Live Country in the City

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The first adjustment toward living country in the city involved installing a wood stove and chopping wood for it.
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The author enjoying a moment with his wood stove and instrument.

Do you get pangs of jealousy whenever you read articles
about folks who’re raising, eating, and putting up their
own vegetables while the only thing you’re growing is
another day older? Do you dream of warming your hands
beside a wood stove every time you turn up the
furnace thermostat?

Can you tell your friends all the ins and outs of solar
collectors but find no time or space to build your
sun-catcher? And are you piggy-banking funds for your very
own back forty while you wonder if you’ll ever be
able to afford a front “one or two?”

Well Bunky, perhaps you should quit making excuses and
start building that new life right where you are! I’m not
just spitting into the wind, either, ’cause I know from my
own experience that it can be done! You see, my lady friend
and I grow and put up veggies, raise and eat small
livestock, and heat our home with wood and our water with
sunshine … yet we’ve made our home in a 100-unit trailer court
that’s smack in the middle of an 85,000 person metropolis! We’re living country in the city.

Back to the City

My “citysteading” success story began when I abandoned life
as a smog-breathing, money-grubbing Los Angeleno and headed
out for some longed-for rural living in the Trinity Alps of
northern California. Unfortunately, after nine months of
hard knocks in the sticks, I realized that, though I had the
necessary enthusiasm, I sorely lacked homesteadin’
knowledge. I just wasn’t ready to live in the country yet.

Still, I didn’t like the thought of facing the L.A.
treadmill again, so I migrated to a friend’s town: Sioux
City, Iowa. And there in the aforementioned trailer court, I
hooked up with a fine young woman named Angela and her
four-year-old son, Terence. Unfortunately, the funds we
pooled that autumn were “minute” (hers), “minuter” (mine),
and “minutest” (Terence’s). So like it or not, we were
pretty much forced to adopt some homesteading-type steps
toward independence.

Angie and I began our move toward self-sufficiency by
scouring back issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS (I’d
introduced her to my collection back when we started
sparkin’ ). And the articles we read convinced us
that our initial moneysaving step should be to cut down on
what would surely be some humongous winter heating bills.
And thus into our chilly “home, mobile home” entered …

… the Wood Stove

I dug my 1895 cast-iron wood-burner out of storage (I had
practically abandoned the “worthless” old relic) and
installed it according to the local safety regulations for
trailers. That operation was easy enough, and before
long we were all set for snow season … except for one
little thing: wood. Here it was fall already, and we had no
chain saw or available firewood! But–not a whit
deterred–Angie and I solved that problem by “citifying” a
time-honored country custom: barter. I merely called local
tree removal businesses until I found one that was willing
to deliver loads of dry wood to our mobile domicile. You
see, those urban wood-chopping folk often have to pay a
trash yard for the privilege of dumping their timber
trimmin’s. So I saved them money, and they gave me wood. A
nice trade, no?

The swap was so successful, in fact, that in only one
week I “gathered” four LARGE loads of elm. The hardwood
chunks were far from stove size, however, so I found a
friend with a chain saw and swapped his assistance for a
share of the cuttin’s. After two days of hard work, we both
had plenty of firewood for the winter.

And a snug season we had, too! Angie and I had installed
the antique wood-burning heater in the north end of our
trailer, so–with the help of the prevailing north wind and
a small, air-circulating floor fan–the warmth from that
toaster spread pretty much all the way down our
long-but-lean home. (Well … I have to admit there was
one night when the wind-chill factor dropped the
temperature to the equivalent of -70°F that the whole
family slept right next to the stove!)

Of course, any wood-burner accumulates lots of ashes.
But as it turned out, staring at three big trash bags’ worth
of those flaky leftovers prodded us on to our next stage of
citysteading. You see, when I said, “There must be
something we can do with all these ashes,” Angie replied,
“Gee, I read an article in MOTHER EARTH NEWS that said we could use
’em on a garden,” and that led to …

…the Vegetable Patch

Now planning a garden might not seem like a very original
thought, but you have to remember that we were living in a
stark urban trailer court. And when I say stark, I mean
STARK. The bulldozers that “terraced” the land for our
mobile community had removed all the usable soil and left
the entire area topped by that scourge of the Missouri
Valley: gumbo.

For those of you who have never had the honor, allow me to
introduce said scourge (as politely as I can manage). Gumbo
is a clay ground (you wouldn’t call it soil) which, when
wet, gets so slick that a full-loaded pickup truck running
snow tires and chains will get stuck on a two-percent
downhill grade! On the other hand, the substance becomes so
bricklike when it’s dry that you could sharpen a knife on
it–the local moles all have to move into trees!
In fact, the only plants that can grow in this life-denying
medium are the hardiest of weeds.

As you can imagine, when we bragged to our neighbors on how
we figured to raise a deluxe vegetable patch in our gumbo
“yard”, folks laughed so hard our whole trailer shook. But
Angie and I just ignored ’em and stuck our noses back in
the books. We studied our issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS as well as every
other how-to-garden tome we could get our hands on, then we
picked out our croppin’ spot, “sowed” the stove ashes,
began “brewing” compost (in plastic trash cans so the local
canines couldn’t get to it), and ordered seed catalogs.

When the winter broke, we plopped our compost on the garden
(along with a free load of manure from a local stockyard)
and then–with difficulty–hand-spaded our 12′ X 25′
vegetable heaven. We next rented a rototiller (we’d both
finally landed secure jobs so we had a little money) and
found that–surprise!–our compost and manure treatments had
made the ground downright tillable. After that, we parted
with even more money and bought some posts and fencing to
keep out the dogs, cats, and–most especially–the
“mini-people.”

A brief aside here about those last mentioned banes of the
urban gardener: Mini-people (sometimes called “kids” by
townsfolk who forget how that particular moniker’s meant to
refer to young goats) may be lovable tykes, but let’s face
it. Children can pull vegetable raids that’d put a herd of
wild woodchucks to shame! Angie and I decided to protect
our plantings with a natural “finger blight” deterrent: namely, the sacrificial offering. We raised cherry
tomatoes along all our fencing, and let it be known that
any ripe little “toe-me-toes” were free for the grabbin’.
And our “natural pest control” worked. The youngsters
were content with their one-bite treats and stayed away
from our more adult-sized vegetables.

And now, back to the story.

By this time, Angie and I were both eager to get our crops
growing. But all the local back porch experts kept saying,
“Don’t plant now. We’ve got at least one hard frost, maybe
even snow acomin’.” This being our first on-our-own garden
and all, we were naturally a little shy about going against
such advice, so we didn’t get our seeds in the ground
until five days before summer!

And I guess I might as well tell you now that the end
result of all the caring labor we put in during the next
three months wouldn’t exactly have stocked a frontier
family’s winter pantry. You see, the late planting ruined
our chances for eggplant, lettuce, and watermelon crops. Then a Midwest-wide plague of grasshoppers chewed up most
of our carrots, beets, peas, and snap beans. Still, we did
gain a respectable samplin’ of eats (plus a whole lot of
growing experience)–and on top of that reaped a surprise
“bonus” crop of volunteer tomatoes that sprouted up from
our compost leavings. So I’d have to say we garnered a
“right fair” first harvest. We even gleaned enough pickin’s
so we could try our hands at that time-honored
urbansteader’s chore …

…Putting Up the Vegetables

Now I confess that neither one of us back-to-the-cityites
had very much food-preserving background, but–as you’ve
probably figured out by now–we never let a lack of
experience keep us from tackling any chore. Even the fact
that Angie had obtained a night-shift job (while I labored
during the day) didn’t slow us down. We just worked out a
separate-but-equal canning assembly line!

I’d come home in the evening and pick, wash, and stack the
day’s ripe produce. The following morning (while I was at
work), Angie’d gather up books, jars, canning gear, worry
beads, the phone (to call friends for advice) and …
(gulp!) … can! The next day, Ang’d do the picking,
washing, and stacking. Then when I got home, I’d grab the
books, phone, canner, and worry beads … and take my
chances.

When we finally saw each other on weekends all we could
talk about was, “Where did you get that idea?”, “Wow, did
you write that down?”, and “Oh! So that’s the way you’re
supposed to do it!”

The total result of our split-shift enterprise included
over 44 quarts of canned and pickled tomatoes (those
“bonus” volunteers turned out to be small, hard-skinned
tomato mutants that took days to peel), 3 quarts each of
zucchini pickles, a zesty zuke-onion-tomato mix, cucumber
pickles, snap beans (if you ever want to grow a treat
for your neighborhood’s grasshoppers, try snap beans), and 2 pints of pickled beets. Don’t laugh at those
meager-sounding amounts, either, because the experience
taught us how to handle the particular quirks of each of
our food products (and we didn’t lose one jar to spoilage
all winter! ) … plus, we sure enjoyed eating our
stored-up harvest.

In fact, we had an especially wonderful Thanksgiving that
fall because, on that blessed day we opened our first
homestored foodstuffs. Terence, Angie, and I sat down to
tasty vegetables from our garden, bread and pies from our
oven, heat from our wood stove, and that savory duck from
our … Oh my gosh! I forgot to tell you about …

… the Ducks

Actually, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t mention
the ducks before. Maybe if I take each of our projects to
completion before telling you about the next one, you (and
I) won’t get too confused.

Our venture into citystead duck raising had started way
back ’round Easter when young Terence received a little
yellow ball of quacking fluff. Since that spring’s weather
was pretty darn brisk, the persistent honker had to live
indoors. At that point three people–and one large,
half-wild tomcat–had to share their already crowded home
with a noisy little box wetter (named Peeper) … and
believe me, that’s no way to live in a trailer.

Angie and I had already decided that we would expand our
garden next year (which–since we hadn’t even planted the
first plot yet–showed no little confidence), so we decided
to build an outdoor duck pen at the to-be-enlarged end of
our veggie patch and let Peeper help “build” the
soil. Then, seeing as how of Peep was for petting not eating (the bird did belong to Terence, after all), we
bought ourselves five more “dining” ducks.

We put all six waterfowl in a
large-Board-of-Health-approved-homemade pen and covered the
top of the cage with chicken wire to keep out the dogs and
mini-people. Unfortunately, though, the local youngsters
couldn’t resist the impulse to come and “play” with our
birds when no one was around, so we eventually lost
two ducks to mishandling and two more to dogs (when the
little visitors left the gate open). Still, two female
birds made it through the summer, so we were able to spare
one duck for Thanksgiving dinner. And let me tell you, that
waterfowl was the best eatin’ I ever had. Except, perhaps,
for the rabbit. Yep, I did it to you again. Now it’s time
to tell you about …

… the Rabbits

Once again I’ll have to backtrack to begin this tale
and–also once again–it was an Easter present to Terence
that started the whole thing. This time, the boy received a
female (Giant Silver Champagne) fur bearer of Bad Habit
rabbit.

I figured that using Bad Habit as a breeder, we could soon
raise zillions of fluffy dinner bunnies by simply building
a hutch, locating a male “stud” rabbit, and then honin’ up
the cutlery. Unfortunately, I read about hutch building
before I read about rabbit raising. So I built a fine,
large cage and then learned that the proper breeding season
for bunnies wouldn’t come around until the following
winter! There was nothing to do but buy another female to
raise for the current season’s dinner table and try to keep
Bad Habit the starter rabbit out of trouble until the next
year. At least the new bunny did make for some mighty fine eating.

More Downtown City Lore

Besides wood heating, gardening, canning, and duck and
rabbit raising, Angie and I found several other ways to
further our self-sufficiency campaign. For one thing, I
scrounged up an old refrigerator and constructed a
single-loop passive hot water system that supplied all our
household’s water heating needs. (I had to store the device
when winter came on, but plan to have a
freeze-proof double-loop heater built by next year …
complete with a solar-tracker!)

We also–like true-blue citysteaders–employed ye ol’ barter
principle whenever possible. For instance, I lent my .22
rifle to a weaponless hunting friend and was rewarded with
half the game he shot. I also traded extra garden produce
for other goods we needed, and hooked into a local food
co-op to swap my work time for discounts on quality,
affordable foodstuffs.

All in all, Angie and I not only proved that you can employ
a lot of so-called “country” skills in the midst of Urbania, we also realized a considerable saving on our heating
and feeding bills and got to enjoy some darn good homegrown
victuals in the bargain. And, if you think we’ve done
pretty well so far, just wait till next year … because
I tell you, the two of us have got some BIG plans for the
future.

So friends, if you’re nesting in an urban area, don’t sit
on your duff thinking that the good MOTHER EARTH NEWS-type lifestyle
belongs only to those rustics livin’ way out in
Sticksville. No sirree bob, the good life comes to those
who make the good life, no matter where they’ve pitched
camp. My advice to you is to begin taking more control of
your life. Get a move on and pronto: After all, if
you plan to become successful citysteaders as we have, you’d
better get started.

You’re already one year behind us.