Saturday, 28 March 2009

On Self-Sufficiency and Small Steps

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life


2008 was a year of big progress on the self-sufficiency home front. We cleared the largest garden bed I'd ever worked (10m x 12.5m). I also got it into my head to get a small backyard laying flock together, to give us eggs and a little help with pest control in the garden. Those were big changes for me last year. While I had the help of my husband in breaking new ground, and building a mobile coop and pen, most of the gardening and day-to-day maintenance fell to me. And I don't come from any type of farming background, so it was a lot to learn.

This year we are tackling other aspects of the self-sufficiency project. We cut down trees both late last year and just this past week to make room for four fruit trees and three different varieties of berries. Later this year, we're seriously considering adding meat rabbits on "pasture" to the mini-homestead, though our lawn has recently gotten smaller as we expanded the big garden bed even further. Whether the rabbits happen or not, we've decided to find a way to keep laying hens over the winter this year. We've ordered asparagus roots, so we also need to get our act together very soon on building some raised beds for them. We're also looking into the possibility of spending quite a bit of money for either a passive solar thermal system to provide heat to our home, or some photo-voltaic panels for electricity. We'd dearly love to turn a corner of our basement into a proper root cellar if we can find the energy to tackle that project by winter.

These projects all take time and effort, and in the case of the solar array, money. I would love to wave a magic wand and have the fruit trees planted, the berry canes burgeoning, the rabbit tractors built and stocked with a breeding trio, a site set up and equipped for next year's beehives, the shed modified and a timer installed on the light to keep our hens safe, warm, and laying during the cold weather, a tightly sealed but well ventilated place to stash the fruits of my labor down in the basement. I'd love to have a house that can be kept at least minimally comfortable with passive solar heating when it's well below freezing at the warmest hour of the day. I would love to have all these things in place, and the routine already familiar so that I could move on to whatever is next on the long road to self-sufficiency.

But progress is incremental. Each one of these projects involves a lot of work, and never done as quickly as I'd like. If I couldn't in all honesty tell myself that cutting down the trees, dealing with the debris, planting the fruit trees and berries, building the asparagus beds and planting the asparagus are all once-and-done chores, I don't think I could hack it. I need to feel that the effort I put forth is going to count for something, achieve something, and pay us back over the long term. The temptation is always there to compare our situation to someone else's. Someone with mature fruit trees, and acreage enough for big animals, a woodlot to supply a woodstove, a thousand canning jars and half of those sitting filled with homemade goodness. The thing that struck me today though, as I was working outside, is that there are a lot of people who might envy what I have. I've got a nice flat backyard with fairly decent soil, good southern exposure, and enough rainfall to ignore my transplants after the first week or so. Within limits we still have some discretionary money to spend on this self-sufficiency wish list. True, two-thirds of an acre isn't as much as I'd like to have to support us. But we're learning how to make the most of it, one year at a time.

I suppose what I'm getting at, in my usual roundabout way, is that we all have to start from somewhere. Most of us start wherever we happen to be. This time last year, I had a tiny little patch of garden and had never kept chickens or canned anything in my life. I'd never grown potatoes or soup beans or popcorn. I didn't know that ground cherries and purslane will volunteer enthusiastically in my garden. Maybe by this time next year I'll be drilling holes through the foundation of our house to install the ventilation pipes in our root cellar.

If transitioning to a life that includes providing some of your own food seems daunting to you, well, I can relate. It is daunting if we think about all the things we'd like to put in place right away. Too much work and too much change to tackle all at once, and maybe too much expense in one fell swoop. My suggestion is to take what steps you can. Maybe you can't feed yourself in a high-rise apartment, or on a tiny, sloping, shaded city lot. But there's probably one or two steps you could take more or less right now to get started. So get started. Maybe it's a worm bin. Maybe it's a window box of herbs or greens. Maybe it's planting one fruit tree because that's all you have time to tend with a house full of young children. Whatever it is may seem insignificant, but if it's in pursuit of your dream, it's a step worth taking. After you've taken those steps and adjusted your routine to whatever changes they bring, there'll probably be another step that suggests itself as the next logical move.

I'm finding that there are real benefits to this slow march of progress. I've been clearing the debris away from where we took down the white pine a few days ago. With the tree gone, the space looks a lot bigger. I can see that there's much more than enough room for the blueberries I'd planned to put in there. So now my thoughts will turn to finding an edible plant that can thrive in the partial shade of the slatted fence bordering that area. It takes quite a lot of time to really get to know a piece of land. Change a corner by cutting down a tree, and everything needs to be re-evaluated. But this isn't the sort of thing I could capitalize on if I were trying to tackle too many projects at once. My attention would be too divided. So I'm grateful, sometimes, for the limited pace of change.

If you think longingly of homegrown vegetables or a shelf full of homemade jams, it's okay to dream big and start small at the same time. It's fine to admire the acreage, skills, and bounty of Matron of Husbandry. But it's also fine to start with just one potted cherry tomato plant on your back porch. It's well to remind ourselves of what astonishing things can be achieved on small urban lots. But it's also important to remember that no one is totally self-sufficient, and that no great strides are made in self-sufficiency overnight. It's natural to long for a piece of earth to belong to when you rent (I did for decades). But remember that skills are transportable, even if gardens are not; and it's always good to practice on a rental.

Dream big. Start small. Keep plugging away. And may each small step bring you the satisfaction and motivation to take the next one.