Enemies of the Urban Homestead

Urban Homesteading is gaining popularity.  Whether you’re growing tomatoes or going for total self-sufficiency, an urban homestead can be rewarding and challenging.  What defines an urban homestead?  That’s the best part.  You do!  Basically, if you live near a city or township or just have a small patch of land, you qualify.  Of course, enemies abound, waiting to sabotage your efforts to have healthy food, cheaper energy, and environmentally sound practices.

Zoning – If your homestead is actually in an urban area, zoning can be your biggest enemy.  Most cities regulate how many and what animals you can have on your property.  While fresh eggs and milk are the healthiest, most cities prohibit chickens and livestock.  Wind mills, water wells, and using grey water from your clothes washer will all likely be banned.  Some cities prohibit certain trees and plants.  Arid regions forbid rainwater collection.

What to do?  Choose your battles. If you really want to plant a forbidden tree, approach your city council when they’re in the middle of spending a ton on planting trees to save the world.  Tell them you want to join in by planting your favorite tree in your yard at your expense.  When they respond “Splendid,” look really sad and tell them that someone ages ago banned that tree.  Ask them to help you by lifting the ban,  We’ve got to save the planet, right?  Good luck on getting chickens in your golf course community.  Campaign donors live there.  You’re best bet is to try to relate to your council members on a human level.  Don’t attack them.  Show them all the positives things that will come about from the change.  Unfortunately, status quo rules the world of politics, so you’ll want to have a back up plan.

Home Owner Associations – Your HOA will likely reiterate your ordinances and add a list of taboo practices that could lower someone’s home value.  Junker cars are not only bad, they are doubly bad, according to your HOA.  Many HOAs will require a certain type of grass in the front yard and could place limits on your front gardens.  This isn’t the place to plant a field of wheat.  Remember that your neighbors mean well, and you do have to live near them.  So try to negotiate and kindly educate.  If you need a non-toxic roof for rainwater collection, but your deed restrictions require something laden with chemicals, educate the Executive Board or Architectural Committee.  Find pictures of upscale homes with the roof you want.  Bring in sketches of your dream roof (from a professional, not your 5 year old), and have good pictures of their finished work.  Apply for a an exemption.  You may need exemptions for greenhouses, roofs, even a birdhouse.  Your garden will attract mice and voles, so you’ll really want on owl handy, if possible.  But a birdhouse  may be prohibited.  Be polite.  Be patient.  Make friends, not enemies.  Share from your garden, so your neighbors can see why your homestead is a positive endeavor.  In the end, you might even gain enough support to modify your deed restrictions or covenants.

Destruction of the Food Chain – Your garden will attract plenty of critters.  One year, we had cantaloups, tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelon, pumpkins, okra, strawberries, and squash.  We did not harvest one single edible thing from that garden.  The mice, rabbits, voles, and birds ate everything!  And the mice eventually got so big that they could barely scurry under the fence.  Prior to that year, we had owls.  They would land on our chimney and their hoots would echo through our house.  Construction in our neighborhood drove them away.  This year, we’re trying container gardening instead of beds.  I can move the plants to confuse the critters and they have to climb a little to get anything.  Of course, the plants dry out faster and don’t grow as well.  It’s a sacrifice.  But I have two ‘maters growing, so its worth it.  We’re researching nest boxes to see if we can draw the owls back .  Before the bulk of construction was completed in our neighborhood, hundreds of birds would land in our yard and eliminate our cricket or grasshopper population in 15 minutes.  Construction equipment has frightened them away.  Most people use chemical pesticides, so the birds have less food (they dined at multiple yards when they stopped here).  With fewer bugs in the neighbors’ yards, fewer flocks find it worth their time to stop here.  So the challenge is to attract birds to eat the bugs and not the garden!

Loss of Pollinators and Cross-Polinators – Nobody likes bees, unless you’re trying to grow fruit or veggies!  The removal of hives and habitat have reduced the population of these wonderful pollinators.  Broad spectrum pesticides have destroyed both bees and butterflies.  The good news is that you can plant flowers that will attract pollinators.  I’ve also heard that feather dusters can be used to help your plants when the bees aren’t around.  I read on a couple forums that grandma used to beat the tomato plant with a switch.  I’m not sure if it really spreads the pollen or if was just therapeutic for granny.   If your HOA requires a decorative front garden, plant plenty of bee and butterfly attractors.  This year, we’ll probably try hatching some butterflies and a praying mantis or two.  It’s a fun project for the kids and it may just help our crops.

Many bushes, vines, and trees require a cross pollinator.  In Texas, Pecan trees are so prolific that a cross pollinator is always nearby.  Unless your entire area was stripped for development like what is happening in my area.  If you don’t want two of the same type of tree, talk to your neighbors.  You may find a neighbor willing to plant one in their yard.  You’ll both benefit, and you save space for the trees you really want.  Having your neighbors homestead has it’s own benefits.  You can swap produce, and you’ll have an ally when it comes to dealing with HOA restrictions.

Space – Most urban homesteaders will have less than acre to work with.  Many subdivision lots are 1/10 of an acre.  This is your chance to get creative.  Grow things in containers indoors or on your porches.  Window boxes can hold herbs.  Attach planters to fences and walls.  Consider dwarf trees.  They can be planted closer together thus allowing space for more trees.  Learn the method of Square Foot Gardening.  And PLAN!  You won’t be able to grow everything you’ve always wanted.  Pick your favorites and plan your space.  Even if it takes you a few years to do everything you wanted, having a plan prevents wasted space.  This is where having a fellow homesteader nearby will help.  Try to grow different things so you can trade and share.  If your neighborhood has common areas, see if you can plant a community garden.

Weather – Drought, floods, heat, snow, high winds.  It all takes a toll on your crops.  And it seems some years have it all packed into one year.  Have an advance plan for cold weather.  What plants can be moved indoors or to a green house?  How will you cover outdoor plants so that the cover won’t blow away?  Can you construct a temporary greenhouse over a section of garden?  Shield delecate plants from high winds.  Rainwater collection is the best defender against a drought.  We have 12 trees and watering them is EXPENSIVE.  They are young and can’t tolerate the drought we’re in right now.  Tap water contains chlorine and other chemicals that plants don’t particularly like.  We’ve found they grow less and produce less when they only receive tap water.

Other enemies abound, you’ll quickly learn.  Be patient and don’t give up.  You may find that Plan A, B, and C don’t work, but Plan D does.  Just remember to have fun.  Even if you’re planning for The End of the World as We Know It.

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