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How to Farm in the City; Urban Homesteading

Updated on September 11, 2014
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

a full pantry was a source of pride for the urban farmer during the World Wars
a full pantry was a source of pride for the urban farmer during the World Wars

Usually when we think of a homestead or a small farm we think of a hand hewn cabin in the wilderness or an old farmhouse on at least 30 acres. This is not always so and, in reality, most of us could "farm" right where we are now, using the resources we have available to us. We don't because of our fears, our misconceptions and our lack of education on the subject. Perhaps some of us would even admit that we like the idea of growing our own food better than all of the work involved in actually doing it!

However, families across the United States, as well as other countries, are breaking the ground for urban homesteading. Watch this interesting video of one family in California that is not only growing their own food but making money at home by selling what they produce to local restaurants.

Profitable farm on 1/5th of an acre!

everyone was encouraged to grow their own food for the war effort
everyone was encouraged to grow their own food for the war effort

A Long History

Wouldn't you like to enjoy that kind of self-sufficiency? I sure would!

Actually this is not a new concept. Kitchen gardens were a matter of necessity in cities long before the advent of grocery stores. Most homes had a small courtyard area where they kept a garden and perhaps a few chickens and goats. If they had a bigger space a dairy cow might be added. As the United States grew towns formed around common areas that were used to graze livestock during the day.

Victory Gardens

During World Wars I and II Victory Gardens cropped up all over the world. It was essential to send as much commercially grown food as possible to the battlefields to sustain the military so patriotic citizens were encouraged to grow their own food. Rabbits, chickens, ducks, and goats were kept on suburban plots to take care of the family's needs. It was a source of pride for the homemaker to display the fruit of her labor on the pantry shelves- jars and jars of home canned fruit, vegetables, and even soups and meats.

Try to imagine the flutter and fuss among local Homeowners Associations today! In some places it is against the rules to even have an outside clothesline!

Common Victory Garden Vegetables

During this time produce that was commonly grown included carrots, leaf lettuces, spinach, peas, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers,onions, strawberries, and corn. In the south okra and eggplant might be added to that list, right along with black eyed peas and butter beans. The gardeners would till up any available space, eschewing rose bushes in favor of vegetables.

After all, who wants to pick thorns out of their teeth?

Front yards, back yards, and side yards were tilled and planted, as were empty lots where whole neighborhoods gathered to plant community gardens. It developed not only a local insurance policy against hunger but built relationship and esprit de corps among the neighbors.

A Return to Self Sufficiency

This is still a sound philosophy today. This is an age of questionable food supplies, poor business practices, a shaky economy, and the desire to not only be more self sufficient but to live more gently on the earth. We can learn a lot from our parents and grandparents about the way they survived during hard times.

Canning food is not difficult and it is as rewarding now as it was then. Being able to pick a juicy tomato, still warm from the sun, that has been grown on your very own property, and then take that tomato and process it into the homemade catsup that your children slather on their homemade french fries is a very nice feeling. Very nice indeed. There is the sense of having some control over your destiny, odd as that may sound.

Victory Gardens were created even in the smallest spaces, as in this Virginia Trailer camp.
Victory Gardens were created even in the smallest spaces, as in this Virginia Trailer camp.

Where to Start with Urban Farming and Self-Sufficiency?

It is important to start small and work your way into more extensive urban farming because it is easy to bite off more than you can chew and become overwhelmed. It's easy to give up when you feel that way so that you never really achieve your goals.

Take Note of Your Space

Do you have a yard big enough for a garden? Are you going to need to garden in containers? Look at your space carefully and creatively, and then assess your needs.

Square Foot Gardening is an excellent resource. This year, because of several difficult situations I just planted seed right in organic soil bags, putting a couple of holes in the bottom for drainage and planting through holes in the top. This is not my favorite way to garden but the green beans will be delicious in a few weeks and it will help financially. Use what you have.

Do Your Research

Read and make notes of what has worked for other people. Don't reinvent the wheel! Other people have done the same thing you want to do. Read their experiences and see what you can learn from them.

Check with Local Governments

Check with the Almighty Neighborhood Association if you have one. It is also a good idea to check with your town about permits, ordinances, and other laws that could affect you. There is nothing worse than the city coming in and telling you your tomatoes are a code violation just as the first bright red, juicy orb is ready to be picked!

The Mighty Mini

Consider miniature sizes. Everything from apple trees to goats comes in small sizes now. We raise Nigerian Dwarf Dairy goats for their profuse milk and small size. There are diminutive cows and petite sheep as well. Even if you have a small plot of land you should be able to get something.

My daughter at a local goat show with our best doe. The doe is full grown, about the size of a large dog, and gives 3 qts of milk a day for about 4 months and then 1 qt for the next 5 months.
My daughter at a local goat show with our best doe. The doe is full grown, about the size of a large dog, and gives 3 qts of milk a day for about 4 months and then 1 qt for the next 5 months.

Consider Expenses

If you plan on getting animals consider all of the expenses that come with them.Vet bills, feed, fencing, housing...even problems with the neighbors should be taken into consideration. Allowing your chickens to free range is great but they will still need supplimentary feed. They will need shelter and protection from predators, as well as fresh water every day. Larger animals will need even more care and be more expensive. Count the cost before you order those cute Golden Laced Wyandotte Chicks.

Your Time Investment

Consider the time you have to give to the project. Are you willing to give up your weekend football games to weed? Go to work exhausted because your doe had trouble kidding the night before? Even small urban farms have big farm challenges and troubles.

Get the Family Involved

Enlist the help of the whole family. It is hard to do on your own. If no one is behind you then you'll get burnt out and begin to resent all of the work involved.

Urban Homestead:Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City

The Urban Homestead (Expanded & Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series)
The Urban Homestead (Expanded & Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series)

This is not so much a how to book as it is a "where to begin" book. This friendly guide has an overview of pretty much everything you'll need to know to become an urban homesteader from gardening to keeping chickens


Expand Slowly as You Gain Experience

As you get more experience in gardening and animal husbandry you can move further into the farming lifestyle, knowing your own strengths and limitations.

As you grow more of your own vegetables you can try different varieties and sell the excess to neighbors, small grocers and restaurants, bringing in a little profit. If you decide to keep goats you can use the excess milk in soaps that you might sell on the Internet. Angora rabbits can be raised for their fiber, and some people raise rabbits for meat. With the concern about ethical farm practices people will eagerly buy wholesome fresh eggs from chickens that live like chickens rather than are a product as in a commercial operation.

Try to think outside the box and move ahead with confidence. Do or do not do..there is no try.


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    • grinnin1 profile image


      6 years ago from st louis,mo

      Bookmarking! Thank you for all the useful information. I am a "wanna be" but have had difficulty with my quest for a self sustaining garden of any type. However, it's almost March in St. Louis and I've got my compost pile ready to try again. We'll see. Thanks again and I will visit frequently!

    • Jilltravel profile image


      6 years ago from Indiana

      This is such a great Hub! I completely agree that returning to self sufficiency is incredibly important. Several of my relatives has been canning since they were kids. On a different note, I really like the way you organized your thoughts throughout this article. I recently took a food writing class and hope to improve my writing through this opportunity. I look forward to learning from you as I follow your Hubs! Thanks for sharing this information with us! :)

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 

      6 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      I agree that one of the most important things is to start slow, so you don't get overwhelmed by the time commitment, the amount to learn and the expenses. Done slowly and consistently, it can be very rewarding, and save money. I have to constantly remind myself to take baby steps, and that I shouldn't be so impatient with my (slow) progress!

    • LittleHomestead profile image


      6 years ago from Illinois

      Great! We moved to a place where we can have chickens and a big garden...really loving it!

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 

      6 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      Nice post. I like to read sustainable living ideas for people living in cities.

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 

      7 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      I'm glad you mentioned giving up entertainment for weeding.

    • profile image

      Gardening Vegetables 

      8 years ago

      City farming is a cute idea, and it would be a surprise for a lot of people to learn how much vegetables one can grow using for example only containers (if you don't have space for a garden).If you're new to gardening - always start small with some easy to grow vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, greens and lettuce.

    • Dorsi profile image

      Dorsi Diaz 

      9 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

      Great resource Marye! I will be learning a lot about community gardening the next few months. I have started a new garden plot for our church members in a local community garden. It is 600 sq. ft. so we will be able to grow quite a lot. The idea is to teach church members and their families abour sustainable gardening and also serve as "therapy"

      I am quite looking forward to it.

      Thanks for the informative hub. Thumbs up!

    • michellemoseley profile image


      9 years ago from New Hampshire

      I love gardening. I have a limited amount of space, so large containers work for me. I love to make my own salsa, so I at the very least grow enough stuff to make that. Great tips. Thanks, Michelle

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      It's great to see urbanites take control of their lives and make changes towards food security, self-sufficiency and independence. I know that reading the Dervaes website at and has inspired me to look at things differently and start seeing what is possible where I am now. The family purportedly coined the word "urban homesteading" years ago (early on around 2001 I think because that's about how long I have been reading their journal). This amazing family has literally "written the book" on urban homesteading by walking down the sustainable path and have become the model urban homestead for so many of us who want to follow in their steps. They have made me see (and now others ) that it is possible to do something without moving out of the city. It's good to see that their longtime outreach efforts and inspirational lives have had made such an impact on the lives of others. Check out their amazing journal at and be inspired to be the change by living the solution.

    • johnr54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 

      10 years ago from Texas

      My father grew up on a farm, and he now lives in town but gardens about an acre, and they put up galllons of canned goods and fill a couple of chest freezers every year. I hope I still have that kind of energy when I'm in my 70's.

    • jim.sheng profile image

      Dalriada Books Ltd 

      10 years ago from UK

      My father was a village teacher in a mountainous village in southern China, but he spent more time on farming than on reading books, and had been working on field more than a normal farmer did. After he was retired, he moved to town, now he is living in a kind of terrace house, but he soon found a fertile corner around PEOPLE'S SQUARE (you know every city has a PEOPLE’S SQUARE similar as Tiananmen Square in China) in the town centre, he works on that corner, produces any vegetables and fruits except for watermelon, because too many people walking around the people's square, usually watermelon will be stolen before half mature.

    • profile image

      Sheryl @ 

      10 years ago

      Far too many people spend their lives wishing, waiting, and wanting a homestead. I too was one of them. Living on a small city lot you feel as if none of your dreams will ever be realized due to money and circumstance. Then one day I awoke to the possibliities. I think my grape vines came first. I wanted a plant to screen my front porch from the neighbors just across the drive. I found some grapevine plants at my local garden shop and planted them. All I had hoped for was some big viney leaves, but what I got instead was 25 pounds of grapes, which I made into some wonderful jelly! I was hooked.

      I now have dwarf fruit trees, pots of herbs, tomatoes and a backyard flock of three laying hens that keep my family in fresh organic eggs! The City Biddy Hen House coop design works so well, I now sell the building plans on-line! I hope to add other build-it-yourself plans for urban homesteaders and others as well.

      Adding livestock to the urban homestead makes the enjoyment even greater and the compost pile even richer. Don't wait any longer - dig into an urban homestead today!

    • Lela Davidson profile image

      Lela Davidson 

      10 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

      How wonderful. This is my fantasy to one day have at least a vegetable garden! I need to start small, maybe tomatoes only. One day... I know, do or do not do. Right now it's do not do, but someday... Thanks for the wonderful resources. Maybe this will push me over the edge into someday!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I couldn't agree more!

    • cgull8m profile image


      10 years ago from North Carolina

      Another great Hub Marye, I would like to do more of the same. It is nice you are introducing this concept to your children. Cheers.


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