Greener Homes and Gardens: Urban Homesteading

Many of us have been inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Laura Ingels and more recently Helen and Scott Nearing and Eliot Coleman. Their writings on simplicity have provided many people with the inspiration to give a life of self-sufficiency a try.

Homesteading, or the back to the land movement on a rural property isn’t for everyone, but living a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle is appealing to many.

There are a variety of ways that you can incorporate self-sufficiency in urban and suburban settings. Most everyone can grow at least some of his or her own food. Apartment dwellers can grow an herb garden on a windowsill and space can be found on even the smallest of plots. Using planters and trellises to grow vertically can expand the space available for gardening.

Intermingling food plants with flowering plants is also a useful trick. Many food production plants are as attractive as ornamentals but with the added bonus of providing you with fresh quality produce. Eggplant and kale can be used as a border plant, and the late harvest of Brussels sprouts continues to provide visual interest when most other plants have finished the growing season.

Stepping out of the garden plot “box” and utilizing the nooks and crannies of your property can yield a surprising amount of gardening space. It is also easier to rotate your plantings each year when you are not confined to the strictures of a garden plot. Since my garden is in my front yard, I like to make use of whimsical touches. I have a cast iron bed frame creating a garden “bed.” I divide the space in to six equal blocks and plant a different variety of salad greens in each quadrant. The assortment of plants creates a “quilt” for the bed. The “pillow” is Johnny-Jump-Ups, whose delicate flower is a wonderful addition to salads. The bed frame is used as a trellis for nasturtiums, an edible flower, and peas. Another benefit to growing in the nooks and crannies of your yard is that garden pests have a harder time finding the plants. Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening, by Louise Riotte (1998, Storey Publishing, LLC; 2nd edition) provides guidelines on plants that are beneficial to each other when planted together.

Composting your food scraps and yard waste will provide you with the necessary nutrients for your garden. By using the material on hand you are eliminating the need to bring in chemical fertilizers and increasing your self-sufficiency. You may have a neighbor or two that would like to contribute their leaves and grass clippings to your compost pile. Before you take the material for your compost, know whether they have been using herbicides or fertilizers.

If you have a neighbor that gardens, dividing what each of you grows is an easy way to double your garden space. You plant the tomatoes, while your neighbor plants the summer squash. This can help you from feeling overwhelmed when all of your tomatoes ripen at the same time and there are too many for you handle. Several years ago I had a delivery by UPS and there were two zucchinis on top of the box. I completely understood the feeling of too much zucchini and envied the driver his outlet for sharing the excess! Learning a few simple food storage techniques will provide you with food throughout the winter months. Freezing is usually easiest but learning to can and store produce provides a more economical means of food storage.

“Even a small plot in the suburbs can provide room for livestock as long as your plans are not in conflict with local zoning rules. Keeping a few chickens for fresh eggs can be easily accomplished… I found that my small flock of birds provided more than enough eggs for my family, and I was able to barter the eggs for other items.”

Even a small plot in the suburbs can provide room for livestock as long as your plans are not in conflict with local zoning rules. Keeping a few chickens for fresh eggs can be easily accomplished; the important part is choosing the correct chicken coop to keep the birds safe from predators. I found that my small flock of birds provided more than enough eggs for my family, and I was able to barter the eggs for other items. Lovely hand-made soaps, vegetables, baked breads and other items were traded for a dozen eggs of a far superior quality to the pale yolk eggs available in the supermarket. Tests have shown free-range eggs to be of a higher nutritional quality than the typical factory farm egg.

To begin your flock you will need a minimum of three chickens. This will satisfy the chickens’ social needs. Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock, by Jay Rossier (2004, The Lyons Press) is a great resource. Baby chicks can be purchased at many garden supply or feed stores in the spring, or purchased from hatcheries and shipped to you. It is desirable to have the hatchery sex the chickens you purchase so that you end up with hens. If you have any neighbors in close proximity they may not be appreciative of the crowing of a rooster.

When building your chicken coop plan on a minimum of 2 square feet of floor space per chicken. Opinions vary on outdoor space requirements and range from a minimum of 2 square feet up to 10 square feet in the run per bird. Larger breeds may need more space while the smaller have minimum requirements. Chicken tractors are portable systems that enable you to move your chickens from place to place. This is a wonderful tool for preparing new garden beds as the chickens will scratch and fertilize the space. Allow time for the manure to decompose, as the high ammonia content will burn new plants. At the end of the growing season placing the chicken tractor on the spent garden beds prepares them for next year. The chickens will eat any remaining plants, take care of any bugs and fertilize the bed for the spring planting. In addition to, or perhaps instead of chickens, you may want to consider raising Cornish game hens, turkeys, or squabs.

Rabbits are a great option for limited space. The time and labor requirements are minimal. Rabbits are quiet, odorless and your neighbors probably won’t even notice them. Rabbits can be raised as a pet with a variety of showy breeds available. Rabbits can also be raised for spinning and weaving fiber, as well as for meat. The USDA states that rabbit is high in protein and low in fat, sodium and cholesterol as compared to other common meats, such as beef, lamb, pork and poultry. Rabbit meat is often recommended to individuals with coronary heart conditions. Rabbit farming offers a wonderful source of manure for the garden. The manure from rabbits makes compost that is rich in organic matter and nutrients.

A beehive or two is another option for the urban and suburban homesteader. There are beehives on city roofs and tucked away in many a suburban backyard. Bees can travel several miles to collect pollen and nectar and usually have no trouble finding what they need to produce a good crop of honey and beeswax. Somehow, the glow from a beeswax candle just seems prettier. It is best for your neighbors’ peace of mind if you can keep the hives out of sight. Many areas have local beekeepers associations that provide low cost training and mentoring.

Homesteading in urban and suburban areas offers advantages not found on rural properties. Proximity to work, cultural events and community can offset the lack of space for large-scale food production. Commuting costs are lower and you may be able to find innovative ways to travel such as an electric scooter or carpooling. Wherever you find yourself, living lightly and providing for your own needs is a green way to live.

Mary Farrell teaches self-empowerment tools and is a writer, environmentalist and student of herbalism. Mary can be reached at and 508-747-5202