By Lisa Brunette
Part 2 of a 3-Part Series
Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.
Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics:
LB: It seems most people who elect to reduce their energy consumption and practice homesteading do so in rural settings, going entirely or at least partially off-grid. You live not far from the city limits of St. Louis, which isn't exactly a small town. Why forge this path in such a suburban setting?
CS: Mike’s a city boy. He’s lived within 10 miles of where he was born his entire life, and he can’t imagine living anywhere else. When I married him, I accepted that. It wasn’t difficult because I had lived most of my life in cities of around 100,000 people before I came to the St. Louis area.
Living in an urban or suburban area has a lot of advantages. It’s easier and cheaper to hook into existing infrastructure than to live partially or totally off-grid, and urban areas provide other material and human services that rural areas do not as well as more people to be friends with. We can walk to some places and bicycle to others a little farther away as well as use the public transportation system. Because of this we have only one car for both of us – and we can walk to our mechanic’s shop when it needs service. We have an acre lot with good soil and a small older house which we bought for a very cheap price, so property taxes and insurance are lower than most people have to pay. I have plenty of space for gardens and have enjoyed watching more animals moving through and living on the property as the gardens develop. While I miss seeing the stars and being in or near a less disturbed ecosystem, and I don’t like city noise and pollution, where we live offers us most of what we want at a price we can afford.
LB: That explanation makes a lot of sense to me. One of my frustrations with permaculture - and I know you have your own as well - is that it seems to primarily be practiced by people with the means to purchase numerous acres of rural land in a climate conducive to food foresting and employ heavy equipment to reshape the land for a particular kind of off-grid homesteading. Well, most of us can't do that. Most of us have to (or need to) live in or near cities, and indeed, your model is a better fit for what's in the realm of possibility for the majority of people today. I understand that you and Mike are certainly on-grid, if you will, but that you practice some resource efficiencies that would seem extreme by most suburban standards. Can you give some examples in terms of your home heating, cooling, water, and other utilities?
CS: I’m happy to do that.
For home heating, after experimenting with various combinations of thermostat settings and extra layers of clothes, we’ve settled on keeping the thermostat set to 64°F during the day when we are at home and 50°F while we are sleeping. This is a little higher than we’ve kept it in the past, but I tend to feeling cold, so at 64°F I wear four or five layers unless I’m engaged in grinding grain, the most strenuous thing I do indoors.
Many buildings aren’t properly sealed against air leaks, so residents feel a constant cold draft that they compensate for by raising the thermostat. Back in 2005 we had a contractor check for and seal the air leaks throughout our house and then blow insulation into the uninsulated walls and extra insulation into the attic (walls weren’t insulated in 1928 when this house was built). Result: there is almost no detectable cold air draft, so that 64°F feels warmer than it otherwise would, and the furnace runs less to keep the space at the same temperature. As a side benefit, with the house tightly sealed and the walls insulated, it became much quieter inside. Since the furnace uses natural gas to heat the air and a fan to blow it through the ducts and vents, setting the thermostat low reduces both electricity and natural gas use.
For cooling in summer, we spend as much time outside as possible, so we are acclimated to prevailing temperatures. With an acre property that I actively garden this is easy to accomplish! Five years ago we added on a large back porch that faces north, so it is a shady and breezy location that we spend most of our waking hours on from mid-April into late October. We also keep our windows open and augment the breeze with fans to push cool morning air through the house. When it becomes warm enough, we sleep with fans blowing air from the open windows on us. In this way we avoid running the AC until highs reach the mid-90s, with lows in the mid-70s. When we do run the AC, we close all the windows and set the thermostat to 80, sometimes as high as 82. The same air sealing that prevents cold drafts in winter prevents hot, humid drafts in summer; combined with the insulation, the AC does less work, and we still feel comfortable. When the weather cools enough to drop nighttime lows back into the low 70s, we turn off the AC and open the windows again. Adding up all the days that we run the AC in a typical summer amounts to two to four weeks.
By using the furnace and AC less and by having them properly maintained, we prolong their lives. We replaced the 1970s furnace and AC when we bought the house in 2002; we’re still using the same furnace and AC to this day. Even though more efficient models now exist, it is not cost or energy effective to replace them as long as the current units can be maintained and repaired as needed.
Our water heater uses natural gas. By saving on the need for hot water through using as little as necessary for proper cleaning of dishes, clothes, and our bodies and by setting the thermostat to 125°F, we keep the use of natural gas for this purpose low.
We follow the same theme to save on electricity: First we use less of it by, for instance, only turning on lights when we really need a light. Since we don’t have a TV, that also reduces electricity usage (today’s huge TVs are electricity hogs!). We chose to replace the 1960s-era refrigerator and clothes washer when we moved in because of their age and the much greater efficiency of their 2002 replacements. We’re still using that same fridge though we had to replace the washer after it broke beyond repair. We did not replace the electric stove because the 2002 models were no more efficient than the stove in the house. Each time we need to replace a light bulb, we replace it with an LED bulb and then we don’t use it any more than we used to.
To reduce water use, I don’t water any area that gets mowed. We capture some rain that would otherwise run off the house and garden shed roofs in rain barrels and use that water for watering container plants, newly planted shrubs and trees, and the vegetable garden for as long as we have it. The water in the barrels isn’t enough to keep the vegetable garden going during a drought; then I will water it with municipal water to maintain the plants and get some yield. As for the perennials, if they can’t make it without supplemental watering, I replace them with other plants that have demonstrated their ability to thrive without being watered.
LB: I've been very intrigued by the gardening chronicles on your blog, which stretch back to 2012. In particular, as someone who's dabbled a bit in permaculture, I find your reports on how to grow food crops fascinating. At one point, you mention that annual vegetables need to grow in disturbed (at least surface-tilled) soil, and that these plants evolved as basically early succession plants. That means that trying to grow them in polyculture "guilds" might not produce the best results. Can you talk about your own evolution as a gardener in this regard?
CS: When we moved to this house in 2002, I wanted to grow an edible forest garden by permaculture techniques, so after a year of observations I developed a permaculture plan for the property. Permaculture practitioners like to use perennial vegetables because most forest plants in our climate are perennials and because perennials live for several to many years, reducing soil erosion from annual tillage. Asparagus is one of the few perennial vegetables in our climate, so I started growing asparagus … an entire 100 square foot bed of it. Only after the bed came into full production did I discover that Mike doesn’t like asparagus, and that I didn’t want to eat that much asparagus myself. Not to mention it was only available for a month or so. Neither of us likes rhubarb, the other common perennial vegetable. So I shifted to growing the vegetables that we like in the sunny conditions that they prefer.
Most of the common vegetable plants are annuals or biennials. To understand why this matters to gardeners, consider what happens to a forest after a forest fire occurs or the forest is bulldozed to the ground. Now the soil is mostly bare and the sun beats down on it, drying it out. Nature’s first-aid kit for bare soil includes annual and biennial plants that grow rapidly from seeds already existing in the soil. As the plants grow they re-establish the water and mineral cycles that gradually heal the soil. By winter the annual plants go to seed and die; the biennial plants go dormant, then grow and go to seed the following season along with other annual plants.
As the soil becomes healthier, slower-growing perennial plants also begin to appear. Over the next several years, decomposing plants mulch the soil and shade it. As the mulch layer develops, the annual and biennial seeds are buried in it and find it difficult to germinate. Gradually the balance shifts to perennial plants, including shrubs and trees as the years go by.
Permaculture was developed in the subtropical climate of Australia, where a wider variety of perennial vegetable crops can be planted in guilds according to their needs and habits. Annual and biennial vegetable plants, however, are not just more ecologically suited to bare soil; they have been bred and grown in weeded gardens and fields for hundreds or thousands of years. Providing them with the conditions to which they are adapted makes ecological and garden sense, and it’s easier on the gardener as well.
LB: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I don't mind telling you that binge-reading your entire blog last year really helped me put some of my permaculture leanings into perspective. Last year we hardly disturbed the soil at all, and we could have had better results. This year we've already surface-tilled the pea, lettuce, and cabbage/chamomile beds and deeply tilled the beet and carrot beds. (We have a lot of clay that needs aerating, for sure, unlike your loess.) We're also now growing mostly in rows, for the ease of maintenance and harvest; whereas, last year it was a lot of permaculture keyholes and circles. That said, for something like arugula, permaculture can be helpful; I mulched the plants in place after a spring harvest, covered them with a tarp for a couple of weeks in summer, and then in fall, I pulled back the dying plants, which enabled it to reseed for another harvest, with minimal work on my part and no extra expense.
A few followup questions: Have you tried horseradish (a perennial vegetable)? I realize it's a condiment, so not a huge source of calories, but it's a great medicinal, and I can't believe how much better it tastes fresh. I'm also wondering if you've employed some permaculture touches in your orchards, such as growing alliums and herbaceous plants, or including native nitrogen-fixing perennials such as Amorpha fruticosa. And do you grow any medicinal herbs? I know you make elderberry wine... By the way, we have a huge asparagus bed, but luckily, we both love asparagus! And I'm fostering rhubarb; hoping to harvest this year.
CS: The previous owners left us some horseradish plants. For the first few years we lived here I dug roots in spring and fall and Mike ground them into their condiment form. I moved some plants to the garden and they did well there, proceeding to move outward the same way mint plants do but being harder to control because of their deep roots. Frankly, as much as we like horseradish, we don’t like it that much. I’ll let the farmers in the American Bottom, who grow something like half the horseradish consumed in the US (a fun fact we learned at the annual Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, IL!) grow it for us.
I included a nurse Amorpha fruticosa with most of the fruit and nut trees I planted. As the trees have matured, and especially in the backyard forest as the canopy has closed over, the A. fruticosa shrubs are dying, an example of the succession process I discussed above. I grow some plants like purple coneflower, yarrow, goldenrod, and elderberry for their traditional medicinal uses and for other benefits, for instance their value to pollinators, their beauty, and in the case of elderberry, for the delicious wine Mike makes from the berries.
I’ve tried some other plants that permaculture practitioners suggest for fruit and nut tree guilds, like comfrey, walking onions, perennial leeks, wild ginger, and sorrel. Except for the wild ginger they haven’t prospered in the semi-shade of the trees. That may be because the loess soil I garden on is so well drained that it becomes too dry under trees for the plants’ liking. Sorrel and the alliums have performed much better in the full sun of the vegetable garden, where they get some water during dry spells. The comfrey has walked out over the years to sunnier areas near the edge of the trees’ canopies. What does do well under the trees are violets, ground ivy, and wintercreeper. People diss wintercreeper (euonymous) for its expansiveness, but I have too much of it to control except when it starts growing up a tree or into one of the garden areas that I actively manage. The violets provide some nibbles, they and the ground ivy support pollinators, and the wintercreeper mulches the ground, so I have a working guild under the trees, even though the plants aren’t the classic ones in the permaculture books.