Month-long house and garden projects for greater self-suffiency?
May 29, 2017 7:08 AM   Subscribe

What are some simple-ish house and garden projects I can undertake in the course of a month? Now that I am a homeowner, I want to expand my gardening, sewing, and culinary skills that were previously limited by living in tiny apartments. I want to design a year-long self-guided series of month-long projects to help increase my skills towards greater self-sufficiency. Bonus points for book, video, and blog recommendations.

Here is an example of what I'm trying to set up:

June: Worm-bin month
Week 1: Research different types of worm bins
Week 2: Purchase worm bin
Week 3: Set up worm bin
Week 4: Read about how to keep the worms from croaking
Resources: Worms Eat My Garbage

Skills I already have:
-Growing herbs, tomatoes, and vegetables in pots and raised beds
-Simple sewing (like curtains, pillowcases)
-Basic baking and cooking skills

Things I am interested in learning more about:
-Rain barrels
-Fermentation (especially cider and sauerkraut. I am planning to get a copy of Wild Fermentation)
-Baking bread (I can make a great challah, that's about all I ever do)
-Growing things that need a lot of space that I couldn't have grown on my tiny apartment porch. Especially vining things. Maybe even fruit trees!
-Using herbs for things other than food (for example, blending them for teas, especially natural remedy teas for stuff like nausea, insomnia, etc)
-Eventually replacing my front lawn with something other than turf. I am especially interested in converting it to something like this.

Things I am definitely not interested in:
-Home brewing beer (I live in a city with amazing breweries, and I would rather support the local brewing economy directly than making my own. However, I am very interested in making other types of booze like hard cider that aren't as a readily available.)
-Going from 0-60 in a year (for example, taking our house completely off the grid through solar and composting all waste streams - though I would love to start putting things into place now that could conceivably make this happen in a decade or two)

Potentially relevant lifestyle information:
-We have a single-family 1930s brick cottage in a city neighborhood in southwest Ohio. Small frontyard, small backyard. The backyard has a lot of shade due to a combination of trees and very bushy invasive plants (honeysuckle). Our street is fairly laid back and somewhat diverse by Midwest standards, so I don't think anyone will freak out if I replace the front lawn with pollinator plants (I believe it is OK with the city but I will verify).
-We have tons of storage space to work on various projects, so things that take up room are fine.
-My husband isn't really into any of these potential activities, but he definitely would love to have less mowing and is fine with using our household budget on some of these projects. So the best projects are ones that can be done by one person, or only minimal requirement of another.
-My woodworking skills are non-existent but I have a couple power tools. No work-bench, however. I could probably figure out how to put together a raised bed, but anything more complicated or structural than that scares me without a ton of hand-holding.
-I already have a couple of the old Foxfire books and plan to dig in those for inspiration. I also have access to an excellent public library that has books on things like permaculture.
posted by mostly vowels to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
For your rain barrel project: Rain to Drain - Slow the Flow, "a hands-on stormwater education curriculum available from Penn State Extension and Pennsylvania 4-H. The Rain to Drain - Slow the Flow curriculum is available as a PDF download. This experiment style series of activities leads youth and adults to a better understanding of the movement of stormwater in natural and developed communities. It's also a great introduction to green infrastructure and stormwater best management practices."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:23 AM on May 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Worm bins are great for creating vermicompost for your plants, but they don't actually eat a lot of food scraps. Maybe a cup of food every three days? I keep mine in the garage because they have fruit flies (very hard to eradicate), which means they hibernate all winter and don't eat much for those months. I'd recommend a composting system instead, because you can compost so much! If you don't want to build one out of wood, you could get a pre-made compost tumbler.
posted by xo at 7:44 AM on May 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

Bread: When you get your copy of Wild Fermentation, experiment with catching and keeping your own wild yeast starter. Send off for Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter and try cultivating it. Try making no-knead bread, and then soft pretzels. And then sourdough bread.

Are you located near a quilt guild? Are you willing to try making quilted potholders?

Can you contact the local office of your state's extension service and ask about area quilting resources or upcoming classes? (In general, your extension office is a good resource for a number of things you want to do. My county office offers one-off classes in herb growing, master gardeners who can advise on native/pollinator planting--maybe yours offers some similar opportunities? Volunteering with a 4-H group might also be a way to pick up new skills.)

Maybe consider learning more about xeriscaping? I mention this as you say your husband would like to have less mowing.

I've linked several Ohio-based resources because there are organizations out there doing projects like those you're interested in. You don't have to learn self-sufficiency skills in isolation, and it can be helpful to connect with people who are supportive of your goals and who can offer their experience.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:39 AM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

All your plans sound like so much fun!

My dad and I made a rain barrel out of a trash can with a lid. It's not the fanciest thing -- we just cut a hole in one side of the lid for the gutter spout (cut the gutter piece so that it ends now halfway up the wall, and reattached the curved part so it feeds into the can through the lid, if that makes sense) and then I lift the lid and dip my watering can in to fill it. The kits they sell at Menards, farm supply, and hardware stores are probably better -- and come with hose attachments, much handier than my watering can dipping.

Bread: I am currently baking my way through my copy of Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads. There are so many different types of bread in there, so I pick a couple of new ones every week or so and try them out. I really liked his potato sourdough and raw potato starter -- and he has a small section just on starters. I like his little historical/biographical tidbits he includes before each bread recipe. His recipes have also been forgiving (so far) of my using whatever size pans I have on hand.

Worms: my husband and I built our first worm bin out of a rubbermaid storage container and kept it under the sink. It didn't smell, and it made lovely compost. I think we used that same book you mentioned.

I live in the northern midwest, and for gardening I've been enjoying Felder Rushing's Tough Plants for Northern Gardens -- although depending on your zone you might not be north enough for his suggestions? It looks like he has a book focusing on southern plants, too -- maybe there's a happy medium. Also there might be some master gardeners and gardening/extension clubs in your area that would have more ideas for vines specific to your area. My area has one group that holds open meetings at the local university every so often.
posted by pepper bird at 8:56 AM on May 29, 2017

I second ditching the worm bin. If you want to compost, compost, but the worm tea thing is *super* overrated. I'm almost certain you have 9000 better things to do than try to keep a plastic tub full of bugs alive.

Quilting is easy enough and a decent way to keep your hands busy while you listen to an audiobook. It's not quite meditative motion like crocheting is, but it is repetitive. If you enjoy predictable results from consistent effort, you'll love quilting. I find it tedious, myself, mostly because the time could be spent sewing something more expensive or harder to acquire than a blanket.

Track down your local Cooperative Extension service. They may have a rain barrel program. I don't know where you are in Ohio specifically but here's one in Butler that holds DIY rain barrel workshops and can provide a barrel, or a kit to convert your barrel. The website also has information on Rain/Pollinator Gardens

Baking bread is the bee's knees. (OMG have you thought about beekeeping?!?) This is an awesome website with loads of recipes and inspiration and video tutorials on lots of techniques. Your house will smell amazeballs. Also, much love for challah. ALL of the love for challah. You can make a challah for me anytime.
posted by Seek at 8:57 AM on May 29, 2017

A month is a good block of time to learn basic quilting. You know how to use a sewing machine and can sew a straight line, which is the key to quilting. You could probably go straight to a baby quilt if you wanted or you could do placemats or something.

It might go something like:
Week 1: read book on quilting (I like Elizabeth Hartman's Practical Guide to Patchwork) or do online tutorial so you understand the process, practice making precise 1/4 inch seams and using a quilt ruler to make precise cuts.
Week 2: Choose quilt pattern and fabric; cut fabric,
Week 3: Sew quilt top
Week 4: Make quilt sandwich and quilt; bind edges.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:05 AM on May 29, 2017

I'd start by removing your invasive honeysuckles, considering some native plants of a shrubby nature (consult your local extension office for suggestions), find a good nursery, get the plants, plant them after learning how to do this well, then keep them watered until they're better able to self sustain.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:20 AM on May 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

Shade will limit what you can grow but mints may do okay and are very useful for teas. They don't grow true from seed so start with named plants like spearmint and peppermint. And although they spread they are very easy to
pull up. If you have a patch of good sunlight you can grow chamomile. Picking the flowers every couple of days for
several weeks will be tedious but the result is delicious. I hang bunches of leafy herbs and baskets of chamomile
flowers in my hot attic only long enough to dry them so they don't lose potency and store them in glass jars. Sage and lavender can also be used in teas but need very sunny spots. I also have valerian (reseeds vigorously) and black cohosh which I have never used but they grow in shade.
posted by Botanizer at 9:26 AM on May 29, 2017

Well, I have a worm bin and I disagree that it's a waste of time! Especially if you garden, there's really nothing like worm casings for soil improvement. They don't like citrus, animal products, and coffee grounds, so those go in my compost bin. But otherwise, it's simple and easy. (Advice: you actually need two bins, one working and one holding. Memail me if you want to know more.)

Some of my recent projects: Learn to make yogurt. Making curtains (very simple). If you have old unfinished projects, FINISH them. Cutting mats and re-using old frames. Building a fountain in your yard for birds, frogs, bees, etc. Little Free Library. Dog station in your front yard with bags and water bowl. Plant sharing and trading for free plants.
posted by raisingsand at 9:33 AM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Two things come to mind:

1) building raised garden beds. These may not seem important to you, but you get a lot of benefits from them. You get to put completely custom/awesome soil in (so, you can learn about soil composition and what makes a good soil mixture for different types of plants), you start with no weeds, and you don't have to bend over as much to weed, plant, and harvest. Also, if you build them high enough, you'll be able to use them even when/if you are not very much interested in bending over to garden (e.g. over age 60). You can learn some basic woodworking and construction - research which designs and woods will last longest. Finally, they can help reduce mildew problems for some crops like strawberries.

Possible downside is watering issues. Water will not run into them or sit and soak in as much. I recommend building them large so you get more water retained naturally, but also take this issue into account.

Also, I am not the raised garden bed guru, so read up on it a bit more.

2) Design issues and aesthetics matter. They matter to your long-term happiness, they matter to building a community (if you have a lovely area, you will have an automatic in with your neighbors and a focal point for connecting), and they matter to basic humanness. I strongly recommend reading up on landscape design issues like plant height selection and maintaining visual interest over the course of the year.

Most importantly, good design comes from function: plant height selection speaks to "looking pretty", but it also speaks to managing sunlight so all plants get enough; maintaining visual interest over the course of the year also can mean making sure there are blossoms for pollinators at all times.

Further, if you can develop expertise in this kind of thing, you can eventually work with other experts to help shape policies and become an informed and authoritative community advocate. I'm not pushing you into politics right now, or even next year, but it might be an option after you've gradually built expertise over five or ten years.

Plus, you'll be living in a beautiful place.

Congratulations on your new abode!
posted by amtho at 9:35 AM on May 29, 2017

I'm into a lot of this stuff and live in PA. The Living Homegrown podcast would probably be right up your alley. Every week she goes into a different topic. Making yogurt, fermenting, canning, she had one on high bush blueberries recently and those should be local for you. She also has ones on livestock but its easy enough to skip an episode.

As for the worm bin, I thought it was a lot of fun. I lost my worms over the winter because they dried out when I was checking on them less, so read about that. I would do it again in a heartbeat but my husband wasn't so in to living with worms.

Your extension should have classes on native plants and some are genuinely more beautiful than the more typical choices. My false blue indigo is blooming right now and I get a lot of questions about it.
posted by Bistyfrass at 10:41 AM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sounds exciting!

I have one suggestion: set aside time and space to outfit/build out storage/organize/purge and renew work spaces for all these activities. You said you have a ton of storage space that's good and bad. That space can fill up quickly and become a big source of friction if every project has "dig through mess" as step zero.

I'm into home #2 now and the first project I completed in both places was a workbench with pegboards for tools, shelves with lots of bins for hardware and supplies, adequate power and lighting, and racks or brackets to store raw materials. My dad came up and helped with both projects. As we were building in basements or outside spaces the work was quick and did not have to hold up to inside standards of fit finish and cleanup, nor did that work disrupt living spaces. Inside construction and maintenance and crafts are fun and easy to start.

Outdoors we have no such storage yet for lawn tools and I dread even starting any of that work.
posted by sol at 11:06 AM on May 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is the time of year to get to planting so I'd start with the back yard, then the front next year. I'd also spend a month setting up a workshop area with a table and shelves and bins. You can freecycle most of what you need if you have space, if you don't look into a shed but it's critical to have this! Ideally a utility sink or access to a hose too. In a shed the sink can just be hose fed and drain into a planted bed.
posted by fshgrl at 11:43 AM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd go for composting over the worm bin. I've never had a lawn that lacked for worms.

If you can make a good challah, you can make any kind of bread. I'd consider trying a sourdough though. Keeping a starter is a different activity.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:59 AM on May 29, 2017

Look into making quilted cloth shutters/window covers that insulate your windows in the winter.
posted by mareli at 1:00 PM on May 29, 2017

Set up a solar dehydrator. These are AMAZING when it comes time to store away bumper crops.
posted by aniola at 1:28 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

My personal assessment when I was looking at worms vs. composting was that the worms seemed too high-maintenance, and also work too slowly for my liking.

I decided on composting because I wanted to get rid of everything, including cat litter (the compost won't be used on food crops), the billions of leaves I have to rake up every weekend, etc. So I got two medium-sized static bins (I think 180 or 200 litre bins?), filled them to the brim, and top them up as everything gets broken down.

Once they are at maximum capacity I will probably get a third bin of the same size and use it exclusively while the original two work their magic. Come spring planting season I'll have plenty of good dirt to spread around.

Added bonus: there's like five pretty big backyard worm guys who live in my neighbourhood, so I can get casings and worm tea from them if I need to (I haven't yet).

Fermenting is a good one and a classic slow game. I've only been doing it for a few months and am addicted, I love experimenting with different hot sauces and sauerkrauts. Habanero and strawberry, Choc Douglah and blueberry, Carolina Reaper and raspberry. Got a habanero and cranberry on the go at the moment. Made a sauerkraut out of cabbage, kale, turmeric, garlic, purple carrot, garlic and Carolina Reaper that is nourishing the fuck out of me. Put on my first batch of mead over the weekend. Garlic fermenting in honey? You better believe I've got a jar of that happening in the cupboard. Big old thing of snacking jalapenos. Sourdough is next on the list for sure, or, actually, probably a bread made with sauerkraut juice.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:08 PM on May 29, 2017

(Note: when I say the worms work too slowly, what I mean is that they of course work way faster than normal barrel composting, but also can't handle as much material, and my point is I wanted the leaves and cat litter etc. out of the way, so it's more an issue of capacity than velocity. If I was just doing kitchen scraps and maybe a bit of weeding here and there I would absolutely go for the worms.)
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:18 PM on May 29, 2017

Response by poster: These are all excellent suggestions, so much that I can't decide on even a couple "best answers" - please keep them coming, I am one of those people that LOVES! TO! PLAN! so this will keep me busy for ages. Thank you so much.

(I spent all day in the garden recovering a weedy overgrown raised bed that had been neglected for years, and pulled up as much as I could, covered what I couldn't with cardboard and a few inches of soil, and replanted with peppers, herbs, and tomatoes. Exciting!)

Couple other questions:
1. Lot of votes for old-fashioned composting versus worms. I'm not opposed to this (I grew up with a backyard compost bin), the worms were for the novelty factor. I have a very shady area of my yard, would the composter bin/barrel work OK in the shade?

2. I realized my rain gutters all go directly to mystery PVC pipes that are stuck into the ground, so I have no idea if the gutters are discharging to a sewer system or into the soil somewhere. I'm a little stumped re: if it's possible to then connect the gutters to rain barrels. Anyone run into this before?
posted by mostly vowels at 4:47 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Almost ten years into this home-owning thing, coming from decades of apartment living, here is what I have found is the most important thing to make a priority. If you have a climate that affords you a few months (at least) of time to be outdoors, make sure your backyard has space to just relax, chill out or entertain (if that is your thing). Make the space attractive, get some nice outdoor furniture, if you need privacy from backyard neighbors, start planning now, trees and shrubs take time to grow. Get a bird bath for the bees and other critters. (Water is by far the number one thing that wildlife misses in urban settings). Projects are nice, and I have had my share of them, but a beautiful, pleasant backyard is a joy and a treasure.
posted by nanook at 4:58 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I got a steel step-on can from Target or someplace like that to throw compost in. I was going to take it across the street to the community garden compost bin every week, but a week or three went by and I kept forgetting to do it. Well, one day I lifted the lid to throw something in, and it was full of horrifying larvae. I googled, (my search terms were "horrifying" and "larvae") and it turned out they were black soldier fly maggots. It's been over a year of me steadily tossing my rotting refuse in that can and I never have filled it up. It's like the little brown jug, but in reverse. You just have to be able to tolerate horrifying larvae, which I find I am perfectly suited to do.

Pluses: you don't have to invest in a worm bin. You don't have to be all scientific about the fodder. You don't have to invest in worms. You don't have to worry about feeding them wrong; they eat anything and everything. You don't have to keep them in the house. They aren't interested in you, just your garbage. They don't sting or bite. (Adult flies don't even have mouths.) No fruit flies: they eat them. Supposedly you can feed worms on the black soldier fly castings. (I haven't tried this because the can never seems to fill up. Once it does, I might give it a shot.)

Minuses: horrifying larvae. They might not last through the winter in Ohio.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:07 PM on May 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sourdough bread would be a great winter month project. Don't just focus on bread, as it's probably the trickiest, also make pizza, bagels, crumpets, muffins, pancakes etc. So long as you've got people to feed it to, it's a very cheap hobby. I've had the best luck with this basic bread recipe, but actually like my bagels best.

Another month could be simplifying your cleaning products. Crochet or knit your own dishcloths, make citris infused vinegar, make washing powder, make scrubbies from orange net bags. This could be a good winter month project too.

I would plan for a compost bin and a worm farm. Compost bins can take the overflow and lawn clippings. Maybe save that project for autumn if you've got deciduous trees.

Plan for a garden month in spring next year.
posted by kjs4 at 7:16 PM on May 29, 2017

Canning is not on your list, but it might make an excellent experiment in conjunction with sauerkraut-making.

Borrow The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and see if anything in there appeals to you. Then spend some time collecting a basic water bath canning kit (jar lifters and magnetic lid grabbers and funnels can sometimes be found in thrift shops; non-rusty enamelware and racks are tougher to find in the wild). Start your sauerkraut, let it age a bit, and can some of it. (You can teach yourself to can. Some extension offices offer courses.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:07 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Making your own yogurt? (...part of fermentation month?)
posted by salvia at 8:59 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a very shady area of my yard, would the composter bin/barrel work OK in the shade?

Compost likes enough warmth for the organisms within it to thrive and do their work, but I've composted in and out of shade and the difference has been minor because it generally generates enough heat via its own activity. You do want to keep it moist and you do want to stir it a bit to aerate it, but sunlight/shade is much of a muchness, from my experience.

It's kind of an "art" I suppose since you need to balance what you're throwing into your composting bin. 150L of dog shit isn't going to go anywhere and you wouldn't want to put it on anything even if it did. You need a mix of dry organic and wet organic in there.

Re: soldier fly larvae, I had a billion of those too, and they were mildly disconcerting at first because I rarely see a square meter of something seethe but yeah, they're great!

Bokashi composting is something I'm interested in, whether having a little kitchen composter or just using the bokashi itself as an additive to my barrels. Might be worth checking out if you want to start small.

Global buckets or wicking buckets/containers/pots are another thing that you might like to look into. I plan to experiment with them in the spring.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:01 PM on May 29, 2017

1) My compost bin is in the shade. It works a little slower, but it does work just fine. By the middle of the summer that thing is a good ten or twenty degrees hotter than the air around it. Just keep it wet and turn it occasionally to aerate it and you'll be fine.

2) For the rain barrel I would buy an overflow system (they're like twenty bucks, you could probably buy the pvc pieces individually if you know what you're aiming for and that would be cheaper) and add it to your barrel. Reconnect it to your mystery pvc pipes. In my city any house built after a certain year (I think it was in the 70s) has to run directly to a storm drain or the street. You may want to look there for the other end of your pipes.

I don't know if I'm overstepping, but from your profile it looks like we're the same age. If I could do it again I would take a few years and look and see what the problems are with my house and work to solve those. That's how I learned most of these skills. To be honest you sound smarter than me so you might side step this, but I was antsy to start growing food. I put a lot of time and money into fertilizer and bug control and fancy plants when what I should have done was thrown compost and and mulch down for a few years to help the soil and let nature work it out on its own. Maybe grow some beans or something else that would add to what was there. I mention this because if you live in Ohio, you're probably in a similar situation in that the ground around us is pure clay. If you're doing stuff outside this summer maybe ask the extension if there are any common problems and see how they suggest you solve them. They're a huge resource that's massively underused. Learning from them started me down a rabbit hole of fermenting, canning and growing so maybe it will help you too.
posted by Bistyfrass at 9:50 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you don't already have them, plan perennial plantings, so that you've always got something in bloom without lifting a finger. Even if we don't plant annuals, from Spring through summer we can still look forward to: daffodils > tulips > star magnolia > verbenum > lilacs > spirea > hydrangea > alium > peonies > lemon lilies, etc.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:08 AM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Are you interested in making clothing?

A month might be devoted to Don McCunn's book How to Make Sewing Patterns. He includes instructions on how to measure oneself (most other instructions strongly suggest having a buddy to measure) and how to make a dress form from mat board. (And also how to make patterns.) Week 1 could be reading the book and gathering materials. Week 2 make your moulage. Week 3 revise and adjust fit. Week 4 make the dress form.

A month or two might also be devoted to The Curated Closet, which would help you decide what to sew. The book has MANY exercises to help you think about what you like to wear, which are supposed to take 8 weeks. As a part of this, you might also want to make your own croquis, from the front, back, and side. Some find them useful for deciding between different versions of an outfit.

What about cooking? A month of a new recipe each day, with plans to incorporate what you liked into your usual meals, maybe using recipes from a cookbook that has some new techniques for you? Or a month of variations on one recipe (a month of cupcakes!). Or what about planning weeks so at the start of the week you make a big batch of something that you then work with the rest of the week? Like trays and trays of roasted vegetables which could go into salads and soups and lasagne, etc. Or a large cut of meat used similarly.
posted by SandiBeech at 11:23 AM on May 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Storey’s Basic Country Skills: A Practical Guide to Self-Reliance might be a good addition to your reading list.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:16 PM on May 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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