Our first 3 steps to improve self sufficiency

The first challenge in becoming more self sufficient was knowing where to start. Everyone has to start somewhere, right? Well, there’s no manual, but after 2 years we’ve well and truly past the starting point. So these are the things we did to start on the path towards what we call ‘city sufficiency’.

1 – Started gardening

Nearly all this space is garden now!

This was always something we knew we’d do, and we’d successfully grown food to some extent at each of our last two rental properties. We started modestly and prioritised, as the time and effort required to grow even a small portion of our own food was a challenge – especially while also holding down a day job.

The first thing we started doing was putting in fruit trees. Fruit trees typically take 2-5 years to begin fully producing, so in the first few months we planted (either in pots or in the ground) the trees we wanted most.

Then we started our vegetable garden. Initially we focused on an amount of garden which we thought was easily manageable – a space about 3 metres by 1 metre. This meant we could begin getting our hands dirty, while figuring out what might grow where over the longer term.

We started by planting mostly feed crops for our rabbits and chickens, with vegetables for us being a secondary concern. As we gain experience and confidence this balance is changing, with our summer garden this year focusing about half and half on animal and human food.

2 – Began raising chickens

Chicken

With our 4 Brown Shavers and 3 Rhode Island Reds being part of our fur family, we were never going to be raising animals for meat. However we are more than happy to keep chickens for their eggs, as this neither hurts the chickens nor us. Not only have the chickens made us self sufficient in eggs, but they serve a greater purpose, as the health and welfare responsibilities that come with owning animals reminds us each day about what we are doing to be more self sufficient.

Of course, chickens might not be your thing – especially if you have little to no outdoor space, and particularly if you live in an apartment. Lots of people recommend quail (which can be kept in a very small space and provide meat and/or eggs) or meat rabbits as indoor-friendly alternatives.

3 – Examined our ‘stuff’

This is actually a process we started long before buying our home, and one which will continue (I often do the 25 item challenge in weekends). Preparing to move house is an ideal time to take another look at all the things you have – though there’s really no bad time.

There are lots of different methods and guides (from Marie Kondo’s ‘life changing magic’ to J D Rockefeller’s ‘how to’) that can help declutter your possessions, but we just took the approach of looking at each item we have and working out whether we used it – and if not, whether we were attached to it and really wanted to keep it anyway. For anything that isn’t going to stay, we always consider whether we can recycle or donate it, before turning to the landfill option.

In conclusion…

Over the last two years I’ve written about lots of things we’ve done, but the three steps here are where we started our journey. They won’t work as a starting place for everyone, and that’s fine – but they were logical for us. The important thing if you want to make a change is that you start somewhere, some time – and there is no time like the present.

Hot and cold

Actually, there’s not much cold to go around at the moment, but over the last couple of weeks we’ve had plenty of heat!

An unexpected bok choi seedling!

An unexpected bok choi seedling! (Featuring bug damage.)

Parts of the garden really love it, and are well ahead of where they’d usually be – though some plants are stubbornly sticking to their schedule. That’s all good – we have food for now, and should also have food for later. I’m particularly excited at the idea of having home-grown potatoes on Christmas Day (the second year we’ll have achieved this).

However the persistent warm spell does mean we haven’t planted any lettuces. Despite being a staple of summer salads, there’s just no point when the heat would encourage them to bolt straight to seed. We need more shady places to grow in summer – and while we have a couple of spots in mind, there aren’t garden beds ready just yet.

The heat (and blazing sunshine) has meant I’m trying to get out in the garden morning and evening, but spending the middle of the day inside. I’m also trying to cook fewer things that require a lot of extra heat, while still eating things prepared at home.

A particular focus has been including our eggs wherever we can, since all the girls are laying like machines (though the eggs from our Brown Shavers are starting to show signs of their mothers’ age).

Today is meant to be a little cooler, thanks to some cloud cover. I should get out and transplant some seedlings that have popped up too densely (another positive side effect of the particularly nice weather). Maybe I’ll do that after another cup of coffee…

Year two

This week marked our second anniversary of buying our house, and this year has been racing by even faster than the first.

In our first year we achieved a lot – painting, carpeting and changing the curtains before (or just after) we moved in, then adding the chickens, getting gas hot water connected (which made a big difference for us), replacing roof nails, starting the garden and getting this blog online.

Freshly harvested rhubarb

We harvested the first of our rhubarb, and will have a good second year crop!

By comparison, it can feel like we’ve achieved less this year – but actually we’ve expanded the gardens significantly, had our master bedroom redecorated, gotten the shed removed, experimented with some DIY in the kitchen, and lined up more work to happen over the next few weeks.

We’ve put a huge amount of effort into the garden over the last few months, and I hope to get a good harvest this summer. Without a decent return of fruit and vegetables, I’d be struggling to justify (to myself) making the same commitment of time and effort in future. Signs are looking good though, so let’s keep our fingers crossed!

I haven’t posted much more than Instagram photos lately – but rest assured we’ve been busy doing lots here, and there will be photos and words setting it all out soon!

Garden reading

I’ve recently read a few fantastic books on gardening, which I’d recommend. In fact, that’s what I’m about to do…

(Please note the first two links in this article are affiliate links, which means that while buying from them doesn’t cost you anything more, it does help support our blog.)

Gardening with kids

Gardening with kids (by Catherine Woram and Martyn Cox) is a really interesting book for new gardeners, particularly those who are discovering gardening alongside their children. As well as information about choosing a site, preparing your soil and getting the garden growing, each chapter suggests creative projects to keep you and your children involved.

Growing Vegetables year-round (by Dennis Greville) is another great introductory guide written for New Zealand seasons and soils, and suitable whether your garden is in the ground or in pots. It covers off all the popular and easy to grow vegetables, with a handy monthly gardening guide to help keep everything on track. I really appreciated the comprehensive section with information on each plant, including what sun and soil conditions they like, and how to handle common pests or diseases.

Ginny’s Herb Handbook (by Ginny Clayton) was more specialised, though as an inexperienced herb gardener, it was still very easy to read and understand – and will no doubt be of great use in the future! This book not only has information about how to grow a wide range of herbs, but contains recipes for cooking with them, and details on traditional herbal treatments. Written for New Zealand and Australian conditions, if you’re interested in herbs this is a great place to start!

5 signs of spring

A definite feeling of spring has arrived (for example, today the weather has swung from rain and hail this morning, to now bathing the house and garden in brilliant sunshine).

Rather than write a few hundred words about the changes spring is bringing to our garden, here are 5 pictures showing some of the seasonal highlights so far:

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I can’t believe it is butter!

Yesterday we made butter for the first time, using the Chef’n Buttercup.

It’s possible to make butter using an electric mixer, but I heard about this (supposedly easy) gadget which just requires shaking – and decided to give it a go.

Home made butterThe Buttercup really is straightforward to use – just pour in a cup of cream, shake it vigorously for 3 minutes, pour off your buttermilk, add some water and shake again (a step we omitted), then pour off the water and remove your butter.

The only slightly troublesome part of this was the shaking. Three minutes of shaking feels like a long time (especially when we skip ‘arm day’ at the gym). That said, we were easily able to manage it between us, and could feel the cream turning to butter as we went.

Out of the one cup of cream we got 114 grams of butter and a quarter cup of buttermilk (which I’ve used in oatmeal pancakes this morning). A reasonably good return, I think.

The butter looks like a decent whipped butter should – nice and yellow, with a light fluffy texture at first. It’s solidified well in the fridge overnight, and tastes like regular unsalted butter (you can add salt before refrigerating).

Financially, making our own butter doesn’t really work out, even though it’s very expensive in supermarkets at the moment (around $1.25 per 100 grams).

Out of a litre of cream (costing approximately $7) you’d get around 400 grams of butter (about $1.75 per 100 grams). However I can definitely see us mixing in chopped home grown chives, parsley or garlic to make special blends completely from scratch, which would definitely add some extra satisfaction value.

The summer vegetable garden

A row of curly kale

A row of curly kale

Much of this week has been spent in the garden. A good proportion of our summer vegetable crops (those grown from seed) are now in the ground, and most of the rest are in our indoor greenhouse.

It took about 3 days of solid work in mornings and evenings (taking a break during the hottest part of the day) to weed everything, remove plants that were past their best, prepare the soil and plant. We also set up a new area for pumpkins, using a big old rug as compostable weed matting, and covering it with chicken litter and compost.

So here’s the list of what vegetables we now have in the ground, and in the greenhouse:

Already in the ground:

  • Kale
  • Cavolo nero
  • Silverbeet (Rainbow Chard)
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic

Recently planted:

  • Potatoes (two varieties – Heather and Red Rascal)
  • Broad beans
  • Corn
  • Beetroot
  • Pumpkins (two varieties – Crown and Harlequin)

In the greenhouse:

  • Tomato (one plant each of five varieties – Roma, Baxters Early Bush, Brandywine Pink, Sweet 100 and Beefsteak)
  • Zucchini (two plants of Black Jack and one of Patty Green)
  • Capsicum
  • Basil
  • Assorted “Little Garden” kits from the supermarket
Our potatoes grow happily in bags

Our potatoes grow happily in bags

Still to be started are lettuces (the mainstay for summer salads), but we’ll let other things get more established to provide some shade and shelter. Last year our lettuces were too exposed, and many bolted straight to seed.

We’ve also given our fruit trees some worm tea, removed a flower from our rhubarb, and refreshed our herb garden (moving our expansionist Pineapple Sage to a large pot, and replacing it with a new Sage plant).

This all means plenty more work to be done over summer as these (hopefully) grow and start to produce, but it’s a pleasing selection, and a good week’s effort!

5 ways to be more self sufficient while renting

If you don’t own your home, it might not be easy to dig a garden, start a compost pile or even – especially for apartment dwellers – hang your washing outside to dry.

Our interest in self sufficiency (what we call our journey to city sufficiency) started when we were renting, and even though we couldn’t dig up the shared back yard or start keeping chickens in our living room, we found there were easy things we could do straight away.

1. Grow what you can. You may not be able to turn half your back lawn into a garden (or you might not have a back lawn to dig), but are you sure there’s no way you can grow at least some of the things you eat? Micro-greens such as sprouts, and even full sized herbs, don’t need much space to grow. There’s a lot you can do on a wide windowsill or a small balcony, as suggested in this excellent book.

2. Cook at home. There’s nothing quite like a home cooked meal, and while preparing food at home can take longer (and sometimes costs more) than popping down to the local bar/restaurant/takeaway, getting into the kitchen is a big win for looking after yourself.

J and I don’t eat at home as often as we might like, but there are some great benefits – including knowing what’s in your food, and building your own cookery skills. It’s also incredibly rewarding to know you’re eating home grown produce, even if your tiny garden is only contributing the herbs to an omelette or the sprouts to a sandwich.

It’s worth acknowledging that kitchens – particularly in apartments – aren’t always the most attractive or functional areas, but you’d be amazed what you can create between a cramped bench, small oven and a couple of pots and pans. The smallest kitchen I’ve ever had has turned out some amazing dinners, homemade cheeses and pastries, and even (with some advance preparation) enough finger food to cater for groups of 50 people at a time.

3. Reconsider your transport options. We’re lucky enough to have an excellent public transport system in this city, and most urban centres have at least some public transport available. If that works for you, use it – it’s much cheaper than driving (especially considering the financial cost of vehicle inspections, insurance and wear and tear on tyres etc). Public transport trips typically take longer, but one of the hidden benefits for me was having that time to listen to podcasts, read blogs and plan the rest of my day – all things that can’t as easily be done while focusing behind a steering wheel.

Sign showing electric vehicle parking

If traditional public transport won’t work where you are, check out whether there could be opportunities for carpooling or ridesharing (either using commercial services, or just by asking around your neighbourhood).

Should you need (or really prefer) to drive, make sure fuel efficiency plays a part in choosing your next vehicle. Fully electric vehicles are dropping in price, and running an electric car in New Zealand not only uses our 80% renewable energy, but costs the equivalent of paying just 2 cents per litre for petrol (see this site for more about electric vehicles in New Zealand).

4. Look to the small savers. Your landlord might discourage you from knocking holes in the walls, but there are some simple things you can do to reduce your use of energy and natural resources without making structural changes to your home.

Okay, we aren’t growing in bulbs, but LEDs are much better!

Not everything will work for everyone – for example, drying clothes outside can be a big saving, but not all homes have access to a washing line, and hanging clothes inside is a big no-no as it introduces dampness to your home (which, without great ventilation, can lead to mould and sickness).

One of the things that’s easy to do, however, is changing your lights to LED bulbs. We wrote about that a while ago, and it’s one of several small steps (along with only powering up the things you’re using and switching the rest off at the wall) which add up to a good reduction in electricity usage – and shrink your monthly power bill.

5. Buy things that last. It’s easy to buy cheap products that do what you need today and look good in your home, but that won’t last for long. However, self sufficiency means keeping an eye on the long-term effects of what you do, and over time, it usually works out cheaper – and more efficient – to buy fewer things that last, to reuse what we have, and to use less when it’s possible.

Hopefully these tips are helpful – they’re some of the first things we did while we were renting and when we first moved into our own house – and they set us up well for this journey.

Of course, we don’t have all the answers, and there are any number of other things you can do to become more self sufficient in a space where there are limits to the physical changes you can make. We’d love it if you can add your own ideas, experiences etc in the comments.

Roadtrip

We were away most of this week on a road trip. From Wellington, J drove us to Lake Taupo on Monday, then Auckland on Tuesday, to see my parents on Wednesday, then back to Lake Taupo Thursday, before arriving home late on Friday.

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It was a long way, many hours in the car (more than a few of them spent singing along to Spotify) and a great time. We saw quite a few friends and family members (including a couple of new babies), patted lots of dogs, and generally had a good break from the routine of home.

We had a wonderful house sitter and amazing people to look after our animals, and without that kind of help, we wouldn’t be able to go away for long at all.

One of the signs I’ve spent the right amount of time away is when I really enjoy being home again. Now we’re back, the hunt for the right day job continues, along with making progress on some of the other projects we’ve been wanting to do.

Keep watching this space…

(Note: these photos were first posted on our Instagram – if you want to see regular images of what we’re up to, you can also follow us there!)

New beginnings

Welcome to our new website at citysufficiency.com, though hopefully it looks and feels familiar enough that you’ll hardly notice the difference.

I’ve finished up at my (now former) day job, and am getting stuck into some of the many things we would like to make progress on. Several of those relate to this site, and over the next few weeks you’ll notice more changes, in addition to the new domain name. There are also upgrades you probably won’t see, but which will help me run the site better and more easily in future.

Just a few days into my funemployment, our gardens have already been on the receiving end of a lot of weeding – particularly the main vegetable patch, which was trying its best to revert to lawn. We allowed a couple of plants that have done particularly well to go to seed (I’ll write a post at some stage on seed saving), and our cavolo nero flowers in particular have been doing a good job attracting bees.

Bumblebee on cavolo nero

Although our gardens are no longer tiny by suburban standards, I’ve finally finished Janet Luke’s book “Embrace your Space”, which J bought me last Christmas. It was fantastic – a quick and easy read, with step-by-step instructions to start growing in small spots like windowsills, balconies or courtyards, and it gives a solid introduction to systems like hydroponics.

Spring is a traditional time for new beginnings – and whether I look at the world around us, my daily routine or this site, changes and new beginnings are in full swing.