putting in a gas generator up at the pump house for back-up but instead opted for a large storage tank.  This tank was placed above our home so when the pump is not powered gravity will feed the water down to the house.  We don’t have water upstairs but there is water downstairs, it isn’t highly pressurized like usual but it is more than enough to for drinking and cooking.

Air Movement…I know this sounds like a strange thought but when designing door and window placement it was of primary concern to me.  We opted not to have air-conditioning in our home so we needed to take air movement into consideration so our house would be comfortable in the summer.  As our winds generally blow from the SW I made sure that every window that opened on the south side had a matching window that opened on the north.  If the windows were in different rooms I planned for a door in between so it could be opened for air movement.  We also put ceiling fans in all the upstairs bedroom to help with cooling.  Each night in the summer we throw open all the windows let the usual summer breezes flow through the house cooling it until it is closed back up in the morning.  This has worked amazingly well…even when the temps are over 100 outside we have yet to reach 80 inside…which for me is more than a fair trade off for not having to pay for electricity for air-conditioning.

Lessons learned…as much as we are appreciative of the steps we have taken to build self-sufficiency into our home there are some things that I have learned over the years that I will do if I ever build from scratch again. 

I would put in a concrete floor for a heat sink for all the sun the windows let in…it would keep the house toasty in the winter.

I would put in a gray water catchment system.

I would build a cellar into the foundation of our home

I would consider using solar panels and wind generation (I’m married to an electrician so I’m sure he could figure something out for this!)

Yes we did well…but next time we will do better!

So have you tried to make your house more self-sufficient?  If so what have you done?

Kim is also at the inadvertent farmer where she raises organic fruits, veggies, critter, kids, and…a camel!

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