Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Journeying From Semi-Typical Suburbanite to Urban Homesteader in the Making

Recently, the Little House in the Suburbs blog (you'll find the link to it there in my blogroll on the right) asked the question relating to how many of their readers where living the typical consumeristic lifestyle and recently converted to the mend, make do, and do-it-yourself mentality with the economy teetering on the brink of the worst recession/depression in our country's history.
It got me did our lives today come to be. It's only 12 years ago i graduated college and entered the work force. 11 years ago, i accepted my first *real* job as a pharm tech, killing myself on night shift so i could have a few more days off to visit with my parents during the month. I lived in an apartment called The Whimsical Pig. Every so often, when i'd work a killer stretch of overtime (2 16's or close to it), i'd treat myself to a new pair of Docs, a new outfit, whatever--$80- $100 bucks a pop. 10 years ago (last week, in fact), i met my hubbie and 8.25 years ago we got married. 6.5 years ago we had a kid. Time flies!
And the switch to a thriftier lifestyle is not something one accomplishes overnight. It's an evolution. This turning away from the typical, overly mass marketed lifestyle has not been something we recently just started. This is something we've had to come to terms with (and still are learning how) since we decided to become parents. One of the things that made my Hubbie and i fall in love with each other was our agreement that the Mommy's place is in the home. Thankfully, we have been blessed to have that opportunity (and not have it really threaten ever--yet.) Little by little, we've been switching our home to a greener clean, a make do with or freecycle or yard sale finds. When family has hand-me-down furniture to offer, we take it if it's useful to us.

This change to start producing as much of our own food as we can, during the summer months, came with the birth of Ri. That is when we switched really to all organic 95% of the time. We eliminated fast food restaurants from our diet. And luckily my new hobbies as a homemaker were hobbies that happened to save us money and time in the end. It's nice not to have to sweat teacher's gifts when you have canned jam or tomato sauce on hand to give as gifts. Knit up a quick wash cloth or make a quick loaf of bread, and you've got a gift that will bless anyone--hostess, birthday boy/girl, teacher. Before i didn't think like that--gift giving always required running to the store for something bought. Now it can be a cute find from a thrift store, or an upcycling artist even.
If i listed all the ways that our lives have saved from what they could have been in this 3 or 4 credit card world, with all the toys you could hope for, and a house and vacation home that are "under water" financially, this post would sound like a Rod Dreher book (and it would be as long as one too.) Today, i've picked our yard as the most significant difference between the typical people we meet around the Puget Sound area and us. (Plus, the pictures are prettier than pictures of homemade dishwasher powder, dirty plates and get the idea.) :o)
Here is our journey in the yard so far...
This is a side by side of the picture of our c. 1959 home. On the left is a picture of our home when my mother in law owned it. The right, is after Hubbie and i have lived in it for 8.5 years now. (as you can see, we still have some projects underway but we've gotten a lot done.)

We live in a city that has the 3rd largest total warehouse square footage in the nation. So this is our view, lest we forget that fact above. Sure the mountains are pretty, the warehouse rooves?

And to make matters more precarious, our deck and most of our yard for playing in, running through sprinklers, and gardening in is in the front of our house. Imagine a 75 ft x ~100 ft. grass lot--that is our (front) yard. We feel like we are on display when we are mowing or bbqing or just kicking the ball around. But at least we have a yard, right? Most of our acquaintences have a McMansion with a 6,000 sq foot yard. I complain about mowing too much grass, i wonder what the incentive is for hauling out a big ol' stinky gas powered mower just to mow 400 sq feet of grass?
tomato plants are grown on the deck at our house--only the Roma kind does well in the garden. these pots allow the soil to heat up quicker!Most of the herbs are grown up there too.
My ideal suburban-scape is to build a mostly edible, privacy providing, easy care landscape. No hedges that have to be pruned twice a year (we have enough of that already with the neighbours' hedges.) Plants that beckon you off the deck and into the yard for a snack or dinner. But since $$$ is limited, we usually go with what's small and affordable, rather than spring for the pricey larger shurbs and trees that give instant gratification.
A lot has changed here. My soap box has been dedicated to the enormous lawn and the erradication of it. We have 17.000 sq ft lot and with the exception of the driveway and the house's footprint, the entire yard required the use of a mower, weed whacker, or hedge trimmer. UGH! Gas guzzling motors are the first place we could cut our consumption in the yard.
The first year we lived here, i was still working, so we did spring for 4 trees that were larger, because our property only had trees in the back of the house. We planted a Nordman pine, Blue spruce, Paperbark maple out front and an oak in the back. Next we evicted the English Laurel hedge out front (NEVER plant English Laurel unless you are 1. a sadist and 2. love to use the hedge trimmers and hand saw.) We replaced it with mugo pines, a bird's nest spruce (shrub), couple of provencial and hidcote lavenders, lupines, and 2 blueberry bushes. Our strawberry pots are out front too. Here we keep strawberries in pots to try to deter the slugs. No luck, so next we are going to try a huge metal horse watering trough.

This is what the front yard looks like from our deck:

Another way to cut grass sq. footage was to cut a woodchip path from the driveway to the deck. Then i got this inspired idea to make a garden in the area between the path and the house. We designed it to look like a Celtic Cross.

The top of the cross is my lavender and hydrangae plants, some alpine tulips and some hardier herbs like sages, savory, and thyme. The sides of the cross are ever changing--think kitchen garden with cauliflowers, broccoli, onions, garlic, leeks usually ending up in there with some sunflowers too for the birds; however i am slowly coming around to the idea of planting things that wouldn't require me to dig out the area every year due to weeds. At the bottom of the cross is my daughter's sandbox--a nice way to garden and keep her occupied while she was too young to help plant.

the top of the cross garden with french and Jean Davis lavender, white coneflowers, "Jupiter's Beard"

this year's artichoke (this past summer was so cold and snowy here, most gardeners lost their artichokes and rosemary)

The next project was to take out a 10 x 40 foot swath of grass for a veggie garden. We've had a lot more success with this than just trying to dig rows in the grass and plant seed like we were doing before. Here we are able to grow 8 rows of corn, 4-6 tomato plants, beans-pole and bush, peas, potatoes, and zucchinis and sugar pumpkins. This year we are adding a grapevine. My advice: don't try to do too much at once...pick 1-2 new items each year that you would like to try your hand at. You'll feel more successful that way.

Last year, we added a rhubarb plant. If we ever have a farm, Hubbie and i think that is what we'll grow. It does well here, along with hops. WA used to be the capital of rhubarb and hop production.

Also, last year, we moved the raspberries out from the semi-shady spot in the back. They have grown in size by gargantuan amounts!

It's been amazing the amount of food we can get out of this garden in a good summer. The first year we had 50+ ears of corn, green beans running out our ears, so many tomatoes we were able to can 15-20 jars of pizza sauce from the recipes in Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots by Sharon Lovejoy. This inspired me to stop calling out for pizza and to learn to make our own dough. That saves us $20 each week right there. This year, i am really looking forward seeing how many raspberries we have this year--we never buy them anymore because nothing compares with the taste of off the vine--which saves us $5.00 a pint.

The front entry to our home is still a work in progress. It is the only place i will allow fussie plants (like roses). I have some lavender in there too, and a poppy here or there. We just replaced our windows this year (that were original 1 pane, aluminum framed from the late fifties) with aluminum clad wood windows (another thing we did outside of the normal vinyl windows.) One of the nice features of the entry is that brick planter near the front door.

It's as handy as the deck for keeping commonly used herbs like parsley, oregano, and thyme. We also plant sweet peas there to cascade down the wall: we use these for cutting flowers (double as an air freshener in the bathroom!) and their nice welcoming aroma.

This past year we also added chickens to our family in our quest for semi self sufficency. They have been a welcomed addition in our lives, not only because of their entertainment value, but because they are quite the rewarding pets. What do cats give you in return for the care we give them? Attitude and self-righteousness. What do fish give you? Nothin' but a guilty conscience at the first sign of algae in the tank. :o)

And, besides, the best gift chickens give you is if you are too tired for grocery shopping for dinner, there's always breakfast for dinner! :o) And in the late summer, combine that with a little basil, tomato, and zucchini from the garden and you've got an awesome strata!

Although there are still tons of things i'd like to do (beekeeping = candle making, making our own soap, bettering my sewing skills so we can give more handmade gifts), we are saving a bit in the summertime by gardening.


  1. Such an interesting post. Thank you for the tour! I've also learned that a little at a time seems to add up to a whole lot of work done!

  2. Thank for giving us such a wonderful tour of your place! This was really a treat!



Thanks for taking the time to read my silly lil musings. Hope you have a wonderful day!