Modern urban homesteading is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency

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Recycled baby food jars with succulents. Image by Erica from PixabayRecycled baby food jars with succulents. Image by Erica from PixabayThere are many reasons why ordinary people around the world are opting to become more self-sufficient. For many it’s just common sense to reduce their carbon footprint by reusing, recycling, growing what they can at home, and supporting local farmers. For others it is all about becoming so self-sufficient that they no longer need to rely on the electrical grid for power, and municipalities for water. Modern homesteading is not defined by where someone lives, such as the city or the country, but by the lifestyle choices they make; so if you live in a city and dream of someday being able to work the land and becoming a modern homesteader, there’s no need to wait any longer because you can easily do many homesteading activities in the city.

As a lifestyle-movement urban homesteading is growing fast around the world and this journey towards a sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle does not necessarily mean that your living standards have to drop. Rather, it’s a move to recycling and the conservation of any purchased resources, from electricity and water, to foodstuffs, and even things like fertiliser and compost for the garden.  It also encourages buying local in order to reduce our carbon footprint and all those good things, which in turn results in a lower cost of living, which everyone wants, right?

Recycled bottle bird feeder. Image by Sandra Petersen from PixabayRecycled bottle bird feeder. Image by Sandra Petersen from PixabayBroadly defined, modern urban homesteading is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency, with a philosophy of living simply and practicing waste reduction. Its motto could be: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, do without - compost it or re-purpose it.”

Although it is often characterized by subsistence agriculture, homesteading includes a vast array of subjects, from cultivating mushrooms and the home preservation of foodstuffs, to the small scale production of household items, and perhaps craftwork for re-sale. Even making your own personal hygiene products like soap, toothpaste, deodorant and cleaning products can save you a lot of money and it’s also fun, educational, and remarkably easy to do.

Most homesteaders express deep satisfaction with their standard of living and feel that their lifestyle is healthier and more rewarding than more conventional patterns of living, so why not try your hand at urban homesteading during these trying times, not only will you save a buck or two, but you are also sure to be fascinated with the wealth of information available on the internet on this subject.

Aspiring homesteaders are often eager to begin but a bit overwhelmed by the vast amount of knowledge available and not quite sure where to begin. Before taking any action, slow down and look critically at the space you have at home, and how much time you have to spare. Do your research, be realistic, and you are sure to make wiser more responsive choices with longer-lasting results. 

Great advice for everyone would be:  “Start simply, start small, and start with what you have.

Most importantly, to make homesteading viable you need to do the work yourself, and you also need to be aware of your surroundings. Ask yourself, “could I live next to me?” and be considerate of your neighbours.  Also, lend a helping hand if you can - urban homesteading is a community-based way of life, not solely a business opportunity.

Homemade pickes. Image by Jeno Szabo from PixabayHomemade pickes. Image by Jeno Szabo from PixabayBecause home-grown food is the gateway to a more sustainable lifestyle, and a great place to start for any family, most urban homesteaders choose to plant and grow their own fruit, herbs and vegetables, or as many as their space allows for. And even if you do not have enough garden space to grow your own wheat or corn, you can certainly grow many crops from a collection of containers or a couple of small beds. This, together with traditional skills such as canning, fermenting, seed saving and compost making, will go a long way to making you more self-sufficient. Learning about growing your own crops, how to harvest and store them, and how to use them medicinally, is a remarkable journey of discovery on its own.

Another great way to save money is to cut out the middleman by starting a bulk-food buying group with family and friends, in order to purchase directly from wholesalers those staples you can’t grow or produce at home. If you simply have no space to grow your own vegetables, communal gardens provide a great opportunity for you to learn next to other committed gardeners on a small plot of land. And if that is also not possible, you can still source healthy food from local farmers markets, community-supported agriculture projects, and local food co-ops.

Having some home grown veggies, fruits and herbs can set you free in so many ways – as long as you do it right. However, if you do get a few projects wrong it’s not the end of the world - chalk it up to experience, and learn from your mistakes. Be realistic about how much time you have for your garden - not how much you wish you had, and if you’re really honest with yourself your food growing experience will be so much more manageable and enjoyable.  Even if you only choose two or three crops to grow this season, grow them well, it’s a good start and you will be inspired to grow a couple more next season.

Vertical Herb GardenVertical Herb GardenThe key to growing loads of food in small spaces is to only plant what your family enjoys to eat and to sow small quantities in succession - you can always add to your repertoire later. Also, when you start to think about growing food in an urban setting you need to look beyond what works in big spaces. Forget about those neat long rows of crops you see on farms and start thinking about intermingling herbs vegetables and flowers in beds; and plant a bit closer together than you normally would. This method of gardening not only looks lush and plentiful but also helps to protect your crops from pests by fooling them with many scents. Planting in this way will also teach you about companion planting and which plants enjoy growing in one another’s company.

You can grow a lot of food in a small space; and many vegetables and herbs will thrive on a sunny patio or even besides a parking area. Raised garden beds made from wood or other materials can be built with a minimum of fuss or expense and work well for vegetable growing. In fact, containers of all shapes and sizes can be used as long as they can have drainage holes punched through the bottom. For example, old washing machine barrels and garbage bins make excellent containers to grow potatoes in. Cherry tomatoes don't have to be planted in beds and will grow quite happily in hanging baskets or pots. Baby carrots do well in window boxes, and lettuce can spend its whole life in small pots.

Fruit trees can be espaliered and vertical spaces can be utilised for growing strawberries, small leafy crops like lettuce and spinach, as well as smaller herbs. Even balconies and flat rooftops can hold a couple of pots, or you may even consider removing unessential garden paving or part of a driveway to make room for some vegetables and herbs. Once you get started you will surprise yourself with how creative you can get. 

Buy heirloom seeds online, they are easy to find in South Africa, and if you allow some plants to go to seed at the end of the season, you can collect, dry and store them for many years. Seed saving is another vital key to sustainable vegetable gardening; and with heirloom seeds you may never have to purchase seeds of that variety again, and will likely have plenty to give away to family, friends and neighbours. 

Also, pay attention to growing conditions – if the packet says a plant needs full sun it really does, and if it says it prefers to grow in the cooler season, don’t try to sow it in summer! Of course, you can always experiment because you just never know what might work in your garden and climate. For example, tomatoes love full sun but in really hot climates can do really well with 5 hours sun day. Another great help is to keep notes on the sowing and harvesting dates of the vegetables, and the quantities sown. Your family are unlikely to ever allow you to forget, or forgive you for sowing that entire packet of spinach or baby marrow last season, but they may forget to remind you to plant more basil or strawberries next season!

Small-scale composting can be done in even the smallest of gardens and in order for your crops to thrive you have two options; to purchase compost or to make your own. Often you may have to do a bit of both, so be flexible. Investing in or making your own worm farm will go a long way to saving you money on purchasing compost, and besides, it’s quite fun and fascinating! A compost heap also works well, and can be made at home in an afternoon by hammering together three wooden pallets; but if you suffer from vermin visitors you may need to invest in a a pre-made plastic compost bin with a lid; or you could simply drill drainage holes in the bottom and sides of a large garbage can with a lid.

Another obvious progression in your urban homesteading adventure will be preserving what your family can’t eat fresh; opening up a whole other fascinating world of pickling, canning, fermenting, freezing, jam making etc.  You could live to be a thousand years old and never know it all and you certainly would never be bored; so take out those pots and pans, the cheesecloth and the strainer, the canning jar and empty wine bottles, and you’ll soon begin to create magic in the kitchen.

Urban homesteading will teach you old and tested methods of growing and preserving produce which are no longer common in modern homes; and your escapades are sure to fascinate and inspire family and friends to follow suite. Not only will these techniques save you tons of money, but doing it yourself gives you control over which ingredients go into your families foods, and before you know it you will be hooked and sharing recipes with friends.

Solar panels can be installed almost anywhere. Image by teresa cotrim from PixabaySolar panels can be installed almost anywhere. Image by teresa cotrim from PixabayAnother obvious concern for urban homesteader’s is to find ways to save on energy bills and to use the energy of the sun whenever possible by installing a solar geyser or lights. If this is too expensive, research other ways to save on energy bills. For example, dry your clothes outdoors instead of using your tumble dryer, purchase inexpensive solar lights, burn home-made candles or make your own olive oil lamps using cheap olive oil brands.

Learning how to recycle grey-water with some very low-budget plumbing adjustments can divert water from bathroom sinks, showers and baths directly into your garden, saving you a fortune on water bills (make sure all your soaps are biodegradable.) Rain tanks are fantastic but if you cannot afford a rain water tank yet you can easily catch and store rainwater in almost any receptacle like large garbage bins or other sealable buckets and containers. In South Africa you never know when the water supply will be cut off, or for how long, and a couple of garbage bins filled with water will get you through many days if there is a water crises. Even old cold drink bottles filled with water and stored in the garage will go a long way in a water crisis.

With perseverance and quite a lot of time and sweat you can have you own little organic market right outside you door. No more rushing off to the store only to buy a salad, no more worrying about pesticide residues, or concerns about having nothing to eat in an emergency. Learning how to provide your own staples is within your reach, no matter how small your space; and sharing your techniques on how to save money, time and energy with your neighbours and friends is rewarding in itself.

Remember that urban homesteading is a journey and may take a lifetime to implement fully. And along this journey to self-sustainability there will also be many challenges, many victories and many failures, but one thing is certain, it will teach you things you never dreamed off, harness your creativity, and put you in touch with the real necessities of life.

So, happy homesteading!

Darlene