Sustainable Living with Kelsey Johnston
1. Tell us a little about your life in Indiana
My name is Kelsey Johnston. My husband, Tyler, and I live on 8.5 acres in rural Indiana with our daughters Marin (3 in July) and Zoe (1 in October). I graduated from Purdue University with a degree in engineering and worked for a healthcare consulting firm for 8.5 years until I decided the corporate world wasn’t a good long-term fit for me. I now run My Simply Simple full time as well as being a mom, wife, homemaker, and novice gardener.
We built our home in 2016/2017 with a focus on energy efficiency, nature, and passive solar design. We are passionate about sharing our journey to simple – and what a journey it has been! As luck would have it, I decided to leave my corporate job at the end of February 2020 to spend more time with Marin (she was just over 6 months old at the time) and to pursue a few passion projects. I obviously had no idea a pandemic was on the horizon, so initially it seemed like horrible timing, but the year+ that followed was one of the most eye-opening periods of my life. Emotionally. Physically. The state of the world forced me to slow down, way down. I’ve never been so keenly aware of what is truly important to me and what I need to achieve success in this life.
In early 2021, we found out we were unexpectedly anticipating the arrival of another baby. Zoe arrived in late October of that year, and it has only reinforced my passion for simple. We live in a society where we’re told that the only way to be happy is to do more, have more, and be more. IT ISN’T TRUE. Being a mom, wife, and homemaker is the career path I never saw coming, but it’s already my greatest achievement.
Tyler and I went back and forth between the decision to build versus renovate for months. Even the day we officially bought our land, I wondered if we were making the right decision. I never had dreams of building a home or living in something brand new, so it took me quite a while to wrap my head around the idea of starting from scratch.
We searched high and low for an old home to make our own, but it was nearly impossible to find the right mix of location, land, and size. We were in search of a home, not just a place to settle for another five years and then move on. I knew we were looking for a needle in a haystack, and at the end of the day, it was quite possible we would spend just as much money renovating as we would putting exactly what we wanted exactly where we wanted. The decision to build was going to be the smartest long term plan for our family.
With the decision to build a new home made, we knew our number one priority was energy efficiency. We saw "new" as an opportunity to make smart decisions from day one that would pay dividends in the years to come. We would be able to determine the optimal orientation of the home to maximize solar gain, perform energy modeling to calculate ideal insulation levels given our geographic location, and strategically select appliances and systems that could be supplemented with renewable energy sources, just to name a few. Hardly any of these long-term solutions could have been easily implemented within an existing structure.
3. You have beautiful land around your home with an enviable garden. When did you start getting interested in gardening?
A flourishing garden takes an incredible amount of time, effort, patience, and love. I suppose it’s our first child, in many respects. Tyler and I weren’t sure if we would have kids. If it happened, great. If it didn’t, that was okay too. But as soon as we found out we were expecting Marin in 2019, I had dreams of being in the garden with her. Teaching her where her food comes from, how a tiny seed can grow to feed a crowd, how basic kitchen scraps can be turned into food for the garden, and the amount of love that is poured into a meal. The garden has been one of my greatest teachers in life, and I hope it can be the same for our girls.
I’ve been in the garden on and off my whole life, but we finally put some dedicated time and effort into this space when we moved into our home in spring 2017. I learned so much from my parents growing up. My Dad has the ultimate green thumb and was always experimenting outside when I was a child (& still today), and my Mom is the best cook I know. She can make a delicious meal out of anything! Our garden has been a continual work in process for the last five summers, but it’s also a culmination of endless lessons throughout my life – a beautiful sentiment I hope our girls carry with them as well.
4. What advice would you give to parents of young children on how to start their gardens?
Get the kids involved, no matter what it is! Marin has been helping me in the kitchen since she was born – Zoe, too. Marin helps me go out to the garden to pick herbs – that’s where they come from in her mind, not the grocery store. She knows that when we peel carrots or cut the cores out of apples, they go in the compost bin so that we can feed the worms. She helps me pick flowers and knows that bugs often come inside with those flowers but that she can scoop them up and set them back outside. I didn’t intentionally “teach” her any of those things, but she is always watching, listening, and learning. The girls may have no interest in keeping a garden themselves when they’re older, but I know they will carry the lessons of the garden with them forever.
5. Composting seems like such a big task when I looked into it. What is your recommendation on where to start?
Composting is incredibly simple! Everyday kitchen scraps turn back into nutrient-rich soil over time, and there are several ways to do it right at home. Some solutions are much more involved than others, but anyone in any setting can compost. We started out with a compost tumbler which is great if you don’t have a lot of room or live in a warm climate. It primarily works through heat exchange. You simply dump your scraps inside, give it a few spins, and voila. In a matter of months (especially in the heat of summer or if you can keep it in direct sunlight), you’ll have fresh compost.
We upgraded to two Subpod compost systems in spring 2021, and they have been great for our growing family. I cook a lot, so we have a lot of scraps, and the tumbler just couldn’t keep up. Now we have one Subpod in a garden bed and one in the ground and they work by utilizing compost worms. It’s amazing and kids LOVE it.
6. Reducing your energy footprint seems to be a big part of your lifestyle, how could someone start reducing their energy footprint and begin living more consciously?
We are by no means experts, and I think it’s a continual work in process, but I also don’t think it has to be all or nothing. Composting is a great place to start, and many big cities even have weekly compost pick-up! Gardening is also great, and it can be incredibly satisfying. You don’t have to have a huge garden. Consider getting a few planters and starting out with basic herbs on a porch or in your kitchen window. They’re easy to grow, smell great, and they are wonderful to use when cooking. I’m also a huge proponent of a clothesline. I use ours almost daily. It’s inexpensive, the sun is a natural stain remover, and you just can’t beat the smell of line-dried laundry!
7. What is your philosophy about purchasing items (ex: clothing, toys, etc.) for kids since they grow out of things so quickly?
Our girls have both been extremely petite and slow growers, so I may not be the best person to give advice when it comes to kid’s clothes. Ha! I do believe in buying fewer, better pieces though. Both for myself, our home, and the girls. Items made of quality materials that can be passed down are always a priority for us, and I’ve often found the simplest pieces see the most use because they can be reimagined for endless purposes. A plastic toy that lights up and sings songs is great for about five minutes, but it’s always tossed to the side. The bag of wooden blocks, however, can be used to build roads today, castles tomorrow, and an ice cream stand next week.
8. How do you teach children about living more simply?
I’ve always loved the outdoors and creating something from nothing, but it’s really been put into perspective since bringing little ones into this world. Their curiosity and inquisitive nature are infectious. The garden helps calm my mind, and they help me stop and appreciate just how much time, effort, and love a garden takes and gives.
9. A big part of living sustainably is living with what is available through different seasons, how do you teach your kids about sustainable living?
Understanding the seasons, the cycle of food, where that food comes from, and the effort put into a quality product are some of the best lessons to be learned in life. I will never be able to look at the items I put in or on my body the same again, as well as the impacts each has on the environment around me. Everything in life is connected, and the garden is an excellent place to start & learn. In our house, we talk a lot about what is available based on everyone’s birthday. Tyler’s birthday is in early June, so we always say that’s when we get strawberries. Marin’s birthday is in July, so that’s peach season. Zoe’s birthday is in late October, so we talk a lot about apples and pumpkins. My birthday is in February, so we just say I get snow.
Follow Kelsey on Instagram @MySimplySimple