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.

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    The author created her own drip-irrigation system to make watering her rooftop garden easier.
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    The author and her family live on a small homestead, but they make the most of the space they have.

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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.



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