Homestead Hamlets: Neighborhood Gardens That Create Community Food Security

For 10 years, I obsessed about the threat of climate change on an intellectual, theoretical level. But it wasn’t until the personal implications of climate change began to dawn on me — how it would disrupt my daily routine and the world I took for granted — that the full horror of our situation finally sank in. And in early 2009, a realization hit me, right in the stomach: I didn’t have the first clue about my food supply. I didn’t know where it came from or how it was grown.

Isn’t that a way of life that’s just asking for trouble?

I decided to make a change. Or, rather, many small changes.

Inklings of a Neighborhood Garden Plan

Although I’d toyed with the idea for years, buying some land and moving to the country wasn’t a viable option. My wife, Kay, and I both worked less than a mile from our home in Lincoln, Neb., and we concluded that the carbon footprint of a longer commute every day would only compound our ecological woes.

About that time, our close friend Linda happened upon a workshop on “Cohousing and Intentional Communities.” Linda was smitten with the idea of a community homestead — a group of like-minded people choosing to live in close proximity to each other in order to share resources, collectively work in gardens, and strive to lessen their load on the planet. After talking the idea over, the plan of repurposing an older neighborhood such as the one Kay and I lived in seemed the most sensible course to our ambitious trio. So, Linda and her husband, Ed, sold their home and moved onto our block, just two doors down.

Suddenly, we’d doubled our numbers. A seed was sprouting.

Kay and I decided to mortgage our home to purchase and renovate a “problem property” that was four doors down from us. We would establish a neighborhood garden there as soon as the lease for the existing tenants was up, and then we’d renovate the house and rent it out again. With this, our property stake in the block increased again, though we didn’t yet have a clear vision of what we could do.

Somewhere in my browsings, I stumbled across the concept of Edible Landscaping and discovered a book by that name written by Rosalind Creasy. She posed a question that was to forever change our lives (and our lawn): Why, she asked, do we always plant things we can’t eat?

I thought of our considerable corner lot. For 22 years, I’d dutifully mowed our grass and meticulously tended our trees and bushes — not one of which produced edible fruits. In my entire yard, apart from a little tomato plot, there wasn’t a single food plant. I wondered why. Peach and cherry trees produce blossoms that are every bit as lovely as those of ornamentals — and you get something to eat besides. Strawberry beds make lovely ground cover, and the tangy little gems provide a delicious enticement to passers-by.

A plan began solidifying in my mind. Our home, I vowed, was going to become a lawn-free edible landscape — even the public right-of-way area, which city ordinance deems “sidewalk space.” Kay and I would create a model of what a food-producing urban lot could look like that other people could then emulate and adapt for their own properties (after they saw it and got over the shock).

Nobody has to move to the country — and most of us can’t, anyway. We can stay put and turn our lawns into productive neighborhood gardens. (To read more about sustainable city living, check out our Guide to Urban Homesteading. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)

Urban Homesteading

That first gardening season, in 2009, we spaded half of our lawn under and planted vegetables, with the remaining grass falling to the spade the following year. I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. What I really needed if I intended to garden on this scale, Kay wisely counseled, was a Master Gardener course. I promptly enrolled, and I learned more in the first four months of 2010 than I’d absorbed in my previous 30 years as a homeowner.

While Kay and I were busy developing our edible landscape, our friend and now neighbor Linda was trying her hand at food gardening. She got hooked, and by the following year, she and Ed had converted their entire backyard into a garden.

After the tenants of our “problem property” moved out in May 2010 and we were able to take possession, we got to work turning the entire space (both front yard and backyard) into a community garden and orchard for our neighbors on the block to participate in. We brought in black topsoil to replace the gravel parking lot that covered most of the backyard, and we dug 2-foot-deep garden beds surrounded by wood-chip paths.

When our dozens of curious neighbors saw me setting out 150 strawberry plants that first year, every one of them asked what I thought I was going to do with all those berries. “Am I the only person on this block who likes strawberries?” I remember replying. The following spring, not a single neighbor, I might add, refused the 3 quarts of succulent jewels we distributed equally among the households that had helped in the neighborhood gardens.

In the meantime, Linda, Ed and another neighbor obtained permission to develop a community garden space in the empty backyard of another neglected property, adjacent to the one Kay and I had bought. And in the summer of 2011, as we’d hoped would happen, Linda and Ed were able to acquire the property, adding a fourth lot to our burgeoning project. They embarked on the same grueling house- and yard-renovation process that Kay and I had gone through. The soil in the backyard was awful — mostly composed of clay and rubble. But it has since been amended and the property has already been successfully integrated into the neighborhood garden.

And, like magic, the transformation we performed on our properties spread to the rest of the block. After gardening with us for a year, two of our neighbors were inspired to establish plots in their own small yards. Two more homeowners who live across the alley, and whose health conditions prohibit them from getting out to garden, offered us access to their backyards as well. And an investor-owner was so impressed with what we were doing to the neighborhood that he offered us his entire yard for more growing space. In return for the use of their properties, the rest of us share our surplus vegetables and fruits with them. In five years, we’ve carved out more than a half-acre of garden and orchard space in our single city block, with 50 fruit and nut trees, nine grape arbors, and 15 berry patches.

So, What’s a Hamlet?

For the first couple of years, we described what we were creating as a “village.” But that term always sounded a bit presumptuous to me; what we were doing seemed a notch down from that.

The word “hamlet,” I discovered, originally referred to a community too small to have a church or shops. Hamlet residents were dependent on a nearby village to supply the necessary services the hamlet lacked. That definition sounded right on target — we’re too small to be totally self-sufficient and will always be embedded in Lincoln’s urban core. Living as we do in the Hawley Historic District, we now refer to our community homestead as the Hawley Hamlet.

All told, 20 families now participate in our hamlet. Everyone has his or her individual vegetable plot. We share the fruit harvest from the community orchard, and in the three “donated” backyards, we’ve established potato, bean and gourd patches that we rotate annually, sharing the harvests equally among the neighbors.

Community Food Security Grows: Chickens, Bees, Solar Panels and More

Our corner lot’s location offered us no secluded place for a chicken coop if we were to even remotely abide by city ordinance. The only suitable location near our home was the driveway of our next-door neighbor Barrie. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I asked Barrie whether he’d be interested in keeping chickens. He jumped at the idea, and since May 2011, Barrie, his boarder, Pat, and I have been the proud papas of four adorable Rhode Island Reds. Like clockwork, each reliably provides an egg every 30 hours, which keeps our households amply supplied.

When we first launched the community homestead, I was pretty hard-core about everyone growing only food. But thanks to Linda’s sensible counsel, I lightened up, particularly after she pointed out how critical flowers are to the bees we rely on for pollination. At Linda’s suggestion, we jointly took a class on beekeeping and set up our first hive in April 2012.

Kay and I have also been concentrating on turning our 108-year-old house into a “green” residence. In 2009, we installed a geothermal heating and cooling system and saw our utility bills plummet. In 2011, we installed rooftop solar panels on our home and began generating energy, rather than just using it. We’ve also insulated our walls, installed energy-efficient lighting and low-flush toilets, and have rain barrels beneath every downspout.

What we’ve enjoyed most out of all of the green improvements we’ve made to our property, however, is the attached conservatory we added to our home (we call it the “greenhouse”). We live in a historic district, so we wanted to ensure that we built something compatible with the original architecture of the neighborhood. In my gardening reading, I’d come across the works of Eliot Coleman — an organic farmer in Maine who grows food year-round in unheated greenhouses — and wondered whether we could do something similar. We thus designed our greenhouse to have a dirt floor with no heat source other than the sun.

We’ve also erected a simple, 15-by-30-foot hoop house in one of the neighborhood gardens that cost us less than $1,000 in materials. With just transparent plastic sheeting for a cover, we’re able to grow salad greens for the block long after the first frost has ended the gardening season outside.

Building Neighborly Bonds Through Growing Food

Everything I’ve described here we’ve done without government assistance. Our hamlet is a self-initiated, self-supported urban homestead that we’d love to see replicated all over the country. The feature that makes this hamlet concept so attractive is that it can be imitated in any urban setting by neighbors building bonds with one another, collaboratively growing food in neighborhood gardens, making optimal use of their local resources, and lightening their footprint on our overstrained ecosystem.

And gardening, I can tell you, is a veritable magnet for neighbors. In my 30 years of political organizing, I’ve never seen anything break down barriers and foster dialogue like growing food does. In the first 22 years that Kay and I lived on our block, we knew maybe one or two of our neighbors by name. Today, after five years of working to build the hamlet, there are no strangers. We know everybody. We all work together to produce delicious, high-quality food, and we enjoy constantly learning new things. We also feel more secure and content.

Anyone can do what we have done. And the place where it can all begin, fittingly enough, is in the garden.

Have a Homestead Hamlet?

We love this new term “homestead hamlet” — it has such a friendly, cozy sound to it. And we bet quite a few of you are doing similar things all across the country. Send us reports on your local homestead hamlet projects, and we’ll share them in the magazine or online.

We invite all hamlets to schedule open houses and workshops for this September’s International Homesteading Education Month (go to MOTHER EARTH NEWS’s Homestead Education for details). If you want to develop a hamlet in your neighborhood, why not let this article be a conversation starter with your neighbors?

Tim Rinne lives in Lincoln, Neb., and is the State Coordinator of Nebraskans for Peace. He can’t credit enough all the neighbors who have come together to create the Hawley Hamlet.

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