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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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!

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.

Bee Awareness

September is ‘Bee Awareness’ month, with gardeners encouraged to make a place for bees – those all-important pollinators – in our summer plans.

Bookends made from a classic 'Buzzy Bee' toy

Bookends made from a classic ‘Buzzy Bee’ toy

Our supermarkets would be very different (very empty) without the food pollinated by bees, and even in our modest garden, they have a big role to play. I talked a bit about this (and why we don’t have beehives of our own) last year.

Looking after bees in our garden is relatively straightforward, with three guiding rules:

  1. Avoid bee-hazardous pesticides
  2. Provide water and a place for bees to rest
  3. Plant the kinds of flowers that bees love to visit

Avoiding pesticides is the easy one for us – our ‘no nasties’ gardening regime is naturally bee-friendly.

Similarly, water has been in no short supply for the last 18 months – falling from the sky more often than we would have liked. However with summer (hopefully) coming, we’ll provide bees and other tiny visitors with water in shallow dishes, with some large marbles and stones so bees can land and safely sip at the water’s edge.

The thing which requires us to really prepare are the flowers. One of the lovely people at my day job gave us seeds left over from her wedding, which will provide bees with a feast of nectar (and give us a palette of beautiful colour). We also have a few wildflower seeds from last year, and are planning some specific companion planting of nasturtiums and calendula around our fruit trees.

To encourage bees to travel around our whole garden, we’ll mix flowers throughout the beds – some in with our main vegetables, others nearby, and still more beside the house (where we had wildflowers last year).

Planning and planting is going to keep us buzzy – sorry, busy – for a good couple of days, but as a result, we’ll have happy bees and productive trees (as well as productive vegetables) for summer.

5 things in the garden this week

Garlic

Our garlic has finally come up!

After a couple of cold snaps in July, the weather has mostly settled down – and with the number of daylight hours visibly increasing, perhaps summer is on its way.

I had written off the garlic we planted about a week after winter solstice as a lost cause, but almost all of it has suddenly sprouted. Maybe it heard me saying we should dig the bed over and prepare it for something else, and finally got its hustle on…

We also have seed potatoes chitting in the linen cupboard.  This year we’ve gone for ‘Heather’, a red variety that’s good for roasting or boiling, and we should be eating them at Christmas.

As it’s been my second (and last for now) week at home, we’ve put a bit of effort into tidying things up in the garden, and planning some next steps. Here are the 5 main things we’ve done:

  1. Pruned our fruit trees
    It’s really a bit late for this, but pruning needs to be done on a dry day, so we took the chance we had. We pruned to remove any dead wood, and to open out the branches so we can get better air flow through the tree (which reduces the chance of fungal diseases). As a bonus, it also means there’s more room for fruit to form.
  2. Nipped flowers and fruit off our strawberries
    This felt harsh – the promise of strawberries is alluring, even though out-of-season fruit isn’t good to eat. Trimming these back now, however, means the plants will put all their energy into growing. Ultimately, they’ll be ready to fruit well when the summer really hits, so a little imaginary loss now will be well worth it in December.
  3. Freed our citrus from their frost cloth
    This is another reasonably big call – we can’t promise there won’t be any more frosty mornings, but it seems a decent bet we’re through the coldest part of winter. These new trees (we only bought them in early winter) were also outgrowing their wispy cloth shrouds, and we figured that improving their access to sunlight is probably more beneficial to them at this point.
  4. Pulled out (most of) our carrots
    We’ve had carrots in the ground for quite a while, and would have harvested them at least a month or two ago, if we didn’t already have an abundant supply. Carrots store well in the ground for quite a while, but now they’re starting to grow too large for their own good, so out they came. As a bonus, for the next few days our pet rabbits get to enjoy a treat of fresh carrot leaves!
  5. Started planning the summer garden
    Yes – it’s that time again! Our first challenge is figuring out where to plant in summer, since quite a few of the things in the ground now (garlic, kale, cavolo nero and even silverbeet) will still be growing well into the summer. We’ll need to find room for lettuces, tomatoes, corn and a few other summer goodies somewhere!

She’s a bit cold, Trev

What’s happened in the last couple of weeks? Not much around home, I’m afraid…

The winter weather is punishing, and with all the normal electricity drains plus both heat pumps running, power is costing us up to $11 a day (we use Powershop, which lets us see daily use/cost and a few other nifty analytical things). That’s more than twice our normal winter power bill, which shows how much heating we’re having to do!

The good thing is, we’re warm and dry. I’m glad we don’t need to worry too much about having a secure roof over our heads (no small feat in one of the world’s windiest capital cities) or staying warm.

Outside, our lawns desperately need to be mown. I think in future we might get a lawnmowing service in a couple of times during the winter, so the grass stays under control without damaging our own mower.

The chickens are also feeling it – their coop is a mud pit, and we’ll have to do something over summer to improve drainage in there (we’re thinking of planting taproots and bringing in some gravel and sand, both of which should break up the soil and help rainwater move away from the surface).

There’s a classic New Zealand song about gumboots, and at the moment it roughly sums up how I feel every time I go outside. The ground is so wet and soft that without our gumboots, we’d be in real trouble.