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Hello, Greenie Beanies,

I recently got an email from another satisfied customer.  That is, someone who read and liked my regular column on Urban Homesteading, which runs in every issue of MaryJanesFarm Magazine.  Her name is Linda, and she wanted to pick my brain about urban homesteading.

Linda has been living in a rural home in California, and 2 years ago she moved into a city apartment with her adult daughter.  Linda is not used to cramped city apartments.  Linda does not like to feel cramped.

Oh, we can feel that pain, can’t we, sugar dumplings?

In any case, she’s having a hard time adjusting, and she’s finally looking for some ways to bring out her inner farmgirl.  But how to do it in the city?

Oh, sugar pies, YOU JUST KNOW she came to the right place!

Since I get questions like Linda’s fairly often via email or text message or Facebook nudge or secret message (seriously, people, if you have a question, ain’t no shame in postin’ it for all the guacamole-lovin’ world to see!  We won’t tease you!  And I kick jerks off my comments board, which makes “The Alchemist” the fun-lovin’, free spirited, totally tolerant, non-judgmental, warm and fuzzy, rolicking good time encouragin’, dictatorial palace of blogs.  Or something like that.).  Okay, I forgot what I was saying.

Oh, right.  Since I get questions like Linda’s fairy often, I’m going to print a piece of my response to her here.  Benefit from it, add to it, improvise, my sweet pets!

…It sounds like you’ve had to undergo quite the adjustment, you poor dear!  I was born and raised in Chicago, but have lived elsewhere–always in major cities, including Honolulu and New York.  So the crunch for space and land has always been an issue for me, and boy, do I sympathize.  I think one huge perk about city-living and small spaces is that they make you creative.  It is, of course, far easier to homestead on forty acres than it is in a 600 square foot apartment.  So you get plucky.  You get creative.  You become less wasteful and more ingenious.  You will, too!  Embrace it, and give it time, Linda.  But maybe I can help you to hurry things along….

Most of what I grow is in containers.  People have no. Idea. How. Easy. This. Is.  Really, I’m astounded at all the naysayers who will tell you vegetables can’t be grown in pots.  [Readers: remember when I showed you how easy it is?] Listen, you can grow colonnade apple trees in pots!  Almost any plant, given the proper space, soil, water, and nutrition, can be container-friendly.  A great beginner’s book I’d recommend is McGee & Stuckey’s The Bountiful Container. I’m not sure what kind of balcony space you have, but I say, load it up, girl!  A big part of urban homesteading is seeing what you can get away with.  The answer, in my experience:

a whole lot.

Think lettuce in window boxes that hang over your balcony railings.  Patio tomatoes in pots.  Strawberries in hanging baskets.  Peppers and eggplants are extremely container-friendly–mine are very productive in a mere 8-inch pot.  Zucchini are notorious for a reason–they are practically reproductive machines.  Though I’m a big fan of heirlooms, you might try the Raven Zucchini hybrid–it’s container-friendly and produces loads of fruit very quickly.  Tea gardens are a great offshoot of the herb gardening thing, and mint and chamomile do very well in confined spaces.  Make use of vertical space, too, with plants that climb.  Just be sure that your landlord is okay with all this, and that you’re following the necessary safety precautions for balcony weight limits and such.

The great thing is, I think city neighbors, while they may not know much about what you’re trying to do, are usually pretty receptive and curious.  You may have been no big deal to your far-off rural neighbors, but you’ll probably be a sensation when you cut pumpkins from a vine twirling around your fire escape.  Try to make friends with your new neighbors, if you haven’t already, and let your garden be the icebreaker if need be.  Share your produce, try not to drip water onto your neighbors below (I said “try”…it won’t always be possible), and if you make friends with people who don’t really use their space, go ahead and ask if you can put a box or two on their railing.

Remember, mushrooms are a great edible crop that you can grow indoors in low light–why not try a mushroom kit?  Several issues ago, I wrote about the process in my “Urban Homesteading” column in MaryJanesFarm Mag.  In another piece titled “Bunnies in ‘da Hood,” I wrote about raising indoor angora rabbits for their knitting fiber (they shed it naturally).  My very first article for that column was about community gardens and yard shares.  If your ambitions outstrip your land, you might try to find for-rent gardening plots nearby.  You’re likely to meet new neighbors who share your farm fantasies.  Try to cultivate online relationships, too–I like to do a little seed swapping on the forum at www.gardenweb.com.

Homesteading for me goes beyond gardening.  I cook, I bake, I sew, I knit, I ferment, I pickle (I’ll be teaching pickling and fermenting workshops during MaryJanesFarm Day at this event in St. Paul in September–why not attend?!), I bake my own bread, brew beer and wine, make cheese, and am generally engaged in any nonsense I can lay hands upon.  Now The Boy and I are getting into roasting coffee.  We also subscribe to a local CSA or farm share box, which connects us to great local produce that we can’t or don’t grow ourselves (try www.localharvest.com to find one near you).  It helps to make us feel like part of a community.  We satisfy this urge by visiting our local farmers markets, too.  Perhaps you could start a weekly farmers market habit and hobnob with farmers and foodie neighbors?  These little things can help to put you in touch with a local, land-loving community that you didn’t even know existed.

…Lotsa hugs,
Gen

Well, whaddya think, my little custard tarts?  Did I just about cover it?  Did I give you any fresh inspiration?  Can you add anything to help Linda’s transition go a little more smoothly?

Duh, you totally can!  Do so in

3…

2…

1…

GO TIME!

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Those of you who follow my writing career (All of you, right?  RIGHT?!) know that I’ve written quite a bit on the topic of urban homesteading.  And if you’ve been hanging around this blog for a while, you know that a big part of urban homesteading is creative food-growing.

But let’s be real for a moment.

It’s time to face facts.  For most of us in this fine country, the garden is loooong gone (::weeping sounds::).  But homesteading isn’t just about growing.  It’s about self-sufficiency.  In some circles, it’s about returning to the “old ways” of doing things.  It includes making many of your own goods, cooking and preserving a bit more from scratch than just about anyone you know, and making do with whatever you can re-purpose.  And truth be told, there’s still plenty you can do to keep the misfitty mojo flowing.

And it is extremely essential to keep the misfitty mojo flowing.  You know how you keep the water tap dripping ever so slightly in some parts of the country (MINE!) to keep the pipes from freezing up and becoming useless?  Yeah, it’s kinda like that.  This has been a public service announcement from your Bad Mama Genny.

Here are some of the things I’m working on.  Why not try a few yourself?

1. Prepare the garden beds and containers for next year.  So all the dead plants have been pulled and you spend entire mornings looking at those barren containers/patches of earth and sobbing your little heart out (No?  You don’t?  Uh, me either!…).  Let’s get it started for next year!  Why not try your hand at lasagna gardening?  You’ll be layering moistened “brown” and “green” layers of compostable materials and topping the whole thing with finished compost or rich soil.  Then you just keep the whole thing moist and let nature do its work.  Come springtime–voila–beautiful, black gold ideal for planting.

2.  Make some countertop kefir!  Get started with this lady –she REALLY knows her stuff.

3.  Why not grow mushrooms in a cool, dark corner of your little homestead?  This winter I’ll be growing shiitakes and oyster mushrooms!  Then I’ll be trying this OMG recipe for Creamy, Buttery, Chive-y Caviar-Like Mushrooms or, heck, even this Mushroom, Jalapeño, and Cilantro Salsa.

4.  Make some homebrew, dudes!  Right now The Boy’s got Bourbon Pecan Pie Ale and Gingerbread Pumpkin Pie Ale on tap in the old refrigerator he converted to a kegerator.  Now or soon-to-be bubbling away in our fermentation room:  Hard Apple Cider, Whiskey-Spiked Christmas Porter, and Ye Olde English Bitter.  We’re also considering putting up some mead made with local, raw honey.  (Have you ever eaten raw honey?  Ohmygoodnessgracious, you haven’t?!  GO.  DO.)

5. Cure some meat!  Why not try your hand at duck breast prosciutto or even–gasp!–an entire ham?

6.  Churn your own butter!  Simply leave some heavy cream on the counter for 12 hours to sour, pour it into a jar that’s big enough to still be 2/3 empty, and shake!  It’ll get super thick and heavy and then…BAM!  A hunk of butter sitting in a pool of buttermilk!  Press the resulting butter with a wet wooden spoon to squeeze out all the buttermilk, wash it under cold water ’til it runs clear, press it again, and then mix with a bit of fine-grain salt.  The Boy, The Brother, and I did this one recent Saturday night (shut up) and the fun was off the hook.  I think The Guys really liked flexing their muscles, and we all liked spoiling our appetites with fresh-baked bread slathered with soft, just-churned butter.  Not sure what to do with the leftover buttermilk?  I’m judging you right now, because if you don’t think of biscuits and pancakes immediately upon acquiring buttermilk, you must not be “ONE OF US”…

::heavy breathing::

–Alright, so that was unsettling and I promise not to do it again.  For at least a few days.  Or more like, 12 hours.  6 hours.  3?  ::heavy breathing::  Okay, well, guess you’ll have to take the BMG just as I am.

What was I saying?

Oh, yes, you can freeze buttermilk.  Just do it in small increments (1/2 or 1 cup) so you can take out just what you need for your recipe.

7.  Make cheese!  You may remember my ricotta recipe , but you can also experiment with mozzarella, farmer’s cheese, kefir cheese, or even some homemade cheddar!

8.  Ferment some sauerkraut, the natural way.

9.  Got a bin of green tomatoes on hand?  Use them for making relish, or let them turn red and cook up a batch of this Sweet & Savory Tomato Jam. (The tomato jam is delicious, but I prefer mine a little less sweet.  If you do, too, and you’re not planning on canning it, I’d halve the sugar.)

10.  Tell me you went apple picking.  I go every year–just wouldn’t be fall without it.  And it just so happens to be the way you and I got to know each other.  Did you know that pectin, that stuff that sets jams, jellies, and preserves, occurs naturally in the peels, stems, cores, and seeds of apples?  Recently I froze my harvest with a dry-pack method and SAVED THE PEELS AND CORES to make a beautiful pink apple jelly!  Everything else went into my sugar-free pink applesauce. 

11.  Scoop up the last of the tomatillos from the market and make some salsa verde to freeze.

12.  Roast some winter squash and freeze it in 1 cup increments for pies and muffins!  I seem to be doing this weekly, as I just haven’t met a punkin I didn’t like.  So you probably know the typical method for roasting pumpkins: chop ’em in half, scoop out the seeds, roast in a 425 oven face-down until they’re super soft, food-process the pulp.  But how about putting that slow-cooker to work?  Put the halves (or quarters, or eighths…you may have to cut them down to fit) into the stoneware, add a splash of water, cover, and slow cook on high until tender.  Save the seeds…

13.  And then roast those seeds!  Rinse ’em off, toss them with a bit of olive oil and sea salt, and roast at 375 until they’re toasty and crunchy, stirring occasionally.  When they’re done, eat ’em as they are, sprinkle a handful outside for the squirrels to enjoy (yes, I AM that much of a softie, but only when they’ve STAYED THE EFF AWAY from my garden), or turn them into brittle candy!

14.  Eat your greens.  At this point, your fresh produce consumption has already dropped, and you need to compensate by boosting your diet with nutrient-rich food.  Enter kale, chard, and the multitude of other cold-weather greens that are now sweeter and more tender thanks to a little frosty weather!  Try this raw kale salad–I  actually like it better without the bread crumbs–or make this delicious Chorizo, Chickpea, & Sweet Potato Soup (I added kale).

15. Try your hand at homemade laundry detergent.  You’ll feel like a frugalista.  Did I just say “frugalista”?  Excuse me while I go kill myself.

16.  Knit something!  The 6-Hour Afghan (free pattern at Lion Brand’s website; you’ll just have to register as a member.  Search “6 hour afghan”.) makes an awesome gift (for someone who will appreciate it!  Remember, non-knitters have a limited capacity to understand all the time, money, and effort that goes into knitted projects!).  It’s also easy enough for a beginner to tackle, and comes together so satisfyingly fast, you probably won’t even abandon it halfway through!  Not that anybody I know regularly abandons knitting projects halfway through…

Anyhoo, when I was new to knitting, I churned out two of these babies–shades of purple for Mom, shades of pink for Aunt Pat–and true to the claims, each took less than 6 hours.

17. Research some breeds of miniature livestock and plan for the day when your urban homestead has a wee bit of land to play with.  Don’t you just LOVE the idea of a miniature jersey cow wandering around your backyard, grazing on your lawn, mooing every now and then for a milking?  I bet your neighbors would think you’re just the bee’s knees!*

*Your neighbors will probably not think you are the bee’s knees, they will probably try to gas you in your sleep, and also, I just said “the bee’s knees.”  The bee’s knees.  There, did it again.*

18.  Check out some chicken coop building plans if you fancy a d.i.y project, or consider asking for one of these for Christmas!  Then plan your flock on this fantastic site.

19.  Review your garden notes from this year (you did make those, right?) or sit down to pen your observations, hopes, and plans for next year’s plot while it’s all still fresh in your mind.  Nothing like dreamin’ bout Heirloom Tomatoes (you must read this book!) to get you through those cold, lonely nights.  Also, The Boy is good for that but you can’t have him ’cause he’s mine and stuff.  Get your own The Boy.

20.  Start a countertop sprout farm!  No soil, light, or hard labor necessary!  Of course, you do run the risk of pining after some seriously kiff sprouting equipment.

Those are just a few of the projects we’re involved with this year–what are you up to?  Will you be trying any of these?  Have any suggestions of your own?

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Now that I’m outta there, I could fill volumes with thoughts on New York living.  But I won’t.  For now.  Be grateful.  All that matters at the moment is a story about how I came to appreciate sunshine more.

The Boy and I lived in a small studio in New York City for a while.  At first, I didn’t even notice how little sunlight I was getting from the two small windows we had–both of which faced brick walls.  In fact, it probably took about six months for the reality of our dark existence to hit me, when I decided it might be nice to have a few plants to supplement our other unmet need–FUCKING OXYGEN.

Before long I came to realize that I couldn’t support as much plant life as I like to (which, granted, is a METRIC SHIT TON), and then I had to wonder if The Boy and I would one day crumple up  in disappointing heaps just like so many seedlings.  Dramatic, I know, but you’ve come to expect that from me by this point.  I’d hope.

Well anyhow, when we moved into our new place in Chicago–an apartment with real windows and air that doesn’t feel like a biohazard–I just couldn’t wait to get back to growing serious amounts of my own food.  Have a look at this year’s results so far…

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The other day I had to wonder if I was getting out of hand (“Oh, hee hee, haha OH HONEY THAT SHIP HAS SAILED.”) As I was passing by the windows, I spun to face The Boy and oozed, “You’re so cute–I love you!”  He thanked me but then turned pink and said, “Wait…were you talking to me or the plants?”

Okay, so occasionally we talk.  I mean, I talk to them.

When they’ve done something cool, I fluff their leaves like I’m ruffling up the messy head of a mischievous five-year-old.  When one of them looks worse for the wear, I drop everything, apply organic fertilizer, and organize a pagan vigil.  And when I feed them, I’ve been known to ask, “Which of my wittle misfit plant babies wants some bat guano and earthworm castings todaaaay?  Hmmmmm?”

But really, it’s not the plants that I love so much–it’s what gardening represents.  Self-sufficiency.  Diligence.  Give-and-take.  Efforts that actually pay off.  Working with nature for spectacular results.  When I garden, I feel like I’m privy to a special form of mysticism.  Exotic knowledge.  I feel powerful.  But more often than not, I feel humbled.

When I stand before something I’ve planted that’s approaching my height (and which will probably eclipse me entirely in one sunny week’s time), I have a sense of smallness that makes me feel, of all things, safe.  We think we have so much control–and we do, to an extent.  But really, we just help things along, manipulate them a bit to our liking–the potential for greatness has always been there.  It will show itself whether or not we make a move.  And even if we act against it, cut it down, it will come back.  Not to defy us–just to be itself, as we all should be.  Its only purpose is life.

Except maybe for the tomato plant–its other purpose might be destruction.  But that’s another post.

So I guess we would’ve been okay even if we’d stayed in that New York apartment.  Significantly paler, more cramped, and perhaps a little worse for the wear, but we would’ve made it.  Still, I’m glad to be here.  Glad to be able to stretch out.  Glad to be able to take a deep, clean breath.  And glad to look over at the windowsill with pride and say,

“OMFG THE BOY RUN FOR YOUR LIFE THE TOMATO’S BECOME SENTIENT AArggHH-GAAAAA!”

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