The current buzz-word for this practice is Urban Homesteading, but “urban” doesn’t quite describe us. Our little place isn’t within the city limits of any town (and if it were, even Idaho’s capital city barely qualifies as “urban”)… Perhaps in our case we should call it “backyard homesteading,” or just plain “turning-a-regular-home-into-a-mini-farm.”
Whatever you choose to call it, that’s the idea behind the Urban Homesteading movement: creating a self-sustaining lifestyle wherever you already happen to live. Or if you’d like a more “official” definition:
Urban Homestead.n. The home of a family living by principals of low-impact, sustainable self-sufficiency through activities such as gardening for food production, cottage industry, extensive recycling, and generally simple living.
People are undertaking Urban Homesteading in cities, in towns, in apartment blocks, in suburban backyards… In short, they’re Homesteading wherever they live. (And many of them are blogging about it!)
When Keoni and I talk about our plans to move back to Hawai’i and build a Bed & Breakfast on our Big-Island acre, we always envision that establishment as fully self-sufficient, but for some reason it hadn’t dawned on us until recently that we don’t have to wait for that venture before we start taking strides toward that lifestyle. For the B&B we picture starting from scratch with sustainability in mind—water-catchments, solar panels, composting toilets, fruit trees and garden, fishing-boat… We intend to live entirely off the grid (except for an internet connection). But we realized recently that it doesn’t have to be an “all-or-nothing” project, and we needn’t wait until we can do ALL of that to start doing some of it. The real point of “Urban” sustainability is making do with what you have, where you are.
If we all waited until we could afford to spend thousands of dollars on solar panels, we might never get started at all. So we’ve been asking ourselves what we CAN do now to live more sustainably… And we’re surprised by the lengthy list. Our little trailer-court plot is on its way to becoming a VERY-mini Homestead. Some of this won’t be new to you Regular Readers, but there’s something satisfying in looking at it all together…
- We’re building a chicken coop for laying-hens. This is a project that began with our son Christian’s disclosure of his long-standing wish to raise chickens (who knew?!) and it was in the process of researching “backyard chickens” that we began to come across references to Urban Homesteading… Seed of an idea planted!
We’ve been practicing “kitchen chemistry” in making our own household cleaners and personal care products. This, too, was a project that pre-dated the Homesteading idea, and stemmed not from noble environmental leanings, but from lack of money… Still, it got us thinking more along the lines of sustainability.
- We’ve been sharing our neighbor Bill’s vegetable garden, and started growing our own kitchen herbs. And getting creative even on some little things… When sunflowers started sprouting beneath our bird-feeder, we transplanted them along the fence—hopefully by next summer we’ll be able to supply the bird-feeder ourselves.
- I’ve written here about our habits of bartering and scrounging—we’re turning the practice of getting-stuff-for-free into an outright art form! Just yesterday we were over at one of the trailers in our neighborhood that was due to be demolished, pulling out some paneling (for use on the chicken house) and a ceiling light (for our living room) and a bunch of mirrors (I have Pinterest-inspired projects in mind) and some other odds-and-ends… We have always practiced recycling (we’re fortunate to have curb-side pick-up, and our Recycle bin is usually more full than our trash), but until recently, we hadn’t explored the practice of UPcycling.
- We joined the Freecycle network, which provides a venue for members to give away (and pick up!) used items. We’ve posted a number of items as we’ve been sorting through and cleaning out our two sheds (we moved in such a hurried jumble that most of this stuff hasn’t seen daylight in the year since we moved here), and we have picked up several free items ourselves… Last week we picked up a partially-built dollhouse for Elena Grace (she’s uninterested in the chicken coop, but feeling left out nonetheless—hopefully this will serve as a parallel project with her), a couple rolls of chicken wire for the coop under construction, and materials to build…
…a compost bin! Next summer we’ll probably graduate from garden-sharing to breaking ground on a plot of our own. I’d like to learn canning and drying, and we’ll see how much of a dent we can make in our grocery bills. The composter will be a help in fertilizing the growing-goods, and will materially cut down the amount of trash we’re sending to the landfill.
- We do practice some small-scale water catchment, which we use for watering our plants. Truth be told, though, there’s not a lot of rain to catch in our high-desert Idaho climate (annual rainfall here is around eleven inches)… We’re happily situated on an island of the Boise River where the water table is barely below the surface, and we’re living on a well. We have a little timer on our water hose and run the sprinkler regularly—and with very little guilt, knowing that the water will seep right back in to the water table rather than being “wasted.” Our focus here is making sure that our water returns clean, particularly given that whatever seeps into the water table here will be showing up next in our well… Our natural composting (contrasted with store-bought chemical fertilizers) and home-made cleaning products will definitely be a “plus” in this regard.
I would love to be able to switch to solar power (we certainly have enough sunshine here to make it feasible!) but that’s an expensive project. So we’re coming at this one from the other end, and working on cutting our power use. This summer’s project-list (after the chicken coop and the compost barrel) includes an outdoor clothesline—the clothes dryer is the single biggest power-suck in the house! We’re also looking at some serious weather-proofing before winter, because our power bill jumped ridiculously high last year when the cold weather set in. I’m actually looking at a small solar charger that can be used to power small items like phone and iPad chargers, and our internet router. We actually lose power out here with ridiculous frequency—it seems every time there’s a thunder storm or snow storm, we spend a few hours in the dark. The rest of the family doesn’t mind—the kids go straight to books and Legos and other no-power-needed activities—but it can wreak havoc with my writing deadlines when I can’t get online! There are a number of small solar chargers on the market for thirty bucks and under—I might be giving one of these a try.
When I was a kid, I used to make a game of pretending my bedroom was a houseboat, and that it was going to float away from the rest of the house on some exploring-adventure. I’d try to set up my houseboat-room so it would be entirely self-sufficient for my imaginary journey. I wasn’t allowed to have food in my room, but I’d stock up on plastic food from my sister’s grocery-shopping set, and put a can in my closet to serve as a (pretend!) chamber pot, and make sure all my favorite things were in the room with me, and stock up on maps (my dad’s old triple-A triptychs)… I don’t remember actually pretending any of the journeys–it was the preparation that kept my interest, the idea of rendering my space entirely self-contained so it could float away on its own…
That childhood game of mine comes to mind again as we fiddle with improvements to our place, make do for ourselves, and work at cutting down outside costs. Truth be told, I hardly ever leave our little plot of yard—my writing-work is here at home, and we don’t Go Out for entertainment purposes or have a lot of errands to run… I could pretty well play my boat-game here, with the yard-boundaries of our “Homestead” being the deck-rails of the houseboat, everything our family needs contained within its small borders… I’m ready to cast off the mooring lines and float away in my imagination. I just hope the chickens don’t get seasick.