“I have to get out of the city: I can’t take it anymore.”
“I’m not living anywhere that doesn’t have sidewalks.”
“I need a garden.”
“Do you smell that? Is that manure?”
Ah, marital bliss. After more than a decade living in a large city—one that annually makes a top ten list of shame, alternating between “highest crime” and “worst places to live”—the family has decided to get out of Dodge. The appearance of one, then two, small children in our lives added weight to this decision, but secretly I’ve been dreaming of this for years. You see, unlike my hubby, I have a desire to get away from the city, and its attendant crowds and traffic, just so I can find a little patch of Earth where the air is clean and I can see the stars at night.
Yes, the homesteader in me is starting to show. I try to hide it in another pot of store-bought herbs for the windowsill. Just when I thought I’d completely repressed my earlier aspirations to grow a few vegetables, have a little herb garden, or raise some chickens for fresh eggs, they raise their heads and howl.
My secret predilection in favor of self-sufficiency goes back to my roots: I grew up in a small town in England—a village, in fact—located halfway between nowhere much and the frigid North Sea. My grandparents owned a pig farm and I spent a lot of days collecting eggs, driving a tractor, planting potatoes, and climbing apple trees. My version of the Easy Bake Oven was to take a handful of freshly picked wheat, grind it between two stones to make flour, mix with water, and bake under the glare of a magnifying glass. I grew up with good Lincolnshire loam perpetually wedged under my fingernails.
The other character in this play, on the other hand, grew up in Los Angeles. The man who would become my husband believed, as a boy, that a single, struggling lemon tree planted in a dirt-hole to one side of a concrete-paved backyard constitutes a garden. In this reality, a minuscule patch of soil and a couple of potted pansies equals landscaping. He hit puberty believing that meat came cleanly packaged in plastic, vegetables arrived on trucks and trains from Mexico, and things that grew on trees made good ammunition when chased by gang members.
Despite our disparate roots, we usually see eye to eye on the important things. However, this time the one and only thing we agree on is that inner-city life is not good for our kids, and that we need to escape before our eldest graduates preschool and has to choose his gang allegiances. Hubby would prefer a small city, preferably somewhere on the West Coast. I’m gravitating to North Dakota.
“Seriously, the smell of manure is making me nauseated. I’m going to wait in the car.”
Cross this town off the list.
Life is compromise, married life doubly so. A year later, we manage to agree on a small town that’s less than an hour away from a moderately large city, an oasis of urbanity plopped firmly in fly-over country. Our new house is close enough to a main road that, with a prevailing wind, you can catch the sounds of a metropolis drifting by. The amount of actual land that comes with the house is surprising small, but since it extends from the house on all but the north side (which demarcates our border with our neighbor with a wide gravel path) I’m happy. I can work with that. Now I just have to work on de-citifying my family. This proves to be more difficult than I anticipate.
“Mummy! There’s a really big dog outside.”
“That’s a deer.”
“Holy crap! What’s that noise? Where’s the baseball bat? There’s a raccoon in the yard!”
“Umm. Can you leave it alone? Please.”
“Make sure you check there are no coyotes outside before you let the kids out on their own.”
Even I have a few moments of adjustment. My first encounter with a snake (a harmless garter snake, I discovered after the fact) leaves my heart palpitating while I try to maintain airs of outward calm. I also find that I spend hours nose to nose with a praying mantis, a creature I never saw in either rural England or urban California.
But, we adjust, adapt, and stop diving for cover every time we hear sounds that remind us of gunfire (such as a neighbor whacking two shoes together, trying to dislodge some dirt). Gradually, our new home starts to feel like, well, home.
Our new home is a fairly conventional suburban detached house, with a traditional perimeter border of grass more perfectly trimmed, springy, and dense than anything you’d find on the links at Pebble Beach. However, my opinion of any yard is that it should at least give back equal of what you put into it, and I just can’t see myself mowing, fertilizing, and weeding, without harvesting. No, the grass that’s asphyxiating almost everything else in the garden will have to go.
First, though, I have to convince someone else. I refuse to buy an electric or gas mower: Too smelly (the gas) and noisy (both). I opt for a push mower in the hopes that I can use the “too much hard work for no reward” argument to get my way. However, the sight of his poor wife hefting sixty pounds of sharp machinery while sweating profusely simply has Hubby fetching a couple of cold beers. Fortunately, his lack of interest allows me to “accidentally forget” to mow one area of lawn and by the end of the summer it’s so overgrown it’s beyond redemption.
But I’m not going to contaminate perfectly adequate growing soil with weedkiller, or render the garden unsafe for children’s feet and fingernails. No, I have a plan. Did I mention that it will also kill off all the grass? Perhaps not. I’m sure Hubby had a few doubts when he returned home from work one day to be greeted in the driveway by a large pile of of interesting-smelling “mulch”. But to his credit, he didn’t say a word about the lawn’s demise until I had a good thick layer of newspapers and well-rotted manure … I mean mulch … spread out across the entire lawn area.
“So … Are we going to reseed, then? Or buy sod?”
“How’d you feel about a couple of trees over there? And this is such a sunny spot, I think some zucchini plants would do really well. Maybe tomatoes.”
I receive a noncommittal eye roll and decide I’ll wait until the following spring, when the weeds and overgrown grass will be well and truly dead, to broach the subject of my envisioned veggie and herb garden again. I also decide to temporarily drop my case in favor of a compost heap—essential if we’re going to grow veggies—which has reached an impasse:
“I don’t think so … What about the smell? The neighbors will complain.”
“A good heap doesn’t smell. You bury the green waste, the scraps and trimmings, in the brown.”
“Yeah, right. What about the raccoons?”
“I’ll build a chicken-wire fence around it.”
Our first winter together outside of California arrives with less of a bang, and more a soft suffocation as an overnight storm dumps eighteen inches of heavy, wet snow. The next morning, as I slog my way to the supermarket, I contemplate how our ancestors survived winters like this. On the edge of possible starvation, how could they live without going crazy? After all, we’re only steps from town, and ten miles from the nearest big-box store—packed to the halogen-lit ceiling with shiny plastic-coated produce from around the globe; luxurious soaps and lotions sold in vats larger than anyone should ever purchase; and every kitchen gadget and time saving device ever conceived, mass produced in China for your convenience and economy.
Two generations ago, if you had a bad season you had to rely on your neighbors and good luck, or starve. Now, hunger isn’t a result of failed crops, but of failed economics; and poverty means buying food at superstores and feeding our kids the worst kinds of junk. I am determined to make sure our children know where food comes from, and how to provide for themselves. I strengthen my resolve to help my family become more self-sustaining, more aware of the seasons and close to the Earth.
Right then and there, I decide that instead of approaching this piecemeal one patch of suburban lawn at a time, I need a plan. And I need a spouse who supports me, even if he’s not willing or interested in doing any of the actual work. It’s not that he’s lazy, but he’s never far from his computer, and the hairs on the back of his neck visibly shift a little when his cell doesn’t get good reception. He can get behind self-sufficiency, but abhors the act of putting it into real practice. Even camping is a stretch. With this in mind, I concoct a scheme that he can get behind.
I spend the winter laying the groundwork. In the supermarket, I point out the origin of the produce we buy, and make a point of choosing purchases mindfully. We give holiday gifts of homemade bath salts and lavender pillows filled with flowers collected during the summer. I pour over websites and books from the library and learn everything I can about native plants and introduce species that will thrive in our climate.
In the spring, I unveil phase two of my plan. After a quick trip to the local hardware store, and some action with a drill, we have a homemade wormery. Vermiculture in a plastic storage bin. It’s an odor-free, discrete, discreet compost area that isn’t messy once we equip it with a large brick to keep the raccoons out. So, now we had a place to put our kitchen scraps, but we were still a long way from even a modicum of self-sufficiency.
For mother’s day, my family cedes to my wishes, buying me zucchini and tomato plants for my vegetable patch. I also plant a variety of herbs I’ve started from seed on a sunny windowsill. After a winter buried under newspaper and mulch, the soil is still a sad-looking gray, but the grass and weeds have not just biodegraded but mysteriously vanished, utterly consumed by some sort of lawn-munching subterranean critter. As I turn and amend the damp, dense clay soil, I cross my fingers. If the tomatoes are a dismal failure, next year I’ll lose the argument, and we might end up with a concrete patio.
Over the winter, I had decided that the area around the mature ash tree in the yard, heavily shaded and clotted with a thick root system, should remain untouched, but we’ll plant fragrant perennials around the perimeter in the sunny areas. Long term, we’ll grow plants like lavender, rosemary, calendula, lemon balm, and mint to make hydrosols and essential oils.
I propose a pumpkin patch in a warm, south-facing spot next to our driveway. Because I propose it to our four-year-old, the idea is received with enthusiasm and excitement.
Chickens are on the list, and although our town will only allow four hens (no rooster) they’ll easily produce more than enough eggs every week for our family. I start to stockpile ideas for recipes that will preserve the excess—I imagine jars of lemon curd, and frozen lemon meringue pies and poppy seed cakes. Again, these ideas are received with leaps of joy: who can argue with pies and cakes?
Unfortunately, the town draws the line at livestock. But, I don’t mind; I have enough on my plate as it is. Maybe we can revisit this when we can leave the city limits. For now, our kids’ access to good schools keep us shackled to suburbia.
As I gradually roll-out my plans to my family, my winter of seeding ideas of self-sufficiency and a reduced dependence on unreliable food sources like Mexico and China, pay off. My family’s desire to get outside and help me in the garden ripens at the same rate as our tomatoes. Our pumpkins swell until the squirrels find them simply too tempting, and consume them still attached to the vine. But even this is a learning experience, and as we contemplate ways to keep the squirrels from eating next year’s crop (chicken wire? laser-guided light sabers? a monster filled moat?), I realize we are planning another season. And as we eat the last of the season’s zucchini, sitting under a clear starry sky, I hear the words I’ve dreamed of:
“This is really great. I’m really glad we moved here. And these zucchinis are fantastic! I can’t believe we grew them ourselves …”
Clare Brandt is a freelance writer based in Colorado. A transplant to the U.S. from England, she’s still trying to figure out if there’s a connection between her latent homesteading tendencies, and genetic northern England thriftiness and proclivity to be self reliant.