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Urban Homesteading

 
pollinator
Posts: 52
Location: Topeka, KS, Zone 6a
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We currently live in a city, on a typical suburban lot, about .25 acres. Good news, it's on a corner so it's slightly larger than the surrounding lots and I only have two neighbors actually adjoining and they are both super chill about my backyard "projects". I've got mini-hugels, a pond we're struggling to seal properly (almost no clay in the soil at all, weird, huh?) and lots of plantings going on. Comfrey, mint and horseradish are super happy (the wife not as much with those plants). Who else is homesteading in the city? What issues do you run into?
 
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Eric Tolbert wrote:We currently live in a city, on a typical suburban lot, about .25 acres. Good news, it's on a corner so it's slightly larger than the surrounding lots and I only have two neighbors actually adjoining and they are both super chill about my backyard "projects". I've got mini-hugels, a pond we're struggling to seal properly (almost no clay in the soil at all, weird, huh?) and lots of plantings going on. Comfrey, mint and horseradish are super happy (the wife not as much with those plants). Who else is homesteading in the city? What issues do you run into?



I also am "homesteading" in the middle of a city.  I don't really think of it as homesteading, because that seems like a grandiose term for what I'm doing. I look at this all as building skills for when I do get land and I'll have a better idea of what works.  I still rely on the grid and grocery stores and the farmer's market.

I think of it like other skills.  When I was starting out with painting, I didn't make a 4x6 foot canvas.  I made a 4x6 inch canvas and figured out how paint works.  I didn't make a rocking chair when I started woodworking.  I made a simple toolbox.  Doing the simple toolbox taught me how to use the drill and the saw and glue and clamps.  So when I have to make a rocking chair, I'm doing it with some skills in place.

So in this scenario, I think the moment you have planted one seed in the ground and watched it grow, you've gained a skill.  The moment you think about the growing seasons and plant different plants, another skill.  I've recently learned about rooting plants in my windowsill.  Next I'm gonna learn about air pruning.

What I've learned about urban homesteading is the principle of least surprise.  I have three 8' x 4' raised beds in my yard.  They look like normal raised beds, maybe a little higher than average.  In reality they're 5 foot by 4 foot hugel beds only with a sheath of wood around them to make them look like raised beds. I use gazebo corner posts as trellises, like any ponds with pretty rocks and flowers, cover my Dakota fire hole with a pretty (and shallow) fire bowl to give the illusion of shallowness, cover the intake hole with a decorative pot, etc. Basically try to make it so anyone coming by will not see a bunch of holes in the yard, but instead see some order and what they expect to see.

This isn't out of fear but I do live in a city.  Kids, police, petty criminals, homeless people, census takers, canvassers, fiber optic construction people, UPS drivers, contractors all could be walking around my yard at any given moment.  

20200330_181210.jpg
Here is one of my raised beds filled halfway up.
Here is one of my raised beds filled halfway up.
 
gardener
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I'm in the city too. In the front yard, everything is in containers and looks "normal", in the back yard as long as nothing is too smelly nobody cares too much (or maybe I just don't care what they think) since I have high walls and there is no access or view. My lot is tiny- maybe 20 or max 22 meters by 7ish, and that includes the house.
I have major clay and a pretty steep slope. Over time that's been dealt with. This tropical clay soil essentially eats organic matter at a crazy speed, so I am constantly bringing in mulch material (in a place with minimal deciduous trees, it's not always easy. Especially since access to the garden is through my kitchen.).
It has been key for me to optimize my space and seek alternatives at a scale that works for me. I can't afford to waste a few square meters on compost piles, so I use bokashi buckets instead. I don't do square foot gardening but that is probably what my garden looks the most like- small zones with many, many things squeezed in together. This isn't companion gardening, it's promiscuity gardening, or maybe packed-into-a-rush-hour-train gardening.
Other challenges are pests. I may be urban but the bugs are here in the city, and they're brutal. Mice and rats, even worse. I'm exploring what can be grown in containers, and what can be grown out of season to avoid pests, and each year things seem to get a bit better.
 
pollinator
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I would also say that I am building homesteading skills on an urban plot. I start the year with grand plans, and as the year progresses, I learn grand lessons.

My biggest issue starting out was getting organic matter. It's still a bottleneck, but it's improving. A huge limitation in this space is there are many buried lines and hanging ones that limit digging and planting options. We're also renters so I don't want to do things that would be problematic. That said, I can do anything reasonable.

My whole yard is visible from the street. I try to keep it neat, but this year was a failure for neatness. No one complains though, and I still get compliments. I guess people appreciate effort. And it's not a total failure. There's lots of food and flowers and the soil is definitely improving. Most importantly, I'm learning.

This year, there have been so many interruptions that I've had to come to terms with the fact that outside forces are a part of life too. The disruptions may keep me from my goals, but the circumstances required reprioritizing.
The smoke will clear and the gardens will grow.
 
gardener
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Although I grew up in the city, my father had grown up in England during WWII. They had a veggie garden, chickens and rabbits and it made a big difference in him getting healthy food during his teenage years. He didn't know anything about permaculture but he was an environmentalist and got concerned with the way things were going with artificial fertilizers, pesticides etc. When he got the opportunity to grow veggies in a friend's back yard when we were teenagers, he took it and I can remember going to pick beans and help weed.

I'm now on acreage, but am over 60, so making a point of having veggies near at hand and in raised beds where they're easy to reach is important. I've done exactly as described above - I built a 4'x4' raised bed this spring and half-filled it with punky wood using aged compost to fill in the holes. It needs to be watered as it isn't large enough to be a true hugel, but I can usually water it only once/week, whereas most people here, water their veggies daily. I've got two more in the planning stage, and they will be taller.

I definitely agree that there are many things that can be learned about growing plants on an urban-sized plot and many ways to disguise it to look deceptively normal. Companion planting of "edible landscaping" plants can provide a polyculture that looks like regular landscaping.
 
pollinator
Posts: 223
Location: New Braunfels, TX, Zone 8b, multi-generational suburban homestead
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I'm borrowing my parent's suburban .2 acre lot for my newfound love: gardening turned to permaculture obsession.

My raised beds were built before I found permaculture, which is a pitty! Otherwise I'd maybe try making taller raised beds and do the modified hugelkultur like the posters above.

One neighbor has always been a gardener, though now she's in her 90s and it just gets bare minimum maintenance from her sons. But I sure do appreciate her pond ever since I started growing my own food, her toads love it over here! That and the dragonflies I believe has really helped prevent myself from having a lot of problems other first time gardeners have. Though I'm still a bit confused as to what to do about the vine borers, which have been my only pest problem thus far.

We do happen to have a morning glory infestation which I personally contribute to the fact that we are in a typical neighborhood since it's not a typical weed to have around here. I can only imagine someone bought one from the nursery for fun and then later came to regret it! And now I get the fruits of that regret, lol!

I haven't gotten to the front yard yet, but my mom really wants me to pretty much rip everything out of the garden beds and redo it. I definitely want to do some more learning so I can pick good plants that are functional and decent enough for the front yard (as well satisfying her few requests.) Much of it of course is and probably will remain grass.

Aside from gardening I'm focusing on other things I can do inside to amp up my homesteading skills: baking bread, preserving goods, cooking seasonally (I signed up for a CSA to help with this in addition to my garden), and just plain figuring out how to organize and store everything... I'm not used to having a fridge full of fermented pickles and a pantry full of preserves!

I'd love to see what everyone else is doing in their urban/suburban homesteads since I'm just getting started!
 
gardener
Posts: 560
Location: Southern Germany
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Rebecca Blake wrote:
I'd love to see what everyone else is doing in their urban/suburban homesteads since I'm just getting started!


Hi Rebecca,
we have a picture thread dedicated to Urban homesteading:
https://permies.com/t/108608/urban-suburban-permie-picture-thread

Check it out, and I might upload some more recent pictures (I am living in a small German town with a total plot surface of roughly 0.14 acres (a bit under 590 m²), although we bought an additional garden plot this summer).
 
pollinator
Posts: 108
Location: Japan
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Hi! I think I can beat everyone with how small my plot is. Its 165m2 total including house and our house takes up the majority of the plot. I think I have about 30m2 to work with total. I'm actually suburban but in Japan if you are near a city, urban gets you nothing. A balcony maybe. Suburban gets to a few m2 of land. Even if you apply for a community garden which is out in the middle of nowhere you only get 30m2. We moved in August and now i'm reading up with what I want to be done with my little plot. I want to make it as productive as possible but my garden really is tiny! I grew up in England where you could access community plots of 250m2 very cheaply (around £20-40 a year back then) and had a half plot with  my friend as a teen. Now they are way more popular and living here makes me realise what a privilege it is to be able to access land like that. In Japan if you want to buy agricultural land you have to have some kind of "farmer" certification. You also can't build a living space on it. If you want residential land to build a house it is much much more expensive and too expensive to consider buying a residential plot just for growing veg. Its a very tough situation but we've done the best we can. Our house was a great find. It was on the secondhand market but actually previously only used as a model house. It was designed to mirror some of the ZEH in Germany but obviously finer tuned to Japanese climate. I think the architects have done their best to keep things natural but they did install a plasticy kitchen and full plastic bathroom.  We'll replace in the future I think but for now we'll use what we have and try make the best of it. One of the big benefits was they installed a 8.3kw solar array which would have been a lot of money if we purchased that ourselves (over 6 million jpy just for the panels alone). Very excited to learn from people on here even if I can't do many of the things people can do with lots of space.
 
Jay Angler
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N.Y. Anzai wrote:

I want to make it as productive as possible but my garden really is tiny!

If this were me, I'd start by observing where the sun is and isn't and think of ways you can use reflected light to increase what will grow in partial shade as I find in small spaces, with buildings all around, sun is everything! There are ways to build soil, ways to capture and hold water, but replacing the sun is "difficult"!

There are some great ideas in the growies forum about growing vertically and intensively, so yes, I'm sure there is lots you can learn here and hopefully find ways to apply.
 
gardener
Posts: 2849
Location: southern Illinois.
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To build on Jay's comments, I would then take a close look at raised beds. I find it to be a good way to protect valuable soil once it is developed.
 
N.Y. Anzai
pollinator
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John F Dean wrote:To build on Jay's comments, I would then take a close look at raised beds. I find it to be a good way to protect valuable soil once it is developed.



Yes hoping to have raised beds. I'm getting someone in to do some work as right now we have no power tools, no knowledge and no means of transport (we don't own a car and I do not drive) mostly getting them to dig up the concrete that is down, install fence and create my raised beds. I'd like woodchip mulch between the beds but there was mention of a membrane which I'll put a stop to. Anyway, yes I should have a little compost from kitchen scraps to add to the beds and was thinking of putting old shiitake logs at the base with some wood chips and getting some leaf mold in too (you can get it commercially here but will make sure it is labeled pesticide free). I really have no way of making my own of these things with my plot of useable land so small. Its a shame I can't do as much as I'd like without bringing outside things in.
IMG_20201103_102815.jpg
This is what I had in mind
This is what I had in mind
 
N.Y. Anzai
pollinator
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Location: Japan
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Just added to my design for the garden. Are there any problems here that jump out at anyone? Anything that would do well next to berries? Or would be of benefit to berries? I've chosen so far just based on what I'd like rather than doing guilds. Was just going to experiment with placement.
IMG_20201103_183308.jpg
my design for the garden
my design for the garden
 
Tereza Okava
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Hey NY. What are you going to put in the walkway/non-planted areas? Do you have kids/animals/etc that might need grass? Just curious.
I'm amazed that where you are is zone 8b!! Are you in some area where there is some sort of special ocean effect that keeps you warm? I used to spend lots of time up visiting a friend in Sendai proper and my husband lived in a nearby town (Soma, maybe? some place with a horse/archery festival, if i recall) for a while. Most of my memories involve trudging around in snow with hot cans of coffee in my pockets and trying to find ways to cut through covered areas in the city... and good restaurants!

My plot is probably similar to yours in terms of size, and I just cram everything in and go with normal garden crops (i'm in zone 9b and grow year round). If you have the space, you could probably fit in a row that could be covered to extend the season, and I imagine row cover materials would be easy to find since they're pretty ubiquitous. I also have had great results with using a bokashi bucket and another soil/bokashi barrel that makes nice composty dirt within a few weeks (and that can be used to pot up new plants or even thrown in beds). You also could get some nice containers going on your deck or along your final beds. I think you could really squeeze a surprising amount of produce out of your small space.
 
Rob Lineberger
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That looks very similar to my yard.  I think it will work well.  The only thing I would add is upside down planters.  Cherry tomatoes out the bottom of pails and basil/marigolds out the top is by far the most productive aspect of my garden year in year out. It defeats squirrels, slugs, catepillars, fungus, and more.  No staking.  No training vines.  I simply stuff the plant in the bottom, seeds up top, mulch, then set up a timed drip irrigation and eat cherry tomatoes for 6-7 months, hassle free.  

 
Jay Angler
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N.Y. Anzai wrote:

Are there any problems here that jump out at anyone?

Eco-system is so specific. Where I live, lemon balm tends towards "energetically spread" behavior. It's in the mint family and makes *lovely* tea particularly along with Applemint, so I would suggest you consider ways to contain it a little and keep an eye on it.

You mentioned you didn't have a car - which made me wonder how often your "visitor's parking" space gets used for a car?  I wondered if a few other half/barrel mini-fruit trees could "decorate" that area without upsetting the neighbors? Or even just hang planters on the parking side of the fence?

Rob Lineberger wrote:

The only thing I would add is upside down planters.  Cherry tomatoes out the bottom of pails and basil/marigolds out the top is by far the most productive aspect of my garden year in year out.

I tried this with *no* success! The timed drip irrigation may be the problem and with our deep well, it won't work well for long, because at the time I experimented with it, the area should have been sunny enough. If I can find a spot where I can install a sturdy enough support, I should maybe try again next year. I'm guessing I was using about a 16 liter bucket - what size are you using?
 
N.Y. Anzai
pollinator
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Yeah i'm surprised too but seems like it gets waaay colder in other countries 😅 apparently Sendai's winters are "mild". I remember the night my youngest was born and it snowed so much. Normally overnight guests aren't allowed in the clinic but there was no way for my husband to get home with all the snow. He slept better than me though. Haha.

Anyway between the beds will be woodchip mulch. Maybe it looks like grass on my picture haha.

Bokashi seems good but I was always told it was too acidic to use straight away. How do you store it before use?

The car parking space is really narrow as it is. It wouldn't be used more than a couple times a month but if I put anything there, I'd definitely need to move it again if a car comes and those things are heavy!!

Turns out the work we wanted doing is way above our budget...things are veeery expensive here. I'm rather shocked. I think they can take up the concrete and old fence and put in new fence and that's about it for ¥1 million.

I'll happily do the herb spiral myself (will just need to order bricks)

As for the beds, I'd really like them to be made of earth/clay. I really have no idea even where to begin with them. I wonder if I am up to it.
IMG_20201031_090922.jpg
Something like this
Something like this
 
Rob Lineberger
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I use 2.5 gallon galvanized pails.   One cherry tomato plant in the bottom, two basil plants up top.   Compost rich potting mix and mulch.   With such a small volume ive found that two 10-minute drip irritations a day are essential.   Also tomatoes fare much better with consistent watering.  

If that doesn't work for you, maybe try a long raised container with multiple holes and put a branch or two lengthwise to retain moisture? Just an idea.

Oh if you do drip irrigation, the plant wicks the extra water to one spot on the ground.  So under each upside down planter I put a normal container to catch that water.  
 
Tereza Okava
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N.Y. Anzai wrote:
Bokashi seems good but I was always told it was too acidic to use straight away. How do you store it before use?


I've got one 20L bucket with a spigot in it, and I throw my food scraps in there, covering it with a scoop of the bokashi inoculant (bran mixed with wood shavings) every time. The leachate drops out into a container and I often dilute it to water with.
When the bokashi bucket is full (every month to 6 weeks) I do one of 2 things: bury it in the garden beds, if I have a space available, and plant on top of it after 2 weeks.... or, if I don't have space (more common lately) I have an old trash barrel I drilled with holes in a failed attempt to make compost. I alternate layers of rabbit litter, crummy dirt (from old planters, from holes for citrus trees, or from any blank space in the garden with crummy soil), and the bokashi from the full bucket. Within about 3 or 4 weeks that whole barrel is teeming with worms and everything is broken down. That is essentially compost and rich dirt, and that gets put into new containers or put back in the beds. All 3 of these practices (making bokashi, breaking down bokashi, and collecting crummy dirt for the final breakdown) are all ongoing here all the time.
 
author & gardener
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N.Y. Anzai wrote:As for the beds, I'd really like them to be made of earth/clay. I really have no idea even where to begin with them. I wonder if I am up to it.



N.Y., I'm going to recommend an African Keyhole Garden.

My African Keyhole Garden

What really makes this raised bed unique, is that it has a compost bin in the very center.

Before planting to show compost bin.

Compost and water go into the center of it, and the nutrients are distributed throughout the bed from there. Everything I grew in my keyhole garden did so much better than everything else!

You can make it out of any material. We just used bricks because we had them leftover after we tore down an old, leaky chimney. I've seen them made out of rock, sticks, wattle fencing, sheets of metal roofing, even fabric. You could certainly make yours out of earth clay.

Okay, I just found a Permies thread about them here

I'd love to convert my entire garden to these!
 
Jay Angler
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Leigh Tate wrote:

N.Y. Anzai wrote:As for the beds, I'd really like them to be made of earth/clay. I really have no idea even where to begin with them. I wonder if I am up to it.



N.Y., I'm going to recommend an African Keyhole Garden.

What really makes this raised bed unique, is that it has a compost bin in the very center.

Compost and water go into the center of it, and the nutrients are distributed throughout the bed from there. Everything I grew in my keyhole garden did so much better than everything else!

You can make it out of any material. We just used bricks because we had them leftover after we tore down an old, leaky chimney. I've seen them made out of rock, sticks, wattle fencing, sheets of metal roofing, even fabric. You could certainly make yours out of earth clay.

Okay, I just found a Permies thread about them here

I'd love to convert my entire garden to these!

One of the beds in the link is one I built. I built mine higher than average and we have summer drought, so it struggles. My house is too far away to use it to process grey water, with N.Y.'s small lot, a little grey water from dishes would make a huge difference because the compost microbes will actually clean that water before it reaches the plant roots.
 
N.Y. Anzai
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This is basically our usable area. We have a little sliver at the back too but that is north facing. Next week we are getting someone in to dig up some of the concrete. What would be best to do to build the soil? I'm going to have to bring stuff in unfortunately, but I can forage stuff.
IMG_20201111_133547.jpg
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