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My wife and I own two homes and live two lifestyles. One homesteading and one suburban. Here’s how we borrowed the best from homesteading to save money, especially on our grocery bills.
The Homesteading Life
We have a cabin in Michigan. It’s on 80 wooded acres in the Manistee National Forest on a trout stream. We heat the house with wood, hunt and fish, garden aggressively, have 50 fruit trees planted on the property, wild forage and practice a range of food preservation techniques. Our grocery food purchases are next to nothing, with the occasional purchase of coffee, flour, sugar, salt, some meats, milk and butter. I guess you could say we shop like Alaska sourdoughs putting together a grubstake.
The Suburban Life
We also have a home in the suburbs in Northern Illinois about 30 miles west of Chicago. I was an advertising consultant and my wife a nurse and soccer mom. For some reason we were walking away from the homesteading discipline when we returned to our suburban home — and the grocery bills soared. It was some time ago that I decided to do something about that and apply some of the disciplines of homesteading to our suburban retreat. It took some time, but the lessons and practices we learned while in Michigan made the process much faster. Here’s what we did:
1. Fruit trees. When it came time to plant trees in the yard, we skipped the ornamental trees and instead planted fruit trees, including apple varieties, pear trees, peach trees, a mulberry tree and some wild plum trees. It took a while, but once they started to bear fruit we actively ate the fruit and practiced various fruit preservation practices.
2. Vegetable gardening. We aggressively turned the soil in our backyard to make a very large garden. Instead of spending all of our time, energy and money on traditional flowers in our flower beds, we planted certain vegetables. To improve the appearance of those flower beds, we planted edible, ornamental peppers, blueberries, wild strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, kale, broccoli and cauliflower. My wife still planted some flowers like daffodils and tulips, but there were just as many if not more ornamental vegetables.
3. Herb gardening. The cost of herbs at the grocery store is ridiculous. I’ve seen prices as high as $5 for a tiny jar. We haven’t bought herbs at the grocery store for years and once again, we not only planted a dedicated herb garden with perennial herbs, but planted annual herbs in the flower beds. We particularly like the flowering herbs in the flower beds like oregano, chives, garlic and chamomile interspersed with parsley and thyme as a ground cover. Be careful with the chamomile, though. It spreads like wildfire from reseeding.
The dedicated perennial herb garden contains lemon balm, tarragon, rosemary, lovage, more chives, garlic, lemon balm and marjoram. There are more herbs we could plant, but those are the herbs we like and use.
4. Wild foraging. We live next to a large forest preserve and wooded areas and fields abound around our suburban home. My grandfather introduced me to wild foraging when I was 7, and I’ve continued to learn and forage ever since.
Our foraging includes picking black raspberries, blackberries, wild plum, dandelion leaves and crowns, fiddlehead ferns (they taste like asparagus), morel and giant puffball mushrooms, various parts of cattails, milkweed pods for stuffing, goldenrod flower tops and blackberry leaves for two of the best teas I’ve ever tasted, acorns, black walnuts and chestnuts, red sumac berries for seasoning, purslane, clover for teas and salads, and the list goes on. If you take the time to do some research and actively observe and experiment, you’ll find wild plants that can supplement every meal.
5. Chickens. I was surprised to learn that a chicken coop was permitted in the suburbs of Chicago. We do about a dozen chickens a year and haven’t bought eggs for quite some time. We do the same at our cabin, but it was nice to know we could do it in the suburbs, as well. It’s a little alarming to my neighbors when I pull a chicken and pluck and dress it in the backyard, but after bringing them a fresh, free-range chicken a couple of times, they calmed down.
6. Hunting and fishing. It’s a really bad idea to walk around the suburbs of Chicago with a rifle in your hands, but no one has a problem with a guy and a fishing pole. I avoid the rivers. They’re notoriously polluted, but many of the lakes are clear and clean. I usually catch bass, catfish and panfish, and we’ve managed at least two meals a week from my fishing forays which I really enjoy.
7. Bake and cook it yourself. I’m a certified chef, and I bake three loaves of bread a week in addition to cookies, pizza dough and pasta, cakes and breadsticks, hamburger buns and hot dog buns. My wife makes pies from scratch and is a master candy maker. I’ve made ice cream from milk and, of course, apple cider and apple cider vinegar from our apple trees.
8. Can it! We’re both experts at preserving foods through the canning process, and every fruit and vegetable in our yard gets canned and then properly stored for later use. I’ll also bring the leftover canned goods from Michigan when we head back to civilization. We’re also very proactive when it comes to making jellies and jams from the various fruits in our yard and the surrounding forests and fields.
9. Preserve it. We dehydrate a lot of fruits and vegetables, and it couldn’t be easier. Just wash and slice, put into the dehydrator and go do something else for a few hours. We also dehydrate herbs at the end of the season for use all-year-round. We don’t preserve too much fish and game because I never seem to catch that many fish, and then there’s that rifle thing in the Chicago area. However, I have smoked some of our chickens.
10. Waste not. I taught a cooking class once called “the leftover gourmet.” The unfortunate fact is that Americans throw away 40 percent of their food. I’m very proactive about using leftovers the next day, and it’s not about microwaving. I treat any leftover as a new ingredient that can be modified, changed and improved with the addition of other ingredients. I also keep a close eye on fresh produce, but having the garden makes it easy to always find something same-day fresh.
My family has actually found this approach to our suburban life to be interesting and fun. My older kids like it because they can see the healthful and organic benefits of growing, raising and making your own rather some of the grocery store offerings. For me, that’s all good, but what I like the best is I cut that grocery bill by 75 percent!
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