A Grid of a Different Name Smells Sweeter

Growing up in a fairly small town and spending most of my summers alone in the woods, I oscillated between intense introspection to being thrown into the middle of everyone knows everything about everyone during the school year. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to live more quietly and more detached from the "petty"gossips and scrutiny of community. I think this "self-reliant" bent of urban homesteading (along with the environmental benefits) has been a real draw to me. One of the catchphrases of the homesteading movement is "living off the grid." This has meant, unplugging (literally and figuratively) from the electric grid by producing some or all of one's own electricity. It may also mean naturally capturing water for washing clothes or watering the garden through rain barrels or catchments - reducing one's need to be on the "water grid" so to speak. For the urban homesteader it's also about disconnecting from downspouts and reducing our input to the "water grid" in this way. People do this for environmental reasons (reduce our reliance on fossil fuels etc.), but also for economical reasons - sun power is free, water from a rain barrel is free... etc. So a lot of focus and attention can be on independence and disconnect. After a few years of trying to turn our little mid-century bungalow into an urban homestead, I would now argue that community is a homesteader's number one ally.

I came to this conclusion through trial and error and it's taken almost 20 years. Several key experiences have drawn me into the understanding of what connections to my neighbors - and I mean my actual next door neighbors, not my global neighbors- means. First, I can honestly say I did not realize how much my family gained from community while I was growing up. I spent just about every free moment as a child in the woods daydreaming about being Laura Ingalls Wilder or, as I became a teen, Thoreau. I felt most at home "walking the creek" alone or reading next to one of the three ponds in our back ninety acres. When the school year approached I frequently dreamt I'd forgotten an important article of clothing, such as pants, and, in my dreams, I wouldn't realize it until boarding the school bus. To me, school meant cacophony. It meant feeling alone in a crowd. I skipped pep rallies to read in the library because I liked the quiet (I still hate crowds). I blamed my discomfort on the typical complaints about life in a small town - everyone knows everyone, there's nothing to do, I never felt like I fit in etc. So I took off across the country for college and landed in a mid-sized city.

Strangly enough, I found that in a sea of people it was actually easier to disappear. I also realized I had to buy produce. You see, in the summer and fall, my dad would bring home bags of fresh tomatoes, gigantic squash and such. People would give him produce, he would give them corn or melons. We never had a garden and there was harldly ever fresh produce in the grocery stores, but we always had loads of homegrown veggies. I'd never realized this until I had to buy them. Of course, I was also enamored of the giant West Coast grocery stores, stocked with items from all up and down the I-5 corridor. Things like gorgeous red peppers even in the middle of winter! Oh, but my awareness of the fossil fuel cost of this food came much latter and is a different story. I missed all those free veggies from home!

After college and grad school, I moved to an even larger city where I "settled down" in a typical suburban neighborhood. We bought the house because it needed fixing up and was on a large plot. I had visions of secluding myself in a lush garden and growing plants that would insulate me from the sounds of next door neighbors. This worked for the first few years - before we started really undertaking the remodel projects. Then our current neighbors moved in and that led me to my second understanding of the importance of community. Our new neighbors did crazy things like invite us over to BBQ dinners that were delicious. Their cousins and parents would come to these dinners and at first we didn't realize they were inviting us to dine with other folks. We were a little surprised they would invite these two girls into their family like this. (OK so part of it is that is we're lesbians and they're a straight, catholic couple. We thought that maybe at first they thought we were just roommates. They shattered that delusion after asking if we thought we'd ever have kids.)

After about a year of living next to each other, our shared fence blew over in a storm. When we went to replace the fence, our neighbors (who are renters by the way) helped us build the fence. George, a burly ex-navy recruiter, dug up the most stubborn of the old concrete post-holes and Cheryl made dinner for all of us. At the same time, we invited a friend over to help with this project. When we replaced our floors, George helped us move our largest piece of furniture. We also had help from another friend who came in at just the right time to save our marriage. (I'm sure you understand that if you have done any remodel project with your spouse....)When we were sick with strep throat last month, George and Cheryl's nephew brought over a plate of food. Tonight, we are babysitting their 2 year old little girl.

And so, through obvious and many more subtle events, I have come to realize that good neighbors, a community of support and resources, are necessary for every true homestead. We learn things from each other that make independent living easier and richer. It's about swapping from one grid to another, more delicate, web of relationships. It's the cardinal rule of homesteading - know thy neighbors.


The rewards of gardening are plenty. First and foremost, I grew up on a farm and I feel most complete as a human when I am getting my hands dirty. I love dirt. I like digging in it, building mounds with it, examining it, making it. I look at a fresh ploughed field and it comforts me like a crackly fresh-baked cookie. Nothing is as satisfying as eating something you have grown yourself, especially from seed. I love the feel of early morning sunshine on my skin and how it gradually warms me when I'm picking the day's harvest. I don't have to go grocery shopping as much in the summer - in fact, I can go a whole two weeks between shopping trips. I can control what goes into my food - what feeds it, what protects it from bugs and disease. I can pick something right off the plant and stick it into my mouth without even washing it. Best of all, I love the solitude of my garden. I like feeling surrounded by plants and insects instead of people. Besides, below is what we're having for dinner at my house this week.

Today's dinner:
  • fried green tomatoes
  • bulgar, mint, tomato and seasoned tempeh salad
  • steamed green beans?


  • BBQ chicken salad (Gates sauce of course) with green pepper, corn, tomatoes and chili-lime dressing
  • grilled zucchini


  • pizza with chard, pesto, purple onion, sliced tomatoes and possibly applewood smoked bacon - top this all with grated pecorino romano cheese

From the garden ingredients (free!): tomatoes, mint, beans, lettuce, chard, green pepper, hot peppers, zucchini, and basil for pesto.


Spider Wand

An organic gardner has to make her peace with the spider kingdom. They eat "bad" bugs and help us reduce our reliance on chemicals to control infestations. I have resigned myself to the fact that arachnids have a place in my life no matter the cold sweat I break into when face to face with one. So several years ago I announced to the spiders in my life that I would make a deal with them. You stay outside, I leave you alone. You come inside, I will have to kill you once I work up the courage. I am a firm believer the spider kingdom heard my call for truce as I no longer find them in my fresh laundry. But it hasn't been easy to keep up my end of the bargain and something I call the "spider wand" has helped.

To convey to you how monumental a task it has been for me to make my peace with spiders, let me just tell you about the last time I encountered a truce-breaker. I had been dreaming up a dish involving chard, hard boiled egg, bacon and garlic for several days and had just picked a basketful of greens. The sunlight was streaming into my kitchen window delivering me into a half meditative state. Fresh applewood smoked bacon bits were drying on a plate near the sink filling the kitchen with a delicious "meal to come" smell. Holding my stock pot to my chest, I leaned forward to turn on the water. As I pulled back from the sink handle I happened to glance down into the pot. At the bottom of the pot was a very large, brown spider (with a body about the size of a quarter) running rapidly around trying to find a foothold to escape - upwards and towards me...

I screamed and flung the pot away from me and to this day I'm amazed no neighbor called 911. As I recovered my wits, I realized the pot had landed upright in the sink with half the bacon in it and the large brown spider. I started to call Jovi at work thinking she might come home to "take care of" the spider - OK, maybe I actually called her and she gently said no, or maybe she laughed at me. Then I thought, maybe I could ask a neighbor.... but I hadn't met any of my neighbors yet. (Important urban homesteading rule #1, meet thy neighbors.)

I broke out into a cold sweat as an idea slowly came to me. I needed to take care of this myself. I would need to use the vacuum and I would need the attachment. So, I drank a Mike's Hard Lemonade and pulled on an oven mit. While I screamed and danced around, I was able to suck up the spider. After I'd let the vacuum run for about half an hour to ensure the thing couldn't crawl out, I stopped sweating. Even though I couldn't bring myself to put the vacuum back in the closet, I was quite satisfied with myself. Problem solved. Now I just make sure I put the lid on the pot when I store it and I check every pot in my cupboard before pulling them out, just like I check the shower for spiders every morning before hopping in.

Now, late August is high spider time in my garden. One particular breed makes large webs from plant to plant and, sometimes, across the paths. Over the summer months I watch them grow from just a baby into a creepy full-on adult about the size of a dime - maybe a wee smaller. I've read tons of organic gardening books and know they are my friends and allies, but I find myself avoiding the garden this time of year.

A trick for my fellow gardening friends who are not best friends with the eight legged types, use a "spider wand." The spider wand allows me to remove spiders from my path without killing them. You simply take a stick (any stick you can find will do) and wave it ahead of you as you walk through the garden. The length of the stick should be directly proportionate to your fear of spiders and your garden path width. Now, when you first start doing this you may be tempted to just wave your wand indiscriminately about, randomly hooking webs. This isn't a good idea. You can miss some, plus you can wave them, dangling on the end, back in your own direction. It is far more effective to walk slowly while looking carefully about you for webs. When you discover one in your path (obviously you want to leave those not in your path alone) you simply move the wand across the upper part of the web and gently reposition the spider to a more desireable spot. There's a real technique to it and I'm happy to consult.
Oh, and you might not want to let anyone see you do this the first few times you do it.


"Baste", it's not Just a Cooking Term

So another dirty little secret of mine is that I am making a "Cut...Sew...&Go" project right now. No reclaimed fabric (aka what the hip homesteader should call scraps), no self-designed pattern. In fact, all the parts are printed out for you on a single piece of fabric. You just cut, sew and voila! In just an hour I am supposed to have a cute, homemade tote bag. As an urban homesteader I should be looking for fabric scraps and (so that it's clear I'm not just frugal) they should be sewn together of my own conception from retro 1950's prints.

Well, I have the retro prints, but there's nothing recycled about this puppy. In fact, the project will create a huge amount of wasted fabric in the instruction boxes I will have to toss when finished. I rationalized this purchase in two ways. (Did you know you should also be excellent at rationalization if you are to be an urban homesteader?) One, I was shopping for fabric to make my own curtains when I came across these kits. Two, I think this will be an excellent learning experience and I will be able to make all the tote bags I want out of reclaimed fabric in the future.

Needing a quick project for my day off, I quickly unwrapped the kit and started scanning the instructions. First off I noticed that I am supposed to wash the fabric and line dry it. Well there's an evening lost right off. Plus, if I am going to be eco-friendly, I've got to wait until I have some other items to wash with it. Now this is looking like a project for my day off next week. But, as an urban homesteader I like planning ahead so this is OK.

I read further into the instructions and saw that I'm supposed to baste something. Now, my first craft and what really prompted my launch into urban homesteading is cooking. So I know how to baste a bird in the oven, but how do you baste fabric? I vaguely remember this word as a sewing term from my one quarter of home economics in junior high, but I was way more interested in why the girls weren't given projects that required power tools in shop the previous quarter. (I'm certain that bias has something to do with my fear of power tools.)

Thank god for the internet, any first generation urban homesteader's best friend. Apparently, to baste is to temporarily stitch together two pieces of fabric. You are supposed to use big stitches that can easily be removed later. The loose stitches help to keep the fabric together while you do other things to it - like sew a straighter line, sew other things to them etc. I think I'll have to try it to fully understand it, but that's the joy of a new undertaking on the urban farm.

Power Tools

It is my belief that every good urban homesteader should be as independent as possible. First and foremost, you must be comfortable with basic power tools. This not only reflects the romantic pioneer spirit that ought to accompany the homesteader, but can also save a ton of money. A "real" urban homesteader does not hire out her work, she uses her evenings and weekends to do the improvement projects and to create necessary garden art.

Really, the homestead tradition does spring from the need to be frugal anyway right? Grow your own food, it's cheaper. Build that chicken coop, you don't have to buy eggs. Only in this century does it also represent a counterculture, hip and avant garde lifestyle. If you have chickens running around your yard and you don't have some self-designed, chicken coop tour award-winning coop that you built yourself... well, you might just own chickens because you need free eggs. The fancy coop displays your knowledge of how you eat impacts your local economy and global warming. It is your testament to sustainability.

I diverge in order to avoid the disclosure I'm about to make. The reality is, I'm afraid of power tools. That's right, I have visions of losing a finger (or maybe more than one) to that circular saw in my garage. I've just learned what a chop saw is, how on earth will I avoid flinging wood into my eyes? (I'm quite certain a splinter could go around my glasses and into my eye and the user manual pretty much confirms this.) Oh of course I can use a power drill, but how will I ever make my own coldframe if I can't cut the damn boards to size? Frankly, should I use the power tools if I have to read the owner's manual?

Fortunately, I have a wife who knows how to use power tools. So far, despite the fact she never reads the saftey warnings that come with them, she has used power tools to help us replace part of a fence, put in new (bamboo of course) flooring, part of the baseboards and now part of a new deck. (Please ignore the fact that I have used "part" with all of these projects.)

Where does this leave me though? Am I an urban homesteader if most of the time these things are just my ideas and I constitute more "free labor" than builder? And, well let's face it, I sit in my yard on my lone day off and think about handmade solar dehydrators, a finished deck and baseboards, and a supersized cold frame. Now you know my dirty little secret.