Urban homesteading allows you to live a sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle wherever you call home.
Urban homesteading offers city dwellers a way to achieve sustainability and self-reliance without purchasing a rural homestead.
Homesteading may seem like the domain of folks who have the ability to purchase old farm houses with acres and acres of land. But that’s not an option – nor is it appealing – for everyone.
Urban homesteading allows you to get the best of both worlds by developing eco-friendly, sustainable practices in your home, even if you have limited indoor and garden space.
What is urban homesteading and why is it growing in popularity?
Although definitions of urban homesteading and urban gardening vary, most refer to individuals who want to use their property to grow their own food, improve their sustainability practices, live self-sufficiently, and/or reduce their impact and reliance on the grid, supply chain and traditional food supplies.
It’s “learning to lower your footprint and feed yourself with the tools you create around you,” explains Kimberly Butler, an urban farmer and blogger who shares her journey with her more than 14,000 followers as @blackhomesteader on Instagram.
“There's a lot of value in understanding how the food you normally buy grows and there's a lot of joy in harvesting from the seed you grew yourself,” says Kevin Espiritu, founder of Epic Gardening, “It's something that feels like it's wired within our DNA to enjoy, and I haven't met someone who isn't stoked they did it. And it seems like, especially with the pandemic, everyone's looking for a little bit of that joy and this gives you that.”
Urban homesteading was a growing trend before the pandemic. Platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube saw a growing amount of homesteading content, with many creators sharing their tips and plans for gardening, harvesting and canning their own foods. Many also share their journeys toward sustainability and more traditional methods of preparing and preserving food they grow on their own land.
But the pandemic nudged the movement forward as people were forced to stay home during lockdowns and had time to experiment with growing their own food while also reflecting on their values.
“It's no question that COVID accelerated this trend that was honestly already there…And [urban homesteading] existed long enough, and with pandemic lockdowns, that people really started to change their attitude towards it like, ‘Hey, this is really satisfying to produce my own herbs or greens, or some of the higher value produce I typically buy at the grocery store, by myself,’” explains Espiritu. “And they started to see the actual, real, true value of that, which in the last couple generations has been lost as industrial food has replaced most of that. For me, what we're seeing is like almost a return to the nostalgia of the past of growing your own food, but in a real practical way.”
Other factors have driven an increased interest in urban homesteading as well. Concerns about food security, higher food prices, a desire for more community and neighborhood connection, and a call to know where your food comes from are all motivators for urban homesteaders.
“It does allow you to create a community around [plants], especially our community garden, we'll share seeds or give away plants or anything we've experimented with or have extra of, and we’ll share more with each other,” says Butler.
Some see urban homesteading as a way to reclaim control after two years of deep uncertainty. “People are realizing that we can't depend on [certain things with] food shortages coming up and so [urban homesteading] is where we can take more control in an uncontrollable world,” explains Anaïs Dervaes, co-founder and co-owner of The Urban Homestead.
Urban homesteading anywhere
You can begin homesteading wherever you are – even in, say, a small studio apartment in the middle of a major city. Urban homesteading can span from a single hydroponic system in a one-bedroom apartment to a half-acre array of fruits, vegetables and animals.
Espiritu, who is based in San Diego, has about 1/3 of an acre (13,000 square feet), with approximately 30 fruit and vegetable crops and an orchard with 20 varieties of trees in his front and backyard gardens plus a chicken coop, composting and water collection system. But he didn’t start out with this landscape of plentiful crops ranging from pumpkins to pond-grown produce.
“I got started in a townhouse and it was really dark and even the outdoors had covered north-facing patios,” Espiritu recalls. “I turned to a hydroponic setup, which is growing without soil, you're growing in water and nutrients…I was growing hydroponic cucumbers and herbs, and what was nice about that is not only could I do it without traditional resources like sunlight, but they also grew a lot faster and I learned a lot about growing.”
Dervaes has her “edible foodscape” front and backyards blossoming with dozens of crops at her family home in Pasadena, California, on a tenth of an acre, complete with an eco-friendly water,
solar and irrigation setup. She says her “green genes” run deep, as her father partnered with the City of Pasadena to expand the family’s property for more growing opportunities.
“There was no pushback from them, and then in 2000, we opened our home [to the public] with the first tour to Compton High School, and that was the beginning of not only growing food, but growing community and education programs as well,” Dervaes says.
Ben Fulcher, who lives in Mississippi and blogs at OutdoorsmansBible.com, also has family roots in farming and beekeeping. That made urban homesteading a natural transition when he and his wife decided to begin growing their own food on their ¾ of an acre plot.
“It's always been something [my wife and I] wanted to do, and we talked about wanting our kids to understand where their food comes from,” Fulcher says. “Having worked on a farm, the younger generations need to appreciate that hard work and sweat so we want that to be something our kids value as well as appreciating where their food comes from…what it takes to get that egg or honey to put on your warm biscuit.”
Fulcher farms leafy greens, broccoli, potatoes, berries, other fruits and bees. But with their move to Missouri, they’re looking to expand into an orchard with egg chickens and even a beef cow and a pig.
In Florida, Butler thought she lacked a green thumb, but when she got an allotment while living in Berlin, her first plants changed her plans for when she moved back to the U.S. She secured an apartment with a 15’x15’ terrace balcony, then added on a community garden plot where a master gardener helped her “stop wasting money buying plants and having them die all the time.” Now as a fully remote worker, her urban homestead is carefully managed by her detailed garden planner spreadsheet.
“I have two plots [at the community garden] and they’re about $80 dollars a year, and I was normally sticking vegetables, I was always like, ‘I have to be productive,’ but now, I've gotten into herbs and flowers and I’m a good planner, and I'm growing lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, shampoo ginger, I have about six aloe plants, late season peppers, poblanos, and sweet potatoes,” she says.
Whether they have outdoor square footage or simply a balcony, each has fun with urban homesteading. From Butler’s okra that exploded everywhere to Fulcher’s ornery bees that chased him like he was in Tommy Boy, or Espiritu’s chickens that run after each other over nectarines and peaches, their urban farms provide excitement alongside food production.
Most importantly, they show that urban homesteading is achievable regardless of the size of your property.
How to get started with urban homesteading
Take stock of your space
The first step in getting started with urban homesteading is assessing your space. Do you have a balcony or patio where you can set up some pots or raised beds? Is there space in your apartment where you can establish a hydroponic growing system? Do you have a small yard where you can put some crops into the ground?
If you’re not sure you can pull it off in your home, Dervaes has some advice: “If a dollar equals an acre…we're growing on 10 cents so if we can grow, you can grow,” Dervaes explains, “I've seen balconies be fruitful and it's not about growing all your food, it’s growing some of the foods you enjoy eating.”
Perhaps you’re getting ready to move to a new area. In that case, choose your new home with your urban homesteading goals in mind. Consider how much natural light different rooms get,
whether it affords you space to start homesteading and whether there’s a community garden nearby.
“That's why I chose the apartment I have now with a 15 by 15 terrace balcony, and it was the only one with enough sunlight to make it work,” says Butler. “If you have a large windowsill or a balcony and you can put things in containers, you can grow vertically. But I’d say the minimum amount of space would be a balcony that has enough space to put two chairs on…but there are apartment complexes that do have gardens within them for residents.”
Apartment, townhouse and rental dwellers can also “do balcony, railing planters, and bags, which you could definitely grow most things, especially if you pick the right variety,” explains Espiritu. “You’re not gonna want to grow an eight- to 10-foot tall tomato plant, but you can grow a patio tomato variety that does really well or you can grow microgreens and sprouts and herbs in those environments really well.”
Decide what you want to grow
Once you’ve chosen where you’re going to grow, think about what you want to plant or the types of animals you hope to keep.
“I’ve seen really productive smaller gardens that are producing let's say like 50 percent of a family's food in your average suburban backyard so you can definitely do that,” says Espiritu. “But it's helpful to look at regulations if you want to have chicken keeping so you need to know that your city actually allows it and know the rules on placements and amounts.”
Consider the environment where you live as well. What types of plants are likely to do best in the local climate? Is your property heavily shaded or exposed to a lot of sun? You’ll want to choose plants that are well-adapted to the area.
Be sure to find out what kinds of pests you’re likely to encounter. You may want to install some fencing, nets or other deterrents to keep out raccoons, skunks, deer and other animals attracted to garden patches. Additionally, you’ll have to learn about what types of bugs and diseases commonly afflict plants in your area.
If you plan to keep chickens, expect to need a well-protected coop to keep them safe from predators.
Know the rules where you live
If you live in a community with a homeowners association (HOA), check the bylaws for any restrictions on the types of animals you can have and modifications you can make to the property. You may be limited to potted plants rather than planting rows of crops. But that’s okay. Do what you can to get started and you’re bound to find ways to be creative in and outside the home.
Maybe you’re renting your current place. If so, ask your landlord what their guidelines are on planting. Some are happy for tenants to beautify their yards with an array of plants. Others strictly limit planting to window boxes, pots and raised beds on patio areas so as not to permanently alter the landscaping.
It can be frustrating to deal with constraints in your current community, but the important thing is to get started. Planting a few herbs and vegetables in pots can give you a feel for gardening and what it takes to get your plants to produce. Plus, there are other ways you can develop sustainability practices, such as adjusting certain habits to reduce waste in your day-to-day life and purchasing secondhand goods instead of brand-new items.
If you find that you’re really taking to urban homesteading, you may eventually opt to buy a place where you have more flexibility in what you grow and where. There are a number of low and no down payment loan options* out there, so when you’re ready, your lender can help you determine the best one for your goals.
Urban Homesteading on a Budget
You don’t have to create an Instagram-worthy homestead to get started. You can find lots of materials for little to no cost on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Keep an eye out for Buy Nothing groups as well. If your area does a bulk pick-up collection for large items people are throwing away, look out for great finds such as planters, pallets, old hoses, tools and other materials that can be repurposed for your homestead.
Don’t be shy about asking your neighbors or fellow homesteaders and gardeners where they source affordable soil, wood, scrap metal and gallon drums as well. Be sure to check for rebates from your city for energy-efficient installations and sustainability and regeneration initiatives.
The bottom line on urban homesteading
Remember that just because your urban homestead may take some time and effort to set up, or you’re working within a strict budget, doesn’t mean the experience can’t be a blast – and make for some memorable scenarios.
“One time, I tried to grow peas downwards by growing them in a hanging basket and learned it will work, but what happens is every four inches of growth, the peas want to go upwards again so you get this weird stair-stepping effect of the peas,” Espiritu says. “If you have no space, is it ideal? No, but do you still get peas? Yeah. So you can grow peas in a hanging basket. It's just a little weird.”
The key to urban homesteading is to be creative with the space you have. Start small and work your way up from there.
*Down Payment Assistance and Zero Down Payment Programs eligibility subject to program stipulations, qualifying factors, applicable income and debt-to-income (DTI) restrictions, and property limits.
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