Back to the Land: Homesteading in the City

How a failed move to the country allowed one couple to enjoy gardening and self-sufficient living in unexpected ways.

| January/February 1984

  • 085-071-01-Sleepy
    "Sleepy" works the soil on the Johnson family's urban homestead.

  • 085-071-01-Sleepy

Leaving Dandelion Farm was one of the most painful things my husband "Sleepy" and I have ever done. Like other MOTHER EARTH NEWS folk, we'd dreamed for years about owning a little piece of the good life. We even practiced for going back to the land by foraging for wild foods in vacant fields, and by gardening on our tiny city lot . . . interspersing green beans with the roses and planting squash in the ornamental rock garden. But mostly, we just planned, and saved, and dreamed, and talked . . . and planned some more.

When we finally found our land and made the big move, it was as if the elusive dream had come true: There it was, Dandelion Farm, nestled into a bend of a pretty little creek, waiting for us at the end of a quarter mile of winding drive. It was so beautiful!

Well, we put the next seven years into building that particular castle in the sky, and when we finally had to admit that we were beaten, we felt totally lost. We didn't know where to go from there, and we couldn't imagine who we'd be when we got to wherever it was we'd go. Our identities were so bound up in our self-image as back-to-the-landers, living in gentle harmony with the earth, that leaving was a real emotional blow. Besides—we had to admit it—we had failed .

Why? Well, age , for one thing . . . Sleepy and I were not youngsters. Coping with a perpetually cold, 140-year-old house—with no indoor plumbing—was another reason. Most of all, though, it was probably inexperience combined with two years of incredibly harsh summer droughts and winter storms that finally did us in.

Sounds like a sad story, doesn't it? We were sad, believe me. But we didn't give up. My mate and I decided to find the best life we could, no matter where we were. And as it has turned out, we've found that good life in a small Victorian house in the little town of Excelsior Springs, Missouri. In fact, we began turning the place into our new dream the day we moved in.

Right away, I fell in love with the three old plum trees in the backyard and the vestiges of rhubarb showing along the north fence . . . someone else had once used this place to try to live close to the land. My husband and I tilled the soil in half of the backyard and claimed it as our garden space. By using raised growing beds and intensive gardening, we got an amazing yield from our tiny 15' X 20' plot the first year: beans, peas, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, squash, beets, lettuce, radishes, and whatever else we felt like experimenting with.


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