Self-Sufficiency Plan for a Suburban Home

Sharon November 16th, 2006

I have been talking a lot lately in various places about adaptation - the ways in which we can use our existing infrastructure to live a lower-impact life. And so, I wanted to describe how that might work. I chose as a model the suburban home of a college friend of mine, who coincidentally has become aware of peak oil and asked for my advice not long ago. She lives in an exurb of Boston, with no direct public transportation (there is a train line 15 minutes away), in a fairly conventional suburban home with her partner and two children, 1 1/2 and 5.

She has a lot of slightly over an acre, of which 1/2 is wooded, the rest being open yard and a few raised garden beds. Her neighbors have mostly similar lots, often quite shady, but with fairly good tree cover. The population is quite dense there, but there are few lots of less than 1/2 acre. She is not terribly connected to her neighbors, but they get along reasonably well.

She is permitted poultry, but no larger livestock, and she wanted to know if she could feed herself and her family from the land she has. The answer, I think, is not quite, but she could make an enormous reduction in the amount of food she has to purchase.

There are a lot of potential problems, but here are the suggestions I gave her, and I hope they might be helpful to someone else in a similar situation. She has a limited budget for home improvements, so my goal is to keep costs to a minimum, although there will be some by necessity.

The first major project is to ensure a reliable water source. She has a well, in addition to town water, and she might consider putting a manual pump on the well. If she can afford it, however, it might be more pleasant for her to dig a large cistern tank and put a manual pump on her kitchen sink, so that she can get water without going outside in bad weather. In a pinch, she might get away with a narrow well bucket (sold by Lehmans) for a drilled well, but drawing all your water with that would get old, very fast. The cistern and pump would probably cost between 2 and 3 thousand dollars. The well pump would cost about $800. The well bucket maybe $30, although you can also make a substitute out of PVC for much less.

Next, heat. She does have some woodland, enough to take perhaps a half cord of wood off (with coppicing and very careful management) every year, possibly less. Preserving her wood supply should be a high priority. She does have a woodstove in her finished basement,and I suggested that the finished basement become winter quarters, since it would need far less heat than the rest of the house (being at least partly below the frost line). Her wood supply would probably not be sufficient, but it would minimize what she had to purchase, and in the worst degree of extremity, they could live with it, heating the stove only to cook. Hopefully that will never happen. She will have only enough wood for cooking and a little heat on the coldest days if she must rely on her own supply - but every item for which she is self-sufficient makes it more likely she will be able to purchase supplemental wood, even if she and her partner endure extended job losses or other financial crises. Summer cooking will be outdoors. I would recommend building a small masonry oven, on the rocket stove model which uses minimal fuel and cooks quite well.

Animals - at present, she has two cats, one of which is an excellent mouser, and I suggested she keep the cats, as long as her economic situation permits her to feed them, especially if she’s going to be living in the basement for a lot of the winter. The cats will provide both warmth (sleeping) and rodent protection.

I would add meat rabbits (3 does and a buck), 4 hens and a pairof geese as livestock, which is close to the maximum she could hope to feed on her property. A portion of each year’s garden would be put to growing alfalfa hay, both to restore garden fertility and to feed the animals over the winter. In addition to gathered weeds from the garden and property margins, a small amount of wheat, oats and corn will be grown in the garden. About half would go to the maintenence of the animals and growing out of their young for meat and breeding replacement.
They might choose to go vegetarian, but in a cold climate, vegetarian gardeners have difficulty growing a reasonable quantity of fats.

If the situation (and thus local tolerance) changes, I would strongly recommendthat she get a rooster, and it goes without saying that she will choose a heavy, dual purpose breed of chicken, with good setting instincts so that older hens can be eaten and replacement young raised. At the moment, zoning does not permit a rooster, but at the moment she can purchase replacement chicks. Most of her sunny, open half acre would be taken up with a garden, nearly 1/2 of which will be in cover crops providing fertility, hay and mulch. In the remainder of the land, the garden will be heavy on perennial edibles. Landscaping is with edibles - blueberries replace rhodedendrons, raspberries replace privet, and several small ornamental trees (except the mulberry and crabapple) are replacedwith fruit trees. The diet will be low on grains, but high on potatoes and other roots. Rose hips from existing bushes, potatoes and cabbage will provide vitamin c. All roots can be stored in a seperate, doored off area of the basement after the furnace stops burning. I estimate that with good management, she will be able to have bread every other week, and meat one day per week (mostly rabbit, chicken 2-5 times per year, goose 1-2 times per year as a celebration). She should get about 450 eggs per year, heavily concentrated in the warm weather. The eggs, 1-2 slaughtered geese per year, and occasional bits of extra schmalz from older hens will provide most of the fats in their diet. Sunflowers will be grown as a high-protein animal feed, and in bountiful years might provide a bit of extra fat for humans as well.

In her woods are a number of sugar maples - she should be able to take several pounds of sugar (or liquid maple syrup, although sugar stores better) off of them, which would be the year’s sweetener. She might also be able to keep one or two hives of bees. I’m not aware of any really local salt sources (obviously, this assumes she must provide herself with everything, which is unlikely, but to cover all the bases), but she lives within 30 miles of the ocean, so I suspect salt could be achieved. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that she store food for her family for at least two years, including enough for anyone she anticipates might come to live with them. Stored food, judiciously used, will also add to the grains in her diet and help provide food for the remaining cat (along with a share of eggs, butchering offal, etc…) I would recommend weighting storage heavily towards dried foods like grains, beans, salt, along with storable fats and flavorings.

The poultry will live in a tightly built pen attached to the back of the house, to minimize theft, and predation and will have a yard plus short ranging priveleges under supervision. A large amount of green food, grass seed and weeds are available on the margins of the neighborhood, and I suspect that few of her neighbors will be wise enough to use them. Rabbits will be kept on the screened in porch in summer and can be brought into the house in the winter. All animals should probably be moved to the garage or house for security and warmth over the winter. Animals adept at living on forage willbe chosen.

The woods can provide small quantities of firewood, acorns (for humanand rabbit feed), a small number of mushrooms, and leaf mulch, but must be carefully managed. Again, I suspect all of these things will be able to be acquired in her neighborhood, since most people will not be aware of their value. I estimate that her garden should, if very carefully planted, provide enough food for her familyand a small extra quantity for barter. The emphasis will be upon roots and high nutritional density foods, along with some foods for flavoring.

If she can store enough food for one, I would recommend the acquisition of a mid-sized dog as well, to alert her and her family of night visitors, human and animal, and to assist with security. I would also suggest she get stout locks and deadbolts for the doors, and get to know her neighbors well, to provide local security. I would also suggest that she and her husband offer their skills to neighbors, to help them start gardens, edible landscaping, etc.. to increase her security. She is in training to be a midwife, and is a talented seamstress, so her skills should be in demand, as, most likely, will be her husband’s carpentry and brewing skills. I would also suggest stockpiling some tradables, like seeds and other items, to increase their economic security.

Fertility will be provided from a number of sources - human and animal waste, of course, the former properly composted. I would suggest she remove the toilet from their guest bathroom and replace it with a homemade composting unit. In dire heat situations, some of the animal waste might be burned for heat, and the ash applied to the garden. Wood ashes will be used to balance the soil’s natural acidity. In addition, some of the cover crops can be composted or used as mulch, and weeds, leaves, etc… can becollected from unused sources nearby - and on the property. I recommend that she initially build the soil up to high levels of organic matter, while such is available, adding rock powders, manures, and whatever else will help, and that she build more raised beds to allow earlier planting. She might also consider a hoophouse.

There will be considerable inter and undercropping, but movement of plants in and out will be limited by the need to grow seeds both for the next year’s garden and for winter sprouting. Large pots she already has can be brought into the warmest parts of the house to allow biennials to overwinter for seed production. In addition, in large windows and under old glass windows already in her possession, it should be possible to overwinter greens, carrots and parsnips for winter and spring harvest. Sprouts will provide most of the green food in the winter diet, but her large windowsills may allow some herb and lettuce production.

I make no claims that this is a perfect scenario - the word “optimal” occurs too many times, and life is rarely optimal. But she could pull it off - it has possibilities for those of you tied to a specific, densely populated area. I hope this is helpful, both to her and to others.


3 Responses to “Self-Sufficiency Plan for a Suburban Home”

  1. rogercraigon 17 Jan 2007 at 5:58 am

    Interesting. You might be able to provide consultative services given any tract of land? For myself, I have 0.445 acres in what once was an orchard (house built in 1859 and presently a suburban lawn) ready to till and plant. I have ideas about a pond, rainwater collection, drip irrigation, a small woodlot, and self sufficiency. Any recommended books?

  2. livon 05 Feb 2007 at 5:42 pm

    This was a very helpful essay. I am on a 1.3 acre lot that is 1/4 wooded, and this gives me some ideas about where to start. I would also like to have a book title that further addresses the details of this subject (eg: what kinds of chickens to get, best ways to grow vegetables in cold climates and in limited space). Thanks.

  3. Anonymouson 22 Oct 2007 at 6:21 am

    interesting post. I was surprised that you were worried about wood to burn. I would look at recycling newspaper into solid ‘logs’. Also the fruit intake seemed a bit light on.

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