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."
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 Meetup.com 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.
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.
Homesteading for gastronomes. For many people who grow their own vegetables, make their own jam, and brew their own beer, enjoying a higher quality of food (and drink) is a big motivator. "You can get a better product," says Johnson-Mitchel, who makes many of her own condiments, butter, and sausage, among other things. "I like herb butter; I like fancy mustards ... if you're trying to cook higher-end meals and don't want to spend the money for higher-end stuff, it's a way to dress up your food without spending lot money."
Home gardeners can also browse seed catalogues and choose among an astonishing array of vegetables to grow, including heirloom varieties that aren't found in stores. And above all, says Knutzen, "there's nothing like having that freshed-picked vegetable that you can rush from garden to kitchen."