Urban Homesteading Teaches Suburban Warriors to Be One With Nature

Categories: Ethical Eating
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Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume.
As urban sprawl pushes farther and farther into formerly wild and rural areas, the comforts of modern living are beginning to stress our natural resources. Despite the welcome rains of the past week, anyone with a vegetable garden or even a couple of potted plants can tell you that typically soggy South Florida is currently anything but. Concerns about world food shortages, water conservation, and climate changes seem all the more pressing as Florida continues to suffer through one of the worst droughts we've seen in decades.

Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume know a little bit about conservation and what they call heirloom skills in their book Urban Homesteading, Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living.  Kaplan writes about turning our concrete urban environs into useful green landscapes.

Kaplan and Blume imagine a world of depaved driveways sprouting vegetables and neighbors trading backyard produce and home-raised eggs over the fence. They write about "pee pee ponics" and "poo poo ponics," which are various methods of using human waste to water and fertilize the plants we use for food.

But while some of their practices, like raising and slaughtering rabbits for food, might seem a bit extreme to the average backyard warrior, Kaplan believes in starting simple.

"Just use less," she says. "This is available to everybody. One can read the book and get overwhelmed, but the step-by-step approach is something we really all can do. It's a creative and joyful process that leads to pleasure. This is not an abstinence model; this is about abundance and sustainability."

If you're feeling ambitious, Urban Homesteading outlines methods for diverting gray water from the washing machine (make sure you use biodegradable soap) and running lines throughout your backyard garden. You can even read up on how to dig your own stream bed and divert rainwater into a man-made pond.

"I'm a renter, so I don't have a lot of control over the appliances. The bucket is your first resort. You use a lot of water in the laundry and the bath. Stop up your bathtub when showering and then use that water to flush the toilet. For some people, that's a radical change."

In the kitchen, Kaplan says to skip the dishwasher and repurpose a couple of basins.

"Use one to wash the dishes and one to rinse. We catch the water in a basin and water the plants. I have probably ten trees and 40 different varieties of plants that I water that way."

Urban Homestead: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, page 79. Photo by Dafna Kory.
Using stackable planters and greenhouses, like this one, allow suburban farmers to make the most of their space.

Kaplan and Blume also write about conserving space in addition to resources. Depaving driveways, vertical gardening, and rooftop planting are some of the methods they advocate to maximize garden production in the crush of urban living.

But the philosophy of heirloom skills goes beyond fruits and vegetables. Kaplan encourages incorporating animals into the garden. In addition to providing eggs, chickens can be used to prep soil for planting. Goats give milk but also manure for fertilizer. And rabbits... well, they're tasty.

"It's not fun to kill ever. My brother is a farmer, and he was always very matter of fact about slaughtering animals. Ruby [Blume] raises rabbits expressly for meat. We all agree it's dreadful and there's no glory in it, but we all agree that it's part of the transition to being homesteaders instead of consumers. It's pragmatic. We also totally respect when people don't want to do that. My friend who's an editor is a total vegetarian and wouldn't even edit those pages. I don't look forward to it; it's gross. It's strange to see something go from alive to dead. But once it's dead and plucked, it's like a chicken from the grocery store."

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Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, page 128
Bunnies -- as cute as they are tasty. (Sorry, PETA.)
Still, Kaplan acknowledges that slaughtering one's animals is not for everyone. But raising animals has other benefits.

"The raising of animals is amazing, and we get a lot from them. That part's easy -- children love animals. The children helped us build the chicken coop. My partner named them and started worrying about their psychology. We have rabbits that we would never kill -- my daughter is too attached to them. Some people would say teach your children early, but we didn't want to do that."

For Kaplan, keeping animals is part of the philosophy that she feels is so important not only to the environment and to our food and supplies but to our individual well-being. Through Urban Homesteading, she is hoping to spread these values to as many potential urban farmers as possible.

"I'm with the native way of thanking the food for coming. We need plants and animals for our bodies to live. We do eat meat and we do eat plants, and when we're grateful for them, it's harder to waste them."

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