Guide to Urban Homesteading

Learn about urban homesteading skills, such as small-scale composting, urban beekeeping, and how to set up a rainwater catchment system.
By Rachel Kaplan
April/May 2014
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A 2 1/2-acre vegetable garden, native plant nursery, and dwarf fruit tree orchard comprise City Seeds Urban Farm near downtown St. Louis.
Photo by Jason Houston
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If you live in a city and dream of someday being able to work the land and become a modern homesteader, consider this: There’s no need to wait — you can easily do many homesteading activities in the city. You may not have enough garden space to grow your own wheat or corn, but you can harvest an amazing amount of many crops from a collection of containers. Owning your own milk cow is likely not an option, but keeping backyard chickens certainly is. Plus, in the city, it can be much easier to build a community of like-minded neighbors who can share tools, knowledge and friendship.

Here’s what it can look like: In a single year, six households working with the organization Daily Acts in Petaluma, Calif., produced more than 3,000 pounds of food; foraged 2,000 pounds of local fruit; collected more than 4,000 pounds of urban organic waste to be used as compost and mulch; planted more than 185 fruit trees; installed five greywater and rainwater catchment systems that saved tens of thousands of gallons of water; tended to bees, chickens, ducks, quail and rabbits; and worked to reduce energy use and enhance public transportation opportunities. All of this from six households! (For another example of urban self-reliance, read about a Midwestern neighborhood that created a “homestead hamlet” in Neighborhood Gardens Create Community Food Security.)

Learning traditional skills such as canning, fermenting, soup-making, seed saving, sewing and knitting, beekeeping, candle-making, and water and energy management brings you and your neighbors together in constructive ways. These urban homesteading tasks will save money, create abundance, harness your creativity and put you in touch with the necessities of life. Classes and lectures, neighborhood elders, community projects, and resource books at the library can help you learn these skills.

Why not start re-skilling your community today? The following steps will get you moving along the path to more sustainable urban living.

1. Observe and Interact

Slow down and look critically at where you live before taking any action. Through observation, you will make wiser, more responsive choices about your homestead that will have long-lasting results. Learn everything you can about your bioregion: Can you trace the water you drink from source to tap? Who is growing your food? Where do your garbage and sewage go?

Observation should not only include a clear-eyed assessment of the natural resources where you live — water, sun, wind, and available space for growing — but also interactions with your neighbors. For example, consider how close your neighbors are to where you want to site your chicken coop. Sharing a flock, chores and the bounty with your neighbors will be more efficient.

Get started! Observing and interacting are key principles of permaculture design. The permaculture concepts outlined in Introducing the Principles of Permaculture Design — Using Nature as our Teacher, will help you assess your surroundings.

2. Grow Food in the City

One of the biggest complications for urban gardeners is finding space to grow food. Community gardens provide a great opportunity for you to learn next to other committed gardeners on a small plot of land. If you find yourself looking over the fence at your neighbor’s unkempt yard, you could offer to turn it into a productive garden and share the bounty.

Use vertical spaces (a sun-drenched, south-facing wall provides a great microclimate for beans and tomatoes planted in containers), flat rooftops, and abandoned lots. You could even de-pave a driveway. In some cities, the economic downturn has yielded an impressive array of undeveloped lots, many of which can be turned into abundant food-growing zones.

You can grow a lot of food in a small space. On a patio or parking lot that gets sun for about six hours per day but has no soil, you could plant a garden in raised beds, or in barrels or storage bins with drainage holes punched through the bottom. You can grow many carrots, leeks or potatoes in 5-gallon buckets, and lettuce can spend its whole life in small pots. Columnar fruit trees will grow straight rather than branch out, and will thus easily fit into small spaces. If you only have shaded growing space, inoculate logs or straw to produce fresh mushrooms.

Get started! Read about how to grow a productive small garden in Small-Space Gardening, and find out more about cultivating homegrown mushrooms in Growing Mushrooms at Home.

3. Source What You Can’t Grow

Homegrown food is often a gateway to a more sustainable lifestyle, but if you live in a place where you really have no room to grow, you can still source healthy food. Farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects and local food co-ops are all great options. Cut out the middleman by joining or starting a bulk-food buying group to purchase staples directly from wholesalers. You can also glean from unused fruit trees, or forage for wild edibles depending on what’s in season.

Get started! Find maps of public fruit trees and wild edibles at FallingFruit.org (add spots you know of, too). Uncover stockpiles of bulk-buying how-to, including steps for starting your own buying club, in Buy Bulk Food to Save Money on Groceries.

4. Small-Scale Composting

Compost is the divine alchemy of the garden — the trick of turning “garbage” into fertility. Build a simple compost bin for your backyard in an afternoon by hammering together three wooden pallets. Purchase a pre-made plastic compost bin with a lid if you struggle with vermin visitors or nervous neighbors. You can even simply drill drainage holes in the bottom of a large garbage can with a lid.

A worm bin is a small-scale composting container that can be maintained indoors to transform your smaller kitchen scraps into vermicompost — one of the best soil amendments.

Get started! Mine a heap of composting tips in How to Make Compost. Source your bin options in Choose the Best Compost Bin. For information on comfortable environments in which to keep worms, head to A Step-by-Step Guide to Vermicomposting.

5. Raising Livestock in the City

Animals can turn a backyard garden into a mini-farm and provide nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Backyard chickens and rabbits are the most common animals on urban homesteads, and urban beekeepers are growing in number. Some adventurous city farmers are even branching out to goats and pigs.

Check with your local municipality to find out which animals are allowed in your area — for example, some places allow chickens but not roosters. Undertaking animal projects with others will spread the work and responsibility. Get only the number of animals that you can humanely care for, and think about what you’ll do when your chickens stop laying (because they will).

Get started! Take a peep at Backyard Chicken Basics, and find plans to build MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Chicken-Mobile in Build an Affordable, Portable and Predator-Proof Chicken Coop. Learn why rabbits make a great addition to small homesteads, and find plans for DIY cages and recommended setups, at Rabbit: A Great Meat Animal for Small Homesteads.

6. Create Kitchen Magic

Take up the pot and the pan, the cheesecloth and the strainer, the canning jar and the wine bottle, and you’ll begin to re-weave the web of kitchen magic once common in every home. Not only will cooking save you money, but it will give you control over the ingredients. Take advantage of cooking classes held near you, gather friends together for kitchen projects and potlucks to share recipes and techniques, and invest time and energy into learning how to provide your own staples — homemade bread and cheese are within your reach!

Get started! For super-simple cheese recipes, read How to Make Cheese: The Basic Steps. Andrea Chesman’s book Back to Basics: Traditional Kitchen Wisdom tackles many basics. Bread-baking options range from no-knead loaves to sourdoughs; find recipes in our Homemade Bread Baking Guide.

7. Preserve Food

Freezing, drying and canning — both with water bath and pressure canners — are proven methods of preserving bulk food, seasonal hauls from a local farmer, or your own harvests. If you glean fruits from nearby apple trees or score a large box of super-ripe tomatoes from a farmers market, you’ll want to know how to can apple butter and pasta sauce.

Before pasteurization and refrigeration, fermentation was a principal preservation method. Cheese and sauerkraut are just two creations that require fermentation.

Get started! Head to A Collection of Food Preservation Techniques for instructions for canning, dehydrating, freezing and pickling foods. Try the homemade sauerkraut at Got Cabbage? Make Sauerkraut!, then advance with the options in Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation.

8. Conserve Energy and Produce Your Own Energy

Renters and owners alike can perform plenty of home energy fixes. Add thermal window shades or clear acrylic panels during winter. Caulk window frames and insulate heating ducts. Adjust your thermostat to be cooler in winter, warmer in summer. Switch to efficient light bulbs, which will pay for themselves in energy savings within a few years.

Use the energy of the sun whenever possible. Install a solar hot water system if you can; string a clothesline no matter what. Cooking a pot of soup or baking a loaf of bread in a solar oven uses no electricity at all. Build a solar heat grabber out of a simple box to pull passive solar heat into your home.

Get started! Peruse the Guide to Home Heating for a comprehensive list of energy-efficient home heating options. You’ll find the air conditioning alternatives you need at Natural Cooling Strategies. For an impressive collection of DIY solar projects, from food dehydrators to water pumps, visit Build it Solar.

9. Manage Urban Water Resources

Greywater is lightly used water that empties from washing machines after the rinse cycle, and from bathroom sinks, showers and baths. With some low-budget plumbing adjustments, you can direct this water to your landscaping and gardens (make sure your soaps are biodegradable). Check city ordinances before configuring a greywater system. The simplest way to reuse greywater is with a bucket placed beneath a drain.

Catch and store rainwater in swales and earthworks, gutter downspouts diverted into rain barrels, and cisterns.

Get started! Tap into greywater with the ideas and plans in From Laundy to Landscape: Tap Into Greywater, and learn how to harvest rainwater in Build a Rainwater Harvesting System.

10. Green Transportation: Cargo Bikes, Bicycle Sharing and Car Sharing

Embrace bicycle travel for mental health as well as physical well-being. Electric-assist bikes make for a sweat-free commute and are especially nice for hilly terrain. Then, hook up a trailer — a cargo bike will pull you into finding out just how much you can haul with two wheels.

If you must drive, consider homebrewing biodiesel fuel. Urbanites are often surrounded by restaurants willing to unload their used vegetable oil.

Get started! Cruise over to A Guide to Cargo Bikes, and visit the people powered transportation search to get up to speed with our articles that cover the subject. Tackle producing your own fuel from waste vegetable oil in Biodiesel Fuel: Homegrown Oil.

Modern homesteading is not a return to a Depression-era mentality — it doesn’t have to be about austerity or apocalypse. Instead, homesteading involves skills and practices that lift us out of a culture of inaction and cynicism and into one of abundance and empowerment. An urban homesteading lifestyle is not only about making a nice pie out of foraged apples and learning to fix a flat bicycle tire — it’s about engaging in activities that shift our consciousness toward an ethic of conservation and care.


Rachel Kaplan is the co-author, with K. Ruby Blume, of Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living. Find Kaplan online at Urban Homesteading.


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