(You can email me at frogdancer 01 @hotmail.com Just edit out the gaps, etc. That ’01’ is a zero, by the way.)
Doing the simple-life thing as a sole parent: Dec 2012
Fifteen years ago I divorced my husband. We had 4 boys under 5 and I took over the mortgage of our house in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It’s a little 50’s weatherboard house, only different to the neighbours’ in that it has 4 bedrooms instead of the usual 3. The people who built the house had 7 children and so put on a big bedroom to house 3 or 4 of the kids. (Something my youngest 2 are very pleased they did!) It’s a ‘2 unit site’, which basically means that if I was to knock the house down I’d get 2 units on the land, so I have a reasonably sized block with a small house.
When I was at that newly-single stage I was a SAHM with no plans to go back to work until my youngest was at school. This lead to some extremely hand-to-mouth years, but the long-term benefit to this was that I learned how to live on the smell of an oily rag, with strategies that have come in very handy over the last 15 years.
It wasn’t until I started back at work as a secondary teacher that I discovered blogging. Rhonda’s blog (http://down—to—earth.blogspot.com.au/ )was the second one I found and I started checking in every day. I blame her for the whole “urban homestead” thing that has gradually happened, as she was the first blog that got the ball rolling. I was working full time and we suddenly had more money than I ever had (after children!) but I was always very conscious that I wanted to be debt-free; I wanted to be able to travel and I wanted to give the children all of their needs and some of their wants. This required being careful with where I put my $$$. Having an unreliable ex husband with regard to child support taught me early on that you can’t rely on anyone else to look after you and yours except yourself. So Rhonda (and others’) posts on growing food, cooking from scratch and making the most of what you have fell on fruitful ground.
For me the simple life started with getting back to knitting. I then moved on to quilting and for a good 2 or 3 years that was what I did with my free time. Started making my own soap… very handy for gifts as well… and put together a rudimentary herb garden, just for fun. I started cooking more and more from scratch… mainly to save money, but then when one of my sons was diagnosed with acute depression I decided to swing into gear and get rid of as many chemicals and preservatives from our diet as possible. Can’t hurt and it might help, right? So the veggie gardening started to happen when I hired some burly men to chop down some scraggly looking trees that were shading the yard…. now I had sunny ground to work with!
First one plot, then another… then onto constructing wicking beds (best things EVER, by the way) and planting fruit trees everywhere I could find a space. Chickens started to look interesting, but I resisted for ages because their beaks looked sharp and I was a little scared of them… did I mention I’m a girl totally from the suburbs… but then Karen from work and Rhonda from Down To Earth encouraged me to try them. Now we have 9. Love them. The eggs and the fertiliser they make are pretty good too.
During this time I took the boys to Bali, Phukhet and Singapore… hardly the simple life but I wanted them to see other cultures and to see first hand that some people live very differently to us. I renovated the kitchen and bathroom, installed central heating and cooling (my one luxury) and upgraded the car.
Then peak oil came onto my radar.
I realised that the best thing for my family is to have a secure base. I already had the land to grow things on… I just needed to get rid of the mortgage to really cut down on our cost of living. Bills were obviously going to be a problem in the future, so I had to find ways of minimising them as much as I could. I installed a water tank in the backyard for the veggies and put solar panels on the roof. Just a small system but in summer we’re always in credit – even with 4 teenagers in the house. I started up a neighbourhood group with like-minded souls about growing food, which has been a fabulous resource for seeds and general know-how. I’m slowly building a library of reference books (actual books… you can read them even if the internet goes down!), but my main priority over the next two years is to get rid of the mortgage. I’ve had it ever since my youngest was 1 and he’s now 16…. time for it to go. I have a firm goal that it’ll be gone by the time he finishes high school. That gives me 2 years. Frugality and my new business will give me the best chance to achieve it.
It seems odd to think that selling a high-tech product like the thermomix is actually fuelling my simple life, but it’s true. I was always looking for another income stream to help me achieve my goals faster. I absolutely adore teaching but the vow of poverty you swear when you get into it means that for a single person supporting 5 people you can’t get anywhere very quickly. I tried knitting, quilting, sewing… but the money received for the time spent makes it uneconomic.
Then I went to a thermomix demonstration, purely to pick up my friend’s old food processor to use to mince up food scraps for my worm farm. (Made from an old freezer… waste not want not.) After my initial trauma about the price, I could see how this thing tied in beautifully with my goals of making food totally from scratch, saving time and being able to multi-task. Being able to put dinner on and then go and water the garden whale the risotto is being made is a beautiful thing! I bought one. After 3 weeks of using it and seeing how quickly and effortlessly it processes things from the garden (a zucchini glut holds no fear for me any more!) I became a consultant. The carbon footprint for one of these machines is pretty high, I’d wager, but they last for decades and are incredible power-efficient. I could see that it was definitely worth the investment for me and now in my evenings and weekends I share this with other people. The money I make is being thrown at the mortgage and I’m SO enjoying watching it go down at an ever-increasing rate. I have big plans for the next 4 years after the mortgage is dead.
Once my mortgage is gone, I’m going to indulge myself by taking long service leave and FINALLY seeing the UK and Europe. I planned my trip over 30 years ago and haven’t been able to get there yet. I’m an English history buff and I must see the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Then when I get back I’ll concentrate on what’s really important, get down to tintacks and create a haven for the future..
I want to create a food forest both in the front and back yards. I want to plant mainly perennials in the front… things that people can’t really recognise as being food unless they know what they’re looking at. Lime verbena, pineapple sage, lots of herbs, chia, amaranth… things like that. I live in a suburban neighbourhood and I really don’t want people wandering into the front yard and pinching my stuff… though the cherry, plums, olive and lemon trees might be a little difficult to disguise. Ran out of room in the back yard for fruit trees but couldn’t stop acquiring them… it got a little addictive. Oops.
The back yard is where all of the really big things will happen. I want to put a big deck on the back of the house, with the biggest water tank I can fit hiding under it. That’ll be plumbed to the washing machine. I do a LOT of washing. Then along the south side of the house where it’s shady I want another water tank, with this one being plumbed to the toilets. I seriously looked at installing a composting toilet instead (my friend Bev from the bloghttp://foodnstuff.wordpress.com has one… she has a food forest as well which is FABULOUS!) but I think that if the roof of the house can provide water than I might just go with that and use the existing infrastructure. The front yard could do with its own small water tank too, while I’m at it. (Might get a bulk discount… why not?)
I have fruit trees in the chook run so they can be fertilised by the gerlies, with a couple of permanent in-ground garden beds for berries, asparagus and veggies fenced off, but I think that the wicking beds are the best way to go for growing food. They’re fairly expensive to set up but they save so much time and water that for me the investment is warranted. The plants I’ve put in the wicking beds and boxes I currently have on the go have far outstripped the in-ground beds for yields and ease of maintenance, so I want to install lots more as time goes on.
By doing all this I hope to end up with a property that will be as cost-effective as possible to maintain, while providing me with at least a goodly portion of my food. I have visions of me as an old lady pottering around in the garden, reaching up to pick an apple from the tree I planted way back in 2011, chooks contentedly clucking at my feet. My boys have been unconsciously picking up the skills they’ll need to grow food for themselves and their families should they ever need or desire to, while getting rid of this mortgage means that they’ll always have a secure base to come back to if they ever need it. (Most of them are planning to do music or music composition at uni so unless they make it big they’ll probably never leave in the first place…. lucky we get along!)
People at work call me a hippy but I’m really not. I just love the connectedness to the past that going out and picking tonight’s salad from the garden brings. I think that a connection to the earth and the place around you is a good thing. Leaving a marriage with 4 kids tucked under my arm and $60 in my wallet has taught me that security is incredibly important to me, along with independence. I’m optimistic that I’ll achieve what I’m setting out to do, though the best thing about it is that there’s so many steps along the way, so I’m always reaching smaller goals along the road to the big dream, so it keeps me and the boys going. They know my goals and are incredibly supportive and are so excited when we achieve something. I’m not pretending that my house, garden and life are perfect, but there are certainly many worse ways to spend this life we’ve been given.
I’m a very lucky woman.
(First written for the Down To Earth forum and then I decided to put it here. I also like multi-tasking!)