Suburban Homesteading – Raising and Preserving Sustainable Food

Putting up tomatoes

Sustainable is the new catch word for gardening. I hear it everywhere and I think it is overused without anyone really understanding exactly what it means.  By definition it means –  Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. And by working gardens, keeping chickens for meat and eggs, preserving food, adding solar panels, etc., we are all sustainable consumers in some fashion. Not fully sustainable by any stretch of the imagination but plugging away at bits and pieces of sustainability.

Portable chicken coop on wheels that my neighbor moves around on her front lawn

Most of us are still on “the grid”. I have read the magazine Mother Earth News for years and I am always surprised at the number of people who are off the grid and flourishing. I am not ambitious and energetic enough to be off “the grid”, but I would love to reduce my dependence on it and have chipped away at it.

I saw this wind power system that you can put up at your home to generate power at the Mother Earth fair

Now that it is fashionable and smart to try to live sustainably, I have observed many of my neighbors have added homesteading in some way, shape, and form to their lifestyle. Even with a full-time job and lots of family responsibilities, many have added gardens, preserving food, and are raising chickens for healthier eating.

Repurposing old drainpipes to grow veggies

When we get together as a neighborhood, we often talk about how sustainable our neighborhood is, and how we would work together and pull on each other strengths if there were a natural disaster. Some people are good at raising and putting up food, while others are trained as nurses or can hunt and fish. Everyone has their own unique talents to add to the mix. We even have pumps that could pump water from streams and mechanics that could make them work.

Suburban chicken coop at Mother Earth fair

According to the blog Eat Drink Better – Sustainable Food for a Healthy Lifestyle, the author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, Owen Dell, says that “there is only a three-day supply of food in any given city: what happens on the fourth day when there is a natural disaster or some kind of disruption that stops the food supply chain? Most of us don’t realize how dependent we are on the unseen “food system”  for our daily meals. He says that cities are like a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, aka, a feed lot) for human beings: we are separated, dependent, and caged.”

A neighbor took an old wooden shed and created a chicken habitat with minimal cost

The author, among other useful suggestions to grow food sustainably, also suggests having neighborhood food swaps every so often to trade what you have lots of, for things that you aren’t growing. I have a gardening neighbor who planted zucchini plants at the edge of her lawn and puts out a sign for anyone to pick them when ripe. When I had bumper crops of  cucumbers and had preserved all I wanted as pickles, I took the excess cucumbers around to my neighbors and gave them out. Small things, but these all add up, plus it brings the neighborhood together instead of everyone keeping to themself.

Slicing cucumbers for pickles

With natural disasters and severe weather becoming the new normal, we really need to think about a self-sustaining lifestyle, and start getting serious about reducing our dependence on food that is trucked in from thousands of miles away. So, I have highlighted some areas in this post where my friends and neighbors are making a difference with suburban homesteading.

Beekeeping Makes a Difference

Setting up beehives in my back yard

I love beekeeping but it isn’t for everyone.  Managing bees is not easy, can be rewarding at times but also very frustrating when things go wrong, and they can go wrong quickly! I call beekeeping my expensive hobby as you can sink a lot of money into equipment, sugar for feeding, and supplies.  But the payback can be spectacular when you see all that honey flowing out of the extractor. I don’t want to discourage anyone from setting up bees because it is extremely interesting and has given me lots to talk about over the years, but it is a committment of time and energy.

Doing things right and getting lots of honey!

Bartering Food

Adorable goat face

Honey is also a commodity that others love to barter for.  I have a friend who raises 28 goats for cheese making.  She has several varieties including LaManch’s, Alpines, and Nigerian Dwarfs, and milks them everyday which is a huge committment. She produces chevre, goat cheese cheesecakes, crotin – a 14 day aged soft goat cheese, cajeta – a goat milk caramel sauce, and goat milk ricotta. We have traded in the past –  honey for cheese, and the cheese is delicious!  When I extract my honey, I will be calling her to trade again. There is nothing like freshly made goat cheese!

I have made mozzarella cheese myself but it was a lot of work and you need a lot of unprocessed milk to make it worthwhile.  I really didn’t enjoy it and it made my kitchen a mess. So I would much prefer to barter than make cheese.

English: Goat's milk cheese
English: Goat’s milk cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Goats having fun in a feeding trough

Growing Food

Having a vegetable garden in a container or in the ground is simply the easiest way to reduce your dependence on the food supply chain and one of my neighbors has gone about it in a big way. In her front yard, she has created an intensively planted vegetable garden, using raised beds, square foot gardening, and lots of vertical structures to make the best use of space.

Looking into the garden
Making use of black plastic
Synthetic bag garden

Because deer can be a problem, she has fenced things in which also creates space to grow vines up using the fence for support.  Grass was left in the pathways so that you don’t walk on the soil and compact it. There are several types of raised beds used, to pack as much stuff into limited space –  traditional wooden, woven willow, and a synthetic material that looks like heavy black plastic.

Natural willow raised bed with broccoli
Raised bed with beans

A lot of vegetables are very handsome and look good in containers or incorporated into a home landscape.  I had a good friend who had this container built below out of redwood, and it has casters so that you can roll it around where you want it to go. The bottom is hardware cloth (very strong wire fencing) so that it drains properly.  You could roll this around to catch the most sun. A large container planted with herbs, cucumbers, beans, and lettuceGrowing in containers isn’t going to set the world on fire with lots of produce but with intensive and successive planting, it is very worthwhile.

Even if you don’t want the trouble of maintaining a large tilled vegetable garden, you can do like one of my neighbors does – just gardens in tilled rows – I call it trench gardening. I like this method because your pathways don’t have to be mulched as your turf acts as a natural mulch. Again, having these permanent pathways means that you won’t compact your soil.

Gardening in the trenches

Cooking Food

I have always been intrigued with cooking outdoors.  I did it on campfires when I went camping and still grill on charcoal frequently.  But I would love a wood fired oven for baking pizzas and breads. When I went to the Mother Earth News fair, they had a brick oven that you could make for your back yard on display.  I would  love to have that when my power goes out, which it does pretty frequently. Even with power, I would love to make wood fired pizzas. This is definitely on my list to make in the future.

Brick oven at Mother Earth News fair

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

 One of my favorite books is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and details how her family for one year, bought food raised in their own neighborhood, grew it themselves, or learned to live without it. You are what you eat!

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3 Replies to “Suburban Homesteading – Raising and Preserving Sustainable Food”

  1. Great post Claire and I agree about sharing our resources. This may be food, flowers and herbs or even skills, tools and advice. I also like your honesty about bee keeping – I would love to keep bees in the future but haven’t got the time to dedicate to them at the moment.
    Interestingly, I would also like goats!

    1. I guess I am a frsutrated farmer! I should be living on 40 acres instead of 2! Farming runs in the family but with work, I don’t have time for it all. And beekeeping, don’t get me wrong, has been a wonderful, eye opening experience, but a lot of hands on time. I do like to travel also, so I don’t want to tie myself down too much.

  2. Wow! This really summarizes what people can be doing…and that we don’t all have to do /everything/. Personally, my favorite hobby is beekeeping and I can’t wait until I’m out of an apartment and have the room to have a hive again. Love the article! Thanks! :]

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