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Planting roots: Lessons from my parents in sustainable living

My parents were depression-era Oklahoma farm kids who came of age at a time and place that required men and women to have practical knowledge about a bit of everything. They were carpenters, hunters, farmers, seamstresses, veterinarians and mechanics. They grew or raised their own food and preserved it for lean times.

My dad and me in the garden, circa 1972

They maintained and repaired rather than purchase new items and they relied on home remedies. Even though they moved away from the farm to California and I grew up in the city, my parents kept much of their ways alive and instilled in me the importance of being self-sufficient.

I try to keep that tradition alive through “urban homesteading,” a sexy term for what is simply making an effort to grow food and make things myself, thus reducing my reliance on consumer goods and services. My purchasing choices are guided by what is local, sustainable, ethical and seasonal. And that starts at home.

Filling the lawn with raised beds at my house in Portland

When most of us think of homesteading in general, or food production more specifically, it conjures images of large spaces and sprawling fields.

I would like to see us get away from that picture to a place where we think of any space as a growing and crafting space. I am lucky enough to have a quarter acre of land.

“Yes, it is hard work, a labor of love. But there are a lot of benefits to making the effort.”

During a good season, I can grow most of my produce for the year, including up to 50 types of edible plants and fruit trees, as well as herbs, which I turn into homemade teas, tinctures, soaps and salves.

I started small from planting pots of tomatoes and herbs on my doorstep in college and tending a communal grape arbor. I lived in a high-rise where one of the few selling points was an assigned garden box on the roof. When I bought my first house in Portland in 2020, I couldn’t wait to create growing spaces and build raised beds at the expense of the classic suburban lawn. It’s okay to start small. The important bit is that you start.

” I was told before I could leave home, I had to learn to cook, clean and sew; skills I didn’t fully appreciate until much later.”

Zero Waste, No-Buy?

Admittedly, what I do requires significant time and effort. From January, when I start seedlings on the kitchen windowsill, through October and November when I am harvesting vegetables and appraising my beds and soil for the next year, there is always work to do.

The daily haul

I know the more serious zero-waste, no-buy and off-the-grid movements are gaining momentum and I’m really glad to see that. But these consume even more time. I mostly focus on reducing waste and making the smartest buying choices I can.

I have several ways that I feed that ideal:

Homemade salve soothes the hands after gardening.

Better Living Through Chemistry

Making your own soap, hand cream, shave cream, lotions, shampoo, laundry detergent, cosmetics and many other personal products used to be an activity for the very dedicated DIY set. But it’s an idea that is gaining in popularity whether you want to reduce the amount of plastic that finds its way into the environment, control what you put in or on your body, have sensitive skin and scent-based allergies (like me), or you just like to experiment. With a little care and understanding of chemistry, the sky is the limit.

Shea butter-olive oil soap with thyme and sweet annie

I make around 3-4 pounds of soap when the weather turns nice (handling caustic lye is better done outside). As a bit of a control-freak with allergies to many synthetic scents used in personal products, I love the fact that I can create a custom soap with essential oils and plants from the garden.

Soap is an essential, but I like making my own salves and creams, all with no packaging, less cost, less environmental impact and they don’t make me sneeze!


I wouldn’t be much of a gardener without compost. If you have the space, it’s an easy way to recycle organic materials into  fertilizer for your garden.

Quilts can be rich in colors and textures with scrap material.

Sewing and Cooking

Repairing clothes, sewing my own linens and textiles and recycling used fabric into quilts, blankets and other household items and crafts is second nature to me. I was told before I could leave home, I had to learn to cook, clean and sew; skills I didn’t fully appreciate until much later.

I cook 98% of my meals at home from scratch. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate a night out at a good restaurant (or even a good dive restaurant) and I go weak for mint chocolate chip gelato. But I try to avoid highly processed food.

Creative cooking

I often make my own bread, cheese, preserves and pickles; dry fruit; and grow my own grains. I am a fan of seasonal eating – I think, especially in the West, we’ve gotten away from variety in our diets and the enjoyment of vegetables, fruits and meats in their season. So, I don’t preserve as much from the garden as I could. But I do like a good jam …

Gardening with love

Yes, it is hard work, a labor of love. But there are a lot of benefits to making the effort:

Michele Thompson

Michele manages web design/business applications and graphics at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

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