Yard to Table

Urban homesteading teaches you how to transform unused green space into a bountiful farm.
By Adam Bible

Most back to the land movements in the last century advocate the often-unrealistic scenario of fleeing the urban landscape, buying a few hundred acres of land, and starting a farm. The recent push toward making do where you live (in a tiny apartment, fill the fire escape with container gardens; if you’ve got some grass and dirt, turn it into a garden) is exhaustively covered in Urban Homesteading (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume, two homestead- ers who met 25 years ago in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Kaplan, a psychotherapist and artist in Sonoma County, and Blume, an artist, activist, educator, beekeeper, gardener, life coach, and body worker in Oakland, Calif., recently talked to Natural Solutions about farming on a small scale.

Homesteading often makes people think of 19th-century pioneers heading out West and building a sod house. What is the urban homesteading movement about?

BLUME: It’s the practical, home-scale aspect of permaculture—a system that can be applied to any human activity to make it more sustainable. Permaculture is the basis of urban homesteading; it’s all about practical activities like growing your own food while getting your resources and your food locally. That’s one side of it. The other side of it is about reclaiming bits of land in the urban environment that are unused or untended—empty lots, backyards, community gardens—and using that space wisely to sustain ourselves.

KAPLAN: It’s also about reinvesting in our relationship to our place and learning to tend to the places where we live—real- ly getting into a sense of a rhythm of the seasons, and what is actually going on around us with people and animals and the natural world.

What are some ways to ease people into the urban homesteading lifestyle?

BLUME: Creating a relationship with where your food comes from can be a first step. Grow some herbs or learn how to make a simple cheese. This is something that most people can re- late to. It doesn’t feel alternative; it’s just something a normal person would do in their kitchen.

KAPLAN: We really encourage people to start small and start where they are. One way to begin is to assess how much garbage you create. How can you cut that back by 10 percent? Set a goal that’s achievable so you can feel success and keep going. Other simple ways to save energy include hanging your clothes on a line to dry or using your bike once a week.

One of the aspects of urban homesteading that intrigued me is the concept of a “food forest.” How can a home gardener incorporate that into their homestead?

BLUME: A food forest is the idea that useful plants are grown at every level, from the tallest tree to the potatoes underground—you can have a really rich and diverse ecosystem in such a small place as a city lot.

KAPLAN: One of the goals of the food forest-design is to borrow from the wis- dom of the natural world. In the city, we don’t have that much space so we can ac- tually grow a bigger diversity of plants— you could have an apple tree, and a bor- age plant, and lavender, and some root crops in the same three-square-foot area instead of spreading them all out.

Check out the Urban Homesteading website at www.urban-homesteading.org to learn more about the movement and find great resources.