Modern Homesteading: How to Live Better on Less

Gardening and DIY projects can yield surprising savings--and ease your conscience to boot.

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From the hilltop perch of their small rental home overlooking the mountains of Boulder, Colo., Haley Fox and Andy Billipp go about a relatively new evening routine—assembling a meal almost entirely from scratch. Using know-how from her job as a kitchen assistant in classes at the Culinary School of the Rockies, Fox, 25, swirls a pesto sauce of fresh arugula and mustard greens from her garden, preps some homemade gnocchi, and puts the finishing touches on a dessert of farmer's cheese she recently whipped up. Meanwhile, Billipp, 26, tends to a venison top round roast from a deer he butchered in April.

In early spring, the couple vowed to grow and hunt as much of their own food as possible, barter for some, and spend no more than $50 a week on the rest (as much from local sources as possible). "It's forced us to do things we've always wanted to do and also have a lifestyle where we're more involved with getting our food," says Billipp, who with Fox chronicles the project online at Field and Table. "But it's also because we can, and it's fun." Fox chimes in: "Friends tell us we have frontier fantasies."

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Whether it's for political, ideological, economic, or environmental reasons—or because it's just plain fun—a growing number of people are embracing elements of old-fashioned homesteading. Of course, living off the land is nothing new; People have been growing their own food and raising livestock for eons. But in recent years, such practices have taken hold in cities and suburban areas, and they've particularly caught on with younger generations. So-called "urban homesteading," can involve anything from setting up an apartment-balcony container garden to fencing off a section of the backyard for chickens, or even simple projects like canning your own jam.

[See 10 Creative Ways to Save.]

Although they titled their book The Urban Homestead, husband-and-wife authors Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne aren't fond of the term. That's partially because it doesn't exclusively take place in urban areas, and there's much debate about the meaning of the word "homestead." Finally, says Knutzen, it's not about living out Little House on the Prairie, it's "having a normal life but incorporating aspects of homesteading such as gardening, and being more self-sufficient."

In the backyard of their Los Angeles bungalow, the couple maintains a small but very productive vegetable garden, which yields enough produce to supply the two year-round (of course, L.A.'s Mediterranean climate is partially responsible for the bounty, Knutzen points out.) Four yard hens provide a constant supply of eggs, and small fruit trees dot the property. It's a lifestyle rooted in "common-sense home economics," he says. "Why water my lawn when could use that water for a vegetable garden?" On their blog Homegrown Evolution, Knutzen and Coyne document their experiences—and experiments—in urban farming and do-it-yourself projects.

Learning the ropes. "Sustainability, economy, pleasure," is the motto of the Urban Homesteaders' League in Cambridge, Mass., which organizes low-cost workshops ($5 to $15) on skills that include making raised beds for gardening, baking bread, and tapping maple trees in the city. It's also a social group that gets together for potlucks, field trips, and "skill shares," in which members exchange tips on everything from making beef jerky to converting diesel engines to run on french fry oil.

The group has grown steadily since its founding about a year ago, and now counts some 760 members on its page. Founder and graduate student Lisa Gross sees the burgeoning interest as a desire to shift from a consumption-based lifestyle to one that's more sustainable and intertwined with community: "It's combining life in the city with being connected in a closer way to a community—sharing resources, gardening tools, swapping—without having to drop out."

And for many, building, making, and planting are just plain enjoyable. "There's an aspect of it that's really about domestic craft—enjoying making that really amazing cherry vanilla jam from locally sourced ingredients," says Gross.