Living Independently: The farm in my window

In the world of autistic adults, we keep hearing about the challenge of “living independently.” This is used to mean such things as cooking one’s own food, shopping, cleaning and maintaining a household, as well as holding a job to support oneself.

I have made unusual progress in that regard. I’ve had a job for over nine years, and my husband and I manage our small condo in Columbia Heights very well. Bills get paid on time, the place is clean, and we always have tasty and healthy meals to eat.

But, somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice keeps telling me that this traditional idea of being “independent” is just another way of being dependent.

One of the big disillusionments of growing up, for me, was realizing that almost all my possessions will need to be replaced someday, no matter how durable they seem right now. And worse, realizing that when that time comes, the place I originally got them might not carry them anymore. Stores change out their inventory, and manufacturers discontinue products. As a consumer, I’m at the mercy of the market, and the things I like to buy could stop being available at any moment. Shopping for your own stuff is just a way of being dependent on the people who produce and sell that stuff. Alas, they are not always dependable.

In the same way, having a job is a form of dependence on an employer, who could decide to fire you or cut your hours at any time. There is no way to live independently; everything in the world is interconnected, and everything depends upon other things.

At times, I have very little trust in the infrastructure of society as a whole. At times, it drives me into a panic that I am dependent on a society that is largely unstable and unsustainable.

We all have our ways of coping with this sort of worry. And mine is to take “living independently” to as far an extreme as I can take it. The more self-sufficient my home is, the more I can imagine that I’d be able to survive if society somehow collapsed around me.

I guess, in a way, I’m sort of a doomsday prepper. But most of the time, there’s nothing frantic about the process. Making my home as self-sufficient as possible is a pleasant and calming project for me. I feel a great satisfaction whenever I figure out a new way to reuse something, make something from scratch, or substitute a more sustainable alternative for something.

I make my own lip balm from castor oil and a few drops of peppermint oil and lemon oil combined in a glass roller bottle. (Castor oil is sold as a laxative in pharmacies. Scented essential oils are sold in natural-supplement stores; I use peppermint and lemon because I’ve found that combination helps prevent the lip balm from growing bacteria and starting to smell bad). Sure, I have to keep buying the ingredients, but not nearly as often as I would have to keep buying pre-made lip balm… and I don’t have to feel wasteful throwing out a little plastic tube every time.

I make my own spray cleaner with a mixture of water, rubbing alcohol and dish soap. I clean my glasses with a similar mixture that’s higher in alcohol, and I re-use cloth lens wipes (though I have to be careful to keep them very clean, because even a tiny grain of dirt on a lens cloth can make a scratch on my glasses).

In the kitchen, I use old washcloths instead of paper towels. I keep a stack of them in one cabinet, and in another I keep an empty wastebasket with unwound coat hangers forming a sort of metal clothesline across the top. When a washcloth gets dirty from cleaning up a spill, I hang it on the wire over the wastebasket, and when they’re all dirty, I put them in the washing machine with a generous splash of bleach to kill any germs and fungi.

This system is still dependent on my ability to get bleach, detergent and running water, but it’s better than having to keep buying paper towels. I keep a few on hand for guests, but very rarely use them myself.

And, of course, John and I make a lot of our own food from scratch, down to homemade bread, sauces and pie crusts.

But as Carl Sagan said, to really make a pie from scratch you would have to create the universe. No matter how you cook your food, you can’t make every part of it yourself. Even if you start with the ingredients exactly as they are found in nature, you still have to get them from somewhere.

That’s why I’ve become a little bit obsessed with making some of my food out of such basic elements as earth, water and air.

In other words, growing a garden.

I’m not an expert, by any means. I’m figuring it out as I go along. And there have been lots of setbacks– bugs, mold, overwatering, underwatering, plants dying for reasons completely hidden from me. But I keep doing it, because every time I succeed, the joy of harvesting and eating home-grown vegetables– even just a few– is well-nigh addictive.

I do grow a few things on the balcony. But the bulk of my veggie garden is on shelves by the window; that way I don’t have to worry about the weather, squirrels, or birds (unless Sirius decides to raid the plants someday, but as a mostly insectivorous species of bird, he’d probably eat the bugs on my crops before he’d eat the crops themselves).

The window faces west, not south, which would be preferable. But I still get strong light all afternoon, and I supplement it with several LED lamps plugged into a timer.

It’s a pretty simple arrangement. A set of shelves, open on both the front and the back, to allow both me and the sun access to the plants… placed on top of a sheet of plastic to protect the carpet. (I tried forever to find a suitably-sized plastic tray with a lip around the edge, but boot trays were too small, and farming mats designed for livestock were too big. I eventually bought a roll of clear vinyl and rolled up the edges, then clipped them in place with binder clips, creating my own lipped tray… so if a water spill happens, it’ll stop when it gets to the edge.)

The plants are growing in a wide assortment of containers. Small plants like basil and green onions are fine with little flowerpots. Bigger things, like potatoes and tomatoes, need larger pots, and for many of them I just used big plastic storage containers. Poke a few holes in the bottom of a storage bin, use the lid as a tray underneath, and you can grow potatoes in your window.

I like to buy heirloom seeds from online suppliers like Seed Savers and Park Seed. If seeds are labeled “heirloom,” that means they’re meant to be grown for generations, harvesting the seeds from each plant and planting them to start the next season of growth (unlike hybrid plants and some genetically-modified plants that are unable to reproduce). To have a self-sufficient garden, you’ve got to have reproductively-viable plants.

But the internet is not the only source I get my plants from. Some of them I get totally free. It’s surprising how many growable and reproducible plants you can get out of your kitchen waste!

I’m not kidding. Plant the seeds from some leftover cherry tomatoes, and you can grow tons of tomatoes of your own:

Have an old potato that’s sprouting? Cut it into chunks, with about one sprouting eye per chunk. Put a little dirt in the bottom of a big storage tote. Bury the chunks. Water them. As the sprouts grow upward, add more dirt, until you’ve filled the bin and the potato plants are going crazy with foliage. In about three months you’ll be able to harvest your own potatoes:

Bought some green onions, chopped up the stems to season your food, and don’t know what to do with the little white bulbs at the base? Plant them. They’ll grow new stems, and you might never need to buy green onions again:

You can even grow your own watermelons from watermelon seeds (not the few seeds in a seedless watermelon– those are genetically messed-up– but the ones from a normal seeded watermelon). They’re harder to grow than most of my plants, because you have to hand-pollinate them by picking off a male flower and rubbing it against a female flower, and even then the rate of success is pretty low. I never actually got a melon to grow to full size. But I got fairly far once, before bugs ate it. This was before I learned to keep a close eye on the pest population. If I had kept cleaning the bugs off the underside of the melon as it grew, it might’ve survived.

When I first encountered bugs on my plants, I was horrified. I imagined that they were a scourge of the kind you see in movies, like zombies or gremlins, where you have to kill every single last one or they’ll all come back and you’re doomed.

But gradually I’ve come to realize that they’re a fact of life in a garden, and my realistic goal is not to exterminate them all, but to maintain a balance where there are few enough of them for my plants to stay alive and keep producing food.

I’ve had little gnats that land on the leaves and appear to suck their juices; I’ve had some sort of tiny black dots that crawl around and chew holes in the leaves; and worst of all I’ve had spider mites– near-invisible tiny creatures that suck the goodness out of my plants, leaving the leaves transparent in spots, and festooning them with little spidery webs in the process.

If a few of these are on a plant, that doesn’t mean the plant is about to die. I currently have several bean vines that are suffering from mild infestations, while still growing and producing plenty of tasty beans. It’s just a matter of keeping things under control.

This means spraying the plants as a regular part of tending them, not just as an occasional attack to purge the pests. I spray with a mixture of water, dish soap and rosemary oil. Mixed in a regular spray bottle, it’s a mild, gentle, and pretty effective pesticide, and it costs very little to make (a few drops of rosemary oil go a long way, and it can be bought from the same supplement stores and online retailers as my lip-balm supplies).  I do it whenever I notice new bug damage on leaves, which can be once a week or so. It doesn’t eliminate all the bugs, but it keeps them at bay enough to keep my veggies alive.

I also hang fly tape, which is sold at hardware stores: a set of two spools, one wrapped in sticky white ribbon, which stretches across the area you choose and then winds around the second spool. I mounted them on the wooden shelves I use:

As the ribbon collects flying insects, you wind more of it around the empty spool. It lasts a long time and really helps keep the fly and gnat population down.

Most of the bugs that eat plants won’t bite a human, and won’t get into your stored food. So, beyond the harm to your garden, which your diligence can keep under control, you don’t really have to worry about those bugs being in your house. There are bugs in every house, and the ones that get into your veggie garden are a lesser evil than the ones that eat your clothes, your cereal, or your blood.

Sometimes, though, plants do die, and you just have to let them go and plant something new in the pot.

You can re-use potting soil. It might have bugs, bacteria or fungi in it, though, so it helps to sterilize it. You can put it in some large container with holes in the bottom, put that inside another container with no holes in the bottom, and pour boiling water through it from a big teakettle.

It also may have nutrients depleted from the plants that have grown in it before, so it helps to add fertilizer of some sort. Hardware and plant stores sell good all-purpose fertilizing powders that you can mix with water and use to water the plants.

If you’re very ambitious, you can also make your own fertilizer with a composter. The Worm Factory or the Can-o-Worms is a good one. Add red wiggler worms, newspaper, and your biodegradable garbage, and you’ll have a supply of nice rich fertilizer in a few months. (They have to be red wigglers, not night crawlers or standard earthworms. And if you can find someone in your area who does worm composting already, it’s better to get worms locally than have them shipped through the mail; they’re delicate little souls.)

My parents have done this since I was a kid, and they have the loveliest garden. It inspired the title story in my collection “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?”

I don’t know if I could support myself with my garden if I had to. It would probably involve starting new plants in every single window and still living on the edge of starvation, if I survived at all. But I take comfort in every new bit of experience I gain in self-sufficiency, every new skill I learn that makes me a little stronger on my own.

I don’t think people should stop depending on each other, but I think the world would be nicer if we all learned the simpler and more sustainable– though less convenient– ways of getting the things we need. When you have eaten a tiny, delicious bowl of beans that took five plants on your windowsill three weeks to produce, you never look at vegetables quite the same way again.

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