Permaculture in your neighborhood
When you think of a homestead, you likely picture an off-grid cabin out in the middle of nowhere, on a large plot of land. But homesteading is a lifestyle that focuses on self-reliant, frugal, and old fashioned ways of running a household.
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You can homestead in your regular, suburban neighborhood.
You can homestead in an apartment.
You can homestead on 5 acres or 40 acres.
home-cooked meals from scratch
sewing and mending clothes
It doesn’t matter how big your homestead is, it matters what you do there.
Limitations for Suburban Homesteaders
Here in the suburbs, there are some limitations. We have neighbors close by, we have HOAs, we have city ordinances. We can’t just run to Tractor Supply on a whim and pick up a few baby chicks. There are rules, people.
Having a nice big plot of land to grow a huge garden and be able to have livestock would be ideal, but that’s just not possible for everyone. Not me. So, I will grow where I’m planted and that means homesteading in the ‘burbs. The Burbstead.
Homesteaders face many challenges, some of them legal issues. Residents of Colorado were previously prohibited from harvesting rainwater. At first, it was about people constructing large reservoirs to catch rainwater, because none of it went downhill. In August 2016, the citizens overturned it, but can only have two rain barrels, and only 110 gallons each.
There are still some other limitations in the law in Colorado, namely, that you still can’t have a rain barrel for your business building, or any dwelling with more than 3 families. And if you have a well on your property, you must obtain a “rooftop precipitation collection permit”; a tax on God-given rainwater. So you can see that the fight is not over for Colorado Homesteaders.
In residential neighborhoods like mine, in the middle of suburbia, there are limitations with homeowners associations and local city code that prevent many homesteading and permaculture activities. Where I live, you can’t have chickens or livestock, no windmills, no HAM radio antennae, and no front yard veggies. We knew this when we bought the house.
The major limitation to suburban homesteading is gardening space. It’s not impossible to have a productive garden in a suburban backyard, but it is difficult. Not only do you need to take advantage of every square foot of ground space, but you have to think vertical. Think about a skyscraper: they build them up because they can’t build them out. Going vertical means trellises, arbors, guttering, PVC pipe gardens, and homemade versions of commercially made vertical gardens.
Storage space is another limitation, although you can get pretty creative with your storage solutions. Older homes may not have a traditional pantry space near the kitchen. You may not have a garage, attic, or outbuilding. Hiding your preps in plain sight is one option. One lady had a 55 gallon blue water barrel in her apartment. She covered it with a tapestry and put a glass top on it. Voila! Side table in the entry hall. Under the bed is another option. Tuck away a few items in the back of a closet. That weird space above the cabinets.
The Burb Garden
My first year of gardening, we lived in a small neighborhood condo with a zero lot line. We had no backyard at all, just a concrete pad outside the door, which was 100% shaded. The only place to grow anything was in the front garden bed. We had an HOA, but I became friends with the neighbors across the street, who also happened to be the heads of the HOA.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I gave it a shot anyway. And I was pleasantly surprised by the results.
It’s important to build valuable gardening skills in case you ever need to rely on a garden for your food. It is very difficult to build a garden large enough to feed your family on 1/10th of an acre of land. Very difficult, but not impossible. It takes some creative thinking.
The goal may not be to live off your garden, but the goal is to get as close as you can eventually. The most important thing is to learn as much as you can about horticulture and understand the time and commitment it takes to get a good harvest.
Experienced gardeners make productive gardens. Multiple variables make for some interesting curveballs. Knowing how to handle these hurdles takes time. I learn from trial and error…and error… and error. It’s not the most efficient way to learn, but it’s the way I learn best. Book learning is great, but experience is a lasting teacher.
The first year I had no idea what I was doing, but I just gave it a shot and tried to analyze where I went wrong so I could do it better next time. I still do this and I’m always learning better ways to do it than the year previous.
The point is that you don’t have to try and feed your family right now. What you DO need to do is know enough about gardening that you could feed your family if you had to. And you would know what it would take to accomplish that. It’s hard for new gardeners to gauge how much they will harvest, especially when space is limited.
Planning a garden requires a calendar. Look at your last frost date for your area. Now count 8-10 weeks before that and that’s when you should start your seeds indoors. This ensures that you get your vegetable plants fruiting and your greens harvested before it gets too hot. After that, you’ll need to know when your harvest will be ready. Once your seeds have sprouted, count the number of days on the seed packet and you’ll know when you’ll harvest. This is important to know for preserving your crop to make sure you have enough time and jars to can it all, or sell it at the farmer’s market.
Planning a garden requires a map of your space. Raised beds are great for square foot gardening. Some plants need an entire square foot, while other plants, like carrots can have up to 15 plants per square foot.
You also need a light map to ensure that your garden gets enough light- full sun for veggies is 8 hours, not 6 like other plants. Lettuces and greens do well with partial sun, like 3-6 hours.
If you have a shady yard, you never know, there might be a weird patch of sunlight through a hole in the tree canopy.
Planning a garden requires good soil. The health of the plant stems from the nutrients in the soil. You can either buy the soil with the nutrients already in it, or you can amend the soil you already have.
Composting at home can help you make good soil amendments from leftover table scraps. Casual composting is okay too! Keep it simple and only compost your yard waste, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, and fruit and veggie scraps. Better to reuse your scraps than to bag them up in a plastic bag and send it to the landfill. You can give your compost bin a boost with compost starter.
Planning a garden requires and additional plan for your harvests. Canning or freezing are two ways you can preserve your bounty so that it doesn’t go to waste.
Water bath canning is a really great way to get started in canning. Simple jams, jellies, preserves, pickles and salsas are easy, and require simple ingredients from your garden or grocery store. Strawberries, sugar, lemon juice, and pectin is all you need to make jam. Cucumbers, pickling salt, water, and vinegar make pickles. You can pickle lots of different things from the garden.
You can get a canning starter kit that has everything you need. Just follow the directions, don’t try to can anything that needs to be pressure canned, and don’t try any unorthodox canning methods like dishwasher canning or inversion canning. The only safe methods are water bath canning and pressure canning. You don’t want to take any chances when it comes to botulism.
Planning a garden requires that you grow what you eat. Strawberry jam, pickled okra, canned tomatoes, canned corn, and canned carrots are the staples we strive for at my house, so these are the things we grow. Everything else gets eaten right away, like the watermelons, which we only grow 1-3 melons per season.
For example, if I know I want to make a dozen half-pints of strawberry jam, I will need to harvest at least 5-6lbs of strawberries at once. That will require an entire 4’x8′ raised bed with at least 32 strawberry plants. Runners will fill in the gaps. That may seem like a lot of plants for someone who is used to container gardening, but you’d be lucky to harvest 5-6 lbs of berries at once in a raised bed. You have to account for plants dying, pests, and plants that just don’t produce any berries.
Gardening is the number one, most important aspect of homesteading. All other activities are related to it or stem from it.
Laundry is not a fun task. It’s a daily slog of hauling piles of clothes to the laundry, sorting them, folding (folding?), and putting them away. Sometimes, I only make it through step 1 and the clean clothes end up in unsorted piles on my bedroom chair. So why would anyone want to do laundry the old fashioned way?
Outdoor laundry is good for a few things.
First, the heat generated by your dryer in the heat of the summer can cause your house to heat up. Simply drying your bath towels on a clothes line can cut down of the amount of drying time. I always put the crispy towels in the dryer for 5 minutes once they’re dry to fluff them up.
Second, if you have rough and rowdy kids that enjoy playing in the mud, or are potty training and have a #2 accident, there might be a time that you don’t want to put that in your washing machine. You can spray these items off in the backyard and scrub them on your washboard. Maybe your kids are in sports and that white home jersey is not going to be white if you put it directly in the washing machine.
The laundry soap you use outside is important too. Use a biodegradable laundry soap like Ecos Earth Friendly 2x Detergent or use Dr. Bonner’s Magic Castile Soap. You don’t want to contaminate the ground water with unnatural chemicals. Your neighbors might have plants or gardens too, and wildlife needs the water to be chem free.
I love this Puracy Natural 10x Concentrated Natural Laundry Soap. The pump bottle is nice for using outside too instead of lugging around the huge gallon of detergent.
A good pantry stock should have enough food in it to feed your family, exclusively, for at least a week. You may have that much now and don’t realize it, but you might not. It doesn’t take a lot of money to fill a pantry if you do it over time, watch for sales, and use coupons when you can.
Canned foods, pastas, beans, rice, flour, sugar, spices, box meals, and dried soup mixes are inexpensive, last a long time without refrigeration, and can be stretched to last longer or to feed more people.
How much food does it take to feed a family of 4 for a week? What is the absolute minimum amount of food for your family for one week? You should have at least that much in the pantry on top of what you plan eat.
You don’t have to have a huge stockpile, just add a few extra items to the cart when you can. One pound of rice is a buck. One can of peaches is as low as .65 cents. When you see these shelf-stable items on sale, buy double what you need or stock up if it’s a really good deal.
A good pantry stock will save you money if you keep track of it. Before you make a grocery list, check your inventory. You might be able to plan a few meals around what you already have and fill in the blanks.
Spaghetti night? We already have pasta, pasta sauce, flour and yeast to make garlic bread, all we lack is the meat (unless you’re meat-free). Same goes for taco night. We already have the taco shells, rice, beans, corn, salsa, masa to make tortillas, in the pantry. Just need cheese, and meat.
Pantry organization is a must. I love these can organizers for the pantry that keep my cans categorized and use up the available space.
Rotation prevents food spoilage. Always use the oldest items first. Know the difference between “expires” and “best by” dates. Make it easy on yourself and write the expiration date on the top or bottom of the can so you can see it quickly and easily. Most expiration dates are laser-printed in tiny letters and are hard to read. You can get away with eating food a little bit past the expiration date. If the can is bulging, dented, rusted around the rim, has a funky smell or color, or spews air when you open it, throw it out.
Don’t buy stuff your family will never eat. If no one in your house is ever going to eat canned Popeye spinach, don’t buy canned Popeye spinach. Even if you have a coupon or there’s a huge sale on Popeye spinach, nope. Don’t do it. It will just take up space until you throw it away in a year or so during a spring cleaning.
Day of the Week Meal Plan
To fully utilize the homesteader’s pantry, you need to meal plan to save money and prevent food spoilage. You can simplify your meal planning by having the same meal on the same day of the week.
Monday is hamburgers, Tuesday is tacos, Wednesday is chicken, and so on. Your family might complain that it’s monotonous (“Tacos? Again?”), but it keeps things simple. You could make two weeks-worth of different meals like Week A and Week B meals to help divide up the monotony. Or you could plan your meals according to what’s on sale, or what you already have in the pantry and freezer.
Make sure everyone knows what is for dinner with this darling magnetic dry erase menu board for the fridge. One less question to ask mom today.
Dinner Card Meal Plan
For each meal idea, you should make an index card. On the front of the card should be the dinner name like “Hamburgers” or “Tacos”. On the back of the card should be an ingredients list for each meal. This is how you form your grocery shopping list.
Gather up your dinner selections and compile all of the grocery items into one list, and compare to what you already have in the pantry. See a more in depth article about meal planning here.
The freezer is your friend. At least, until it stops working, but that’s another topic. Stocking your freezer with meats is easy when you buy in bulk and divide into meal-sized portions. We like to buy hamburger in bulk and divide it into one pound portions, frozen flat and stacked neatly in the freezer. Most 4-person meals call for one pound of beef. These flat portions are easy to thaw in the refrigerator.
We do the same thing with boneless chicken breast, chicken legs, chicken wings, cubed steak, bacon, holiday ham, catfish filets, you name it. Every night before you go to bed, check to see if there’s anything that needs to thaw overnight on tomorrow’s menu. Then just reach into the freezer, pull out the appropriate portion, and place into the fridge.
I use this Foodsaver to seal up my portions. It removes all of the air and prevents freezer burn. I like to use the refill rolls instead of individual bags- it’s less expensive that way and you decide the size of your bags.
Meal Planning Tips
To help you plan your meals every week, make a menu planning board. Get a bulletin board or magnetic board, draw out the number of days, say 7 or 14. Print your favorite dinners on cardstock. Use magnets or velcro, pins, or velcro to hold your cards on. Mix it up or let the kids draw the meal cards from a hat.
Try to place things together so that you can use leftovers for the next day’s meal ingredients. For example, if you have chicken breast for dinner on Monday, have Chicken Fried Rice the next day with the extra chicken. Or have hamburgers on Monday and tacos on Tuesday.
How it all comes together
All of these things work together to make up suburban permaculture. The table scraps feed the compost, which feeds the soil, which feeds the plants, which feed you, which you take the table scraps and put into the compost…and round and round it goes.
It’s about saving money, being prepared for unexpected problems, becoming more self-reliant, reducing waste, and reducing your carbon footprint.
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