The Self-Sufficient Urbanite


Making it My latest Kirkus Reviews piece follows. And don't miss Elizabeth today on Kirkus celebrating an "unapologetic ornamentalist."

As a vegetable gardener, I’ve just moved to the big city.

For years, I had a pretty country garden of almost 2000 square feet at a weekend house.  But I grew weary of trying to force my family to the country, when they wanted to spend their weekends where the action is.

So I have just made a vegetable garden of about 800 square feet in my small city yard in Saratoga Springs, NY.  I’m sure that by harvest season, this garden will be so beautiful, it will entirely raise the tone here.  I’m sure also that once things get really rolling, it will yield so much gorgeous food, my family won’t be able to eat it all.

The only thing I’ve really lost by trading country for city is the fantasy of self-sufficiency.  I used to grow more than 100 pounds of storage potatoes a year.  But there is no way that a year’s worth of potatoes or parsnips or pumpkins is coming out of my urbane little plot.  There will be no wheat-growing experiments here.  Let’s not pretend.

As a result, I opened the many books published this spring on urban self-sufficiency with both interest and skepticism.  Fortunately, Thomas J. Fox’s Urban Farming: Sustainable City Living in Your Backyard, in Your Community, and in the World is written for grown-ups.  It considers politics and history as well as how-to, and informs me that as late as 1860, there were 50,000 hogs in Manhattan.  And Fox actually sounds like an urban sophisticate.  Before offering advice on fruit tree diseases, he advises, “Get yourself a drink and sit down.”

In The City Homesteader: Self-Sufficiency on Any Square Footage, Scott Meyer takes on a more cheerleading tone.  He offers good advice for growing a lot of food in a small space—as well as simple instructions for preserving food and making basic household products such as laundry detergent.  However, Meyer puzzled me by spending time on such countrified activities as foraging for wild edibles. 

The charm of Andrea Bellamy’s Sugar Snaps and Strawberries: Simple Solutions for Creating Your Own Small-Space Edible Gardens is that it treats urban gardening not as a matter of life and limb, but as a source of fun and beauty.  The first chapter of this nice, easy-going primer for beginning gardeners is, interestingly enough, about style questions.  Hey, she’s right! We’re urbanites. We look good to feel good. 

Your Farm in the City: An Urban Dweller’s Guide to Growing Food and Raising Animals is by Lisa Taylor of the non-profit Seattle Tilth, which has taught city-dwellers to garden for decades.  I wish Taylor hadn’t emphasized the class-taking, list-making, library-visiting, and journal-keeping quite so much, since all that fussiness and caution would turn me off, if I were a beginner.  On the other hand, it’s a joy to open such a lavishly illustrated and beautiful book, one that is absolutely stuffed with interesting information on everything from pigweed to hoop house construction.

My favorite of all these recent books by far is Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen’s Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World.  They don’t spend much time on gardening and some of the time they do spend, they waste on the sweaty and useless practice of double-digging.  But they make up for it with an unsqueamish and expansive range of interests that include chicken slaughter, soap-making in a blender, and beer-brewing. 

Theirs is a truly citified definition of self-sufficiency.  You may not be able to avoid the supermarket entirely in a urban yard—but Coyne & Knutzen will do everything possible to keep you out of the drug store and beverage center instead.  And amen to that.


  1. Curious about sunny city lots or subdivision lots less than an acre.

    Is the environment better with deciduous trees for shade or baking sun for a few vegetables more cheaply bought locally?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. For the urbanite with possibly 500 to 1,000 square feet in which to garden, I think it comes down to providing as much as you can with as little as you can. In central WI, they have an expression about “using everything from a pig, but the squeal.” We need to approach our gardens this way. Maybe strawberries could be your groundcover, and the vine on your trellis an Asian foot long bean that bears more than a couple crops. The container planting: spacemaster cucumber with dill, and cayenne peppers for a “thriller-spiller-filler combo which will also fill relish jars or provide gherkins.

    The list goes on, but in societies like the Hmong in Stevens Point (WI), where they have come from places where agricultural land is at a premium; their gardens feed them and provide vegetables for the area Farmers Market. We need to rethink that fruit tree that drops “messy fruit” when deciding on a tree for our yards.

  3. I’m curious if any of these urban homesteading books address these 2 issues:

    1) Urban pests, such as cats that poop in freshly dug dirt, raccoons, rats and mice, and other critters that would be attracted to your garden and/or compost pile; and

    2) Soil toxicity. Many urban (and suburban) homes are built on land that had other uses before, or older homes that were painted with lead paint, or fill dirt was brought in from who knows where; not to mention things like heavy metals in fumes from car exhaust or local industries.

    Urban gardening/farming is a great idea, but very trendy right now, and I just wondered if these books talk about some of the darker sides of the matter.

    I think Manhattan in the 1860s probably had, in addition to all those hogs, a good number of horses and other livestock–an interesting sewage and “smell” problem (but great for compost).

  4. Great book review! I may have to check out one or two of these.

    I have to take issue with foraging being a “countrified” activity however. I live in in the Twin Cities and have foraged for mulberries, dandelions (both make delicious wine!) morels and lamb’s quarters (the weed, not the animal) within the city limits. Apparently urban foraging is becoming almost as trendy as urban gardening. My hipster sister-in-law who can afford to buy organic food from a co-op was asking me if she could come urban foraging with me some time. Since I have kids now, and tend to limit my foraging to the area around my house, I had to turn her down. But it’s interesting to know that there is a growing interest out there.

    Also- in response to Tara- trees or edibles are not an either/or choice. Fruit trees provide shade and food, and as a previous poster mentioned, we have been ignoring that option as homeowners and landscape designers for far too long. Many vegetables grow quite well in partial shade as well- so I think you’d do well to give edibles a second look.

  5. I just read Sugar Snaps and Strawberries. She does mention about soil toxicity in her book.

    I thought the most interesting/surprising thing she talks about in her book was “seed bombs” and she gives directions for creating them. The idea is to take the seed bombs and throw them onto vacant unused land and let them decompose during rain and then produce plants.

  6. I really like a lot of these ideas, and I’d like to know if any of these books address the issue of finding time for these projects. Personally I don’t know how people manage to work a full-time job, keep up with family commitments, maintain a home and garden, have a social life and still make their own soap, beer, and pickles – unless they are the Bill Clinton types who only need to sleep four hours a night. I know, I know, you find the time if it’s important to you, but still…sometimes these books make me feel like if I’m not whipping up detergent in my spare time I am an evil tool of corporate culture. Sometimes I just want to sit in my garden and enjoy it! For the same reason I am not going to replace my climbing rose with beans.

  7. when we bought an additional 30′ x150′ strip of ground I had bold visions of a mini orchard, a much bigger veggie garden, small fruits, etc etc etc. Then I realized how much weeding, how much canning and the fact that the family would not eat all of it. My rhubarb is barely harvested since there are only two left who like it. Same with the Asparagas. Spouse likes the idea of fresh veggies but thinks having zuke/summer squash more than once or twice in the summer is over kill. I give a lot away, but so do all the othet gardeners in the area, and we have lots of them.

  8. I think tibs is on to something.

    So often we garden independently, growing one (or 10) of everything. We end up with too much of some veggies, not enough of others. If we had a community of gardeners, then we could grow what we like best or what does well in our gardens and barter it for a few of something we can’t grow or don’t want a lot of. For example, tibs could grow the rhubarb and asparagus and I could grow the summer squash. In the spring I’ll come by and pick some rhubarb and asparagus. In the summer, I’ll give her some squash and let her pick apples in the fall.

    Sadly, collaboration and exchanges to seldom happen between gardeners. Why are we all growing tons of tomatoes and zucchini when we could just share?

  9. Just came across your blog as I was searching around for some fresh gardening blogs. I will be adding you to my reader and I am looking forward to your entries!

  10. In our area, gardeners and growers with excess produce are encouraged to donate the excess to local food banks. So if you can’t get together with your neighbors to share what you grow, think of your local food bank/soup kitchen.

  11. Giving excess produce to local food banks is a great thing to do. While there are times in our life when time is really hard to come by, at other times we have fewer family responsibilities but still enjoy! the vegetable gardening. Donating food is a valuable way to help the community, even if you don’t have a lot of cash.

  12. Many thanks for the nice review. Our book does indeed address the time issue–the projects are organized, if fact, by when and how often you do them. Kelly and I always suggest starting small and not taking on too many activities all at once.

    And I always advise getting a soil test (both to check for nutrients and toxins) before doing any vegetable gardening. This is, as the commenter pointed out, especially important in urban areas.

    As to double digging I now advocate a broadfork or deep spader when dealing with heavily compacted soils. And I agree that soil is best left undisturbed if possible.

    I read and enjoy this blog often and it’s an honor to have our book reviewed here!

  13. I like the question about which is more valuable — trees or food gardens — on small urban lots. If you look into forest gardening, a really interesting form of permaculture, you may find that you can have both.

    And, how about all that pollution in and around city ‘farms’? Have we been doing it long enough to know whether particulates from vehicle exhaust aren’t accumulating in our bodies as we eat from city lots? I know it’s good — it’s important and satisfying — to grow our own, as close to home as possible, but I have been reluctant to do a lot of food gardening, preferring to buy from growers who live outside the city. Anybody out there know how much pollution from the air (and water, and soil) goes through the plant into the edible parts?

  14. Don’t do root crops near the street…the soil tests we did on our community garden were just fine for beans, tomatoes, and all the rest except for radishes and carrots in gardens nearest the street.

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