Suburban Homesteader From Down Under

Reader Contribution by Jane Gripper
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The view from our Kangaroo Valley house 

For a wannabe  greenie, organic gardener and part time healthfood tyrant,  life in the suburbs of Carmel, Indiana have been a far cry from  my recent home in rural  Austraila.

My husband, three children and I are new to this amazing country. We hail from Kangaroo Valley, Australia, where we built a modest, energy efficient, solar passive home, complete with organic veggie gardens, compost heaps,  water tanks, (where, in the driest continent in the world,  every drop is precious),  chooks (that’s chickens in everyone else’s language), goats, heat pumps, horses, native gardens … the whole shebang. 

Our world was turned upside down 18 months  ago, when my husband was offered a transfer to Indiana, USA. Seeing this for the wonderful opportunity that it was, we naturally accepted, and moved into a rented home in suburban  Indiana.

I would just like to say that, while the move has been a difficult one, we have learned so much, met wonderful people, and seen a lot of what I believe to be one of the most beautiful, diverse and interesting countries in the world!!!

Thankfully, after a few months, I discovered  a wonderful, passionate, hardworking group of environmental advocates in this “wise living desert.” “Carmel Green Schools” have done so much for bringing green issues into schools and the community here, despite much opposition. I also discovered  “Mother Earth News”, (thank God for “Mother”!) Poring over her pages,  I quickly realized that where we were living, here in Carmel, Indiana,  was a total environmental anomaly … an anomaly with great potential!!!

I  set about turning our rented suburban lot into a “wise living oasis.” My first job was to find a trash company that would collect recycling. We are one of three or four houses on our block  of 40 houses,  with a recycling bin. I’m sure it might come as a surprise to many of you out there in “Mother Earth News” land, but the local council is still debating the benefits (??) of city wide curb side recycling!

With our “undomesticated” children running around the street, we quickly got to meet the neighbors.  One such neighbor was the wonderful  Bill, who,  good heartedly laughed at all our environmental efforts, as he watched me “put together” the compost rings for the leaves.  Bill the environmental skeptic, has since proven to be one of my major allies … read on!

We have found the American people to be incredibly friendly and helpful. This has been true of our neighbors. People have done so much for us- donated household goods, furniture and clothing . One neighbor, Cindy, has a gift for sniffing out bargains at garage sales. Cindy has found rugs, lounges, clothing, gardening tools, garden art, toys, books and so much more for us, from garage sales. 

After making a few innocuous, but effective changes, such as sealing windows and doors for winter, putting curtains up, turning the thermostat down, changing all the light bulbs in the house to energy efficient ones, or removing them completely (all 129 of them), things on the “green  changes front” slowed down, while we embraced, and thoroughly enjoyed,  our first ever white winter. 

Like bears coming out of hibernation, we emerged from winter with a one tracked determination – to live more wisely… in the burbs!  Feeding this environmental enthusiasm, was the April/May edition of Mother Earth News, and an unusually warm early Spring.  I devoured  the articles on “best chicken breeds for backyard flocks,” “Start a quick, easy food garden,” “grow great lettuce,” “Best garden fences” and a letter about “chicken tractors.”  I’m afraid that “Spring fever” had well and truly struck this not-so-spring chicken!

In a flurry of environmental fervor, I began my “plans.” Number one on the list was to tie rope around some of the trees in the back yard to create a clothes line. As crazy as this might sound, I find that there is nothing quite so relaxing, nor satisfying, as hanging washing on the line! The smell of freshly laundered, sun kissed (or wind whipped) clothes is so pleasurable,  and all at no cost to the environment.

 The clothes line 

Next,  build raised veggie gardens. I did try “dumpster diving” for  pieces of lumber from which to build, however, I was unsure of whether the lumber had been treated, so ended up buying lumber. The previously mentioned Bill, a wealth of handyman knowledge and tools, was happy to lend both for the project.

 At the end of summer, we enjoyed and sharied  the results of those labors in the form of tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, eggplant, basil,  lettuce, carrots, onions, garlic, beets, beans, peas, cucumber, arugula, tarragon, parsley, peppers, chilli, and chives.

 In order to water the vegetable garden easily and with least effect on the environment, we bought a rain barrel from the County parks department, and hooked it up to the down spout. While this 50 gallon barrel is a far cry from the 25,000 gallon tank we were used to, I still feel that same sense of  self sufficient pride whenever I water the garden with water from that barrel. 


 The Rainwater Barrel 

Next project on the list was a big one … chickens!  I can’t imagine living without them!! They provide wonderful fertilizer, eggs, a “waste management machine” and above all, a calming, pastoral  feel to the yard, which is as good a “therapy session” as any!!

I combed the internet searching for plans to build a  chicken tractor (movable chicken house) which would suit our suburban backyard needs and found the perfect plans at I ran the plans by Bill, who, after recovering from the shock of me wanting to get chickens, offered to build the chicken tractor for me!  Bill, the environmental sceptic, was now unwittingly involved with creating our “wise living oasis.”   When the tractor was finished, the children in the neighborhood, including Bill’s grandchildren, were given the task of painting the coop. The chickens themselves, 2 rhode island reds and a cuckoo maran, were sourced from a local breeder. The chooks are happily ensconced in their coop at night, and by day, scratching about fertilizing the garden.

   Painting the Chicken Tractor 

The Finished Tractor 

We are now referred to affectionately by the neighborhood as “those crazy Aussies”.  Our yard is always full of children who descend on the house at all times of the day (and nIght) to see, hold , poke, and chase the chooks, check out the water barrel, look at our latest wacky repurposing ideas (the hanging sock gardens were very popular), watch our laundry happily fluttering in the wind (some of the children had never seen a clothes pin), plant seeds, pick veggies, and play hide and go seek  through the veggie patch. I am tremendously excited about further projects in our oasis – The planting of indigenous grasses, flowers and shrubs, more rainwater barrels,  and who knows what we might do to repurpose all those non recyclable bottle caps!!! 

Addie our border collie guarding the chooks. 

 Hanging Sock Garden 

It really has been a wonderful journey of discovery over the last 18 months. I am beginning to appreciate the thought  that “community” is an essential concept  for change (and survival), that transcends international boundaries, and that through connection with community, regardless of how diverse that community may be,  “real” issues can be addressed. 

       Bill “opens” the chicken house – a community event! 

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