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.

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 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.

What’s on my ‘weekend to do’ list?

'To do' listI make a lot of lists. I have shopping lists, lists of things to do before taking holidays, lists of what I want to do when I’m on holiday, lists of things we like to eat – a list for most things. I’ve even considered making a list of lists, so I can keep track of them all!

But one of my most important lists is the ‘weekend to do’ list. This makes sure I cover off all the essential jobs each week, and let me make incremental progress on some longer-term goals. So what’s currently on my ‘weekend to do’ list?

The core list (which seldom changes):

  • Ironing – this is my least favourite job, so it’s at the top of the list to encourage me to do it. Then once it’s done, I get the satisfaction of seeing it ticked off for the rest of the weekend
  • J’s cleaning job – J does some weekend cleaning work, I go with him (and usually lend a hand). Having it on my list makes sure we remember to do it
  • Vacuum – we have 3 long-haired cats, so regular vacuuming is essential…
  • Mow the lawns – I don’t do this every week, particularly during winter, but it’s a good reminder to at least see whether it’s necessary, and check if the weather will play ball
  • Wash the car – as with mowing the lawns, this isn’t something I need to do every week
  • Clean kitchen benches and stove
  • Mop the bathroom floor
  • Clean the bathroom sink and mirror
  • Clean the toilet
  • Wash clothes – I do what I can during the week, but there’s usually one or two loads to go through our washing machine each weekend
  • Work reading – there’s usually some work-related reading I don’t get through in the week
  • Hand wash dishes – almost everything goes in the dishwasher, but once a week I try and tidy up anything else
  • Clean the animal enclosures – the chicken coop, rabbit enclosure and rat cages all need regular cleaning. We often do this during the week, but having it on my list means I check on everyone at least once in the weekend
  • Sort recycling
  • Empty the kitchen compost bin
  • Post to the blog
  • Clean out the car – sort out any rubbish, water bottles, etc that might have been left behind
  • Refill water bottles – we drink a lot of water, and refill/reuse the bottles
  • Lie down and do nothing – this is actually the most important thing on this list, as it gives me license to actually take a break!

The additional list (one-off or more occasional jobs):

  • Watch [whatever tv series I’m behind on – currently Vikings and Mr Robot]
  • Prepare the blueberry garden
  • Weed the vegetable garden
  • Decluttering
  • Sort clothes drawers – this falls somewhere between decluttering, and reviewing what we have that’s suitable for summer
  • Baking – I haven’t baked much for a long time, it’s definitely time to put that right
  • Book pickup of our green waste bin – we compost most things, but nightshade, thistles and any noxious weeds go into a green waste bin
  • Plant our new dwarf nectarine – this will probably get mentioned in another blog post soon!

That all keeps me fairly busy, but does mean things are reset and ready to go for each new week. What else would be on your ‘weekend to do’ list?

Tiny home away from home

Finally, as promised, here’s the post on our stay at the Colonial Tiny House a couple of weeks ago.

For a long time, we’ve been inspired by the tiny house movement. We don’t  live tiny, and this isn’t likely to be a permanent option for us any time soon (I’ll explain why further on in this post), but the idea of reducing our environmental footprint – and making efficient and creative use of space – inspires us.

We planned to stay a night in the Colonial Tiny House (which we found on Air BnB), but ended up having the opportunity to stay for two. I’m so glad we did.

Our hosts – Keith and Jen – were fantastic, and the house was simply amazing. As we were trying to get away from the city and my day job for a bit, being out in rural New Zealand was perfect, and a lack of reliable cellphone coverage was a real plus.

The Colonial Tiny House itself is a beautifully restored shed that was rescued from a swamp and, as the name suggests, is beautifully themed right down to a Colonial Rangitikei Cookbook in the library. There’s lots of beautiful native totara wood, a restored Edison phone, and a pot bellied stove that provided both aesthetic value and much-appreciated heat.

Keith told me that he wasn’t initially expecting the tiny house to be a place where people stayed, but rather he’d designed it as an office and showcase for some of the treasures he’s collected. While it’s on a trailer and technically movable (the electricity, water and sewerage can all be easily disconnected), the Colonial Tiny House isn’t really intended to travel. Instead, it was us who were transported.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So what did we love, and what did we learn?

After spending so long reading and watching YouTube videos of tiny houses, we loved finally being in one . We got to see and try out lots of traditional tiny house features – like a fold down table and some innovative upcycling of everyday materials – and I also discovered how much I appreciate the more modern conveniences of a flushing toilet and efficient LED lights.

As you’d hope, every centimeter of space in the Colonial Tiny House has been considered and really well used, but one surprise for me was the number of hooks that were hidden around the walls, which allowed great use of vertical space.

However, even in a genuinely tiny space – the house is 5 meters by 3 meters – there is plenty of room for personality to shine through. Not everything needed to be functional, and there were lots of character touches that we didn’t use, but which helped us step away from the modern world.

Cooking, eating and even relaxing in a tiny house definitely requires a ‘clean as you go’ mentality. There’s no room for piles of dirty dishes, discarded clothes or stray books. That’s why pets can be challenging (and why living tiny isn’t in our immediate future) – and keeping indoor-only animals would be particularly difficult.

So all in all, we took away a few space-saving ideas, and a lot of inspiration.  I’m sure we’ll be back at the Colonial Tiny House, and visit other tiny homes – one day we might even have the chance to build our own (what a journey that will be!)

There’s a good video tour of the Colonial Tiny House on YouTube, and if you’re interested in staying there, you can book on Air BnB.

Two weeks

In my day job, I’ve had an incredible 12 or so months. That’s “incredible” in the dictionary sense – hard to believe. It’s been one of those years that’s well described as “character building”.

Flat battery - time to recharge!

So I’m taking a couple of weeks off – time to recharge, reflect and rebuild. Mostly I’ll be near home, working on some projects here and spending time visiting other blogs (as well as writing on this one). I look forward to rediscovering the community of people who are on a similar journey to us, and picking up some new ideas and inspiration along the way.

We’ll also be spending a night at a tiny house that J spotted on Air BnB. I’m super excited – we’ve been inspired by the tiny house movement so much over the last few years, but this will be our first time actually staying in one. I’m sure there will be a post all about that.

The weather (as always) is supposed to be temperamental and challenging – but I’ll be using whatever opportunities I can to advance things inside and out, while getting the break I need.

Switching off

Off switchAs I noted on Sunday, the freezing winter weather has meant our power bill in the last couple of weeks is ridiculous – especially by our standards.

The easiest way to save power is to simply turn off appliances (including phone/laptop chargers) when you’re not using them. We can be a little hit-and-miss on that, but here are 5 other ways we try and save on our electricity bill:

  1. We keep an eye on our daily and weekly power spend. I’m a believer in ‘what you can’t measure, you can’t manage’, so this helps us see how we’re tracking and what activity is draining the national grid.
  2. We switched to LED lights through almost the whole house – read our post about ‘taking the power back’.
  3. We use heat pumps to keep the house warm (and sometimes, in summer, to keep it cool). These are energy efficient, and don’t add large amounts of moisture to the air.
  4. We dry clothes outside when we can. When we can’t, we use a drier. Sadly, the drier has had far too much use this winter!
  5. We changed our hot water from electricity to on-demand gas. Hot water is about 20% of the average household’s electricity bill – with our on-demand gas, we’re only heating the water we need, when we need it. What’s more, we were able to get our gas connected for free.

What other ways do you save power?

Busy today, busy tomorrows

It’s been another productive weekend so far, with most of the housework done, and garlic planted in one of the raised beds. Last week I wrote about planting garlic in the main garden, but all the bok choi I transplanted seems to have taken well, so space is starting to be at a premium.

I even dreamed about starting seedlings last night, a clear sign of what’s on my mind.

With the weather decidedly wintry this weekend, there’s not likely to be much extra time to spend in the garden today (we were lucky to plant the garlic between downpours). Hopefully I can do another round of “25 Things” instead – there must be opportunities to free up a little more space by taking a second look at some of the stuff we’ve accumulated.

J and I have spent a lot of time this winter looking at what we’d like to do with the house over the next few years, and developing a list of priorities. Hopefully over the next couple of months we’ll be able to start putting concrete plans in place for some of the most important things – but the full list will keep us busy for a while yet!

-G