Hello and welcome to the first installment of my instructional blog on urban homesteading! In this first section I will be going over some of the broad concepts included within the definition of “homesteading”, and how they can be adapted to an urban setting. I define an “Urban” setting more on the parameters of size, rather than location as the geographic term suggests. I titled this Blog “Under Acre Farm” in reference to any land space under one acre in area. Quite a wide array of production can occur within relatively small areas. With good planing, some ingenuity, and patience, any homeowner can turn there unproductive backyard into a sustainable paradise. Join me as we explore an exciting and rewarding lifestyle, once limited to the rural outskirts of our society.
Ornamental Plants and Herbs
Vegetables are not the only plants dominating your Autumn landscape. A number of wonderful cool weather ornamental plants are coming into the peak of their performance this time of year. The soft plumes of ornamental grasses, curled fronds of hardy ferns, and the astute structures of evergreen trees and shrubs begin to take center stage as the last wisps of summer flare are fading. Try bringing some of this beauty into the interior of your space as well. A vase full of twisted bare stems, billowy plumes of grass seed heads, and the glossy fronds of an evergreen fern can be just as beautiful on your dining room table as a bouquet of store bought, off season flowers.
Consider incorporating various structures such as wooden fences, benches, or decorative wire-framed trellises into the landscape, as the summer foliage dies back they will begin to stand out and add structure to the garden spaces. Even incorporating containers into the open garden beds that can be slowly revealed as surrounding foliage fades can make a dramatic transformation in a landscape. These types of considerations will provide year round interest in your urban environment.
When it comes to mixing the aesthetic with the utilitarian, nothing can out compete herbs. Easy to grow either outdoors or in containers, fragrant in bouquets, delicious in food, and often lovely to look at, herb should be a mainstay in any urban living space. I grow my herbs mostly in containers. This allows for ease of access, mobility, and organization. By grouping the herbs together by culinary uses, or by complimenting colors and structures, the herbs can be easily incorporated into the interior decor. Herbs such as cilantro (coriander), parsley, rocket, oregano are just a few of some of the wonderfully flavorful and ornamental herbs that thrive in cooler conditions. If brought into a protected area during extended periods of cold weather, most herbs can survive to be planted out into the garden come spring. In some areas Oregano and Thyme are perennial if pruned back and covered. I often use one of these perennial herbs as a centerpiece to each container, surrounding it with a variety of complimentary annuals.
Whatever your culinary fancies happen to be, there is always an herb that can accommodate any cuisine. Herbs can be easily dried, put in jars, and saved for use throughout the year. A well selected few that can be grown in each season will add a fresh sense of variety to every meal. Another popular way to preserve herbs is through making infusions. These can either be in oil, or vinegar, depending on the flavor and intended use of each herb. These can be used as dressing for salads, cooking, or as a marinade for many types of protein. When stored in decorative containers, these infusions can be as good to look at as they are to eat!
Many popular houseplants can thrive in the cool conditions of Autumn. Many succulent species if kept in a drier area, will put on some of there best foliage during this time of year. My philodendrons love the increased humidity, and often will enjoy a sunny spot out on the back patio well into October. Cymbidium orchids can survive in near freezing temperatures, and are one of the few orchid species that bloom in the winter months. Cut flowers from these orchids can last up to 4 weeks in indoor arrangements.
In the Garden
Although most people consider Autumn to be the end of the season, I usually like to think of it as the beginning of the next. While the last sighs of Summer are spreading their mauve and rusty browns across our landscapes, winter vegetables and ornamental annuals are just now reaching there seed leaves to the sky. Cooler nights, increased rainfall (especially so living in the Pacific NW!), in combination with the sun at a lower angle, provide the perfect ingredient to grow some of our favorite table vegetables. Salad greens, brassicas, and root vegetables will thrive outdoors with minimal protection right up until the end of the year.
Starting seeds can be as simple or as complicated as you would like to make it. You could spend money on seed starting kits and greenhouses, but I have found that some cheap plastic window boxes in a sunny garage window can be just as effective. If you do not have this accommodation, the investment into a 4 foot indoor/outdoor shop lights with 2 daylight spectrum florescent bulbs (often called Cool White), which can be purchased for less than $30.00 at most hardware stores, will give you an invaluable jump start on each season. Any cool, well ventilated indoor space (garage, shed, covered patio) that has relatively easy access to a power outlet can be turned into a growing space.
As the Summer squash and tomatoes are giving up the last of there delicious bounty, usually around mid to late September in most areas, I go ahead and start planning out what can be started to replace spend crops immediately after final harvest and removal. The beds simply need to have the top 6-8 inches of soil turned over, raked, and it will be ready for those newly sprouted seedlings that you have been doting over for the last few weeks. If you happen to live in an area with an especially early chance of frost (such as higher elevations), a simple A-frame made out of sticks, trellis material, or PVC pipe can support not only polyurethane plastic sheeting for those frosty mornings, it can double as a support for shade cloth on those unexpectedly hot days next year in late spring/early summer. I try to plant the seedling out in the bed at half the spacing that is recommended on the seed packets. This simulated “overcrowding” promotes natural competition within the seedling community. This allows for the best of the seedlings to be left to grow, without sacrificing yield. The extra plants can often be consumed as “baby” greens, and what can not usually be fed to the animals.
Try to plan out your crop placement according to the previous occupants need. This strategy allows for the reuse of some structures like trellises, arbors, and even fences to support popular cool growing veges such as sugar snap peas and runner beans. Deeper beds once containing potatoes can be used to grow spectacular root vegetables such as radishes, carrots, and beet root. Actively rotating your crops helps to reduce disease and malnutrition problems. For the organic gardener, this means less need for soil amendments and/or chemical intervention. I try to keep a simple bed record book to keep track of what plants occupy each bed, as well as any periods of vacancy. Any particularly resilient pests in any particular area can often be eliminated by simply by changing to a new crop.
Another popular method that I often employ, is commonly referred to as a “Chicken Tractor”. Using a simple A-frame the size of the bed, with about 2 ½ – 3 feet of height to the peak, you can accommodate up to 4 full size chickens to peck, scratch, and poop within the specific confines of a particular bed. They will effectively remove most pests, till the top layer of the soil, and fertilize it in just one day. I usually will let my 4 hens out into the beds in the morning when I check for eggs, and put them away in the late afternoon/evening. This works perfectly for my beds, which are roughly 200-225 ft2. In a larger area, you may need to move them around every 4-5 hours to effectively till the entire space. In areas with high amounts of invasive weeds, the same method can be employed with the use of rabbits. 1-2 rabbits in a 10 foot by 5 foot area fenced in with a small 1.5 foot temporary wire fence (these can also be found relatively inexpensively at your local hardware store/garden center), will eat through an astounding amount of vegetation. These methods allow us to focus on other tasks, and maximize our effectiveness in managing our urban landscapes. Most of us do not have the time to dedicate 7-8 hours a day in our yards working, so any amount of automation is critical to consistent production through the seasons. This is where housing even a small amount of livestock or poultry can really start to pay off (the free breakfast eggs aside…)
When planning an urban landscape with limited space, utilizing each season effectively can greatly increase the productivity of any plot. This first set of installments will focus on each season individually, with special consideration at the end of each installment to the transitional period from one season to the next. Each chapter will highlight specific areas and items in your landscape that can increase your production. I addition, a special consideration to the aesthetic of the space will incorporate the various areas of your yard into a complete landscape.
Not all plants in the garden must be vegetables, and not all vegetables need to be treated as just “utility” plants. There are plenty of vegetables that boast quite beautiful foliage. Curly, purple Mesclun lettuce mixes, the red veins of beet root leaves and the giant leaves of the rhubarb all can be utilized aesthetically when designing your landscape. The use of ornamental plants within a production space not only attracts beneficial wildlife into the garden areas, it helps to add diversity to your garden soils. This “living” soil will save not only on time, but money as the soil builds itself. Very few addition materials should need to be added in order to produce great plants.
Domesticated livestock and poultry in the urban landscape, as space allows, can be both a fun and rewarding experience. These animals provide food, manure, and pest control, with a relatively small annual investment. For example, chickens do great in small spaces, and their waste acts as not only a fantastic fertilizer, but as a fast acting and effective compost activator. Some counties set an initial limit to the amount (and sex) of the chickens that can be owned withing city limits, but permits can usually be purchased for addition animals. Rabbits are also a great animal to have in the garden. When composted, their manure is high in natural forms of nitrogen that can be applied as a mulch around the heavier feeding plants (tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, etc… ). Rabbits also have the highest transfer ration of protein for any domesticated livestock species. Details on these animals will be added at the end of each seasonal installment, including their seasonal habits and needs.