The Sustainable Dream Home

I live in Colorado.  For years, I’ve wondered why we aren’t the leader in off-grid homes.   Because quite frankly, the areas of Colorado I have inhabited all have one thing in common:

If the sun ain’t shining, you can bet the wind is blowing like a banshee.   And often, they both do their best at the same time.

Since we have solar and wind-generated power technologies, why isn’t the whole durn eastern side of the state off-grid?   (I’ve never lived on the western slope, so I can’t speak on that)

In the ’80’s, my dad, a devout Mother Earth News and New Shelter subscriber (and a very informed member of the home construction trade) told me the cost of solar systems was out of the price range of most people.

Yet recently, I read that the innovation making solar panels affordable had also given new, extended life to the Technology Industry. (something about some thin filmy thingee – – I’m not a techie…..)  So apparently, it’s getting more affordable all the time.  (and in my cynicism, I forecast that it will become very affordable the instant  profits aren’t possible in the oil industry…but I could be wrong.)

Perhaps the cost has to do with the batteries used to store extra generated energy.   My local mechanic told me that to recoup the environmental losses created by producing the battery in the new hybrid cars, you need to drive your environment-friendly car at least 5 years.   Since my perspective is that we have been trained to want a new car every 2 years, I’m not sure how this is going to work out.

Course, this same source also told me that anyone who has a million dollars to invest in wind farm projects receives 14 million back via government grants, tax subsidies, etc., but that consistent 40 mph winds are needed before those big turbines even do what they are designed to do.    Haven’t been able to confirm or contradict that, as I don’t have a million dollars sitting around to invest.  But the story stuck in my head and I realized that if true, there will be loads of wind farms, whether they actually are doing all they tout or not.

A few years back, I heard, second-hand, about an off-grid home in the area where I live.   Seems those folks (as of 2002) had only had to turn on their generators once since owning their solar home (1980’s).   During the infamous October blizzard of ’97.   Three days of snowing/no sunshine.    But, I argue, if they had wind-generated power too, their system would have been deeply in the plus side.  (all you locals know of the phenomena of sideways snow.)

I inherited the cache of off-grid living magazines when my Dad passed away.   My brother got his set of Engineering encyclopedias.   I’m figuring if we both read our collections in their entirety and then put our brains together, we could probably build an off-grid home.   Maybe… I’m not as good with tools as he is.  Maybe I’ll just stupavise….

**********

Over the years I’ve collected an array of books and articles –  “Life in a concrete dome home”, given to me by a neighbor almost 2 years ago, How to grow more vegetables….than you ever thought, The Four Season HarvestLasagna Gardening, 6 herb garden books, ten years worth of Farmer’s Almanacs, the same or more of New Shelter and Mother Earth News, the entire Foxfire Series….the list goes on and on.

I’ve been reading about the sustainable life for a long time.   The actual doing is, optimistically, 1/64th of the way there…

So here I sit  in my town-home, with its manicured lawns and no gardening spots (except for the pretty, non-edible/healing).   Where dandelions, the super spring-tonic food of our ancestors, are religiously destroyed every year.  (Bless their little pea-picking hearts, every spring they try once more.)

My container garden, scattered around, seated on decorative rock landscaping, looks, in places, vibrant and green and in others, dead empty save the soil I finally got properly mixed the 3rd time around.

Part of this story unfolds because I don’t have the cash money sitting around to go secretly build my dream compound and then invite hubby over and say, “See?  You can watch TV without having to unplug the refrigerator – I installed plenty of batteries…”

Part of it is because dreaming at my desk takes much less energy than actually searching through all the possible grants and loans available to see if I could get my dream home built and paid for just by carefully documenting and sharing the results of living such a way.

But the biggest part is my own hesitance.

I’ve been steeped in what I call ‘city-life’ for quite a few years now.   As the fantasy of my ‘dream home’ unfolds before my eyes, I truly question if my body can actually cash the checks my mind is writing.   Caring for other living things and designing your life to depend mainly upon your own efforts for your daily bread is a big gamble, given my daily life now.   And though I have the desire, I’m not completely sure if the Master Plan in my mind will actually work in the real world.

I’m well aware of how many things look good on paper and not-so-hot in reality.

**********

Older friends who have spent years gardening get quite a chuckle out of me.   I’ve read numerous books in the past 3 years.   I built a database to efficiently collect and retrieve data concerning companion planting, proper crop rotation, separate annuals from perennials, who likes full sun and who does not, what is a heavy feeder and what is a heavy giver, proper planting by the moon, how much water each plant needs to thrive, and the inherent dangers from pests and how to take care of them without chemical fallout.

Instead of recycling empty plastic jugs, I carefully washed and saved all of them, to use for water wicking systems.

I started a worm-composting bin.  (Which was going fine, with 3 worms carefully removed from a house plant my mother gave me.   Yes, I ignored the caution to only use worms designed expressly for this purpose.   I figured they’ve been surviving in a small houseplant container, why not roomy digs with lots of newspaper and veggie scraps?   But then I left on sabbatical and forgot to tell hubby the worms needed watered.    I came home to find the horror of worms who had escaped their waterless home only to die on the cold concrete of my garage floor.    Three deaths lay at the doorstep of my own neglect.   I still feel bad.)

I spent a lot of time the year of 2008/2009 making the rounds and asking the old timers about companion planting, raised beds, sub-surface watering systems, etc.    They just shook their heads and pointed to their flat, tilled, planted in rows, garden spaces and said, “That’s how I do it.”

Granted, they eat out of their garden every year and share with neighbors, but how they do it is in complete disagreement with most of the books I read.   Many a time, I thought, “Quit reading about organic, sustainable and just start out the way they do it.”

But I didn’t want to give up just quite yet.

This spring, I finally got around to actually ‘doing’.   Even with my planning, knowledge and best efforts, it’s July and I might have some leaf lettuce ready to eat sometime in September.   Improper mixing of container soils, too much water, not enough sunlight while indoors, hail, local bird population that feasted on my re-plantings and lord knows what else I did wrong, has resulted in greenery in my back yard, but not much hope that I will be harvesting loads for our supper table unless the growing season extends well past what it historically does and nothing else goes wrong.

(When I was a waitress at the local sale barn, I dubbed the majority of my customers as ‘crusty old farts’.   Now I know why they have the personality they do.  I’ve become one.)

The bright side of this whole story is my brother is happy.   As I related my disappointments and four, count them four, plantings between March and May, he said, “Well, I would have been pissed if you had just jumped in your first year and everything went perfect.  I’ve been farming for years and it still doesn’t always go right.”

Secretly, I’m tired of disappointment.   He told me to appreciate the wealth of knowledge I gain from every failure.   He also reminded me that in the planning and doing, all that information now resides in my brain, ready for retrieval in the years to come.  He’s been a farmer for going on almost 20 years now.   He’s learned to be patient and roll with the punches.

“But I wanted to eat out of my own garden this summer….” I whine.

**********

If all my planning, reading and learning failed so miserably in a little ole container garden, do I truly want to place my whole life in the hands of my master planned home?

Not so sure anymore.

My family is a big fan of, “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

So I figure, if everything collapses and my family’s survival depends on me learning how to be self-sufficient, then I’ll either succeed or I won’t.  Baptism by fire if you will.   At least I will have locked into my brain some of the basics about what is poisonous and what isn’t of my local fauna.

If everything doesn’t collapse anytime soon, then I have plenty of time to learn by trial and error what works and what doesn’t.   I can waste growing seasons trying out new combinations of gardening ideas – secure that I can at least go buy food if my experiments fail.

I can also keep reading and bit-by-bit add new ideas into the floor plan of my dream home.

(Did you know you can build a solar cooker right into a south facing kitchen wall?  A useful bay window…)

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