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Living sustainably in the city.

COUNTRYSIDE: I have been reading COUNTRYSIDE for many years. Long before I married, or owned a house or even understood what sustainability is. I learned many, many things about off-grid living, canning, homesteading, housekeeping, etc. before I ever did any project of my own. The information has been invaluable and I return to those back issues now, more than ever, as our life gets more involved in gardening and sustainability. It has been in my heart and mind the whole time and as November approaches, I will take out the November/December magazines from the past and read all of the ideas for this time of year. Starting with the newest, which I read cover to cover, I then scan through past issues to mark stories that I would like to read again.

When I first started reading COUNTRYSIDE, what I remember is the feeling in my gut, that instinctive knowing that I was supposed to be working in a garden somehow and that the sustainable lifestyle was something I wanted to live. Growing food, digging in the ground, chopping kindling, whatever it meant, I knew I would one day have a way to garden. I had the desire to move toward a simpler life, but I still had the impression that I would have to move to Vermont or somewhere similar to have the space to do many of the things that homesteading and off-grid living requires.

We decided to live sustainably in the city instead of moving. We started by asking ourselves what was attractive about living in a place like Vermont? It is a slower paced life--we can do that here by making better choices with our time. I want to be able to heat and cook with a wood stove--so we installed the Elmira wood stove. I want to grow our fruits and vegetables--we can do that in the city also, with a little creativity and patience. We want our commute and work day to be as simple as possible, so we bought a house near our jobs and can walk if needed, but currently take public buses and carpool to commute. My ideal would be to stay home and put my full day of effort into working in the garden, cooking, writing and crafting, and I am working toward that by paying off personal debt and saving.

I once thought that we would need a lot of space, but that simply is not true. We live in Worcester, Massachusetts--one of the biggest cities in New England, and the lot we live on is only 100' x 50'. Many people, when seeing our home, had the first response of "what a great starter home." However, the first time we walked through, I knew it was a perfect, workable size for a family of four.

There was enough space to spend time in the yard and have a garden one day. When we moved in, there was extra space, and as we lived, we accumulated more and more stuff, to the point of needing a dumpster every year to clear out enough to use the house again. It isn't dirty or verging on hoarding, but a small space filled up quickly with two growing teens at the time, and with a creative family. We simply had too much, but didn't understand that we were participating in a consumer-based lifestyle at that time.

We started our journey of learning to be sustainable by taking care of structural and foundational work: first we replaced the roof, then we fenced in the yard. We added garden beds, fruit and nut trees last year, along with rain barrels. We also installed an Elmira Cooktop Stove, so we could heat and cook with wood. I learned about the stove in COUNTRYSIDE, and we found a local stove place to do the ordering and installation. We stopped using the air conditioners and had the extra appliances taken away. We bought a newer, energy efficient and smaller refrigerator, and a new washer that is energy efficient and easier on our clothes.

It sounds like so much in a list like this, but really, we did one project at a time and then paid it off. This year w e took a big leap and got energy efficient windows. Last night was only 40[degrees]F outside and it was still 65 inside. I am looking forward to the winter with the new windows and the wood heat. If the house holds heat like it seems to right now, we will not use all of the wood we have stacked in the yard.


Our garden last year was an experiment in planting as many different things as we could to see what would grow best here. We were able to can potatoes, corn, and carrots. We had a small amount of sweet potatoes. We also grew amaranth, peas, cucumbers, pumpkins, butternut squash, Sunchokes, sunflower seeds, peppers, beans for drying and several herbs. Oh, and lots of cherry tomatoes--we enjoyed a few each day with dinner. We learned a lot from our experiments! We will plant fewer things next year and only what we will definitely eat, with a goal of having extra to share with family and friends.

We also planted five different apple trees, three pear trees, an almond, two hazelnut, grapevines, kiwi vines and several different berry bushes. They all grew quite a bit, but we have to be patient to see what they will do this year or next.

I am sharing this because I believe that we can all do something to be a little more sustainable and contribute. Rather than taking and using resources, how great it would be if we each could do just a little bit for ourselves! With each of the changes we have made, our energy use has dropped, and although it has created more work for us physically to chop wood, gather kindling, and care for the garden, the work is so rewarding.

Our city is currently working towards allowing chickens in the backyards here again ( and working to get the approval in place. At the same time the local food movement (www. is growing. There are so many amazing pieces of conservation land that offer hiking, etc. One small place is near our home, so we became volunteer rangers and help out preserving the habitats near us. This gives us the experience of the open spaces of Vermont, while we stay right in our own neighborhood.

I don't believe that my backyard garden will change very much to big scale food growing or consumption, but I know what it has done for my mental well-being and the encouragement of our family. It is so exciting to see wildlife in our yard (toads, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, possums, many different birds, butterflies, bats, etc.). It has changed our world to be able to walk in the backyard and pick a tomato that we planted. If everyone could just do one little thing like that, I do believe that individual lives would be greatly changed. And if enough individuals are changed, then who knows what the effect could be in the world?

I am very interested in the Tiny House movement (imagine the smile on my face when I realized that I already live in a small home). I am also reading a lot about minimalism and simplifying my life, and at the core of it, is the necessity to need less and have fewer requirements. I still have and use the technology that I enjoy, and am currently donating extra clothing, household items, etc., to three different organizations that will get it to families that are really in need.

I see that less "things" to care for gives me more time to spend with family and friends, more time to meet neighbors and be involved in the community, and more time to garden.

I would love to talk with anyone who is interested in urban farming, sustainability, living simply and returning to the simpler way of life. Our story is here: --Michele Couture, 34 Pilgrim Ave., Worcester, MA 01604

The typical American home has roughly 2,600 square feet of space according to Meanwhile a small/tiny house has 400 square feet of space--akin to a large tool shed. If you've downsized to a "tiny house," let us know. It's something we'll address in a future issue.
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Title Annotation:Country conversation & feedback
Author:Couture, Michele
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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