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When people talk about “homesteading” you typically imagine a farmhouse on a big plot of land. You may picture a large, productive vegetable garden that can grow all the food a family needs for a year. A huge pantry full of home-canned goods. You might imagine a huge flock of backyard chickens and a coop, or even goats or a family dairy cow.
All of those things require quite a bit of space. And if I’ve learned anything about the housing market recently it is that land is hard to come by if you aren’t already a property owner. And if you do find something, prices are at a premium.
So what do you do if you want to live a “homesteading lifestyle” but you live in the city, suburbs, or have relatively little space to work with?
The good news is this: there is a LOT you can do and you don’t need acres of land to do it. If you have a small home in the city or even if you live in an apartment, there are many homesteading and preparedness activities you can learn and practice right where you are.
In this post, we’ll explore EIGHT simple ways you can get started as an urban or suburban homesteader.
How to Homestead in the City, Suburbs, or Small Spaces
What even is “homesteading”?
Modern homesteading can take many forms and involve a variety of activities and skills. I have a deeper post about what modern homesteading is here. But for now, let’s go with the basics.
Homesteading can encompass a wide variety of activities. Some of these activities include, but aren’t limited to:
- Food preservation (canning, dehydrating, etc.)
- Raising chickens, quail, ducks, etc. for eggs
- Keeping dairy animals like goats or cows
- Raising meat animals
- Traditional Handicrafts
But beyond that, homesteading involves a certain ethic, and that ethic can exist no matter where you happen to live. It typically encompasses a few key ideas, chiefly:
- Be a producer, not a consumer.
- Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.
- Increase preparedness.
- Learn how to work with nature and not against it.
- Learn traditional skills and crafts that support self-sufficiency.
- But also work towards building community.
There is no one right way to be a homesteader. Homesteading exists along a spectrum, and you may occupy a very different place on it from me.
For example, I live in a solar-powered house that we hand-built out of trees that we harvested from our own property, which sounds pretty “homesteader-ish” to me. But if you look a bit closer, you’ll see that we have never had chickens (and probably won’t while we still have Joy Dog running around, as she wants nothing more than to eat them). You’ll also see that my vegetable gardens are pretty small for what you’d expect of someone with 16 acres and I only just learned how to pressure can a year ago.
Meanwhile, one of my very good friends lives on property that is just about 4,100 square feet total (0.09 acres, for the curious), including the house. But her gardens are easily twice as productive as mine, she raises quail for eggs and meat, and her stockpile of home-canned goods is positively overflowing.
We have each chosen to prioritize different homesteading activities, and that’s okay!
If you are trying to homestead in a small urban or suburban space, give yourself grace and choose the activities that are right for you. Pick one at a time, learn it, and add on as you go. The Homesteader Police aren’t going to come and get you for “doing it wrong”.
So all that being said, here are some practical ways you can get started with suburban or urban homesteading right where you are:
8 Ways to Embrace Modern Homesteading in the City
1. Compost your scraps.
As newlyweds in our first little rental house, the very first thing we did was make a backyard compost bin out of leftover fence material the previous tenants had left lying around. Why? Because the thought of sending all of our coffee grounds and banana peels to the landfill made me sick. So we put together a quick little bin and started putting our (safe) food scraps in it.
If you have an apartment, you might start by checking to see if you have access to a municipal composting program. Some cities have a drop-off or will come to collect your compostable items for you. But if this is something you do not have access to, you can make or buy a simple indoor compost bin.
See these directions for making your own indoor compost bin at home.
Or find one like this on Amazon.
Or if you’re feeling adventurous, make this vermicomposter for little to no money.
If you have a generous budget and the margin for something a little more robust in your home, you might get an electric countertop composter like this one. The upside to an electric countertop composter is that you can put in food scraps that can’t go in a typical compost pile, like meat, dairy, and bones.
If you have a little more yard to work with, you can build a simple bin from chicken wire, hardware cloth, or wood pallets. Our current bin is made from a discarded wood pallet, but be sure to check the safety of any reclaimed materials you use for a garden project. The wrong kind of wood treatment can be toxic and shouldn’t be used around anything that you may ingest later, as is the case with compost for your food garden.
Don’t want to build a bin but don’t want to spend big money on a compost tumbler? Check your local Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for compost bin listings. You may also find out if your local city or county has compost bin giveaways or sales as part of local agriculture programs.
Related: How to Choose the Best Recycled and Reclaimed Building Materials
2. Get some rain barrels.
After our compost bin, our second project as beginner homesteaders was to install some rain barrels. We managed to find some food-grade barrels for cheap on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. Then we installed simple outdoor faucets in the bottom of the barrels, sealed them with some clear silicone caulk, put a mesh screen over the top, and fed the gutters in. We were able to reclaim a lot of rainwater for use in our vegetable and flower gardens alike!
Depending on where you are, your city or county may have free or low-cost rain barrel programs for residents. Search your local government’s website and call the applicable offices to find out.
Related: Is Rainwater Harvesting ILLEGAL??
3. Grow some of your own food.
You may be picturing a traditional garden here, but even just growing one tomato plant on the patio is a good start. The trick is to start small and level up, especially if you have little to no gardening background.
If you live in an apartment with no patio space, see if there is a community garden near you that could get you started. If you have some patio space, get some buckets and some container soil and grow some plants. Tomatoes are an obvious choice, but there are a ton of food plants that you can grow in containers.
If you have a small yard or even just a little space around the edge of your house where you can grow food, you can get pretty creative with raised garden beds, container gardens, and even a traditional small garden.
RELATED: THE HOMESTEADER’S COMPLETE GARDEN PLANNER
You don’t need a ton of space to produce a lot of food! Take advantage of spaces you might not consider for food, especially areas that most people use for decorative landscaping. Edible landscaping can be a great way to grow food in a beautiful and eye-catching way!
Here are a few of my absolute favorite books for edible landscaping and small-space gardening that you will want to grab:
- The Suburban Microfarm by Amy Stross
- The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan
- The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler
- Edible Landscaping With a Permaculture Twist by Michael Judd
3. Learn to preserve your food.
There are many ways to preserve food not only from your garden but from the grocery, community garden, farmer’s market, and more!
Canning is probably the most quintessential homestead activity out there, and for good reason. Canning allows you a lot of freedom and creativity to preserve a wide range of foods and to keep them safe long-term without relying on power, as you would with freezing food.
Water-bath canning can be a great way to get your feet wet, but I highly recommend learning how to pressure can. It isn’t nearly as scary as you might think (and I say this as someone who actively avoided it for two years after I was gifted this one for Christmas). Pressure canning allows you to preserve even more foods that can’t be water-bath canned, like meats, soups, and low-acid vegetables.
When I had to learn to pressure can, there were only a handful of people and resources I trusted to give me good, safe, tested methods of instruction:
- Sharon over at Simply Canning
- Quick Start Guide to Water Bath Canning (A Modern Homestead)
- Quick Start Guide to Pressure Canning (A Modern Homestead)
- Ashley at Practical Self Reliance
- Ball Bluebook
Freezing food can be great for folks who aren’t quite ready to dive into canning and who have access to adequate freezer space. This can be an especially great method for meal prep batching, or for storing dry goods you might not think about like flour or yeast.
Freezing isn’t my go-to method simply because, living off-grid, we have a really tiny freezer. If we were still living in town and still had our chest freezer, I’d be inclined to freeze a bit more. However, the possibility of losing food during a power outage is real enough to make me not rely on it too heavily. There are some things that just don’t can well, freeze, better, or can’t be canned at all and a freezer can be great for those things.
Dehydrating is a favorite method of preserving foods in our family. My in-laws make a fantastic deer jerky in the dehydrator. It’s also great for things like herbs, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. You can go the simple route by drying some things in the sun. For other things, like making jerky, you’ll want a proper electric dehydrator.
If you’re just starting out and don’t want to invest too much, this is a good budget option.
4. Raise smaller animals for meat or eggs.
Raising animals like chickens can be tricky in city limits. You often have to contend with city ordinances and bylaws that prohibit or limit things like backyard chickens or a certain size of chicken coop. It’s important to do your research by searching your city’s ordinances not only online, but also by calling them directly.
Sure, you might be able to get away with a nice big flock in your backyard, but you may also find yourself at the center of some very contentious city council meetings. If that’s a battle you want to pick, I won’t stop you. However, I will encourage you to consider options that may be a bit easier to manage.
The first option is quail. Quail are smaller than chickens, grow and begin egg-laying quickly, require less space, less feed, and still provide you with nutritious meat and egg options. My friend Samantha raises backyard quail in a space roughly equivalent to a tall bookshelf and her family has a bountiful supply of fresh eggs daily.
Rabbits are another great backyard option. They are quiet, require minimal management, and provide a nutritious lean meat option for your family. A friend of mine even situated his rabbit hutch adjacent to the compost bin so that their droppings would add themselves to the pile.
If you don’t have the space, resources, or desire to raise any of these animals, consider purchasing eggs or meats from a local farmer or farmers markets. If you can’t, that’s okay too. I won’t shame you out of the grocery store, as that is the only option for many.
5. Learn how to cook from scratch.
We’ve talked a lot about food so far, but do you know what to do with it all? Learning to cook good, wholesome food takes time but is well worth the effort.
Like homesteading in general, home cooking can fall along a wide spectrum. Early in our marriage, my version of home cooking was a boxed pizza kit from the grocery store and a bagged salad with a bottled dressing. And you know what?
I still get a little nostalgic for that meal.
While I have learned how to make a good yeast crust and homemade sauce since then, I want to say that my goal isn’t to shame you into “eating better food”, or tell you that the prepackaged stuff is inherently “bad”. There’s a lot of talk in the wider homestead community that shames people for eating food that has been heavily processed and decries it as “toxic” without considering the real circumstances of the people they’re shaming.
Sometimes it’s an issue of access to things like fresh produce for folks in a food desert. Sometimes it’s an issue of mental health or family needs. And sometimes it’s that it’s too dang hot to run the oven to make bread because it’s 100 degrees outside and you don’t have air conditioning and you’d rather just buy the bread.
So when I say “learn how to cook from scratch”, what I really want to encourage is a move towards more whole foods that can nourish you and your family, reduce food waste, and create a sense of well-being and connection. This is not an all-or-nothing approach. You get to decide how this looks for you.
Start with where you currently are. What is your cooking skill level? What do you already know how to do? What do you have access to?
Choose one kind of food to learn how to make from scratch. Just one. Find simple recipes and just go for it. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with one recipe, you can branch out. And if you’re anything like me, learning how to make one food from scratch will spur you into making all kinds of things.
6. Learn to make other goods from scratch.
Homesteading might feel like it’s all about food, based on how this post is going so far. Food is a great start, but you can take it further.
Think about the kinds of goods you might use on a regular basis. Things like:
- Household cleaners
- Herbal remedies
- Home goods
- Furniture and other woodworking projects
Your homestead lifestyle may include learning how to make any of these things for yourself.
For example, you might learn how to make a proper cold-process soap and stop buying bar soap or body wash from the grocery store. You may find creative ways to use things like essential oils to make your own household cleaners. You may even delve into herbalism and learn how to use the flowers and herbs growing in your garden or that you’ve foraged in things like tinctures, salves, and other home remedies.
A self-sufficient lifestyle embraces hard work and finding creative ways to put all kinds of things to good use. Learning how to source materials and use them creatively will go a long way on your homesteading journey.
7. Learn to build and repair things.
Part of living more self-sufficiently is learning to repair the things you have and build the things that you don’t. Again, there’s a big spectrum on this. My husband and I started off learning how to fix things in our first little rental houses. We moved on to learning how to gut and remodel the kitchen in our first home, and graduated to building an entire cordwood house from scratch.
If you had told Young Us that one day we would know how to build an entire house as owner-builders, I’d have said you were crazy. But here we are, and we worked towards it gradually. We built on skills over time, and you can do the same thing.
How did we build these skills?
- Talk to experts. Friends who are plumbers, electricians, and so on can be a wealth of knowledge.
- YouTube videos. I once used YouTube to learn how to take apart the door to my old Corolla and repaired it better than the garage that tried to fix it in the first place.
- Books. There are some great reference resources we keep around our house for repair situations.
19 of the Best Books for the Home Owner-Builder
Favorite Books for Homesteaders
8. Embrace a homesteader mindset.
Just because an urban homesteader has a small space and limited resources doesn’t mean they aren’t really “homesteading”. As I mentioned that the beginning, homesteading is an ethos. One where you do what you can, where you can, in cooperation with the earth and your community. It’s about sustainable living. About being a lifelong learner. About trying to do better when you know better.
It does not require you to have lots of chickens or make everything from scratch.
It does not require you to have an entire property that can grow 100% of your family’s food or have a certain aesthetic.
Heck, it doesn’t even require you to own your own home.
All the homesteader ethos requires is that you do your best, keep learning, and try new things.
What are YOU going to do?
Learn more about our original cordwood homestead project here. And be sure to join us on Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram for more homesteading goodies that don’t necessarily make it to the blog. Thanks for reading!