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This Old (Sustainable) House

What one family is doing to reuse, reduce, and renew at home.

In another era, Stephanie Miller and Chris Cosby would have made it as homesteaders. They value the land and know how to give life to items others would cast aside. They make sustainable — doable.

Stephanie was raised on her grandparents’ farm in Wilmington, Ohio, where “We always had a barn full of stuff.” Her grand-parents grew up during the Depression, and were inveterate savers. Like them, she and her husband Chris have learned the art of frugal, sustainable living. It's reflected everywhere in their home, from the massive collection of seeds in the library to the homemade cleaners Stephanie produces in the kitchen. Chris grew up hunting, fishing, and gardening in southern Alabama and says his grandparents, too, emphasized saving and reusing everyday items.

Kindred spirits

The couple met in the artist colony of Taos, New Mexico, in the summer of 1998. Chris was cooking at a restaurant and Stephanie was in search of an artists’ community. They left Taos together, eager to find a place they could call home. “We traveled for a year to places like Santa Cruz, California, and Hawaii — nowhere practical,” says Stephanie with a laugh. After settling temporarily in Florida, they headed to Memphis in 2003 for Chris to further his education.

Chris began work at the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG) in 2004 while earning his undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Memphis. He decided to forgo his graduate studies to accept a full-time position in My Big Backyard in 2008. This and other projects at MBG allow him to pursue his interest in the relationships between plants and people. Meanwhile, Stephanie began homeschooling their daughters, Violet (5) and Chloe (11), and developed the magazine Photosynthesis, which now resides online

By 2008, they decided to put down permanent roots in Memphis and bought a house. “We could go where the forward-thinking communities already are, or stay and help build them here,” says Stephanie.

The home that they have created is impressive, and definitely not the norm for Memphis. They’ve been tweaking it to work more efficiently since day one. First, they removed the fence separating the front yard from the back, as well as a shady walnut tree in the side yard, opening up the space to more light and gardens. To keep the house cooler, they hung awnings on the west-facing windows. They have also added insulation when possible and installed ceiling fans. With the thermostat parked at 84 in the summer and 65 in winter, the house is airy and comfortable. They continue to work at opening up the floor plan so that the air flow is more efficient.

The ultimate recyclers

You won’t find Ziploc bags or paper towels here; instead the family reuses plastic bags from cereal boxes and cloth napkins. When the dishwasher leaked and ruined the kitchen floor, Stephanie pulled up the salvageable tiles to decorate the garden. When Chris cut down the walnut tree, he deemed the wood perfect for building a swing set and playhouse for his girls. Stephanie repurposes fabric to make pillow cases and curtains. The girls even make clothes for their dolls.

As for trash, they can’t remember a time that they had more than one bag for their weekly pick up. Chris regularly feeds dinner scraps to their chickens and ducks, and uses the soiled straw bedding as mulch and fertilizer in the garden. Ash from the fireplace, even old cat water, gets sprinkled onto the garden as well.

Most notably, the couple removed all of the grass in their backyard and replaced it with edible, ornamental, and medicinal plants. They are now in the process of covering the grass in the front yard so they can replace it with plants that won’t need as much watering or mowing.

Their beautiful yard provides so many fruit and vegetables that the couple enjoy a real sense of self-reliance, which Stephanie says is an important skill to foster in a world of diminishing natural resources. Additionally, Chris makes teas and tinctures from the herbs they grow, and Stephanie makes salves, so they save on supplemental nutrition and vitamins, too.

Chris and Stephanie consider their home an heirloom. “It has value beyond money,” says Stephanie. “We’re changing this piece of land so that it will still be alive even after we’re gone.” 

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