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Food security for urban homesteaders

By: | December 19, 2015

Self-sufficiency can seem daunting at first. Here are some tips on foraging, community gardening and guerilla gardening to get you started on the path to food security for you and your family.

Steve McBride
The Good Life follows the adventures of Lisa & Steve as they get 'back to basics' by living simply and sustainably, and producing their own food.

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Photo by Kenny Louie.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we enjoy some of the lowest land prices for acreages located near an urban city centre anywhere in Canada. Searching through local real estate listings, acres of land less than an hour away from town can be found, often under $30,000 and some for less than $15,000. Acres complete with functioning homes on them can often be found for $60,000 or less. There are dozens of these homes currently for sale near the city in this price range, and while some are tear-downs, many others are quite livable but probably need some work.

A $60,000 loan at today’s rates of around five percent works out to $466 per month at an accelerated 15-year amortization period (that number goes down to $342 if you opt for a 25-year repayment period), which is a bargain if it means giving up your rent. This represents an interesting opportunity for homesteaders and those considering a simpler, more sustainable life. 

Land prices for an acre of land in the rural area near my old hometown of Surrey B.C., comparatively, begin at $750,000 and quickly climb from there. 

But for many of us on working class incomes, this price tag still seems insurmountable. Our ‘dream home’ rural property was a plan seven years in the making, and when the moment finally came it seemed overwhelming. 

We bought what we could afford, which meant the house was only finished to the studs — it had no running water, no hot water tank, no plumbing, no cupboards, cabinets or closets, and no insulation. The roof leaked, the house had lain empty for several years, and the water froze in the toilet in mid-winter. 

Moving to Newfoundland with very little, the economics of homesteading, especially urban homesteading, is what allowed us to save up enough dimes for our piece of land. To us, it represented a dream of simpler living — but we’d have to work harder than ever to get there. 

One year after leaving the city for our cabin in the woods, I feel like we are gaining good traction. But we couldn’t have made it through our first year on our land if we hadn’t spent the previous seven years practicing our skills in homesteading – urban style. 

Urban Homesteading: old-fashioned skills for the urbanite

Many folks consider growing food and owning land as two of the main components of homesteading, and they are important. But we happily developed our homesteading skills for years without any usable land, and aside from a handful of houseplants we didn’t grow our own food either. You don’t need to grow mustard plants to make your own mustard! 

Homesteading as a practice covers a whole range of skills outside of growing food. The basic concept of self-sufficiency where possible includes things such as sewing, knitting, baking, wood working and cabinetry, basic DIY electrical, simple plumbing to reduce or eliminate visits from your local plumber, condiment and sauce-making to eliminate store-bought product, soapmaking, candlemaking, dyeing, tanning and leathermaking, furwork, home brewing, jamming, quilting, maple sugaring, pickling, canning, crafting, cheesemaking and yogurtmaking, indoor and outdoor gourmet mushroom growing, batch cooking, making household cleaning products, making your own beauty products and shampoos — and the list goes on. 

The fun part is starting off by picking a few of these projects as ‘hobby time’ and then seeing how you can develop the skill to save you money. When it comes to food, keeping rabbits for meat can be done easily indoors, a two-level rabbit hutch, one square meter in size, exceeds the living space requirements laid out by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, so a pair of breeding rabbits can fit in to a lesser-used space in your place. Rabbits are clean and quiet and make great indoor pets – and as a bonus, their manure is terrific fertilizer for your container garden.

Photo by Lisa McBride.

Ducks and chickens don’t require a whole lot of space in a backyard setting. Photo by Lisa McBride.

A few laying ducks or chickens can be tucked into even the smallest backyard. Apartment dwellers may have to forego the poultry; rabbits can be kept inside, but an old bylaw from the St John’s Act in the early 20th century states that you “cannot keep horses, fowl, or swine in a house” (a sensible law, surely). Our little urban homestead had animals before it had a garden! 

One of the cornerstones of self-sufficiency is food, and food is kind of important, so even in our attached, downtown rowhouse, we kept coming back to our food supply as something we wanted more control over — not ‘one day’, but in the present. We discovered that, living in the city without fertile land, there is basically a three-pronged approach you can take to gain control over your food supply: You can forage, you can join a community garden (and join the ‘community of food’ in your area), or you can guerilla garden. Or, better yet, you can do all three. 

Foraging

Living in downtown St John’s was great for foraging food, and there is an abundance of edible food growing wild throughout our entire province. We collect hundreds of pounds of food each year, simply by exploring the city’s green spaces and trails with a guide book in hand and a backpack to carry back our discoveries.

This year, the six apple trees we picked from trail sides yielded us a bounty of apples — over 200 pounds of them! The freezer is packed with apple pies to last all throughout the year, and we have 12 gallons of fresh-pressed cider quietly bubbling away. Lisa haswritten about the plethora of foraged goodies you can find in and around St John’s: apples, plums, cherries, berries, veggies, herbs and spices for cooking, herbs for making your own herbal teas or flavouring food, salt from the sea, maple syrup from the trees, gourmet mushrooms from the forest (but be very sure of identification), decorative and edible flowers, ‘vitamin C’ bombs made from rose hips.

Her column published earlier this year offers many examples of what you can do with your foraged bounty once you’ve gathered it. With just a little bit of know-how and a willingness to get outdoors, you can forage for food in Newfoundland from March through to November.

Community gardens

Community gardening is a fairly new trend that has taken off in recent years, and new community gardens are coming online every year. The Community Garden Alliance (CGA) website lists 15 community gardens in the St John’s area, and six outside of the city. There are others out there too, for example Deborah’s Garden in Pouch Cove, which is not listed on the CGA site. 

Community gardening, in addition to providing those who want more growing space for food, is a terrific community resource that connects the ‘DIY Foodies’ in your neighbourhood, allowing people to exchange seeds, skills, and growing tips with one other. 

Goldie & Maple spend some time visiting the Rabbitown Community Garden. Photo by Lisa McBride.

Goldie & Maple spend some time visiting the Rabbitown Community Garden. Photo by Lisa McBride.

This acts as a great entry point for someone wishing to grow their own food who has perhaps never gardened before and lacks the basic skills to get started. If there’s one thing I know for sure about community gardeners, it’s that they are very willing to pass on their skills. The ‘DIY Foodies’ in and around St John’s in general are a terrific resource for learning new food skills. 

We have attended, and taught, several workshops on food skills put on by organizations like Food Education Action St John’s (FEASt), Food First NL (formerly the Food Security Network), the St. John’s Farmer’s Market, and Friends of Pippy Park. These events are usually free or very cheap, often to keep them accessible to people. 

Edible plant and mushroom hikes are also organized in the city several times a year, so those who don’t have the confidence to forage on their own can first learn with an experienced guide. The Friends of Pippy Park will also be offering, for the first time in the province, a winter community garden in the form of a ‘maple syrup grove’, where participants can collect maple sap to turn into their own delicious maple syrup. 

Joining the ‘community of food’ in your neighbourhood also allows the benefit of trading. It is often the case with foraging or growing food that you end up with more than you know what to do with. We fill the gaps in what we grow and find with food and goods we trade with other people. 

If you have children, joining a community garden also offers the generational benefit of connecting your kids with their food from a young age, something many of us grew up without. This short video clip by Jamie Oliver shows the appalling level of connection between our youngsters and their food; a class full of first grade children all know and love ketchup, but none of them can identify a tomato, an eggplant, and a potato in their unprocessed form. Community gardens offer an antidote to this, by blending gardening with social activity and friends — a lot more fun than being assigned to pull weeds in the backyard as a chore!

Guerilla gardening

Guerilla gardening, basically, is the act of developing neglected land or public land as an intentional food source. It differs from simple foraging in that food is actively planted and maintained. Guerilla gardening runs the gamut of ideology, from food security activists who secretly graft fruit tree branches on to non-fruit tree bases, to those who fill empty or weed-filled and neglected municipal flower planters with edibles, to those who, like many rural Newfoundlanders and Labradorians of a generation ago, simply plunk a garden down in the woods or along the side of the road. There are many areas in St John’s (and a great many more outside the city) suitable for tucking away your own little growing space. 

While some folks like the idea of a tilled and planted row garden for their guerilla garden, I personally try to use nature as my gardening assistant. So when it comes to our own efforts to guerilla garden, we prefer to simply allow naturally-growing native plants the opportunity to expand by reducing competitor plants and inedibles in the area — and we only expand growing for plants that can withstand our sometimes-harsh climate unaided. 

We thin out the poisonous sheep’s laurel that grows alongside our favorite blueberry patches, allowing them to grow bigger each year, and trim the branches of Fir trees that encroach on wild apple trees. 

Inspired by the tradition of Johnny Appleseed, the 17th century pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to Ontario and many U.S. states, we also offer nature a ‘tithe’ when we forage. This is a fancy way of saying we plant 5-10 percent of our collected fruit and other edibles either in and around where they grow, or by attempting to colonize a new area where the plant could grow naturally. We have been doing this in the Southside Hills for many years now, and it is a real pleasure to watch new patches of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries spring up in areas we planted, along rivers, trails and vacant fields. 

We have planted hundreds of apple, plum and cherry seeds, too, but it will be several years before those bear fruit! In the same way that I benefitted from the apples and other fruit trees planted long ago by other forward-thinking folks, so too do I hope our ‘guerilla’ efforts lead to an increase in edibles for future hikers and foragers. 

So if you don’t have land, don’t fret — your journey to greater food security and increased self-reliance can still get going in earnest, with some creativity and flexibility. Tuck away a portion of each dollar you save through your homesteading efforts, and in a few years’ time, your ‘dime jar’ may just end up being the down payment on the piece of land you’ve been dreaming of!

To discuss foraging, community gardening, guerilla gardening, and a whole array of DIY topics, join our thriving online community, Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL. Over 2,000 other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are on the path to increasing our province’s food security and we’re all eager to help!

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