Small-space Sustainability: Homesteading in Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Marilyn Jordan-Peterson and her family in Woods Hole prove that small-space homesteading can still provide an abundance of fresh food.


The author created her own drip-irrigation system to make watering her rooftop garden easier.


Content Tools

In the fall of 1975 my mate, Bruce, and I found ourselves faced with the problem of locating living quarters near Woods Hole, Mass. Housing in the Cape Cod area was both scarce and expensive, and — to make matters worse — we had a scant two hours to make our choice before rushing back to our out-of-state jobs. We planned to return to Woods Hole in December to accept postdoctoral positions at the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Our house hunt was, as you'd imagine, pretty frantic. We were unable to find a single rental within commuting distance of the center, and there was only one small, old house for sale. Although we could barely afford it, we were left without another option, so we (gulp) arranged to make the purchase.

The house, which we later learned had been the pump station for the community fire department, had only 950 square feet of heated living area, though an enclosed sun porch added another 150 square feet to that. The yard was downright tiny, too, since a good bit of the 4,000-square-foot lot was taken up by the house, garage and asphalt driveway (as shown in the accompanying diagram in the image gallery). We planned to stay in the area for only a couple of years, however, and figured we could put up with our cramped quarters for that long.

Then, in 1977, our son was born, and I left my job at the Ecosystems Center to become a full-time mother and homemaker. Not long thereafter (with our "we'll leave in two years" program going the way of the best-laid plans of mice and men), Bruce was made an associate scientist, our daughter was born, and we began to realize that Woods Hole was likely to be our home for years to come.

So, since we couldn't afford to look for more spacious quarters, we decided to increase our living space by insulating the porch. And because I'd recently discovered MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I was determined to get in a little homesteading practice despite the size of our lot.

Soil Building and a "Herring-ponic" Rooftop Garden

Our first move was to tear down a dilapidated backyard shed and fence in a 13-by-13-foot vegetable garden area. The soil was nearly pure sand, typical of our part of coastal Massachusetts. However, after nine years of adding kitchen scraps, wood ash, composted seaweed, fish wastes and rabbit manure, cultivating the area regularly and deeply and practicing careful succession planting, we've developed a plot of rich, dark loam.

In fact, when we had our soil analyzed by the state extension service three years ago, we found that nutrient levels were very high and the pH was a perfectly acceptable 6.6. Unfortunately, we also discovered that the lead level was 630 parts per million —not alarmingly high, but significant enough to warrant blood tests for our children. We were relieved to find the readings normal but vowed never again to add wood ash to the garden. We had, you see, burned a good many old painted boards in our fireplace, and figured that the paint could well have been lead-based. Furthermore, since our lot adjoins a road that sees heavy summer traffic, we followed MOTHER's advice and installed a stockade fence, backed up by shrubs, to help screen out lead-bearing auto exhaust.

We raised snap peas, pole beans, tomatoes, squash, spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, eggplants, basil and parsley in our small garden, but I quickly began to feel limited by the 13-by-13-foot plot. A search for more growing space led me to widen the existing flower beds along the south side of the house. With that extension, I've been able to grow trellised pole beans (which provide welcome shade for those south-facing windows on hot summer days) and still have enough room for my flowers. The bean-and-bloom beds have worked out just fine, as long as I remember to water sparingly to avoid flooding the basement!

It seems that any gardener who can keep up with the area that he or she has planted wishes that there were more land available to put under cultivation. At any rate, Bruce and I continued to look for ways to increase our gardening space. On a whim, I planted a tomato in a plastic bucket of soil and put it on the roof. The results were nothing short of spectacular! That black tar roof is actually the hottest and sunniest spot on our property. In the four years since our first tentative step into the world of container gardening, we've expanded to the point where we now have a total of 26 buckets on our roof, carefully aligned over two of the house's load-bearing walls. The tubs are filled with a relatively lightweight mix of equal parts soil, compost and vermiculite and are tied into corrals of 2-by-4s and cinder blocks so that they won't blow off the roof.

Each spring, when the alewives (a type of herring) run upstream to spawn, Bruce nets dozens of them. After he strips out the tasty roe, I bury three of the carcasses in each rooftop bucket. This "her-ring-ponic" fertilizer works as well for us as it did for the Native Americans and Pilgrims back in 1621.

Of course, climbing to the roof with a water bucket or hose in tow got old pretty fast, so I devised a homemade drip-irrigation system. I tied a length of inexpensive garden hose over each of our two rows of buckets, joined those — using a Y connector — to a third hose, and ran that to the nearest water outlet. After plugging the ends of the two "bucket" hoses, I drilled holes in the underside of the tubing, positioning one opening above each container, then wrapped a rag around the hose at each of these points to diffuse the water's erosive force. The crude system does work, although the water pressure drops toward the end of each hose and the drilled holes vary slightly in size, so some buckets tend to be overwatered, while others stay a bit too dry. Endless fine-tuning has alleviated, but not completely solved, this problem.

Despite that sort of headache, our combined indoor and outdoor gardening efforts (we also have two homemade "windowsill greenhouses") reward us with at least half of the green vegetables we consume annually and enough tomatoes to last us six or seven months out of each year. Not bad for a total of about 200 square feet of cultivated area!

Raising Livestock with Limited Space

No homestead (even one that occupies less than a tenth of an acre) would be complete without critters. So, with confidence buoyed by our gardening successes, we bought some New Zealand white rabbits from a reputable breeder and installed them in wood-and-wire hutches we'd built after reading an article in MOTHER NO. 6. Unfortunately, the hutches just didn't work out for us. Not only were they more expensive (probably as a result of the rise in lumber prices) than ready-made all-wire cages would have been, they were downright impossible to keep clean. Worse yet, our rabbits soon discovered that they could chew right through the wood. We junked one of the hutches, converted the other into a small woodshed, and made four all-wire cages. These are sheltered under a shed framed with 2-by-4s, with black roofing-paper walls on three sides and a scrounged aluminum roof. The pens are hung from the framework — one pair above the other — with sloping trays of waterproofed plywood beneath each of the two upper cages. A vinyl-laminated fabric curtain serves to close off the front of the shed.

The new hutches have worked out well for us, but despite the reputation rabbits have for procreation, ours haven't always cooperated. I've raised (and had to cull) at least four "chaste" females — those ladies absolutely refused to breed. Still, we've produced 420 pounds of dressed rabbit meat over the past six years. Based on expenditures for feed, the meat has cost us about $1.20 per pound. We also place value, of course, on the fact that this meat is organically raised and free of antibiotics and artificial hormones. The children eat the rabbit enthusiastically, too. In fact, Scott, our 6-year-old, often watches the butchering and never seems to tire of the on-the-spot anatomy lessons.

I also tanned several rabbit hides for the first time this year, following instructions given in MOTHER (How to Tan Rabbit Hides). The hides required more scraping than the article indicated, but they nonetheless provided me with a pair of homemade slippers lined with warm, soft rabbit fur.

Our impromptu chicken coop is in the garage. Bruce simply fenced around the legs of a workbench and built ramps that allow the hens to enter and exit their enclosure through a nearby window. We've found that a coop light on a timer keeps our six hens laying well during the winter. They consume most of our table scraps and produce about 140 dozen eggs a year. True, the eggs cost us about 90 cents a dozen, but that computation doesn't take into account the value of the fertilizer and slewing hens we also harvest (or the unbeatable quality of homegrown eggs!).

An Eye to the Future

As our children grow larger (and louder!), our minihomestead seems to shrink. Learning to make the most from this tiny piece of real estate has been a valuable education, though — one that we hope to put to good use very soon. We recently purchased a 1-acre lot and plan to build our own (larger) passive solar house within the next few years. After nearly a decade of learning to produce much of our own food on .09 of an acre, we're really excited to imagine how productive our 1-acre homestead will be!