Finding our Place – Adapting in the City or Country?

Sharon Astyk wrote a very interesting post a couple of weeks ago about Reconsidering Cities. It got me to thinking about whether the right decision for us is a few acres outside a small country town or a large house block in a medium-sized city. We go back and forth on this question very regularly, so today I’d like to spend some time determining the pro’s and con’s of each option.

I apologise in advance if this is not at all interesting to anyone but me, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while. If you do happen to have some thoughts that I’ve missed, I’d appreciate if you could leave me a comment.

This thought process is part of our five-year plan. For the next five years we intend to keep working, saving money and maybe starting a family. We also intend to keep working on our self-sufficiency plans and making our vision become a reality. OK…onto the two options I can’t seem to decide upon.

1. Adapting in the City

There is really only one city I’d be interested in living in permanently when I return to Australia. Here are a few statistics to put it in perspective.

  • Population ~320,000
  • 31% of the population are aged between 20-39. Only 14% of the population are aged over 60.
  • Over 40% of the population are working in government administration and defence.
  • 68% travel to work in a car, 6% walk or cycle and 5% catch the bus.
  • Median Household income is $1400 per week.

It’s very much a government town, with much of the population well educated and well paid.

My vision for adapting in the city

We’ll be living in a small house (2-3 bedrooms) which is likely to be a post-war brick or weatherboard ex-government house. We’ll be on a block that’s about 500-600m² (5300-6500ft²) which is in the inner city area (within 7km drive of the city centre). We’ll be within walking distance of local shops, restaurants and cafes and can cycle to most places within the inner core of the city because it’s extremely bike friendly. We’ll have made our property as sustainable as possible given the climatic conditions:

  • By Australian standards, summers are hot and winters are cold (snow is rare although frosts occur 25% of the year). Good insulation is a must, as is an efficient heating source to stop us freezing in the winter.
  • We’ll add solar hot water and solar electricity panels to the roof. It’s a very sunny city, with mean daily sunshine of 7.6 hours/day and completely clear days 27% of the year.
  • The average annual rainfall is 629 mm (25 in) with an average of 108 rain days per year. Rainfall is reasonably evenly distributed throughout the year.  Unfortunately in El Nino years the region is prone to drought and bushfires. We’ll add rainwater tanks and a grey water system to the property to maximise the usage of all available water, but the lack of rainfall is a still a concern to me.

Most people require a car to live here, but the design of the city is such that small ‘townships’ have been developed to cater to residents. Each neighbourhood has at least a local store  and it wouldn’t be too difficult to ‘relocalise’ much of the population. Farmers markets and food co-ops are already up and running and bus transportation is available.

Because it’s a reasonable sized city, I imagine we’ll find plenty of like minded friends in the community and will find many opportunities to get involved with sustainable solutions to the issues of peak oil and environmental degradation. There is a fabulous weekly market where local people can sell their home-made products and home-produced food. There is plenty of culture with fantastic museums, art galleries and theatres. There are a lot of parks and recreational areas throughout the city, making it easy to get out into nature regularly. There are plenty of hiking and mountain biking trails all over the place, making it ideal for us.

Both Brendan and I will be working part-time jobs. I imagine I’ll be working in some type of government agency which deals with the environment or energy. Between us, we will probably be running a couple of home based businesses. With a population of young government workers, the disposable income in this city is likely to remain higher than what could be expected in other parts of the country. This would make this city a good place to operate small service-based businesses with low overheads.

Because of the high cost of living in this city, we’ll have to maintain an income within the real economy to pay for the mortgage, food, transport and services. We will not have a tremendous amount of free time available to become self-reliant, so we’ll be relying more on a large community over an extended area for food and services.

Pros of adapting in the city

  • Access to culture (museums, art galleries, theatres, cafes and restaurants)
  • Potentially a larger group of like minded people.
  • More options for employment. Jobs typically high paying. Better ability to run home-based businesses for income.
  • Lovely natural environment with great hiking and biking trails.
  • More opportunity to influence leaders and people to prepare for a future with less.

Cons of adapting in the city

  • Prone to drought and bushfires.
  • Vast distances to family.
  • Car dependent culture unless able to afford inner-city living.
  • Must keep working to afford the cost of living. (Rent alone would be a minimum of $500 per week for an old house)
  • Expensive housing. Median house prices in a low-priced inner-city suburb are more than 8 times the median income. Prices rose 230% last decade.

2. Adapting in the country

The town we are considering is Brendan’s childhood hometown which is located on a plateau at the top of a mountain range.

  • Population is 2643 including the outlying areas.
  • 25% of residents are over 60. Only 15 % are aged between 20-39. It is a town full of older residents as young people tend to head to the city after school.
  • 28% of the population work in agriculture, forestry & fishing.
  • 48% travel to work in a car, 19% work at home and 10% walk.
  • The median weekly household incomes is about $400-499 (compared with the state median of $800-899 per week).
  • The unemployment rate is double the state average.

My vision for adapting in the country

We’ll be living in a small home (2-3 bedrooms) which is likely to be an old weatherboard house. We’ll either be on a large block (1/4 – 3/4 acre) within walking distance of town or we’ll be on a few acres less than 10 km out of town.  If we are in town we’ll be within walking distance of local shops, schools and a couple of restaurants and cafes. We’ll have made our property as sustainable as possible given the climatic conditions:

  • Summers are mild and winters are cool and windy. The town doesn’t receive snow and frosts occur less than 10 days per year. Insulation will be important and a good wood fire will keep us warm on those cold, wet nights.  
  • The average annual rainfall is 1979 mm (78 in), making it the wettest town in the state. In a dry country, this much rain is a rarity. If we live out of town, we will not have to rely on town water at all.
  • Despite all the rain, there is still quite a bit of sun (31% of days throughout the year are clear and sunny). We’ll add solar hot water to the roof and may look to use a combination of solar and wind energy for electricity.

The local community is quite well set up and all the essentials are available for purchase in town. Some of the businesses are resupplied by traveling salesmen, which seems a quaint reference to a bygone era.  If it’s not available in town, we’d have to drive one hour to the coast or one hour inland to a small city. A local bus goes to the coast once per week for the day. The region is extremely fertile and plenty of food is being grown locally, although I’m not sure that a local food movement is up and running formally yet.

It’s a small town and much of the population is elderly. While this may be good for learning skills from our elders, I’m a bit concerned about the viability of a town with such a small proportion of young adults. This situation may change as more people become aware of the need to adapt to a changing world.  On the plus-side, the town at the bottom of the mountain has a thriving cafe and arts scene with many local people already living ‘alternate’ lifestyles. The shire is already part of the transition town movement and I can imagine that we could get involved and bring much of that activity up the mountain.

As you can imagine with all that rain and sunshine, the town is surrounded by green, rolling hills and national parks. The town itself has retained much of its original character and hasn’t suffered too badly from modern times. In fact the local bakery still uses a wood-fired oven and the Gazette is the last Australian newspaper printed by the letterpress method. Apparently it’s the last independent newspaper in Australia.

The town is currently very reliant on vehicles to bring everything in from the coast or via the inland route. Occasionally the mountain will be cut off for a week due to flooding of the waterfalls. The train line closed in 1972, but I imagine it could get back up and running under the right set of circumstances. There is still an active group of residents who are doing some fantastic work to preserve railway vehicles and the equipment of a bygone era.

Because there aren’t many options for employment in town, I imagine Brendan and I will both end up working at a variety of things such as in local businesses, working at home and volunteering in a variety of ways.

We should be able to afford to purchase our home outright and with a small income from investments, we could be financially independent to the point that we can choose the type of work we partake in. We’ll have time to grow some of our own food. We can also get involved in self-sufficiency on a community level.

Pros of adapting in the country

  • Plentiful water and food
  • Close to family
  • More affordable housing
  • More time due to financial independence
  • Beautiful location with access to National Parks, rivers and countryside
  • More opportunity to interact with the local community and make a difference on a more personal level

Cons of adapting in the country

  • Cultural activities different to what I’m used to (local theatre and blues festivals, rather than cafes and museums)
  • Elderly population. Potentially more difficult to make friends our age.
  • Employment opportunities limited.
  • Potentially cut-off from the outside world if car usage has to decline.

I just can’t decide which option is for us

I need some new perspectives. Have you chosen one over the other and regretted it or do you love how you live? What do you see the future becoming, and what would you choose if you were in our position?

Thanks for any comments you wish to provide.

My first Crochet Project ~ Newborn Teeny Beanie

Crochet Newborn Baby Cap

I’m excited! This week I managed to learn a new skill and then actually produced something that resembles what it was supposed to look like.

Last Sunday I spent an hour with a friend who showed me the basics of crochet and then during the week I watched a bunch of instructional videos. I love how crochet seems to produce such a neat result (when compared to my knitting) and that when I drop a stitch it’s easy to pick it back up. I’m hooked (pardon the pun).

My first project used this Teeny Beanie Crochet Pattern and some yarn I collected from a friend and the thrift store. It’s going to be a gift for one of my friends who is due in a couple of months. I hope she’s not reading, because that will spoil the surprise!

Independence Days – Off to Australia

3697553554_901a1f0477Photo by: G a r r y

Hooray! I’m leaving for Australia this week. I’ve been looking forward to the trip so much, and with Brendan already there I’m eager to hurry up and get there. Of course, before that happens, there seems to be a million and one things to do around here. Thankfully it’s the Labor Day long weekend here so I’ve had an extra day off work to get organised. Here’s my Independence Days update:

Planted: I couldn’t help myself. I went and ordered more seeds. This time I tried Freedom Seeds which is run by the Dervaes family in Pasadena, CA. They have the most inspiring Urban Homestead and I wanted to give my business to them rather than some faceless seed grower. A couple of days ago I sowed the Snow Pea and Collard seeds. After only a couple of days they are already up. I’ve certainly improved my seed starting techniques in the last 6 months.

Harvested: Bell Peppers (Capsicum), Broccoli, Squash, Jalapenos, Cayenne Pepper, Tomatoes and Basil.

Preserved: I decided to try freezing tomatoes. I simply blanched them in hot water, removed their skins and packed them into serving-sized freezer bags. With my limited time it was the quickest way I could think of for dealing with my tomato glut. More Jalapenos were hung up to dry. More batches of Pesto were made from the Basil. Today I’m going to roast some Bell Peppers and freeze them.

Reduce Waste: I’m still adding to compost. We’ll be needing that for the fall garden which we’ll start planting when we return from Australia in October.

Work on Community Food Systems: While I’m away in Australia I have a couple of friends who’ll be coming around to harvest from the garden and make sure all our hard work doesn’t go to waste with food rotting on the ground and bolting broccoli. I hope they enjoy our garden as much as we do.

Cook Something New: With Brendan away I’ve been doing all the cooking. I’m not the cook that he is, so my meals have been mostly stir fries, omelets and fried rice to eat up as many of the veges I can before I leave. Aside from some fruit from the Farmer’s Market, I’ve only had to go shopping once for bread and milk. It’s fun trying to make do with the food I have in the house and what I get from the garden.

Birds in our Ecosystem

Well….after yesterday’s little downer I’m going to share some happy news. Our courtyard garden is becoming a real little ecosystem. Over the last six months the number of insect visitors has really increased. While we don’t see many honeybees, we get plenty of native pollinators and quite an assortment of butterflies. The birds soon realised that our garden had become a good place for an easy feast.

House Sparrows come in every day in a flock and pick over all the vegetable plants. I love nothing more that to see them pull off juicy green caterpillars because it means one more I don’t have to remove. Just recently a fledgling joined the flock on a tour of the garden. It’s so cute and fat and I could watch for hours as  it’s parents feed it tasty morsels.


Photo by: Sheedypj

Another regular is the little Black Phoebe. It likes to perch on the cherry tomato plant and catch the fruit flies hovering near the compost bins. I love that he wags his tail while waiting for his next catch.

 Black Phoebe - Santee Lakes - 09-29-2007 - 001

Photo by: herpindiego

The biggest surprise came the other day when a Peregrine Falcon arrived. The smaller birds scattered in time, but I was very excited to find a higher order predator in the yard. You know your little eco-system has come of age when that happens.  The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal on the planet, capable of diving to speeds in excess of 200mph (320kph)! Their prey ranges from sparrows to ducks, which may be why it’s sometimes referred to as the “Duck Hawk”.

Because of the use of pesticides, especially DDT, the California Peregrine Falcon population was reduced to just two known productive pairs by 1970. After the banning of DDT, the species recovered enough to be removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999 and numbers are now on the increase.


Photo by: Bird Friends of San Diego County

Having grown up in Australia, I loved kookaburras, cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets and magpies. I hadn’t really got attached to any American birds, but now having regular visitors to the garden has really made me want to learn more about the creatures I’m sharing my space with.

Independence Days – My husband has left me…

….and gone to Australia for the month. Sorry…didn’t mean to scare you all! I’ll be joining him late next week and I can’t wait. For the next couple of weeks I’m going to do my best to preserve as much food as I can and eat up all the rest. I dare say there will be quite a bit of experimenting in the kitchen for the next 10 days. Here’s my weekly update for Independence Days:

Plant Something: We have a couple of spares patches of dirt in the garden where lettuce, beets and squash used to be. I had planned to leave any new planting until I got back from Australia in October, but if I do that it means nothing to harvest until about December. That’s too long to wait, so over the weekend I started some onions and beets. I hope they survive with little care while I’m away.

Harvest Something: I continue to collect about 5 pounds of tomatoes every couple of days. Cayenne Peppers are slowing down, but I still collected more than a dozen this week. Jalapenos are turning red and are still plentiful. A few heads of broccoli needed to be harvested. It’s become a bit of a game to see how long we can leave them before they bolt. So far we’ve been lucky given the extremely hot weather. A bucketful of beautiful smelling Basil. About 15 pounds of oranges. The juice has been welcome during this hot spell. A few longneck yellow squash every couple of days.

Preserve something: Making pesto from our Basil. Spaghetti sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. Freezing squash. Freezing Crabapples. Drying Cayenne Peppers and Jalapenos.

Cook Something New: I tried making Homemade pesto for the first time and I’m happy to say it was a huge success. We’ve used it on homemade pizza, but I plan on trying it in new recipes soon. We also made homemade ginger ale which was a big winner and will be made again.

Reduce Waste: We are being more vigilant with collecting the grey water from the laundry and using it on our front lawn. We don’t give the lawn much water (We think it’s a waste, but since we rent it has to stay), so the laundry water is managing to keep some semblance of green out there.

Learn a New Skill: I’m still working on increasing my skills at preserving food. New this week was pesto and sun-dried tomatoes. Both of these are great because we love Italian flavours in our food.

Delicious Toasted Muesli

Mixing MuesliMy quest to make more food from scratch continues. This is the most delicious toasted muesli (for those of you in the USA, it’s somewhat like Granola) and I’m completely addicted to it. I was away for two weeks recently and I craved it the whole time. So, without further ado, here it is:

  • Preheat the oven to 300F degrees.
  • Put 5 cups rolled oats into a large bowl. Add 1 cup unsalted sunflower seeds, 1 cup slivered almonds, 1 cup bran, 1 cup shredded coconut and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds. Stir to combine.
  • Toasted MuesliHeat 3/4 cup honey (mia note: I used some of my crabapple syrup) and 4 tablespoons vegetable oil in a saucepan over low heat. Pour the warm mixture over the dry ingredients and stir until they are well coated.
  • Spread the mixture on two (rimmed) baking sheets and bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  • Add 1/4 cup finely sliced dried apricots, 1/4 cup finely sliced dried apples and 1/4 cup finely sliced dried peaches (mia note: I used raisons and dried persimmon from a friend). Toss to combine. Store the muesli in an airtight container.
  • Makes 12 servings.
  • The Essential Guide to the Kitchen by Michele Cranston (Whitecap, September, 2005)

UPDATE: I’ve been informed that the calorie content of said muesli is ginormous, so please eat responsibly. I don’t want to be blamed for wider behinds. I usually modify mine to have less honey and oil than the recipe.

Homemade Ginger Ale @ Edible City Celebration – San Diego

This week has been the Edible City Celebration in San Diego. It’s a fantastic event held by San Diego Food Not Lawns. There were so many great events on every day of the week, so we had to be a little selective about which ones we attended. On Monday night it was the fermentation workshop where we learned how to make Hard Apple Cider, Ginger Ale and Kimchee.
Fermentation workshop
The Ginger Ale was so easy that we all made a batch right there at the workshop and brought it home with us. We were able to brew a batch of ginger ale in just 24 hours using standard baker’s yeast, sugar and ginger and a super high-tech device: a 2-liter soda bottle. Here’s how:
  • clean 2 liter plastic soft drink bottle with cap (not glass: explosions are dangerous.)
  • funnel
  • grater (preferably with fine “cutting” teeth)
  • 1 cup measuring cup
  • 1/4 tsp and 1 Tbl measuring spoons


  • sugar  (1 cup)
  • freshly grated ginger root (1 1/2-2 tablespoons)
  • juice of one lemon (or orange or lime)
  • fresh granular baker’s yeast (1/4 teaspoon)
  • cold fresh pure water


  1. Add 1 cup sugar to the 2 liter bottle with a dry funnel.  (Leave the funnel in place until you are ready to cap the bottle.) NOTE: Do not use a glass bottle. Ginger ale is a very aggressive fermenter, producing high pressure fairly rapidly. Plastic bottles can be felt to judge pressure. Glass cannot. Tardy refrigeration can lead to explosions. Exploding plastic bottles are messy. Exploding glass botles are dangerous…
  2. Measure out 1/4th teaspoon fresh granular active baker’s yeast and add through funnel into the bottle, shake to disperse the yeast grains into the sugar granules.
  3. Grate the ginger root on a fine “cutting” grater to produce 1 1/2 Tablespoon of grated root and then place grated ginger in the measuring cup.
  4. Juice a whole citrus fruit (lemon, lime, orange) and add to the grated ginger and stir to create lemon-ginger slurry.  (Citrus is optional, giving a little tartness to the ginger ale)
  5. Add the slurry of lemon juice and grated ginger to the bottle.
  6. Fill the bottle to the neck with fresh cool clean water, leaving about an inch of head space. Securely screw cap down to seal. Invert repeatedly to thoroughly dissolve sugar.  (The ginger root will not dissolve.)
  7. Place in a warm location for 24 to 48 hours.  (Do not leave at room temperature longer than necessary to feel “hard.”  The excess pressure may cause an eruption when you open it, or even explode the bottle!)
  8. Test to see if carbonation is complete by squeezing the bottle forcefully with your thumb.  If it dents in as in the picture, it is not ready.
  9. Once the bottle feels hard to a forceful squeeze, usually only 24-48 hours, place in the refrigerator. Before opening, refrigerate at least overnight to thoroughly chill. Crack the lid of the thoroughly chilled ginger ale just a little to release the pressure slowly. NOTE: do not leave the finished ginger ale in a warm place any longer than the time it takes for the bottle to feel hard. Leaving it at room temperature longer than two days, especially in the summer when the temperature is high, can generate enough pressure to explode the bottle!
  10. Filter the ginger ale through a strainer if you find floating pieces of ginger objectionable.  Serve!
I took the bottle in to work to share it around and make sure it tasted ‘authentic’. My friend George made a lovely label to make it look more professional 🙂 Everyone was really impressed and I’ll probably run a lunchtime workshop in the office one day soon.

Independence Days….back from my work trip


Photo by: Guille

I’ve been away for work for two weeks and came back to a garden in full swing. It’s our first ever vege garden, so I wasn’t expecting much when we started planting earlier this year. Surprisingly it’s been really productive. I guess the plants love that California sunshine. I’m even more surprised that I haven’t killed anything. I’ve never really got into the traditional lawn and flower gardening and usually managed to kill everything through neglect. Not so with the veges….they’ve been a labour of love since the start. I’m completely surprised how much I enjoy it. Ok…since I was away for a few weeks, it’s been a busy weekend.

Planted: Nil

Harvested: Tomatoes by the bucket-load. Crabapples by the bucket-load. A handful of Squash. 35 Jalapenos. A head of Broccoli. Basil. Oranges.

Preserved: Tomatoes were made into spaghetti sauce. Half the Crabapples became Crabapple Liqueur and the rest were blanched and frozen. Hung the Jalapenos up to dry. Made Pesto from the Basil and froze it.

Waste Not: I cut back some of the squash and tomato plants and added them to the compost with the kitchen scraps. The first compost bin must be almost ready to use, so I’d like to get the second one full before I leave for three weeks in September.

Want Not: Before I left on my work trip we had been collecting a few items which had been left for trash. Brendan has been collecting old radios and electronics and is inventing something in the shed. I don’t see him anymore! Yesterday he unveiled a new Antenna for the TV which he’d made from some discarded timber, coat-hangers and various other items. It even worked! (Not that I had any doubts).  He’s extremely creative and manages to turn all sorts of junk into useful items. A few old pots left for trash outside the Marriott Hotel was all I managed to scavenge. They’ll be useful when I start seeds again later this year.

Learn a New Skill: I’m still working on learning skills regarding preserving foods. It makes sense given the abundance we have at the moment.

Work on Community Food Systems: Nothing new. Green Waste collection at work was on hold while I was away, but one friend still dropped theirs over. Brendan gave some of our garden bounty away to some friends who had him over for dinner while I was away.

Cayenne Peppers 101

First cayenne peppers

One of the earliest successes we had in the garden was the cayenne peppers. Of course, we cheated just a little bit and bought six plants as seedlings. We put three directly into the ground, one into a large pot and we experimentally tried two plants in a straw bale. While those in the straw bale managed to stay alive they failed to thrive and started turning yellow. Eventually they looked so sick that I pulled them out and planted them in the ground. After a little bit of nursing they are now doing very well.

The plants grew easily and the one in the pot flowered very quickly. In hindsight, I would have pinched off those early flowers. Once flowering, all other growth ceased and it is now only a third of the size of the other plants which were slower to flower. Consequently it’s also produced less fruit.

The cayenne peppers got to their full size quite quickly, but it took at least another two months for them to start turning red.  It took some patience to leave them there, but our first taste of a green pepper lacked any sort of heat so we were determined to give them some time to spice up.

Eventually we had some ripened red peppers and a good sized bite left me with tears in my eyes.

ready to harvest

We love spicy food, so these peppers will be used all year around. At this stage I have over 80 peppers drying in the kitchen and another couple of dozen have been pickled. We still have plenty left on the plants, so I suspect we are going to have to grind some dried peppers into flakes and give them away to anyone who enjoys spicy food.

drying cayenne peppers