How I Homestead in the City

Homesteading has really taken off as a concept these last few years, and as our lives get busier, it’s not hard to see why. But the majority of us can’t just up-sticks and move to a big farm in the country. So what’s a wannabe homesteader to do when she lives in a little house in Surburban England?

Believe it or not, there are actually lots of different ways to start living more self-sufficiently in the city. There are tonnes of new things to learn so that, when you finally get that house in the country, you’re already equipped with the basic tools to make your dream of self-sufficiency a reality.

For those of you just starting out, let’s start with the basics – and there are two very simple steps that will get you on the right track:

  • Growing herbs/simple vegetables

  • Cooking from scratch

Growing herbs and vegetables

This is my herb planter. (Andy made it for me out of an old pallet) It’s filled with the herbs we love and use the most. (Except basil – supposedly the easiest herb in the entire universe to grow and I cannot get that sucker to do a single thing for me!) It looks after itself for the most part, and provides us with herbs as long as I keep it watered and keep harvesting it. Wall planters are great for herbs as they cope well with less soil, it stops them spreading and taking over the garden (I’m looking at you, Mint!) and you don’t need a lot of room, so it’s perfect for tiny gardens and balconies. You can grow herbs in pots on windowsills and patios -anywhere it’s sunny and reasonably sheltered. Herbs are a great way to start out, as they grow quickly, and give a high yield, so you get that sense of achievement nice and quick.

Potatoes take a bit longer, but are equally simple. I grow mine in large pots since I don’t have the ground room, and I don’t have to dig them up – I just tip the pot out into a wheelbarrow or tarpaulin sheet when they are done. (You can even grow potatoes from that really old one you found at the back of the cupboard – you know, the green looking one with the sprouts?)

Peas and beans need a bit more room but like to grow up trellis and netting. I plant tomatoes in with my beans, and courgettes in with my peas to make use of the high and low space.

Lettuce and Chard are simple too and they provide ‘cut-and-come-again’ greens all summer long. (As long as you can keep the slugs off them.)

Radishes and spring onions spice up your salad and grow practically anywhere, and work well as a companion planter to the lettuce, to deter those bugs.

Courgettes! Probably my favourite summer vegetable, once you get them going, they don’t stop – and you’ll need a whole host of recipes to keep on top of that particular bounty!

As summer begins to fade, you can harvest the onions and leeks you planted out earlier and the pumpkins, and aubergines will begin to colour, ready for their autumn brilliance.

I grow all of the above (and a few more!) in eight raised planters and a dozen pots in my little 5-by-15 meter garden – so, providing you have some outside space, you can always make it work, scaling up or down to fit your needs.

Once you have all these lovely veggies, it’s time to use them, and this is where our second step comes in.

Cooking from Scratch

Since I was lucky enough to grow up eating mostly home-cooked meals, I always thought ‘cooking from scratch’ meant really stripping it back and grinding your own flour and milking your own cow – which sounds amazing in a totally terrifying way. But cooking from scratch means different things, depending on where you are starting from - and can be as simple as skipping the bag of frozen chips and cutting your own from potatoes.

For those a little further along the home-cooking path, it might mean making your own pasta sauce, cooking up a curry not from a jar, or baking a cake for the work charity event.

Once you have that sussed, it’s time to move on to bread making and fresh pasta – and before you know it, your freezer is void of ready-to-cook options filled with preservatives and additives, and filled, instead, with home grown vegetables and batch-cooked meals.

I’m about half way down this home-cooking path, and I’ve listed a few different things I make below:

  • Bread

  • Pesto

  • Jam

  • Butter

  • Simple cheese

  • Pasta

Most of these are made on an almost weekly basis (when I'm in the swing of it, anyway! I admit I've slacked a bit as my priorities have been elsewhere!) , and since they consist of basic ingredients, it means our shopping bill is less too!

So you’ve got your herb garden, your vegetable patch, and you’ve mastered bread and pasta. Congratulations! You’re officially more self-sufficient than 90% of UK homes. But what’s next? For us, it was livestock.

Now, here is where I have to admit something to you. I know that I will never truly be 100% self-sufficient. I know this, because I will never be able to look at an animal and see it as ‘livestock’. For me, every animal is a potential pet, and I will always, always, treat them as such. (No I’m not vegetarian. Yes I’m aware this is a tad hypocritical. Yes I’m working on that.) But livestock doesn’t just mean animals raised to butcher. There are other animals who can be both pets AND providers to our little homestead dream – and the easiest, best way to start out, is chickens.

Meet Rosemary and Pepperpot. These darling little feather-babies are our second generation of chickens, since we lost both our ‘original’ girls this year. Rosie is a Maran-Cuirvee, producing 240-260 dark brown eggs a year. Her sister, Pepper, is a Rhode Rock and a harder worker – laying 290 – 320 eggs a year. They are small girls so don’t need a huge amount of space, and their little coop looks adorable in our garden – even if I do say so myself!

We got them from a local farm when they were sixteen weeks old, and bought them for £15.00 each - which, at five-hundred eggs for five or more years, is an amazing investment! (it’s what, £2.00 for a half-dozen in the supermarkets?)

Eggs aside, if you want to feel (and look) more like a ‘real homsteader’ – then get yourself a couple of chickens. They are simple to care for, cheap to feed, and they make gardening a whole lot more fun!

Foraging for food

This one is a bit of a strange subject. So many people get weird when I say I love to forage for food. There's just something about making a meal out of plants you've gone out and searched for that is highly satisfying. I've been foraging for chestnuts since I was little thanks to my parents, who took us out most years every autumn (a tradition I love, and cling to!), but we also pick sloes to make sloe gin, elderflowers to make cordial, strawberries to make jam (although this, at least, is a bit of a cop out - we visit a local PYO!) wild garlic and three cornered leeks to make pestos, and even flowers and dandelions can make a superb salad if you know what to look for!

The next step on the homesteading path, for me, is preserving all those yummy vegetables and home cooked foods.

Preserving Goods

You preserve different things in different ways, including freezing, canning, storing, and dehydrating.

Freezing sounds the simplist; anyone can chuck something in the freezer - but I tend to reserve my limited freezer space for batch cooked meals rather than raw produce. This is generally because I find veggies go mushy (courgettes) or hard and chewy (brocolli and beans) unless you learn which need to be par-boiled or put in ice water or cut the right way before freezing. I only really freeze chopped onions if I have a glut, or veg that I plan to use in soups or stews, and don't mind going mushy.On the Freezer front, I've got a lot to learn!

I've got a dehydrator and find it amazing for making 'sundried tomatoes' which we store in jars of oil and eat all year round; it's like opening a jar of bottled sunshine on a gloomy february afternoon!

I also use it to dry herbs, wizzing them up in the food processor when they are totally dried out, to to re-fill my herb pots ready to use in my next meal. You can use it to make fruit roll-ups and jerky, and a whole host of fun things that I look forward to learning more about as I go.

Canning is my next adventure. I purchased a water bath this year, and hope to begin learning how to can all our produce - starting with the millions of tomatoes we grow, in the hope of replacing our store-bought tinned tomatoes, with home-grown canned versions! I'll let you know how I get on once the season starts.

I'll continue to update this post as I go, hopefully adding links along the way, but for now, I'll leave you to start your own homesteading adventure - you never know, you might be further along the path than you think!