The homesteading life—a productive yard, some chickens, a canner bubbling on the stove, perhaps a little extra cash coming in from farmers market sales—has never been a more popular dream. As a hedge against the fragility of corporate employment, as a psychological antidote to the intensity of modern life, as a solution to questionable and uncertain food production, there are more and more people wanting to find a way to bring their food production “on site” to their urban or suburban yard.
But obstacles can make it difficult to take the leap—or even to feel like it is possible to get started. Here are some ideas that might help you get started working around those challenges and headed towards a better life.
1. Neighbors And Regulations
One of the most frustrating hurdles to getting your urban farm on is a lack of support—or downright opposition—from the community surrounding you. This can come in the form of everything from passive-aggressive refusal to invite you to the neighborhood potluck (you didn’t really want to go anyway, though, did you?) to invocation of obscure and petty town ordinances. Life would be awesome if everyone let go of their need to meddle in what happens on someone else’s property, but unfortunately those of us doing something “unusual” like growing food to eat (insert your ironic chuckle here) often face raised eyebrows or worse.
While I’m fortunate to live in an enclave of like-minded families, there are still some basics I’ve learned that help keep the community OK with (or at least silent about) a productive garden:
- Start small. It isn’t necessary to invoke shock-and-awe on your neighbors and suddenly, over the weekend, have 20 raised beds in your front yard. Start discretely, a little at a time, and they might not ever realize what hit ’em.
- Consider “stealth edibles” and naturalistic plantings. Not all productive gardens need to be rows of corn. raised beds of brassicas, or cages of tomatoes. Consider attractive perennials like fruit trees or blueberry bushes or shocking exotics, like asparagus.
- Be discrete and considerate. Let’s be honest: In a community of neo-colonials set back behind rambling lawns, a Portlandian front-yard garden is going to be, well, out of place at the best of times. So work with the look and layout of your property and community to find discrete places to start your productive crops. “Stealth edibles” can go a long way to helping with this. Keep things maintained, avoid animal smells, and don’t leave a cubic yard of woodchips in your driveway for a month (I’m guilty of that one!).
- Involve (and bribe) your neighbors. Yes, it may seem anathema to reach out to your foe, but knocking on someone’s door and saying “Hey, how’d you feel about…” can sometimes do a lot to grease the gears of community, particularly when you show up with a fresh salad made from the garden crops you’ve already been growing without anyone even knowing! As supportive as our own micro-community is, we made a point of asking around before putting any raised beds in the front yard and periodically take a dozen duck eggs over to the neighbors and checking in to make sure nothing’s been too noisy or smelly.
2. Soil Quality
Many urban areas suffer from poor—or at least mysteriously unknown—soil quality and origin. There’s a good chance that the best you’ll have to work with is biologically moribund fill dirt. One of the reasons for the popularity of raised beds is that they allow you to import your own soil, ready to go, and keep it at least somewhat separated from the underlying dirt. If you’re concerned about actual toxic contamination in your soil, it is possible to build fully closed-bottom raised beds, but be aware that however you implement that, you’re in for extra maintenance. A soil test, while expensive if comprehensive and done right, may well serve to allay fears of the presence of heavy metals or other toxins.
Fans of permaculture techniques report amazing success “building” soil essentially from scratch. Permaculture, in all of its variations, is gaining popularity from an obscure practice and edging towards the mainstream. While detailed discussion of this holistic approach to agriculture require a hefty book, the soil building ideas of using layers of scrap wood, readily decomposable biological material and available soil are easily adaptable. Other soil building variations—lasagna beds, straw bale beds, double digging—can work, as well. Do some research and find one that works with your conditions and your resources.
3. Lighting And Layout
Often urban or suburban yards are not designed for farming. Narrow side yards maximize real-estate value; mature trees provide attractive shade, privacy, and summer shade; expansive driveways provide parking for multiple cars, SUVs and motorhomes. But none of these things helps grow a crop! At a certain point, you’ve got to accept the reality of where you live, but clever solutions can work make the best of it.
Container gardening, also useful if dealing with poor soil quality, is a great solution that can turn decks, driveways and patios into productive yard space. Perhaps lacking in grandeur, container gardening is actually ideally suited to many crop types. Potatoes, peppers and tomatoes are classics, as are zucchini and summer squash, and, of course, herbs. If the pot is big enough, even dwarf fruit trees can be made to work. Containers can be raised up on sturdy shelves (my grandfather did this with his tomatoes to overcome an irksome fence), moved into shelter when necessary (consider wheeled pot stands), even grown on a balcony or deck.
Making your urban or suburban garden into a productive space may involve compromise, it may involve patience, and it will certainly involve some ingenious outside-of-the-box thinking. But if you want to take the plunge into the homestead lifestyle, then you’re already ready for these challenges. If there’s one piece of advice that I can share, more than anything specific, it is to remain flexible with your dream and to let it change and mature to fit the circumstances of your life.