Self sufficiency, permaculture and a donkey

Self sufficiency, permaculture and a donkey

Becoming self sufficient has always been part of our plan. We wanted to move to Greece, simplify life, grow as much of our food as possible and get a donkey…Ok so the donkey idea isn’t shared by Mr Sidestepping-normal and it’s not practical considering how little land we have, but we’re more or less there. The donkey void has been filled by two stray kittens and four chickens. So essentially any money saved on buying eggs is spent on cat food instead. Is this progress? In some senses no, but if self sufficiency was measured by contented purring, we’d be winning.

Before we get on to the subject of self sufficiency…

I used to dream of riding our donkey into the village, Mary and Joseph style, to buy a packet of crisps from the little shop. We’d tether the donkey around the tree next to the tiny supermarket and pop inside before trundling back home. Swap out the heavily pregnant Mary for me laden with unhealthy savoury snacks in un-recyclable bags and the similarities are uncanny.

It doesn’t end there, Joseph’s father was a carpenter…so is mine. Mary and Joseph were surprised to find their family quickly expanding…us too, those stray kittens came out of nowhere. And lastly, Mary and Joseph were seeking a safe place and found a comfortable inn with soft straw on the floor…we stumbled upon a concrete poured villa with a rat infested basement and 1980’s bedding. I think these examples prove that the only thing missing for us is a donkey. It makes sense. I’ll tell Mr SN to read this blog post.

I know this has veered slightly off course, and you really want to know about self sufficiency, but I’d like to add that we did give cycling a go. After ruling out the donkey idea I was convinced we could manage with pedal power. We have some experience of cycling, how hard could it be?

“Cars pollute the world and are expensive to run.” I complained to Mr SN.

We thus began cycling into town. The quick descent was exhilarating and fast. We barely had to do a thing; our empty trailer bumped around happily behind us. The return journey however was another story. As we slowly slogged up the hill, heavy trailer in tow, we questioned why we bought a house on a hill and whether it’s just coincidence that ‘hill’ and ‘hell’ have only one letter different…I think not.

What does self sufficiency mean to you?

So, let’s get back to becoming self sufficient. What does self sufficiency mean to you? Does it mean growing a few carrots and wearing dungarees? I always take everything to the extreme, and to begin with I interpreted self sufficiency to mean complete self reliance and dependence. I aimed for us to require nothing from anyone. Self sufficiency meant growing and producing all of our food, all of our animals food, our beauty products, the list goes on. I’ve always had the feeling in the back of my mind that we should have a back-up plan. What if for some reason the food couldn’t get to the supermarkets or we were unable to leave the house. Could we survive? The answer is no, definitely not. We’re so far removed from our farming backgrounds, that we’ve lost the art of growing and rearing our own food. 

Preparing the front garden at walnut cottage for planting vegetables…

The coronavirus pandemic has woken us up to the fact that if we had to rely on the meagre stash we’d produced ourselves, we’d be subsisting on walnuts, olive oil, mint tea, carob syrup and winter salad. Of course citrus fruit is abundant in these parts, so we also have salt preserved lemons (so delicious and easy to make…you must give them a go) and lemon jam. Of course there are also the 13 jars of homemade tomato sauce  that featured on episode three of ‘My new Greek life’ but we all know that was cheating really…even if it is blooming scrumptious.

“If we had to rely on the meagre stash we’d produced ourselves, we’d be subsisting on walnuts, olive oil, mint tea, carob syrup and winter salad.”

Homemade carob syrup made with foraged carobs…

Becoming more self sufficient by using permaculture…

All in all, we are nowhere near self sufficient, but that is soon to change. We’ve spent the last few weeks extending, preparing and feeding the soil in our vegetable garden. We now have double the amount of growing space, and it finally looks like we have an idea of what we’re doing. After the growing disaster of last year that resulted in a bumper crop of rotting tomatoes and yellowing bean plants, we knew we had to seek a solution. We found it in the concept of permaculture.

Mr SN adding a mini pond into our vegetable garden…

Permaculture is all about working with nature rather than against it. It follows the principals that everything is linked and part of a cycle. For example, we feed and nurture the soil by adding homemade compost, animal manure and green cover crops. As a result the earth repays us with nutritious vegetables. In turn, the healthy soil attracts a home for insects and animals who create a harmonious balance. As the nutrients are exhausted by the crops, we continue to feed the soil, and so the cycle carries on. It’s a far cry from a system that relies on chemical fertilisers and weed killers to keep things under control.  In our garden all insects and weeds are welcome, there’s no discrimination. Everything has a place and nature has an amazing way of balancing things out.

Releasing a toad into our larger pond…

We now have peas, broad beans, runner beans, French beans, chick peas, black eyed beans, onions and spring onions all growing in seed trays. We’re hoping to buy seed potatoes tomorrow and have plans of growing every vegetable imaginable through the summer months. Our chickens are due to start laying eggs in a few weeks time and we’re learning about foraging from nature. 

Our newest additions…
The seeds are beginning to sprout. Here you can see peas and onions…

How we’ve turned our garden around using permaculture…

Incorporating compost –

we’ve been making compost from all the kitchen scraps. We have a bowl on the kitchen counter top that gets emptied onto the compost heap every day. Additionally, we also add in the chickens manure, layers of straw, cardboard, stinging nettles etc. We eventually dig the rotted compost into the soil.

Cover crops/compost crops/green manure –

One of the most important things you can do, is plant a cover crop over bare land. It’s essentially a thick blanket of foliage that is sown from seed, left to grow, and then cut and left to rot into the soil. It prevents the nutrients from being washed out by the rain, pull up the goodness from soil lower down, and adds organic matter back into the soil.

Cardboard layer –

We’ve been collecting cardboard from the recycling bins to layer on our soil. It’s great in conjunction with a mulch on top. As long as the mulch is kept damp, the cardboard soaks up the moisture and keeps the soil underneath moist. It stops the soil from drying out in the summer and eventually breaks down adding organic matter to the soil.

Our new growing space in the bottom garden. The cardboard in conjunction with mulch will keep the soil moist…

Mulching –

Mulching is really beneficial especially in conjunction with a layer of cardboard beneath. It prevents weeds, keeps soil moist and adds organic matter.

The same area with a layer of mulch over the cardboard…

Animal manure –

We collect the sheep poo from the hundreds of sheep that pass our house every week. It can either be rotted down (as it’s very potent and acidic) or it can be soaked in a bucket of water leaving a perfect nutritious drink behind. The bucket can be topped up over and over again and once the manure has been exhausted, the remnants can be added to the compost pile.

Adding sheep poo water to the flower garden…

Stinging nettles –

We collected stinging nettles the other day. They will be added to a bucket of water and left to ferment for two weeks. The resulting liquid can then be diluted with water at a ratio of 1:10 to form a nutritious feed perfect for crops such as tomatoes. You can also add stinging nettles to the compost pile as they are an accelerant and speed up the decomposition process. 

Ash from the fire –

Wood ash is very useful in the garden and a light sprinkling on the soil can add necessary minerals. It’s not recommended for the compost pile however.

Compost toilet –

I know some of you still aren’t converted to our compost toilet, but the fact is, human waste has been used for thousands of year. It’s only relatively recently that flushing waste into fresh drinking water has become normalised. When you think about it, it’s crazy. Half the world doesn’t have fresh drinking water, and the other half flush litres away every time they go to the toilet. We have a sawdust toilet, and this gets composted down for two years in our compost heap. Everything goes in together and after two years the compost is safe to use in the garden. Our urine is diverted off and diluted with water as a powerful plant feed, especially when combined with wood ash. I’ve read about studies that have proved that the combination of urine and wood ash is as powerful as a chemical plant feed.

Learning from our elders…

There’s an abundance of food around us in the form of wild greens. Sadly they are widely known as weeds, as something to douse in weed killer. There’s a lady called Maria who often walks down from the village to forage ‘horta’ wild greens.

“Yia sou Stephania.” She calls out my name with a friendly smile

I always enquire about the plants she has picked and she delves into her fabric bag and shows me. She explains how to prepare and cook them, which always involves olive oil, lemon or vinegar and salt. She’s 87 years old yet she’s still very active. She’s lived on one of the healthiest diets in the world and she’s a fountain of knowledge. I have so much respect for this generation, there’s so much to learn from them.

If push came to shove, I have no doubt that the people in our village could survive on the food they grow and rear. Self sufficiency is their lifestyle, not a hobby. We want to learn from them and re-teach ourselves the skills that have been lost over the last few generations. Mr SN and I are country people at heart. We can feel it in our bones. A few generations ago our families were ploughing fields and saving seeds.

Lessons learnt…

I know the future may be uncertain and scary, we feel it too, but we’re finding solace and focus from our garden and nature. The next few months will be testing but we must stay positive and strong. Maybe you feel the same way as us and have begun to look at your garden in a new light? Are you thinking about self sufficiency? All I know is that the world is a strange place at the moment, watching chickens is better than tv, and a couple of goats might be more feasible than a donkey.  We’ll see.?

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17 thoughts on “Self sufficiency, permaculture and a donkey

  1. Hi, hope you’re both keeping well in these pretty strange times.
    Enjoyed your writing as always, just a couple of thoughts….(1) don’t give up on the donkey….make it happen! I’ll happily come and feed her/him carrots when we finally get back to Panormo; (2) spending money on food for stray Cretan cats is progress indeed…we’ve happily fallen ‘victim’ to this before (can send you the wickedly cute pics) and will hopefully do so again, and (3) Horta is the food of the Gods with a little lemon and oil, though I couldn’t spot it growing wild if I tried (and have, failing miserably). Take care of yourselves, and do please keep us up to date with life in Crete….missing it so much!

    1. Yay! I Have donkey support! Maybe when life gets back to normal, we should meet up in Panormos to exchange cute cat pictures and coerce Mr SN into getting a donkey…over an icy cold beer of course? I loved reading your comment, you have great writing style too. Thanks so much, I’ll keep writing.

  2. Coffee grounds and flat beer is really hood for the soil too. Coffee grounds change the colour of our hydrangeas every year. You should also feed chickens corn or popped corn kernels. Love watching your ruins change to beauty.

    1. Thanks for the tips. We’ve recently got into coffee and realised about the coffee grounds, but I didn’t realise about the beer. It gives us an excuse to buy a few bottles?

  3. A new high in interest, really practical advice plus the uplift of seeing your garden flourishing. Can you be homesick for an island you weren’t born in and have only just visited (over and over.) yes, you can. Can’t wait for the next instalment.

    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. We’re thrilled that our garden is finally looking healthy. We had high hopes for the vegetable garden last year, but in the end it was very disappointing. The best thing about life is that there’s always a chance to try again. Fingers crossed this year we’ll be gorging on produce from the garden.

  4. This is an interesting article, I enjoy reading your blog 🙂
    Just out of interest…..what will happen to the cardboard and layer of green mulch when you plant your crops? It won’t have broken down by the time you plant out will it? Or do you plant your crops amongst it and it breaks down over the growing season? I know nothing about gardening ?

    1. Hello? We’re very new to all this as well, we’re learning on the job!

      We will plant into the mulch/ cut cover crop – we sow most of our seeds in seed trays and then transplant them out when they are a bit bigger.
      In some cases you might want to sow seeds into the bare soil, in that case you can dig the mulch/cover crop into the soil a little.

  5. An icy cold beer with you both in Panormo sounds great….I’ll message Stephanos at the Olive Tree to get them on ice! Stay safe (as seems to have become a nice but kinda sad sign off) ?

    1. Thanks for the links, it’s always great to learn new methods. Yay…another person that would have picked up the tomatoes…I’m not the only scavenger! ?

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