A small greenhouse like this 8’x8′ Solexx unit is an ideal way to extend the growing season in a backyard.
Hay bales give you a compact way to garden vertically and use tight spacing, which increases yields.
To maximize space for row crops, plant them in hay bales. Using hay as mulch on the ground retains moisture and keeps the areas between the bales weed-free.
Otis munches on some pigweed (aka lamb’s quarter). Why do you think they call it pigweed?
Dolores sells food harvested from the wild at the Pasadena Farmers Market.
Christopher watches Dolores feed a rabbit. The rabbit droppings fall directly into the worm farm/ compost bin below.
Christopher examines the newly installed wood-burning fireplace, which completely changed the atmosphere of the Nyerges’ home.
Wade Webb installs the solar panels for the stand-alone solar electric system.
Dolores and Christopher also have a beehive on their mini-farm
The Nygeres’ mini-farm is on a 50×140 lot in urban L.A., proving the it is possible to be self-reliant in a suburban setting
Dolores gives her canine companions a treat
In 1986, Dolores and I got married and purchased a run-down house in our neighborhood, then proceeded to turn the house and lot into our living example of urban self-reliance and ecological living in Los Angeles, a city where most people would think it impossible. But that is precisely what we set out to do, in our own way, with not much of a budget and just an average urban home lot.
Before we married, both of us practiced gardening, recycling and finding ways to do more with less. A big influence for both of us was a small non-profit group, White Tower, Inc. (WTI), located in an area that we liked to call the “hilly outback” of Los Angeles. I began to take some classes with the founder of the non-profit in 1973 and Dolores met the group in 1980. This is how we met, and through this association we began to think more creatively, finding ways to meet our needs by making things, recycling things, doing without or bartering.
Lawn & Worm Farm
One of our first projects was to improve the “front lawn,” which was only a rock-hard patch of soil where cars had been parked. We had a tree pruner dump an entire load of chipped tree prunings onto our front yard. This saved him a dump fee, and as the chips slowly decomposed, it gave us a yard where almost anything would grow.
Needless to say, some neighbors took a dim view of our wood chip front “lawn,” but it was far better than having old cars parked there. In time, this area supported several fruit trees, a corn patch and a broad variety of edible wild plants.
Another of our early actions was to build our compost pit—a worm farm. Actually, both of us had always had compost pits wherever we lived, and we never quite figured out why everyone doesn’t do that. It enabled us to turn all our kitchen and yard scraps into useful soil.
Our Compost Pit
Using large, recycled timbers, we defined a large area, about 4 by 5 feet, as our compost pit area. We built a rabbit coop and set it directly over one half of the compost area. The bottom of the rabbit hutch had a stiff screen bottom that allowed the rabbits to run around, and their droppings and urine would go directly into the compost pit. It was an ingenious system, with no smell and rarely a need to clean out the rabbit coop.
In addition, we added redworms (a fast-breeding type of earthworm) to the compost pit. They helped to break down the compost rapidly into good, usable soil for the emerging orchard and vegetable garden.
Our Chicken Coop
Within the first year, we built a chicken coop in the far end of our backyard. We started with 40 hens and four roosters and soon learned why zoning laws restrict roosters. (Translation: You don’t make many friends if you wake up all your neighbors at 5 am.) For a while we were selling eggs to all of the neighbors since approximately three dozen eggs a day was far more than we were able to handle. But, in time, we realized that about a dozen eggs and one rooster were sufficient for our needs.
We didn’t eat the chickens, only their eggs, and when we cleaned out the chicken coop, our garden and little orchard got a quick nitrogen boost. We were able to supplement the chicken food with many of the weeds from the garden, like lamb’s quarters and sow thistle, which the chickens really enjoyed.
Eventually, we cut down every tree or bush that wasn’t productive in some way, and our yard had about 10 citrus trees, some apple trees, a banana patch, a mulberry, an almond tree, an avocado tree, many roses (the petals and hips are rich in vitamin C), many squash plants, tomatoes and dozens of edible wild foods.
Otis The Pig
After a few years, Otis joined our family. Otis was a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. I didn’t know what the requirements for a pig would be, but I built him a little house and his own yard, and as long as I kept Otis fed and his belly scratched, he was happy. I found that the best groundcover for Otis was to cover his yard with alfalfa straw, which he also ate little by little. Pigs have excellent memories and excellent senses of smell, as I discovered whenever I tried to sneak up on Otis.
Since I worked at a farmers market at this time, I would bring home boxes of produce that the farmers couldn’t sell and Otis would have a real party once a week. It turned out that he was very tidy, and he always kept a specific bathroom spot. This allowed me to shovel up the poop into a bucket and either put it in the compost pit or sprinkle it around various fruit trees. Interestingly, I always noticed new growth on the fruit trees within a few days of adding Otis manure.
By now you’re probably thinking that we had a farm, but this was only an average City of Los Angeles lot, measuring about 50 by 150 feet. We really didn’t have as much space as we’d like for all the projects we had in mind, so we simply had to make each and every spot count.
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Since we lived in Los Angeles, never a day passed that we didn’t realize that at least 75 percent of all the water needed by its citizens comes from way to the north, in the state’s Central Valley, or way to the south from the Colorado River. We did all we could to use less water. We mulched the garden heavily and installed toilets that needed a gallon per flush. We sent all our washing machine water into the yard, and we carried dishpans of kitchen water into the yard to water fruit trees.
In the rainy season, we collected all the rainwater we could. At first, we simply put trashcans under the places where the water flowed off the roof, and then covered the buckets when full. Eventually, we obtained food-grade plastic buckets for this use. Some of the rainwater was used for watering our plants, and some we used for soup and coffee.
Budget Heat & AC
We were always concerned about the cost of heating and cooling the house, and after much trial and error we found low-tech and low-cost ways to heat and cool for less.
For cooling, we installed metal screen doors that we could lock and leave open all night, and this allowed a breeze to flow through the whole house in the summer without the worry of break-ins. We also discovered that when we painted our roof with a white elastomeric roofing product, the house stayed at least 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in the summer! This was an amazing change, and we only painted the roof with this product because, at that time, we had some leaks in the roof and couldn’t afford an entirely new roof. This white product was not our top choice of color, but it very effectively radiated a lot of the heat away from the house.
For wintertime heating, we knew we wanted a woodstove but couldn’t afford one of the fancy and expensive models. We shopped around at flea markets and yard sales and actually purchased four before we settled on the one that we’d install. With a lot of research, we purchased all the piping needed to go through the roof without burning the house down, and I did all the work myself.
That first night, when the home was heated with scrap wood from our backyard in our new woodstove, was like heaven! Also, we discovered that most city folks trim the wood from their yards and actually cut it up to a size that would fit into our stove. Many times, on trash day, we’d drive around town and find bundled pieces of wood that we could pick up, take home until dry and then use in our own woodstove. Because of this, we never had to purchase wood for our stove.
Of course, we constantly refined and added systems. Before the Y2K scare of 1999, we installed solar water-heating panels to pre-heat all the water in the household. The heating panels and holding tanks were a gift from a friend, and the two of us installed them on the roof. We found that the water heater rarely went on in the summer.
Concerned about electrical blackouts, we always purchased manual tools for kitchen and household jobs, generally eschewing the electric models. We also hired an electrician to install a stand-alone photovoltaic system that powered Dolores’ office most of the time. The system included panels, batteries and an inverter that changed the system’s 12-volt direct current (DC) to 110 volts of alternating current (AC) for our house.
Doing More With Less
We entered each of these projects with an open mind, ready to learn something new, always aware of a limited budget. We found ways to do the projects for the lowest possible price because we took the time to learn about all the details of each system.
Of course, we had regular financial obligations, and we both had jobs as well as taking every freelance earning opportunity we could find. We made and sold crafts, lectured, wrote articles and books, and sold goods at farmers markets. In fact, the many unique ways we approached making money could be an article or entire book in itself.
Editor’s note: To learn more about urban homesteading, read the author’s book, Extreme Simplicity (Dover) and visit christophernyerges.com.
This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Fall 2014 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.
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