The City Homesteader

Self-Sufficiency on Any Square Footage


By Scott Meyer

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The City Homesteader is the handbook for the world of self-sufficient living. It’s about living tangibly in a virtual world. It’s about being resourceful, saving money, reducing consumption, and increasing self-reliance. Join the many who are raising backyard chickens in the city and tilling their side yards: tapping into natural energy, managing homes more efficiently, and getting back to the earth.

Explore the homesteading arts: gardening on small and large scales, raising dwarf fruit trees, sprouting grains, smoking meats and fish, grinding grains for flour, making cheese, making wine, cellaring, heating without fossil fuel, harvesting rainwater, composting, and much moreThe City Homesteader provides all the basics, including how to find supplies and step-by-step instructions that make it easy to follow along. Original illustrations throughout help you create your very own homestead on any piece of earth.


To my grandparents,
for showing me that food, fun, and family love
can be found in cherry trees.

THOSE EARLY HOMESTEADERS must have been the bravest people. Imagine the confidence it took to walk away from civilization and move to the wilderness, where they had to provide everything for themselves. Not even a butcher or baker or candlestick maker to rely on: just the whole family pitching in to reap, make, or use what they needed from the land. Those folks were both determined and resourceful.
Nowadays, our food is produced and processed, packaged and shipped, and often even cooked for us. We live in climate-controlled rooms and are surrounded by stores offering us everything we need, and too much we don't. We spend our days—and more and more of our spare time—connecting to other people and gathering information remotely, even while we live closer to each other than ever before.
And yet the urge for self-sufficiency is a powerful force in the human DNA. Across the country, in city neighborhoods, suburban developments, and small towns, people are once again catching the homesteading spirit. They're not pulling out of civilization and moving back to the land, but they are producing their own food, storing it for the off-season, rediscovering the old ways of keeping house, and raising animals for a purpose, with little or even no land of their own.
Homesteading today is a step out of the virtual world we live in most of the time and into an authentic experience. It's a way to connect with the seasons, the weather, and the natural world outside our windows while getting your hands dirty and producing something real and essential. Grow even a little of your own food and you begin to appreciate the hard work and knowledge of people who do it for a living, and you can't help feeling reverence for the bounty around you. Deal with your own kitchen and yard waste and you take more control of your own little corner of the world. Be more aware of how you use your resources and you see how small steps you take on your own can add up to a meaningful difference for the whole planet.
City homesteading is not about living without indoor plumbing and modern appliances, but it is about knowing you could if you had to—at least for a while. The world around us can seem so out of control and while we can't change that, taking care of your own basic needs can give you a strong sense of competence that's not easy to come by these days.
The pioneers took along with them a few supplies and all the know-how that had been passed down to them from the generations that came before them. For today's homesteaders, it's knowledge and experience that are in short supply. With this book, you have the knowledge of countless modern homesteaders and many of our predecessors right in your hands. From my own experience and from that of many other experts, I've gathered practical ideas you can use right away for living more resourcefully wherever you make your home. I've made sure you have the specifics you need to get started doing it along with hints on ways to get better if you already are.
Within the limited space of one book, though, I can't give you everything now known about gardening, foraging, preserving food, raising animals and caring for your home more self-sufficiently. Whole books have been written on each of those topics. Instead, I've focused in this book on strategies for doing each of those things while living in a city or suburb—not where you have acres of land to work. I realize that you might not be able or ready to fully commit to every aspect of the homesteading lifestyle, but I am sure that even if you try only one skill, you'll feel the great satisfaction that comes with gaining competency. I predict that soon you will want to try and know more.
One of the greatest rewards of trying to live more resourcefully is that the learning never ends, no matter how much you know, you continue to find more and better ways to be self-sufficient. That's been one of the great rewards for me of working on this book. I have been an organic gardener for more than twenty years, but I picked up some new ideas as I researched this book. And while I had a lot of familiarity with the topics in this book, the experts I spoke to and the references I consulted taught me over and over how much I still have to learn.
This kind of know-how is no longer systematically passed along from one generation to the next. We are all indebted to those people who have kept it alive, and in particular to the new pioneers who are homesteading in cities, suburbs, and small towns and sharing their discoveries with a virtual community through blogs and forums. Personally, I am thankful for the countless homesteaders and gardeners who have taken the time through the years to share their knowledge and experience with me.
While we're on the subject of thanks here, I also must express gratitude to a few people who helped with this book. Running Press publisher Christopher Navratil tops the list for his encouragement and guidance in developing the book's idea. All that a writer can ask for in an editor is a thoughtful reader with enthusiasm for the topic, smart ideas, and dedication to quality. I so much appreciate that Kristen Green Wiewora has been all that and more. I can never thank Buz and Janet Teacher enough for their friendship and support. Finally, and yet always first and foremost, I must thank my dear wife Dawn, whose love and understanding are the most precious resources I know.

Supermarkets today are packed with more food in a greater variety than our grandparents ever imagined possible. You can buy every kind of vegetable and fruit year-round, not only frozen and canned, but shipped in fresh from all over the world. While just a few generations ago, growing food at home was a necessity for most families, vegetable gardening had started to become the quaint hobby of a relatively few aficionados.
And then came news reports of fresh produce tainted with toxic pesticides and potentially lethal bacteria. News about climate change prompted many to begin calculating their carbon footprint and "food miles," the long distances their meals traveled before reaching their plate and the resulting environmental impact. More and more people began to recognize that they had lost touch with where their food came from and that it had become nothing more than fuel for their busy lives, that they were out of sync with the seasons and nature.
Now, the generation raised on food from a bag or box is rediscovering the simple pleasure of producing some of their own food and sharing it with others. Not just people with acres to farm and experience raising crops, but anyone with the desire and nothing more than a small backyard, balcony, or sunny windowsill to grow a few food plants.
You can be a part of this revolution of new food producers. Wherever you live, no matter how much room you have for a garden—or even if you have none at all—you can reap the soul-satisfying rewards of picking the freshest, safest, most healthful food possible. You can grow and eat homegrown food just about all year long. In this chapter I'll take you through the basics of raising your own food, and I'll share strategies, techniques, and tricks for getting the most food from whatever space you have to work with.

The Right Site

If you have any spot that gets just a few hours of sun each day where you can dig into the soil, you can grow a food garden. By choosing crops that produce an abundant yield and using your space efficiently, you can harvest your own fresh vegetables, fruit, and herbs from spring to fall in most climates. With a few low-cost aids, you can even extend your growing season into the cold months.
Before you decide on where to plant your garden, take the time to observe it at different times of day and, if at all possible, over several months. The most productive gardens get eight or more hours of direct sunlight during the height of summer—this is what master gardeners and plant tags mean when they refer to "full sun." If the spot you choose gets less than eight hours of sunlight ("partial sun" or "partial shade"), your choices of what to grow will be a little more limited, but you can still grow a lot of your own food. Plots that get fewer than four hours of direct sun each day, known as "full shade", are not well-suited to growing food.
In full sun you can grow all of the most popular garden crops, including tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, peas and beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, corn, and raspberries.
In partial shade you won't get a robust harvest of "fruiting crops," like those I listed for full sun, but you can still grow a lot of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and spinach, as well as root crops like carrots and beets and herbs such as basil and rosemary.
Full shade—beneath a tree or in the shadow of a tall building—means you'll need to implement Plan B: container gardening.
The other critical factor in choosing where to site your garden plot is drainage, or how much water the soil holds. You want to avoid spots where water stays in puddles for more than a few hours after a heavy rainstorm, because most plants drown (yes, drown for lack of air) in standing water. But you also don't want it to drain away too quickly—before plants' roots can absorb it—which is often the case where the soil is predominantly sandy. To assess the drainage where you want to plant your garden, try this easy test:
1. Dig a hole that's about the size of a one-gallon milk jug.
2. Fill the hole with water.
3. Check the hole an hour later. If it's empty, the soil drains fast. If there's still water in the hole, check it again after two more hours pass.
4. If the water has drained away between two and four hours after you poured it into the hole, you have ideal drainage (and probably soil that is nice loam, which is the highly desirable balance of clay, sand, and silt).
5. If the water takes more than four hours to drain, this is not an ideal spot for a garden.
You can improve the drainage of your soil if it is slow, but where water stays in puddles for days after a rainstorm, you will be continually combating its natural tendencies. For that reason, low-lying areas and other spots where rainwater collects are not suitable for gardens. The ideal spot for your garden is at the top of a slope (so water naturally drains away) that's facing south or west (the directions that get the most sun in summer).
No matter how much space you have, I strongly suggest you start with a small garden the first season. A single bed or two about four feet wide and eight to ten feet long is big enough to produce a steady supply of different vegetables and herbs from spring to fall. Many new gardeners are very ambitious in spring, plant a big garden, and then become frustrated or disappointed when they can't keep up with it as summer arrives. So I say, start modestly and add more in future seasons once you have a clearer idea of the garden's demands and your capacity to care for it.
If the soil where you want to grow just won't drain well, is full of clay, or otherwise is too adverse to planting, you can solve the problem by building a raised bed. Actually, raised beds make gardening better in almost every situation. A raised bed is just an area where the soil is mounded above ground level: you control the quality of the soil. This lets you give your plants room for the roots to spread out. Raised beds drain water efficiently and the soil warms up more quickly in the spring than the ground does, extending your growing season. And you can build raised beds right on top of a lawn.
The perfect width. A raised bed can be any length that fits your available space, but make it no wider than four feet. You want to be able to reach into its center comfortably from any side without stepping into the bed. Walking on your garden soil compacts it, or squeezes all the air out of it, making it hard for roots to grow.
Above the ground. To get all of the benefits of a raised bed, the top of the soil mound needs to be at least six inches above ground level. Higher is even better, though taller than eighteen inches is unnecessary.
Frame the bed. Raised beds don't have to be framed; the simplest are mounds created by digging out and piling up the soil from the areas around the beds. But mounded beds erode in winter when roots aren't holding them together, so you may need to rebuild them every spring.
The easiest way to make a raised bed, specially on top of grass, is to build a basic frame. You can use stone, bricks, or any kind of lumber, but avoid railroad ties oozing creosote or any other kind of treated wood. Those chemicals can leach into the soil where you are growing food. Even easier, look online and in stores for raised kits that assemble as easy as kids' toys. No law says the bed has to be rectangular—a neighbor of mine has a circular raised bed (the frame is made from chicken wire) in a small sunny spot in her front yard where she grows salad greens in spring and fall. Make sure the bed is more or less level for even drainage.
Fill the bed. After the frame is in place, fill it with a well-blended mix of equal parts compost, peat, and topsoil. This will give your plants the ideal nutrients for growth, disperse moisture evenly and, if it's at least six inches deep, smother grass or most anything else growing beneath it. It's essentially weed-free gardening.
Plants in place. Raised beds help you break loose from the dull row-beside-row garden layout. You can plant in any pattern that you like—or none at all. To plant a raised bed most efficiently, think of the space in terms of quadrants. Each has a plant at the corners and, depending on the plants, maybe one in the center.
More beds. If you have room for more than a couple raised beds, try to leave at least three feet between them. That will give you room to bring a wheelbarrow or garden cart right to the beds. Each season, top off all the beds with more compost.

High-Yield Crops

When you're trying to get the most food from a limited space, you want to grow plants that really pump out the produce efficiently. As you're planning your garden, consider these options:


Beets are a real two-for-one because you eat the greens on top (they're tender enough for salad and sturdy enough for sautéing) and the roots that form below ground.
Cherry tomatoes are the most productive type of tomatoes, yielding sweet little red fruit by the thousands.
Leaf lettuce is sometimes known as "cut-and-come-again" lettuce because you plant it once and snip the leaves as you need them. Let a few leaves remain on the plant when you harvest, and new ones will soon replace the ones you took. Heading lettuce, by contrast, produces one head, and then the harvest is over.
Pole beans need only a small space to root in and then pump out pints of crunchy pods almost daily. The bean harvest can go on for weeks in summer. The pea season isn't as long—they're done when summer heat sets in—but they use space just as efficiently as beans and produce lots of pods as long as the temperatures stay cool.
Radishes take just 45 days from seed to ready-to-eat, so they're through in time for you to plant something else in its place. "Succession planting," or growing multiple crops one after another, is one of the most valuable strategies for producing a lot of food from a small space. I'll explain more about succession planting in the next section of this chapter (page 17).


Corn must have critical mass to get thorough pollination (essential for well-filled ears), which makes it hard to grow enough to produce a substantial harvest. Plus, sweet corn is widely available as a local crop throughout the United States, so it's rarely worth devoting some of your limited garden space to it. If you have the irresistible urge to try (I understand, I've succumbed myself), I suggest you plant one of the miniature popcorn varieties that will leave you with a fun, unique harvest to enjoy when the growing season is over.
Strawberries return every year, and when they do, the plants slowly spread throughout your garden space. In a few seasons they colonize so much territory that you won't have much room for any other crop. If you love strawberries (who doesn't?) and have only a small plot to garden, grow them in a pot instead of the ground. (You'll find a plan for a strawberry pot on page 31.)
Melons—see pumpkins and squash, which are their close cousins.
Pumpkins and other squash don't just spread: they conquer. Small gardens are no place for ground-hogging vines like these.
Heirloom tomatoes are delicious, unique, and fun to grow, but most of the older varieties do not produce as much as newer ones. You have to plant more heirloom tomatoes to get the same yield, so they're not an efficient use of your space.
Head lettuce, like iceberg or Bibb, give you just one harvest, while leaf varieties give you multiple cuttings.
Broccoli and cabbage are in the same category as head lettuce—one-and-done harvests that take up too much of the growing season.

Succession Planting

Your most critical challenge if you want to harvest a steady supply of homegrown food is planning. Yes, planning is more important than digging, planting, watering, and even weeding. Take the time to think through the crops that grow well in different conditions, and your garden will continue to produce food from the start of spring to the end of fall.
Spring starts out cool, so you want to start your season with crops that thrive in lower temperatures, including lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, peas, carrots, radishes, beets, and if you have room, broccoli and cabbage. Plant them as early as possible—these all tolerate (and many benefit from) a little frost.
The average last frost date for your area is a valuable bit of information. You may find it online or you can ask your county extension office (every county has one, usually associated with your state's land-grant university). After the last frost date, you want to harvest the last of the coolweather crops, take out the plants, and replace them with tomatoes, peppers (hot and sweet), green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and basil, all of which grow best in warm weather.
When the warm season winds down and the first frost of fall nears (you want to know the average first frost date, too), pull out those heat-lovers and plant new rounds of lettuce, spinach, kale, and other cold-weather crops. Again, many of them, such as carrots, benefit from a touch of frost. In fact, while carrots are not the most efficient use of your space in spring, they are a very valuable choice in the fall because you can store them in the ground (right where they are growing) until you're ready to eat them—almost to the start of the following spring.
For years I struggled to grow spinach in the spring. By the time the garden's soil dried out enough for me to work in it and plant the seeds, the temperature quickly became too warm for the spinach, turning the leaves bitter, and the plants began flowering before I harvested enough for more than a salad or two. Then I learned to plant spinach in early September—four or five weeks before the average first fall frost where I live in southeastern Pennsylvania. The seeds come up quickly because the soil is still warm, and the plant thrives in the cool days and nights as summer turns to fall. I get a light harvest of fresh green leaves to eat before the first hard frost comes in mid- to late October and the plant's growth slows. When that happens, I surround the plants with a thick mulch of fall leaves (shredded by my lawn mower) and top them with a light (inch or so) cover of leaves, too. The plants remain alive through winter—even when we have a heavy snowfall—but they're dormant, so there's no new growth. As soon as daytime temperatures climb above 55 degrees F in spring, I clear the mulch off the top of the plants and over a week or two gradually pull it away from the plants. Before long, the plants are growing again and I've got bowls-full of fresh green spinach leaves to enjoy—weeks before spring-planted greens are ready. I've tried this technique with arugula, too, and it works just as well for that hardy green. Growing spinach and arugula over winter is an easy and rewarding way to extend your season.
Consider including garlic in your succession plan, too, because you plant it in your garden in fall, it grows all winter, and it's ready to be harvested the following late spring/early summer—just in time to replace it with another crop like green beans that will grow fast and be ready for harvest before the warm season is over. Garlic not only puts your garden to use when it is otherwise dormant, it produces a lot of food for you from a little space—you plant the cloves and each one yields a whole new head of garlic. A pound of cloves yields about seven to ten pounds of fresh garlic heads. Bonus: you can snip and eat a bit of the chivelike greens that grow above ground while the bulbs are forming below.
The goal of succession planting is to keep your space as productive as possible each month of the growing season. To do that, you want to minimize the amount of time each plant is in the ground until it's ready to harvest. Seeds take time to get established, grow roots, and mature enough to bear fruit or eat. So, whenever possible, transplant seedlings (or even larger plants) you grow yourself or buy at a nursery instead of starting with seeds. Also, as you choose which varieties of each crop to grow, you'll see that some mature faster than others. The fastest-maturing varieties make the best use of the time you have allotted in each season.

Vertical Growing

The space you have on the ground may be limited, but you can still expand the area you have to garden in. Just grow up! By setting up trellises and other structures for plants to climb up or lean against, you move your garden into "airspace."
Tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and other summer squash, even small cantaloupes work well in vertical gardens. When selecting varieties of these crops, read the labels carefully and look for "vining" or "pole" types rather than "bush" types.
You can buy trellises and other plant supports specially designed for each kind of plant. Many resourceful gardeners make them using salvaged materials. One of the most ingenious I've seen was a bed frame stood on end, twine woven from top to bottom and side to side, turned into a sturdy pea net. Fallen tree limbs and branches work and give your garden a natural look.
Even easier to work with and available for a low cost, bamboo poles and zip ties let you design and set up a trellis that's perfect for your garden without tools or even construction skills. Check out "Bamboo Trellis" on the next page to see how to make one for yourself.
TRELLIS IS A FANCY-SOUNDING WORD FOR A STRUCTURE YOU SET UP TO GIVE vining plants room to climb. You can make a simple trellis with just three bamboo poles, zip ties (twelve inches or longer), and heavy-duty twine. Thinner, lighter poles work well in tight spaces and with lighter vines, like cherry tomatoes and beans. Get heavier poles for big beefsteak tomatoes, cucumbers, and summer squash. If you have the room, you can line up several of these, anchor them to each other, and double or even triple your vertical growing space.
1. Start with a loop. Take the pointy end of the zip tie, insert it into the square end, and pull it through just a little, but don't tighten it. You'll hear the "zip" sound as you pull it if you did it right.
2. Gather the poles. Stand the poles on end and hold them in one hand, but with the bottoms spread out to form a triangle. Slip the zip tie loop around the bamboo poles, slide it down to just above the first ridge in the bamboo, and cinch it tight. Make sure the zip tie stays above the pole's ridge so it stays in place.
3. Spread the legs. Hold up the poles with one hand and spread the legs with the other. (An assistant makes this easier.) You want the legs two to three feet apart. Balance the trellis so it stands up on its own. Dig holes four to six inches deep for each pole, place the poles in the holes, and then refill with the soil you dug out so that the poles are anchored securely.
4. Weave a web. Starting at the top, wrap the twine horizontally in a spiral pattern all the way around the outside of the tripod, ending at the bottom. Make a vertical piece to finish the net by looping from top to bottom through the horizontal netting.
5. Plant and guide. Sow seeds or set transplants around all three sides of the tripod. As the plants start to grow, gently guide them upward—some may start off by sprawling along the ground, but once they're on the twine, they will continue climbing upward themselves.

Edible Landscaping

When you look around your home, do you see a bunch of flower beds and no space for a vegetable garden? Who says? Today food plants are showing up in even the finest ornamental beds. Front yards are no longer off limits to vegetables. These are just a few ideas for getting more produce (or any food) from the space you have available to you.


On Sale
Apr 26, 2011
Page Count
272 pages
Running Press

Scott Meyer

About the Author

Scott Meyer is a former editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine, and a frequent writer of all varieties of do-it-yourself. He is the author of The City Homesteader and he lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.

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