Small-space Sustainability: Homesteading in Woods Hole, Massachusetts

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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.

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!