Monday, February 21, 2011

Slow Living: Urban Homesteading

The slow food movement and green movement are interconnected in many ways. One such commonality is the renewed interest in local food. Sales of vegetable seeds and seedlings have climbed steadily in the past few years on both sides of the Atlantic, and people who don't have growing space of their own are flocking to farmers' markets, joining community gardens, and buying shares in community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans. These are great ways to decrease your carbon footprint and move toward greater local food security (which is highly desirable for a variety of reasons), in addition to supporting the slow-food ideal of cuisine based on local, seasonally-available foods.

There are an increasing number of people who are going beyond supplementing their diet with homegrown tomatoes, and using the methods of organic gardening and permaculture to grow larger amounts of food, and keep bees and small livestock, in urban and suburban backyards, front gardens, rooftops, and balconies. This movement toward a do-it-yourself, self-sufficient lifestyle is usually called backyard farming or urban homesteading ('Urban farmer' seems to be used popularly to describe only those members of the movement who are selling their produce to the public or restaurants.). There's a great article on the benefits of urban homesteading as a lifestyle on Helium; it's often being done by people cultivating other traditional skills (such as canning, soap-making, and spinning) connected to their harvests. Articles about urban homesteaders have recently appeared in such mainstream print magazines as ReadyMadeNatural HomeCountry Livingthe Atlantic Monthly, and Natural Life - and urban homesteading has spawned its own print magazine title, Urban Farm, and the digital title Urban Sustainable Living.   

(Incidentally, today is a day of blog action in response to the controversial trademarking of the commonly-used-for-decades terms "urban homestead" and "urban homesteading" - if you are interested, you can read about that case study in how to swiftly alienate your target demographic here.)

Green Garden Girl's urban chickens, via her flikr feed.

There is something really attractive about the idea of living off the land, even when the land in question is measured in square feet instead of acres. I love the thought of living a fully handmade life, composting all my kitchen scraps for a vegetable patch that feeds my family, planting an apple tree to join our prolific Evans cherry tree for a wee orchard, sewing my kids' clothes, and collecting fresh eggs every day. I love the community-building aspect of the movement, and the idea of trading skills and produce and things I have made by hand with my neighbors (or other community garden or permaculture club members) in order to move away from a consumer-driven existence. I love the activist aspects of the lifestyle as well.

However, that image isn't my reality, yet. For starters, our adopted puppy shows strong bird-dog instincts... so, so much for raising hens in my yard. My children are young enough that what time I have gets spent on day-to-day drudgery instead of inspiring handcrafts. My backyard veggies have withered during the midsummer droughts during the past three years thanks to my unreliable watering (thank goodness my peonies are drought-tolerant). My husband repeatedly killed my outdoor compost pile by dumping all the lawn clippings into it at once, and I consoled myself with the knowledge that my municipality would compost it as I bagged it up and dragged it to the curb.

So, I have great intentions, but much to learn about permaculture - which is okay, since complete self-sufficiency isn't one of my goals. Every summer I use the sour cherries to make wonderful ice creams and pies, and my young children help me to plant seeds and seedlings and water and weed them, and sometimes we get enough herbs or salad greens or corn for a meal or two from our own garden. I also have wonderful bouquets of peonies and irises from our garden in early summer. The kids are learning about where food comes from, and how plants grow, and why we like the spiders but not the slugs, and some simple organic-gardening concepts; this year my eldest will get to design her own little veggie plot in the back corner. We're researching vermicomposting versus bokakshi composting to determine whether those systems would work better for us. I'm working out what to plant in place of the now-shaded strip of front lawn, and thinking that veggies in container plantings would give me the most flexibility.

A late-June bouquet of my semidouble and bomb double peonies 
that I gave to my daughter's teacher last year.

I hope to learn much more about urban homesteading at an upcoming seminar that E-SAGE will be hosting, which I'm helping to organize, called "The Birds And The Bees". Local beekeeper Patty Milligan (of Lola Canola Honey) and members of the RiverCity Chickens Collective will talk about urban hives and coops, and local regulations and pilot projects. Date and location TBA soon!


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  2. Just a quick followup: there is some debate within the movement about whether the word 'homestead' is even remotely appropriate given its history. See this amazing blog post:

  3. I think many budding urban homesteaders will echo your sentiments, the best of intentions often get subsumed by the realities of daily life. But instead of focusing on what you didn't accomplish, consider all that you're trying to do and know that these magnificent things are worth being celebrated.

  4. @El Gaucho - Thanks for your perspective! I always appreciate a digital high-five for what I'm able to do. Cheers!

  5. Urban homesteading is a term that can have several meanings depending on the viewpoint of the speaker/writer. Indeed, the term is actually part of the name of an organization established in 1974 in New York, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Organization. It still exists. For more information on why the action of family that has not actually trademarked the term, see Canadian Doomer's site:

  6. @Ollamha Anne - thanks for the link to Canadian Doomer's post, good stuff! I'm hoping my brother-in-law, who is an intellectual property lawyer in the States, will also blog about the trademark case. I deliberately stayed mostly away from discussing it in this post, not because I don't have strong opinions but because I think talking solely about the trademark case only provides the trademark holders with publicity that they really do not deserve.

    The use of the terms 'urban homestead' and 'urban homesteading' (one of which the trademark holders have trademarked outright, the other of which they hold a secondary trademark registration for) to describe this activity is well-documented going back to at least the 1970s according to other blog posts I've read today. I'm pretty sure even earlier references will be found in the libraries of older enthusiasts. I predict that eventually the trademarks will be ruled invalid, that the community will rally around those who are forced into legal battles regarding the case, and that the trademark holders will reap little financial benefit from all this, having thoroughly ruined their own credibility.

  7. The EFF have weighed in: