James (our Taste of Self Sufficiency guest) asked “what the barriers were for us when we started out”. It was a good question and we thought our answers might be of interest to others.
Our top five barriers were …
- The demands on our time/focus/energy from elderly parents
When we bought our house on Howle Hill’ and moved in on 2 May 2013, Andrew’s parents decided to put their 4 bedroomed house in Hampshire up for sale and move to the area so we spent the next three months helping them declutter their house. Both being hoarders and having not moved for over 60 years, they had accumulated a great deal of stuff in their huge loft which included items from Andrew’s grandparents! It did prove to be useful as we didn’t have anything (after coming back from our travels) so we were able to up-cycle quite a bit and got the garden shed, tools etc. We moved them into a lovely flat in Ross on Wye at the end of August 2013. It was a real juggling act to support them and to prepare our first rabbit-proof veggie bed so we could sow seeds and have some produce growing in the summer to autumn. We sowed easy-to-grow crops, which included salad, perpetual spinach (leaf beet), swiss chard, beetroots, potatoes and carrots.
- Finding trades people who think outside the box
We must have talked to at least 5 different plumbers and 5 different heat installation companies to help us merge the existing two heating system (oil-fired water/central heating at one end of the house and an inefficient wood-fired central heating system at the other end of the house) into an efficient wood (water and central) heating system which incorporated our solar panel (immersion)) system. We had to insist we did not want a system that depended on fossil fuels. It took more than 2 years to find a contractor who could do the job – a heating installation team who travelled from Cardiff (Wales) everyday for a week.
Many plumbers/installers tried to dissuade us from the system we wanted and wanted us to invest in other alternatives such as a) wood pellet fired systems – we looked into it but we didn’t think it was sustainable because we would have had to buy in wood pellets rather than go out and forage wood and b) wood gasification heating system – we would have had to move out of the house as this system would have taken up our laundry room and one of our double bedrooms! On the plus side, we could use foraged wood but we would have needed a mortgage to pay for its installation (over £20,000). We learnt to be persistent.
- Earning enough money to pay the bills especially Council Tax
We were fortunate we didn’t need to get a mortgage to buy our house. Both Andrew and I sold our respective flats before travelling the world and after paying off our mortgages, we had some money left over. We were also lucky that Caenwood had been on the market for over three years and the owners dropped their asking price to a range that met our budget. However, we didn’t have much in the bank once we had bought the property and paid the lawyers fees etc. Neither Andrew or I wanted to go back to having 9am – 5pm job so in year one so we picked up little local jobs. I worked as a cleaner and Andrew as a handyman/gardener in a local wedding venue for 8 – 10 hours a week. We also moved into the ‘summerhouse’ and rented out our three bedrooms to local contractors via www.spareroom.com. It helped us to pay the bills and invest in getting solar panels in year 2.
- Finding a support network
Andrew and I wanted to connect with like-minded individuals through local ‘sustainability’ networks. We soon realised that Ross-on-Wye didn’t have any but the Forest of Dean (FoD) did! We joined the FoD Local Exchange and Trade System (LETs) where we could ‘sell’ our surplus produce, trade our skills, ‘buy’ furniture and participate in their Seed Swaps.
We parachuted ourselves into local groups (e.g. Ross Library Development Group; Exploring Alternatives etc) and met like-minded people who have since become good friends and associates. We wanted a dog but knew that we couldn’t afford one so, we joined the (national) Cinnamon Trust and became dog walkers, which enabled us to get to know the local area and explore the numerous paths on Howle Hill.
Six months after moving into our home, we invited those who ‘look on to or over’ our field to a ‘bring and share’ dinner. It was a brilliant way to get to know our neighbours and we did it again eight months later. We were surprised to learn that many of our neighbours didn’t know each other. But these events created a wonderful buzz and now there are a whole host of community parties being held on the Hill!
- Dancing with Nature: Seeds, Soil and ‘Success’
Our soil was very poor quality when we started out. In the first two years, we spent many days ‘shovelling shit’ – moving horse manure in the trailer (from our neighbours field), then putting into the compost bins and then putting a thick layer on the gardens. It has paid dividends and since then, we have researched, developed and perfected our plant-based compost making.
We have kissed a few frogs along the way to find our prince(cess) of seed suppliers. We’ve invested in seeds and plants that have failed either through being poor quality or not looking after them properly.
The growing season can be early or late depending on the weather. No two seasons are the same! We’ve learnt some plants like to be kept drier than others (e.g. brassicas). We seem to be successful in growing certain crops (e.g. beetroots and parsnips) and not others (e.g kohl rabi and cabbage).
We’ve learnt not to be complacent or too serious. It is a never-ending lesson in being present: to look, listen and dance to Mother Nature’s messages and tunes. We can anticipate and plan the day by looking at the weather charts and the biodynamic calendar but at the end of the day, it’s about enjoying what you do, keeping an open mind and experimenting.