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Garden Goals: One Family's Take on Modern Homesteading

Fri, 04/12/2024 - 13:58
Garlic scapes galore in the Sanicola family backyard.
Liz Sanicola Photos

Liz and Joe Sanicola’s house is a Victorian not far from Main Street in East Quogue that dates back to the 1890s and was a bed-and-breakfast for a time. They bought it in 2013 and, since then, have poured their time and energy, and their hearts and souls, into making it a modern homesteading paradise — the ultimate intersection between home and garden.

 On three-quarters of an acre, they maintain a vegetable garden, an herb garden, flowers, and a forest-like garden of native trees and shrubs. They raise chickens and make and sell their own salves, lotions, bouquets, and dried flowers using the plants they grow. It all sustains not only their lifestyle but also the lives of birds, pollinators, and other wildlife that live there too. 

 Even though it can be challenging (she also works in the office of her family's business, South Fork Asphalt, and he is a teacher at East Hampton High School), "it just feels fulfilling," said Ms. Sanicola. Even their children, ages 12, 10, 8, and 4, are getting into the gardening game. Ms. Sanicola spoke with The Star about their adventures and efforts, which she chronicles on Instagram at @hamptonshomestead.

The Star: Can you give me a definition of what the homesteading lifestyle entails?

Liz Sanicola: First of all, it's different for everyone. In many cases when people think "homesteading," they think big tracts of land, having your own animals, doing everything from scratch, being very self-sufficient. In the modern day that does exist and it's something that people aspire to do, but in our setting . . . it's been more of a journey of figuring out the things that matter the most to us in terms of trying to slow down our lifestyle. It means staying in touch with the simple things, tangible things, making things, being creative. Doing things from scratch when it makes sense, but also maybe relying on neighbors and our community and finding really good connections and fostering those as well. It's more about being part of a community that's working towards something, which is being more aware of our environment, being aware of how we consume, being more mindful of things we use and why.

The Star: What first attracted you to the homesteading lifestyle?

Liz Sanicola: I grew up with an issue with allergies and asthma and eczema. Life happens, and it recurred. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, and [didn’t find] a solution that worked well for me, and my husband had a fairly serious condition in his 20s. Those were the major things that brought us into the world of making our own salves and creams. Once we had kids, we tried to be mindful of what we put in our bodies and be more health-conscious. We were always big into cooking, growing up in big Italian families, with grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles around us who helped us learn the ways of making things, and we were able to build on that. We aren't afraid to tackle "how to make this" or "how do we do that."

The Star: How did you go about creating your setup?

Liz Sanicola: When we moved in, the whole yard was covered in bamboo. It's so invasive. We had to remove it, which took us a couple of years. We started with a small vegetable patch and chickens. That was our first want when we moved in. . . . We started very, very tiny. Then we kind of went crazy when we first removed the bamboo, with a ton of raised beds, combating bad soil. We gradually built it up over the last seven to eight years. We have really good sun, but we're adding back in trees and understory and different elements to protect it, so it's not super arid. We've also moved more toward herbs, ground cherries, garlic, onions, a lot of cut flowers, and culinary and medicinal herbs.

The Star: Was homesteading a consideration when you and your husband were choosing a property to buy?

Liz Sanicola: Not so much. We were very lucky to find it. We knew we wanted a place to garden, but the market is challenging. When we bought this property, we had our first daughter and our second was about to be born. We had stumbled across this house in searches a few times, but it would go on and off the market. We loved the style of it and we loved the area. The property was a little bit daunting. It was literally just full of bamboo. It had a pool, which we didn't want. It's in the process of being removed. It takes up so much space, and ultimately what are we really aiming for? It doesn't make sense for our lifestyle.

The Star: What are you enjoying the most about it?

Liz Sanicola: The biggest thing is connection. It feels like a tangible thing. When you need grounding and space to create something, it feels productive and it feels like you accomplished something. That feeling is really important. Watching the wildlife come back was a pretty amazing thing to see. We feel like we're contributing, rather than constantly taking. And since we removed the bamboo, we have an amazing array of insects which is pretty cool to watch and spot with the kids — a ton of butterflies and moth varieties, beneficial insects. After that all the birds came, so now we have this amazing array of birds as well. It's cool to watch this mini ecosystem come back to life. In the spring and summer, it's really beautiful.

The Star: What are the biggest challenges?

Liz Sanicola: Time. We both work. The kids are in school. While this is something we are very passionate about, it's also something that flows against the tides of our society, which is very fast and go-get-it and very, very busy. To do this, we have to stop and slow down and plan and really take it day by day, season by season, and that doesn't always work with modern standards. It's a struggle to slow things down and remember why we're doing it, and not just get frustrated by the time it takes.

The Star: Is it lining up with your expectations, or is it easier or harder than you thought it would be?

Liz Sanicola: I'd say it's easier in some ways and harder in others. It's harder in the time piece. You have this grand aspiration to do these things, but then you change one thing about your lifestyle, and you change another, and you don't have enough time of day to accomplish everything. Sometimes you have to let things go. . . . It's a constant evolution. And other things are easier. We can make things at home that you would find in a store for a lot more money. At home you can actually do it quite simply or quickly and have that little "look, I did this!" feeling.

The Star: Is there anything you would change?

Liz Sanicola: I can't say I would change anything drastically, other than maybe telling myself to have more faith that it can work. The biggest thing is it does take discipline and you have to make time for it. If you don't take the first step, it's never going to go anywhere. It takes time and each little thing you learn is important. Perfection has never been my goal — it's more progress and learning.

The Sanicolas, a family of modern homesteaders, include Joe and Liz Sanicola and their children, Lena, 12, Maggie, 10, Augie, 8, and Teddy, 4.

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