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Can you homestead in the city? Is an urban homestead possible?

If you’re familiar with the idea of homesteading, you might think it’s something people who live in the country and have lots of land do. If you’re not familiar with the term, you might wonder what is homesteading? The answer to both of these questions is that homesteading is a mindset and an attitude, and you can homestead anywhere, even in a tiny apartment. Homesteading is no more than a desire to produce at least some of what you consume yourself, and to reduce the things you depend on the wider world for. So yes, you can homestead in the city, and here’s what you need for an urban homestead life.

First things first – is a homestead in the city a real homestead?

Let’s clear this part up before we dig in. Like almost anything worth doing, there are many ways to homestead, and many  definitions of what it means to homestead or what “counts” as homesteading. Undoubtedly, there are some people who would say that in order to homestead, one must be completely independent, grow or produce all of their own food and even live “off the grid”. For someone who views homesteading through that lens, many (if not most) people’s efforts at homesteading would fall short.

The majority of people who call themselves homesteaders or who use the term value independence, self-reliance and producing more than you take in (thank you to Donny of Ripple Hill Homestead for that phrasing!). Whether or not they have acres of land, a herd of beef cows, goats, chickens, ducks and enormous gardens or farms, their goal is to take control of the things they consume. They also value community and collaboration. Viewed through that lens, it’s easier to see how both a Manhattan apartment dweller and a rural farmer can share the identity of homesteader.

But also keep in mind you can do “homestead things” and not have to call yourself a homesteader if that label doesn’t feel right to you. I personally describe myself as  “city homesteader” because that feels like a more accurate description of my life and activities.

All right, so I can call myself a homesteader even if I live in town and don’t have land. But does that mean I have to wear flannel, give up avocados or change my condo decor to “farmhouse”?

Yes. Your homesteader aesthetics bundle containing your flannel shirts, barn coat and vintage egg rack should arrive in 10-12 business days…..

No, of course it doesn’t mean any of that. If you like those things, then by all means, go for it. But if none of that is your style, you can still practice homesteading. Because those things aren’t what makes a homestead. I’m here to tell you that you can practice homesteading even if you thrive in a city environment.

So how do you homestead in the city?

Leaving philosophy behind, let’s focus on some practical ways to homestead in the city. Remember that for our purposes, homesteading is about using less, producing more and being self-reliant when possible.

Very generally, you can bring homesteading to your city life by growing some food, reducing your consumption, including utilities, and focusing on maximizing what you have instead of buying or using more.

Let’s dig into some practical strategies for putting those ideas into practice.

Grow as much of your food as YOU can

This is, to me, one of the easiest ways to reduce your reliance on outside sources and make your carbon footprint just a bit smaller. For some people, this means they are able to grow virtually all of the fruit and vegetables their household eats all year long. They have enough space, the right growing conditions, and the time and money to create garden space, grow and tend to the plants, harvest regularly and then process the food for longer term storage.

If that sounds a little intimidating, take heart. None of the people who do that got there overnight. It took them time to get to that level. So start at the place that makes sense for YOU, where you are right now. You can, and probably will, add on over time. But if you try to eat the elephant in one bite, you’ll likely end up discouraged.

For you, right now, take a realistic look at the time and resources you have to growing food. If the answer is “I think I can maybe handle a couple of patio containers with lettuce or herbs”, that’s great!! I mean that. Even growing a few lettuces or some herbs means those things are going into your belly and didn’t have to be trucked halfway across the country to get there. And it means you tended something and in return, were able to feed yourself. That’s an amazing accomplishment.

If you’re able to grow a little more, then that’s super. My advice for the urban homesteader who has a bit of growing room is to try and grow the things you consume the most. Taking one or two things out of the grocery store food chain is a big step towards decreasing your consumption. Another option is to try and grow the things you eat that have to travel furthest to reach you. To use the lettuce example again, every head of lettuce you grow on your own property is one that didn’t have to be grown and processed in a plant before travelling to a distribution center, and then to a grocery store.

If you hate lettuce, substitute tomatoes or peppers or cilantro. The point is, if you can get it from your own yard, you don’t have to get it from the supply chain.

Then think about buying, preserving and storing the rest of  your food

Oh, now we’re getting into some real homesteading stuff! Canning and preserving food is straight out of the farmhouse, right? Nothing says “homesteader!” like a cellar lined with jars of home canned jam, pickles, and vegetables. Well, yes, to a point, that’s true. And canning IS cool.

But it’s less about the actual process of canning (or drying or smoking, etc)  food and more about starting to think about your food supply in a long term way.

Even if you just stock up on hamburger when it’s on sale and store it in your freezer, you’re simplifying your consumption and boosting your immediate food supply. As you’re able to, try to put aside extra food, in whatever way makes sense for you. From a homesteader standpoint, most of your food should come from inside your home, and be something you’ve already acquired. That doesn’t mean you can’t go out to dinner or get takeout after a hectic day. But if you’re interested in bringing a homestead perspective to your life, it’s important to start thinking about your food as less of a daily impulse. As a bonus, this kind of planning can save you money!

But what about the canning?

If you’re able to, growing produce or buying it locally in season and then canning it is a very economical way to minimize your contact with the supply chain. It’s also one of the best ways to stock your pantry, boosting your food security. Canned food is shelf-stable and safe to eat for at least a year, and often much longer.  You might not be able to grow the thirty pounds of tomatoes your household eats in a year, but if you’re able to buy them from a local farm and then can them, you’ll be taking a huge step towards minimizing your input and localizing your food.

Tools for canning food, with canned food in jars

Consider adding chickens or bees

This is honestly just another form of growing your own food, it just happens to be in animal form. If space and zoning allows, two or three hens will produce 700-900 eggs per year. Note that some breeds are more productive than others and variables like food, length of daylight and overall health and happiness impact egg production. The nuts and bolts of raising chickens in the city is outside the scope of this post, but it’s a topic I’ll be covering on its own soon.

Bees take up less space than chickens and require less hands-on work. They’ll produce honey while helping to pollinate your garden. They can be a simple and space-saving way to boost your personal food production. If you’re interested, you can also potentially use the beeswax to make candles and skin care products.

If you’re considering any livestock, whether it’s bees, chickens, ducks or something else, check all of the zoning and neighborhood regulations very carefully. Research the needs of the creatures in question and make an objective assessment of your time and other resources. It’s ok to decide it’s not the right move for you, at least right now. And talk to your neighbors. While they can’t necessarily prevent you from having legally allowed animals, it’s best to have them on board with the idea.

Reduce your consumption and purchases of new items

This doesn’t sound as fun as gardening or tending chickens but it’s something every single person can do. And it is a major part of a homesteading mindset. Reducing consumption runs a huge gamut, so it’s all right to start small. Identify things in your home or life that are especially high-consumption – meaning they either generate a lot of waste, use up a lot of resources or increase your dependence on others.

Here are some examples. These are not exhaustive and they won’t be the right fit for everyone. Choose the things that makes sense in YOUR life and work from there.

  • Air dry some of your laundry instead of using the dryer. This saves gas or electricity but also helps your clothing last longer.
  • Cook and eat at home. Food you prepare yourself typically costs less, generates less waste and increases your sense of self-reliance. Here are some tips.
  • Repair and repurpose items before buying new ones.
  • When possible and appropriate, buy or acquire used or vintage items.
  • Avoid single use items or items with excessive packaging when possible.
  • Meal plan for the week to limit trips to the store or restaurant (or trips from food delivery). This will also help you waste less food.
  • Actively try to reduce waste in your home, work and garden. Check out this post for some ideas.
  • Compost or use a worm bin (vermicomposting) to turn food scraps into food for your (or someone else’s) plants
  • Recycle, reuse, repurpose or donate items instead of trashing them

I chose to include this section because it’s very accessible for almost everyone. But also because homesteading is a mindset before it’s anything else, and starting to look for ways to consume less is a good way to develop that mindset.

Be a good steward of the land, environment and ecosystem

Again, not as picturesque, perhaps, as harvesting eggs from the backyard coop, but a very important aspect of homesteading. You can’t live off the land, whether it’s your land or someone else’s, and not prioritize caring for it. And you can’t prioritize community if you aren’t looking at ways your actions might have negative impact on the land and people around you.

Look for ways to limit your intake of single-use items and to reduce your household’s carbon footprint. Prioritize growing plants that are native to your region and that support pollinators, insects and other wildlife. Avoid herbicides and pesticides and use humane methods of deterring or removing pests. All of these things might seem like personal choices but they affect the entire community around you.

Shop locally whenever you can

The shorter your personal supply chain, the better. This is true on an environmental level as well as on a self-reliance level. Buying local also benefits your immediate community. And community is a huge part of homesteading. It might sound funny to say “self-reliance” and “community” in the same paragraph. But consider that the more control you take over how and what you produce and consume, the more you’ll be able to help and support those around you. You can’t help someone who’s sinking if you’re sinking too.

Speaking of community….

In the city, where space can be limited, it can boost everyone’s food security to pool resources. Considering going  in on a small flock of hens with a friend or neighbor. Perhaps you simply collaborate with a neighbor make the best use of growing space – one of you grows cool season crops and the other does summer vegetables. Or maybe your yard doesn’t get much sun, so you cultivate shade tolerant fruits, vegetables and herbs while your sunnier neighbor takes the sun lovers. Another option is that one of your grows and the other does all of the canning or drying and you split the yield. If none of these ideas work for you, there may be a CSA or co-op you can join, or you might be able to find micro-farms or growers who will let you purchase shares in their crops.

Think about bartering, too. If you can grow some berries and you like making jam, see if you can trade some jam to your local artisan soap maker. Or swap jam for eggs. Borrow or swap tools or gear so everyone doesn’t have to buy and store their own set. Pool labor in the home or garden. Split a delivery of free woodchips.

The point is to look for ways to meet your needs while helping your friends, family or neighbors meet theirs. That’s going to look different for everyone but it’s worth exploring options that make sense for you.

what do you really need to garden

In conclusion, you can homestead in the city.

This isn’t an exhaustive list and it’s by no means a perfect blueprint for everyone. But it’s a starting point. Hopefully it will get you thinking of ways you can consume less and produce more. Consider this the beginning of a conversation and feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. And remember, the only mistake when it comes to homesteading is thinking you need to have everything in order to do anything. Start where you are and work from there.

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