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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Instruction in homesteading skills won't set you back much: Meetups and skill swaps are generally free, and workshops often cost less than a movie ticket. Groups seem to be concentrated near the coasts—Boston, for example, is home to a backyard poultry meetup and a beekeeper's club—but they're also thriving in cities including Denver, Dallas, and Kansas City. Local farms and plant nurseries are other places to look for homesteading guidance. At Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colo., for example, students learn how to hand spin their own yarn, and Muller's Lane Farm in Rock Falls, Ill., offers classes in canning, soap making, and basic blacksmithing.

Projects for novices. Fresh-from-the-backyard eggs and honey may sound irresistible, but beginners should hold off on beekeeping and livestock, which both require plenty of attention and knowledge (you'll also want to check local ordinances). There are plenty of gardening and do-it-yourself starter projects that require little time and skill. Raleigh Briggs, author of Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills, recommends making household cleaners, which takes minutes and may only require a trip to the cupboard. "Even small measures can recapture some of the self sustainability that people used to have back when things weren't at our fingertips in the city," says Briggs, who lives in a small one-bedroom Seattle apartment that's populated with herbs and leafy greens. "It's also about putting down roots in your community, honing your own skills, and sharing them with others." One way to do that is to work out an arrangement with neighbors and divide tasks, such as creating a compost heap or growing particular vegetables to share.

Container gardens are ideal for those who live in apartments and have access to outdoor space or windows that get a fair amount of sun (the portability of containers is also a plus for renters.) Lisa Munniksma, managing editor of Urban Farm magazine, recently started a low-maintenance salad garden on her outdoor deck in Lexington, Ky., which includes lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, peppers, and basil. Her upfront expenses were about $30, and included an armful of terra cotta pots, soil, fertilizer, and seeds. The diminutive garden yields a surprising amount of produce, she says, "and there's satisfaction in saying 'look what I did myself.'"

Herbs are also easy to maintain and hard to kill, says Cassie Johnson-Mitchel, who started Bay Area Homesteading and Family Gardening in Pearland, Texas, several years ago. "They're also easy to dry in an oven; 300 degrees for six to eight hours." Herb butters are simple to make and can be stored in the freezer, and low-acid foods like mulberry jelly and strawberry jam don't require "any fancy equipment," she adds.

Community gardens have long been a great resource for anyone who lacks access to outdoor space, but many have long waiting lists for plots—sometimes years. An alternative is yard-sharing, in which organizations and websites connect people with yard space with those who are looking for a place to garden—perhaps in exchange for a pound of tomatoes per month. One popular site is Hyperlocavore, a social network that links gardeners throughout the country with yards and also facilitates produce exchanges. VeggieTrader is another resource for gardeners looking to trade.

Other creative (and cost-effective) strategies. Sure, you can buy a top-of-the-line compost bin, but you can also repurpose an old garbage can or construct your own with galvanized chicken wire, which most home-improvement stores carry. Want to save on gardening containers? Reuse a plastic kiddie pool. Fox and Billipp are experimenting with planting a lettuce garden in an old tree stump. Backyard already occupied? "People are getting really creative ... even growing tomato plants along the driveway or sidewalk—edible landscaping," says Munniksma.

Aside from gardening how-tos, Urban Farm magazine addresses small-space storage issues with articles on ways to store your harvest: constructing makeshift tables with an open center, for example, or displaying canned fruits and vegetables on bookshelves.