The Sustainable Life: Deanna Caswell From The Blog, "Little House in the Suburbs"

A decade ago, when Deanna Caswell and Daisy Siskin first started their journey towards sustainable living, Caswell's real quest was to emulate her grandmother. "She was a woman who cleaned everything with vinegar and baking soda," says Caswell. Living in rural Arab, Alabama, "My Nana made everything from scratch. She knew how to fish, knew how to clean a fish, and she canned." Hers was a sustainable life.

Caswell has successfully achieved something comparable, which she shares at their blog, Little House in the Suburbs. Today, this mother of four relies almost exclusively on her own homemade products. She likes being able to keep toxins at bay. But it also appeals to her pragmatism. Homemade items work well, if not better, than those laden with chemicals, and they cost far less to produce.

"I was really being more cheap than green. I kinda backed into the green thing. I liked it, but it wasn't the primary reason I did things," she says, "But sustainability has changed the way I emulate my grandmother." Their blog, which was launched in 2008, soon found an audience and in February, an enhanced, how-to version was published in book form by Betterway Home.

What's the most outrageous question you've been asked about your lifestyle choice? — I've been asked if I still use toilet paper as opposed to converting to flannel rags. The answer would be yes. I have a limit: my "ick" factor.

You raise chickens and pygmy goats in your suburban backyard in Collierville. The town fathers must have taken a dim view of this initially. — It did take a bit of time and parsing of the zoning laws, but we worked it out. Part of my motivation was allergy related: I can't digest grains, eggs, and cow's milk, among other things. Goat products I can manage. I also don't like waste. It makes me very happy when I realize the only food we throw out at the end of the day is chicken bones. Table scraps go into the chicken bucket, and when we're ready to plant the garden, we rake the goat and chicken yards, put their leftovers into a wheelbarrow, and use it to fertilize.

Why take the time to do so much yourself? — There's something empowering about making stuff at home. For example, I make one soap which we use for washing our laundry, our dishes, and ourselves. I like the simplicity of that, of making a single soap that has multiple uses.

Why haven't homemade cleaners caught on in a bigger way? Because the average American wants a product that works quickly at room temperature, and that cleans immediately. You won't get the spray-and-wipe experience with homemade products.

Your blog has been live since 2008, which is a long time given the demanding nature of blogging. Who is your audience? — We've always attracted newbies [to the green movement] because of our style; we talk simply about things. You also find like-minded folks who want to cut costs and learn how others are doing their laundry. They embrace the do-it-yourself mentality. To that end, readers will find more than 400 do-it-yourself projects on our site, from how to make quick cheese and toothpaste to sandboxes and deodorant. We get about 156,000 page views a month. But to do a blog well, you've got to treat it like a part-time job and post consistent, quality stuff. That takes time. You've also got to stay involved with your online community to help build traffic.

What is your busiest time of year? — The summer, when the garden is growing, and the dead of winter. Both tend to lend themselves to a lot of activity. But sometimes, we get busy with our families; we each have four children [Caswell's range from 14 months to 9 years and she homeschools], so we periodically try to wiggle out of it by having a guest poster, or doing a giveaway. Ultimately, it's like writing for a small newspaper.

You're also pretty candid about those ideas that didn't quite pan out. — Some of those failures have been pretty funny. There's a whole section dedicated to those things we tried that failed. I once exploded spaghetti squash in my microwave. I'd never cooked spaghetti squash and I simply exploded that sucker. It was loud, too.

What will readers find in your book? I like the book's format, since blogs don't lend themselves to easy referencing. We expanded our material from the blog to include how-to projects, recipes, and tips on how to live self-reliantly in the suburbs.

So what can you look forward to harvesting this season? — In our 30'x30' foot bed in the back, we've got tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, beans, squash, peanuts, and peppers. In the front we grow herbs, asparagus, blueberries, and blackberries. My neighbors share in the labor and we split the produce. I heartily recommend it.

To learn more about green living, read Caswell's monthly column, Practically Green, in The Commercial Appeal newspaper.

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