I’m a self-taught suburban gardener, and I love it. Here are some tips that helped me start my journey that might help beginner gardeners. Remember, making mistakes is critical. Allow yourself to learn as you go and forgive when yourself when you err, which you will. Repeatedly. The rewards of a garden filled with vegetables, fruit, and herbs that you can use in homemade body care products as much as on your family’s plates, are too many to list. Just trust the process in creating an urban or suburban homestead.
Urban and Suburban Properties Should Not Limit You
Whether you live in a modest suburban townhouse or a sprawling urban farmhouse, you can grow food. Whether it’s your first year as a homesteader or you’ve been at it for decades, there are always new skills to learn and ways to improve your garden space. And whether your goal is to feed yourself with self-sufficient food or just save money on groceries, the possibilities are pretty much endless.
You don’t need any special knowledge or equipment; all that matters is that you have some land (even if it’s just a single container) and the desire to see what happens when seeds go into the ground. You don’t even need to spend time outdoors—it’s possible to grow plants indoors under lights!
Container Gardening On Your Deck, Patio, or Balcony
Surely you’ve seen or heard of people growing an abundance of food from pots, buckets, wheelbarrows, old dressers, or a thousand other things ranging from simple to advanced; and for good reason. Containers are excellent options for those looking to maximize space. For me, when we purchased our house, I was stuck with wanting to grow so much but realized that the deck in the backyard took up 33% of the area. I trialed with several types of containers before settling on 5-8 gallon upcycled pots that I got for free from our local gardening center.
I found that growing tomatoes and peppers were very easy, though I learned through trial and error that watering containers isn’t the same as watering a garden. Simply, my containers were drying out far too quickly.
I also had success with blueberries and currants. With these, I found I could move them out of the full sun at times in the middle of the summer so they wouldn’t get scorched.
What I love about container gardening is that I can plant herbs that would otherwise grow out of control. Anyone who has planted mint will attest that it is a massive mistake to plant mint in a garden unless you’re prepared for it to take over with no end in sight. But containers allow me to grow several flavors of mint, lemon balm, yarrow, and other herbs that otherwise would take over if I allowed them. Now, growing herbs in the garden is a great thing, but use the containers for ones you don’t want to grow out of control.
- Mulch at least a few inches thick to keep in moisture during summer months – I had most success with plain cedar mulch
- Water tomatoes deep 1-2 times per week – avoid shallow/light watering which will result in shallow root growth
- Try different locations and different containers for your first 2-3 years, even if you find something that works
- Don’t forget to fertilize at beginning of season, mid-season, and cover with a new layer of mulch at season’s end
With Space-saving Fruit Trees, You Don’t Need Acres
There are two methods I’ve tried when it comes to growing fruit trees on my property: espalier and dwarf/semi-dwarf pruning
- Fruit trees don’t have to take up acres of space
- An espalier fruit tree takes up just a fraction of the space and provides many rewards beyond apples, pears, and peaches
- Container-grown fruit trees are easier to maintain and protect from pests, because they can be moved around your yard, as well as brought indoors during winter
- You’ll still need a few months’ lead time before moving them outdoors in spring, but once they’re outside, you won’t need to worry about frostbite or other damage that can occur if they’re left in their pots too long
- If you don’t want your tree outdoors all year round, it’s easy enough to move them (or replant them) into pots or planters along with other plants that enjoy full sun exposure during spring and summer months
Widely practiced in Europe, the art of espalier is becoming more recognizable in North American gardens. Simply, to espalier a fruit tree, much like you would tie off vining vegetables, you train the main branches of a fruit tree to grow along a frame. Usually all other branches are removed, thus leaving the branches to grow in a distinct shape. The simplest patterns are easy to pull off for even someone new to this as I was only a year ago.
Since I purchased four apple trees, I used the espalier method on two of them. On my first one, I found a “T” where two branches grew from the main trunk opposite each other. I tied them to a simple bamboo trellis so that the branches would grow horizontally to the ground. All other branches on the tree were removed. The result is a tree that is around 5 feet tall with only two branches and a lot of growth along each.
For the second tree, I decided to grow that a bit taller, around six feet. I did almost the same as the first tree but for this one I found two sets of branches that could grow opposite one another. Again, other than the four branches I chose to train, all others were removed so that the tree could focus on fruit production.
Pruning Dwarf and Semi-dwarf
Another method that also works in smaller city lots is dwarf trees. These trees usually stay relatively short, 5-8 feet depending on the fruit and variety. What I found is that it wasn’t always easy to find a dwarf tree in my area for the variety of apples I was interested in growing. So what I did was buy two semi-dwarf trees, which are very common.
The idea here is just simple pruning. I won’t let it get more than 8 feet tall and I have a rough circumference in mind to assure the branches don’t create too large of a canopy.
Raising Backyard Chickens in the City is Possible, and Rewarding
If you’re still on the fence about raising chickens in the city, let me be the first to tell you: it’s easier than you think! Chickens are no more difficult to care for than a cat or dog. Of course they can provide eggs (and sometimes meat) with minimal effort. It’s true—chickens are also a great source of fertilizer and insect control in your garden. Their constant foraging will help rid many pests while their constant stream of “fertilizer” adds much needed nutrients to sun-scorched soil. And did I mention that watching them is simply delightful?
As if all this weren’t enough reason to consider adding some hens to your urban homesteading repertoire, there’s another benefit: chickens can actually make money for their owners! Selling eggs from backyard hens has become an increasingly popular way for homeowners like myself to earn extra cash when times get tough financially. If you have little ones at home, how rewarding would it be to have them help run that side business?
Raising Rabbits for Meat and Manure
Many will look to rabbits as one of the simpler animals to raise for the purpose of meat. A family can successfully maintain a warren and either raise enough meat for their own tables, but potentially to become part of a small business.
An experienced gardener, however, will also recognize the effectiveness of rabbit manure in the garden. It’s high in nitrogen and potassium, as well as calcium and magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur and trace minerals! Even if you don’t want to raise rabbits to eat, or to sell as meat, they can still be a beneficial addition to your urban or suburban homestead. And unlike backyard chickens, they are almost universally allowed to be raised under most bylaws within city limits.
Composting Benefits the Environment and Your Plants
Composting is the process of decomposing organic matter. It’s a natural way to get rid of kitchen scraps, leaves and grass clippings that would otherwise be thrown in the trash or washed down your drain. Composting benefits your plants by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as irrigation and soil amendments.
To make compost you’ll need:
- A container (like an old garbage can)
- A lid for your container (you’ll want one if you’re putting food scraps in there)
- Some shredded newspaper
- Some leafy greens and other green materials like grass clippings
Remember, you just have a good brown:green ratio. The “brown” refers to paper, cardboard, twigs, while the “green” refers to the food scraps. I have had success with 2:1, brown:green. So when I add a bowl of scraps, I also add two bowls of shredded paper with a bit of water to help everything breakdown. Be very diligent in not adding meat to your compost! For the urban and suburban homestead, your neighbors will be eternally grateful in not attracting extra pests such as flies (maggots) and rodents.
As an added bonus, composting will help reduce the need for fertilizers, pesticides and water by breaking down organic matter into nutrient rich soil that feeds plants directly rather than having to rely on chemical treatments being absorbed through soil or carried by irrigation water. Composting is a great way to recycle garden waste and can be done in even the smallest of spaces.
Even if you have limited space for your garden, there are ways to grow the foods you eat, raise animals and compost.
We hope this article has inspired you to take on a more sustainable lifestyle, even if you reside in the concrete jungle. We’re all too familiar with the urban lifestyle—working long hours and returning home exhausted, only to find ourselves surrounded by convenience foods and other products that have been shipped from across the globe. But we can choose otherwise. By taking an interest in sustainability, gardening and homesteading are not just hobbies but ways of life that can benefit us all.