Simple Prepping for the Suburban Home, by Keep-it-Simple Suburbanite

Our family lives in an average house on an average lot near the edge of an average midwestern city.  While we have two evacuation invitations and are looking into purchasing “camping land”, our primary plan is to shelter in place.  From the very beginning, JWR’s “blinding flash of the obvious” has been the watchword in my quest for simplicity.  Limited time, space and resources have led to some streamlining that might give others a few helpful ideas.


Have you ever felt overwhelmed and intimidated by all the great gardening advice you read here on the blog?  If so, why not just try a practice garden? 
For me, gardening started when I walked in to a bookstore looking for something to read as I recovered from my upcoming cancer surgery.  I felt the Lord direct me to Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts.  At the time I thought it was to facilitate better nutrition and exercise to get my strength back, but it was also my introduction to SurvivalBlog and the preparedness world.   

Not knowing anything about raising food, we decided to put in a practice garden.  A friend with a rototiller got it started, but it took all summer to dig and plant a little every day as I recovered.  The next year we started practicing Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening.  Every year we “practice” some new things, eat the mistakes and never worry about doing it the wrong way. 


As the garden evolves, discoveries and challenges lead to better design.  Here are some fun facts my garden has taught me.  The things that are harvested all at once can be in less accessible areas, but the salad fixings and herbs should be handy for daily use.  It can be hard to find the fruits under the leaves of vines; but planting vine crops next to trellises oriented north and tipped 30-45 degrees means that they’ll grow with the leaves on top and the fruit underneath.  Root crops generally grow well in clay but are hard to harvest, so put them in areas with loose soil or in deep containers.  A vegetable garden with a few flowers and a focal point is a decorative garden, so toss in a few flower seeds and use interesting discarded items as trellises or art. 

For those of us living in suburbia, aesthetics is an important part of getting along with neighbors.  If it’s ugly, it should be hidden in the back yard, but it shouldn’t get too ugly.  Fences are great for privacy, trellising and security, but can also separate you from the community.  We have opted for hedges of native and edible shrubs.  Most utilitarian gardening should be done in inconspicuous areas, and everything visible to the neighbors should be inoffensive, hopefully even attractive.  The more the neighbors garden, the more they see all gardens as things of beauty.  Sharing seeds, plants, produce and especially compliments can work wonders. 

Perennial landscaping can focus on attractive food-producing plants, and most of these can certainly be in the more public areas.  My next practice garden will be a medicinal herb garden disguised as an English cottage garden in the front yard.  We also have space between the house and evergreen foundation plantings to stack firewood so it’s out of the weather and out of sight.  Decorative features such as arbors and pergolas can also support food production.  A yard can blend in with the neighbors and still be attractive and productive.

Even the best soil needs to be renewed with compost, but it seemed so complicated that I was hesitant to try it.  There are lots of fancy expensive complicated systems out there, but the simplest and quickest method is just to compost in place.  Basically, everything organic will rot and become humus in the soil. Dig a hole.  Put organic material in it.  Cover it up.  Wait a while.  Plant something.  How simple is that?  If you give worm medication to your pets, the feces would kill worms, so don’t compost that.  If you try to compost meat or bones, the neighbor’s dog might dig it up, so you might not want to compost that either.  On the other hand, don’t most people bury dead animals, which are essentially meat and bones?  Leaves and grass clippings make great mulch throughout the garden.  As it breaks down, it becomes more compost. 

Seed saving has been thoroughly covered by others, but here is one simple idea I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Don’t you wish that annual vegetables were perennials?  Anyone with a yard can start a living seed bank.  In fact, two would be even better, one at the residence and one at the retreat location.  This garden takes on a lush but wild appearance, so select the site accordingly.  Simply plant favorite crops and don’t harvest most of them.  Enjoy a few nibbles, but leave most of it to reproduce naturally.  Choose one variety of open-pollinated seeds for each vegetable to avoid undesired crosses.  Potatoes, squash, tomatoes, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, onions, garlic, beans, peas and such will establish themselves and natural selection will finely tune the best traits for your location.  Omitting tall corn and red tomatoes will make the garden less noticeable.  Certainly, not everything will do well, but in time of need it’s good to have an additional source of nourishment and hardy seeds. 


Disposing of wastes is high on the list of concerns for a suburban prepper.  All this talk of five gallon buckets and outhouses is not very appealing.  A friend who served as a SEAL informed me that full five-gallon buckets can and do break.  They also get extremely heavy.  The neighbors might not like the looks of an outhouse, and they are not generally designed for ease of thorough cleaning.  Here is a simpler solution that I haven’t seen anyone mention. 
Simply modify indoor facilities.  Place a 5-quart ice cream pail in the toilet bowl.  (You may need to remove a little water so it doesn’t float.)  Voila, the most convenient chamber pot imaginable!  The family will be more comfortable sitting in a familiar place, and it is easy to keep sanitary.  You may want to put a little bio-friendly soap in the pail first.  It should be lined with sawdust, grass clippings or other suitable material, which will also be used to cover fecal material after each use.  Keep this in another pail next to the commode.
The odor and toxicity of solid wastes are reduced when they are not mixed with urine, so a separate pail for urine is a good idea.  This can actually be stored and used in the shower or tub, which also makes for easier maintenance.  Using a pail for this purpose is easier if one responds to the “urge” sooner rather than later.  If there is an occasional splash, the design of the shower/tub makes clean up easier. 

Hand washing can be done at the sink, almost as usual.  Large liquid laundry detergent containers with spigots can be reused wherever you need convenient hand washing.  (We keep one in the garden.)  If you want to reuse the water, just set a pail in the sink.  That water is suitable for sponge baths, cleaning the bathroom, cleaning the waste pail or all three if you’re really short on water. 

In a situation without running water, keeping the body clean would be more necessary and difficult than usual.  A solar shower designed for camping is what we have for now.  It necessitates a sturdy hook (or two) to hold the shower as high as possible.  Placing it above the tub at the opposite side from the showerhead is most convenient.  You might also want two in front of the bathroom window to warm the water on cold sunny days.  Our solar shower is heavy, awkward, hard to dry out after use, and it cannot produce significant water pressure.  It is OK for a quick wet down and rinse, but a washcloth is going to have to take the place of water pressure.  Several quick rinses throughout the day sometimes work better than waiting to scrub everything off in the evening. 

For simplicity’s sake, one multi-use cleanser is ideal.  Dawn dish soap is good for almost everything.  My hairdresser said the pH is fine for oily hair, and no one is going to shampoo hair unless it’s greasy in an extreme situation.  Dawn is used on wildlife affected by oil spills, so it is nontoxic and effective.  Using a foam soap dispenser makes a tiny bit of soap go a long way.  It’s also Okay for hand laundry, but difficult to rinse if too much is used. 

It is essential to keep the bathroom clean.  Everything from the mirror to the floor should we wiped down every day so there is no build-up of nastiness.  Empty the waste pails at least once a day.  With the small capacity and distinct odor, the pail will demand frequent attention.  Since the handles and lids are somewhat unreliable, be careful to hold each pail with one hand below and one above the pail!  Solid wastes must be buried.  Doing so near trees or shrubs may hasten decomposition, but obviously, you’re not going to bury it near the potatoes and carrots.  I make it a practice to dig a suitable ditch before the ground freezes each fall, just in case.  The waste pail should be cleaned daily.  Consider alternating two pails so one can sit in the sun to dry and disinfect.
This might seem gross when there is perfectly good city water and sewer, but it’s not a bad idea to try it out now when mistakes don’t matter. 

Food Storage

Start in the kitchen. When I first found SurvivalBlog, I started stashing packaged goods in the backs of file drawers and behind books on the shelf, wherever there was a little extra room. What a mess!  The best place to start is in the kitchen, of course. Work through each cupboard, using or tossing the things the family usually doesn’t eat.  This is also a good time to reorganize and pare down the things that aren’t needed.  With all this newfound space, it’s easy to have multiple cans or packages of what you really like.  (Are you old enough to remember the Beverly Hillbillies ads where Granny had an entire cupboard filled with Campbell’s Soup?)

Add the Pantry
If there is already a pantry next to the kitchen consider yourself blessed.  My husband had actually set up a pantry shelf at the foot of the basement stairs for extra food. (Silly me; I had thought it was unnecessary since we already had a fine kitchen.)  I started adding to his stash, sorting and resorting to make new additions fit without giving away the fact that I was building up the stores.  The point is, starting with one set of shelves in a handy place outside the kitchen keeps momentum going without overwhelming the kitchen. 
At this point, it was time to know how long this storage food would last.  There are all kinds of fancy charts and spreadsheets, but anything that complicated was not going to work for us.   A calculator was kept on hand to calculate and label the number of calories in each package.  For our family, about 8,000 calories per day is what we currently consume.  Every time 8,000 calories was added to the pantry, a hash mark went on the tally on a cardboard box on the shelf.  When food went upstairs or was purchased, the tally was adjusted.  It would have been way too complicated to calculate the food in the kitchen, so that was just considered bonus food.  This was a simple way to keep score until there was about 9 months of food in storage.
About this time I also realized that separating my storage and weekly groceries in the shopping cart meant that the food would end up pretty well sorted into the grocery bags.  That made it a lot easier to put it all away. 

Create a Cellar
The pantry at the basement stairs was becoming unmanageable, so one day my insightful husband decided we needed shelves.  That weekend we had four huge shelving units.  These was placed farther back in the basement, in the cool northeast corner.  We knew those shelves would be too heavy to move, so we left plenty of elbowroom.  It doesn’t have to be attractive, but it should be sturdy, easy to keep clean and as discrete as possible.  We placed old bookshelves full of miscellaneous basement junk back-to-back with the food storage shelves, essentially forming a wall to keep the food cellar out of the line of sight. 

If you’re reading the blog, you already know about rotation, buckets, vermin, and such, so let’s skip that.  It is important to have a simple organizational plan.  At this point a place for everything and everything in its place is not optional.  Top shelves, which were warmer, were for non-food items, and the bottom shelves have functioned marginally as a root cellar for garden vegetables.  Medical supplies were located in front at eye level.  Labeling shelves as well as buckets and boxes made it easier for the rest of the family to find what they needed.  Especially important was a handy place for markers, calculators, bucket openers, and a shopping list. 


The kitchen has never been my primary area of strength; in fact, my family calls the smoke detector the dinner bell.  That should give anyone hope.  The simple approach to preparedness has made the kitchen a slightly happier place.


Anyone who can read and follow directions can learn to can.  Butter seemed the obvious first step because it was uncomplicated, it’s not easy to produce at home and you can’t help but notice if it goes bad.  Meat was next, since it is also easy and saves a lot of money.  It would be a waste to mess around with little batches, so it seemed sensible to start with the largest pressure canner available.  Cases of mason jars were found inexpensively on Craigslist, along with a cheap dehydrator to practice drying fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Cast Iron
In preparation for an eventual woodstove or cook stove, I wanted to collect cast iron cookware.  However, when my husband’s used his dutch ovens in the campfire, everything had to be lined with foil or it would stick.  Certainly that’s not how grandma did it.  Paul Wheaton explained things wonderfully in this article on his blog.  Now cast iron is all I use, even on my electric stove.

Despite not being a great cook, it’s important to serve healthier and tastier foods.  We obtained a number of large genuine Tupperware containers for free about the time I was reading about DIY mixes on the blog.  Unfortunately, many recipes for homemade mixes are decidedly unhealthy.  I took my favorite cookie, pancake/biscuit and other recipes  and multiplied them to fill the containers.  To make it even easier, I marked 10 & 20 cups of flour on two sides and listed the ingredients and directions on the other sides.  This makes it super easy to frequently make healthy homemade foods and to prepare a new batch of the mix.  

Reading a few books on herbal benefits and remedies made me want to add some herbs to our meals.  A few seeds and a few seedlings made a good start.  Then I bought my very first bottle of alcohol, some vodka to practice making tinctures.   Cooking, teas and tinctures are definitely easy ways to start getting the benefit of herbs.   

Cook Stove

Having purchased a used Blaze Princess stove for heat, I was hoping to also cook a few things on it when it’s installed before next winter.  Then a pathetically rusty miniature cook stove turned up for $60.  It had probably been a salesman’s sample, but it works just like the full-sized model.  It’s kind of a joke to look at, but it provides an opportunity to practice using a wood cook stove in the back yard without putting a hole in the roof or smoking up the house.  Glitches that would have been disasters in the house are humorous in the back yard. 

Explaning Your Preps

No doubt about it, the preparedness lifestyle can be a bit out of place in suburbia.  Comments will be made.  A list of one-liners prepared ahead of time makes it simpler to respond truthfully without revealing too much.  Here are a few of my favorites. 

  • “We teachers sure do have odd hobbies, don’t we?”
  • “A friend teaches a unit on Little House on the Prairie, and I wanted to try this.”
  • “Organic food is important for us cancer survivors.”
  • “Think globally, act locally.”
  • “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”
  • “This lowers my carbon footprint.”  Yes, this can be said with a straight face.
  • “I’m doing my part to save the earth.”  Likewise.
  • “We’re a Scouting family; be prepared!”
  • This is my all time favorite.  “It’s for the Boy Scouts.”  My sons are Eagle Scouts, and everything I do is ultimately for them. 
  • When the guy at the bakery asks every few months what I do with all those buckets, here’s the answer.  “It’s for the Boy Scouts.  They’re great to organize food because they’re weather-proof, critter-proof, and you can sit on them.”

The very best explanation I ever gave was to our dearest friends.  When I confided my concerns and preparations, they said they used to be prepared, but now they would just come to our house.  I think I had read this response somewhere in SurvivalBlog.  “Sure, just bring a year’s worth of food, a gun and a thousand rounds.”  They’ve been prepping ever since.  In fact, last month they bought a ton of wheat and two handguns.  Having our best friends preparing with us is one of the best things in my life.

Keep It Simple
There is a lot of practicing going on at our home.  We are preparing, but in a way that fits with our life and neighborhood, because in this suburban household, we are a lot more successful when we keep it simple.