What would you do if you won the lottery? For me it would be a small-holding with some hens and a few sheep. An orchard full of apples, pears and nuts. Rows of soft fruits and woodland coppiced for fuel. It’s a vision of the good life honed during hours spent pouring over John Seymour’s ‘The New Complete Self Sufficiency’. But my reality is an ex-council semidetached in a northern village where the mining history has long faded. We have no intention of upping sticks; our home was cheap and we have family nearby. Instead I look for ways to realise parts of my dream within my current reality. I know we can’t be totally self sufficient, but I can make jam and grow food, forage and sew things. I don’t consider my homemaking a hobby. I need it to make a profit. We have a small income and what I do contributes to our family rather than leaving us out of pocket. However, I have two children under three, and their needs come first.
I do the things that offer the greatest pleasure, or provide the best value. I grow, preserve and make what I can, and try to be part of the local community.
In her book Radical Homemakers, Shannon Hayes offers inspiring stories of many others doing similar things to me, though on a much grander scale. She gives a great theoretical underpinning of the movement as a reaction against the push to get women in to the workplace, which replaced dependence upon a husband with dependence upon an employer.
Radical homemakers aim not for reliance on another (husband or employer), not for independence (self sufficiency) but for inter-dependence. Realising that no one can provide everything one person or family needs, radical homemakers create sustaining communities. They learn new skills as necessary and barter with others for things they need. The idea is to live well on a small income, by using your own skills and those of your community.
Truth be told, I feel a little odd about applying the word “radical” to what is essentially just my life! But I know I’m not alone in wanting to spend less time at the supermarket and more in the garden. I love nice things but would rather make them, than work for the money needed to buy them. So here are my top ten ways to be self sufficient… ish and save your family money:
1 COOK The foundation of homemaking, radical or otherwise! If you and your family are well fed, half your battles are won. Home grown herbs and bulk bought spices can help turn whatever the garden, hedgerow or pantry offers in to a delicious meal. Bread is a staple in our house and we make our own. Ten minutes mixing and kneading produces a dough that rises, and can quickly be knocked back many times until an opportunity to pop it in the oven presents itself. The results are so much better than anything we could afford to buy, and the same is true of cakes and other goodies.
TAKE ACTION Try our bread recipe (below).
SAVE: £312 a year if you usually purchase three small loaves a week but switch to baking your own instead.
2 GROW YOUR OWN It’s a cliché but true, that anyone can grow a few herbs on a door step. For many that is the first step to growing your own food. As a student in a first floor flat, I grew Tumbling Ted tomatoes on my windowsill. That variety is ideal for hanging baskets and produces lovely little fruits. Now that my family have a garden and a greenhouse, we have experimented with all sorts of veg; tomatoes, peppers, chillies and aubergines. I am far from a proficientgardener. Sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting are rarely done at the ‘ideal’ time (weeding is rarely done at all), yet somehow we always end up with some wonderful things to eat. Seek out seed swaps and set up a compost bin as seeds and compost are the biggest financial outlays for the veg gardener.
TAKE ACTION: Read Grow Your Own Food For Free by Dave Hamilton tinyurl. com/dhamilton. Check out seedysunday. org for seed swapping events in spring 2021, try Olio or search for online exchanges. Search myzerowaste.com for tips, including a brilliant Beginners Guide to Compost.
SAVE: £520 a year if you manage to grow most of your vegetables during the summer months rather than getting a £20 a week organic veg box.
3 SHOP LOCALLY We still take the occasional trip to the supermarket. But we are also members of a Community Supported Agriculture scheme. This means we pay up-front for a year’s worth of fruit and veg (it works out at a pound a day). We are invited to help out on the organic farm that grows it but this is not an obligation (lucky for us with a toddler and a baby). We are glad to be financially supporting a local enterprise. The produce we receive is real. This means in the winter we may get a little tired of meagre rations of potatoes, carrots and leeks, but in the summer months tonnes of tomatoes, courgettes and salads more than make up for it. The invitation to come and pick all the raspberries, currents and strawberries you can use, helps fill our cupboards and freezer for the winter. We buy milk, eggs and honey from the same farm. It isn’t as cheap as the big chains but I like knowing that the money stays in the local community.
TAKE ACTION: Join a CSA scheme – find out more at soilassociation.org/csa.aspx.
SAVE: £600 a year, based on a £35 per month share in a CSA scheme (stroudcommunityagriculture.org) in comparison to £85 spent on veggies at a supermarket on a monthly basis.
4 BARTER We trade the garden’s inevitable gluts with neighbours and family. It may not be a direct swap, more a passing on of what we have in the knowledge that it might be reciprocated. We also provide plants this way as a packet of seed is often more than we need. Our neighbours have fixed our toilet and provided us with fire wood. It’s all about building relationships.
TAKE ACTION: Take surplus round to a neighbour, bake a oaf and give it as a gift.
SAVE: £0 but gain lots of love!
5 PRESERVE We freeze berries, beans, rhubarb, roasted tomatoes and courgettes and bags full of herbs. When the nights begin to set in, I love to feel that the cupboards are groaning with summer produce, ready to sustain us through the cold and dark. With all that laid by, I don’t feel too guilty for secretly wishing we would get snowed in! Jam making is a ritual; raspberries from the garden, strawberries from the farm, brambles, plums and crab apples from the hedgerows all make it in to our kitchen. I’m not a scientific preserver and tend to just chuck things in pots and boil with sugar till I suspect it will set. The results always taste amazing. The fruit content is higher than anything you can buy, but if the set leaves a little to be desired we just eat it up quickly, before the air has chance to get in and turn the open jar bad. Chutney is just jam with vinegar (OK, it’s probably more complicated than that if you want to be technical about it, but I don’t!). Leave out the sugar and you have a pickle. Chutneys and pickles are a vital brightener amid winter’s roots and pulses. Jam sweetens large pots of natural yoghurt, berries become ice lollies which my little boy loves.
TAKE ACTION: Read the River Cottage book on preserves tinyurl.com/rcpreserves
SAVE: £52 a year if you make your own jam rather than buying a pot of jam once a fortnight from the supermarket.
6 BREW We have had varying success at brewing, plus the odd disaster. A simple beer style of brewing can be done easily at home. A carrier bag of nettles, a few store cupboard ingredients, a covered bucket and a few days makes a delicious refreshing drink. We’ve experimented with elderflowers (yum) and sloes (yuck) as a base. We once made a tasty Christmas version too, using an infusion of raisins, tea and spices. Brewing really feels like getting something for nothing and home brews make welcome gifts. One word of warning though: if you decide to store your effervescent produce in recycled wine bottles (as we did) don’t tighten the lids completely for a couple of days…I’m sure you can imagine how we learnt that lesson. Non alcoholic elderflower cordial is a hit with little ones and home grown mint tea does wonders for an upset tummy.
TAKE ACTION: Borrow a book on brewing from the library and look for a kit on Freegle. Try Home Brew by Doug Rouxel tinyurl.com/homebrewdoug or Booze for Free by Andy Hamiliton tinyurl.com/boozeforfree.
SAVE: £208 if you successfully brew your own beer and drink 2 bottles a week.
7 FORAGE I love foraging because it opens my eyes to the natural world and the change of seasons. Some things, such as blackberries, provide huge hauls to take home. Wild strawberries are a treat best eaten as you walk - they are so delicious and tiny that the task of filling a vessel with them seems too tortuous for me, but as a snack on the move they are hard to beat. Each year I look forward to wild garlic salads and elderflower fritters. As a vegetarian, a portion of non-animal protein is always welcome. Hazels are easy to identify and pick as long as you can get there before the squirrels do! I was always nervous of eating foraged fungi until I found the mushroom guide from the River Cottage Handbook series. Unlike many field guides that picture hundreds of indistinguishable mushrooms, this book is intended to help you positively identify only the types that are worth eating (and points out those that definitely are not). Look your finds up and match the features listed in the book and you know whether you have a meal. Stump puffballs, oyster and St George’s mushrooms have been our most regular finds. The legality of foraging is complex; always get the land owner’s permission and never uproot a plant. You can find further info at wildmanwildfood.co.uk.
TAKE ACTION: Arm yourself with a good field guide and go hunting in your local area this week. Richard Mabey’s Food for Free tinyurl.com/ricmabey is a favourite as is Wild Food by Roger Phillips tinyurl.com/wildfoodphillips.
SAVE: £26 if you harvest and freeze enough berries for a crumble once a week during the winter months.
8 MAKE Having small children means I have little time for making at the moment. Plus, outside of my professional practice I am a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. Things of a high enough standard are given away as gifts, but we do still have a few lovely things that we could not afford to buy. Merino wool socks, a real wreath each Christmas, felt slippers and some gorgeous cushions and mosaics. Making takes time but is immensely rewarding. Libraries are stocked with books containing projectsfor absolute beginners. Whether you want to make your own soap or your own chair, learning new skills is key to radical homemaking. My next ambition is to learn how to maintain our car. We don’t have much money but there’s no need for life to feel spartan. Make your own luxuries!
TAKE ACTION: Set aside an afternoon for crafts in the next month. Gather items to use in your crafting session – odds and ends of fabric for a patchwork cushion, scraps of ribbon for a scented hanging decoration etc.
SAVE: £25 if you make scented hanging heart gifts this year for Christmas rather than buying presents.
9 GIVE We often give jars of jam or chutney as gifts, especially at Christmas when the larder is naturally full and the bank account empty. As ‘tis the season to be merry we always have a few bottles of cherry brandy or sloe gin laid down to share with visitors during the dark evenings. Though the spirit isn’t cheap it is delicious when the fruits are steeped in it, similar quality liqueurs would cost a lot more. We make cards and other presents where possible. Baked goods always go down a treat. Once people know you love the homemade you may find the favour returned. I received a year’s supply of homemade bath and skincare products last Christmas, free from nasties, made with love and gratefully received.
TAKE ACTION: Have a card making afternoon using some of the items that you collected for your craft session.
SAVE: £25 by making your cards this year
10 ENJOY! This is about making your life better, not worse. If you are stressing about turning a bumper crop of raspberries into jam, don’t. Freeze what you can and consider the rest a gift to the birds. I didn’t eat any nettles last year… and I love nettles. But I was pregnant and caring for a toddler so I let it slide. Accept that not everything will work. Things will be half done or never started. But when deciding what to do I choose the option that will give my family more time together, better food and stronger communities.
TAKE ACTION: Always ask; “is this good for my energy levels?” before taking on a task.
SAVE: £0 but you will ensure better balance of energy levels and a happier family!
Our household still need shops, utilities and paid employment to keep body and soul together, but our little bits of self reliance have many benefits. They create awareness of the turning of the year, ensuring we revel in what is available and enjoy it before it disappears again. They empower us to be less dependent on paid employment, and strengthen bonds with those around us. This life is lighter on the earth, better for our health and, to me, more joyful, than being solely reliant on cash transactions. So as my children nap I snatch ten minutes knitting, looking out on a half dug garden and some sprouting seeds. Our homemade paradise.
Brown Soda Bread
Makes 1 Loaf
225g (8oz) wholemeal flour; 225g (8oz) plain flour; 1 tsp salt; 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda; 50g (2oz) mixed seeds; 25g (1oz) butter; 1 egg; 375-400ml (13-14fl oz) buttermilk
You will need a 25cm (10in) diameter tart tin, 3cm (1¼in) deep
1 Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F), Gas mark 7.
2 Sift together the flours, salt and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl and mix with the seeds. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre.
3 In another bowl, whisk the egg with the buttermilk and pour most of the liquid into the flour mixture. Using one hand with your fingers outstretched like a claw, bring the flour and liquid together, adding more buttermilk if necessary. The dough should be quite soft, but not too sticky.
4 Turn onto a floured work surface, and gently bring it together into a round about 4cm (1½in) deep. Cut a deep cross on top
5 Place on a baking tray and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 200°C (400°F), Gas mark 6 and cook for 30 minutes more. When cooked, the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the base. Allow to cool on a wire rack.
With thanks to Rachel Allen (rachelallen.co.uk).
what to read
The New Complete Self Sufficiency John Seymour tinyurl.com/johnseymournew
Radical Homemakers Shannon Hayes tinyurl.com/radicalhomemakers
Mushrooms: River Cottage Handbook No.1 John Wright tinyurl.com/rcmushrooms
Dawn Todd is a freelance artist, writer and creative facilitator. She lives with her husband in Yorkshire where she radically un-(pre)schools two littlies