Discover more from Brunette Gardens
How to homestead when you don't have a homestead
Life in the city, with and without chickens.
By Lisa Brunette
Possessing neither the tools nor the talent yourself, pay a crew to come in and fence your quarter-acre backyard in the city. The fence defines the space and gives you the illusion of privacy, but the truth is your neighbors can still look down on you from their balconies on both sides.
After storms blow in and level some of the mature trees in your neighborhood, chat up the tree chippers and invite them to dispose of the wood chips in a pile in your driveway. Spread this as mulch on top of cardboard on top of your grass lawn, smothering it. Six months later, broadfork the soil and plant vegetable seeds. Pray for rain.
Buy a set of rain barrels from your brother’s neighbor, who’s moving and doesn’t want to take it with him. Install it in your backyard and immediately wish it were taller so that gravity could turn the trickle of water coming from the hose into a more useful stream.
Purchase a freezer for the basement. Buy meat in bulk from a local farmer and store it there, hoping you never have to deal with a long-term power outage. Visit the farm and meet the cows you will eat.
Harvest chervil the first year, make pesto out of it, and turn lilac blossoms and rose petals into syrups, teas, and infused vinegar. Decide then that the rose bushes take up too much space for what they give you and remove them.
Plant more than a hundred native trees, bushes, flowers, and grasses, and when they self-seed and expand, realize you don’t have much room left for your vegetable patch. Believe it’s a good thing many of those natives are edible and medicinal, too.
Successfully start sourdough on your own, following the instructions in a book. Lose the start when it turns black and fuzzy in the back of the fridge. Start another. Lose that one when a flour company adds “enzyme” as an ingredient. Start a third as if you’re an old pro. Turn a Styrofoam cooler into a haybox cooker that doubles as a sourdough proofing drawer and feel like you’ve leveled up.
Spy a stand of bamboo in your neighbor’s yard. Offer to take some off her hands. Use it to build a squash tunnel, which collapses in the first big storm.
Grow many an herb, vegetable, and fruit despite losses and setbacks. Can tomato sauce. Laugh at yourself when the cat uses your bucket of stored potatoes as a litter box.
Realize that you’re washing your dishes by hand after running them through the dishwasher anyway and begin washing them all by hand to start. Buy a tub for this and use your dishwasher for storage.
Learn how to ferment, turning out jars of sauerkraut and preserved carrots, radishes, peppers, pickles, and even eggs. In the absence of a larder, experiment to see if you can keep fermented food in your basement, which stays above 55 degrees for much of the year. Find that the answer is “kind of.” Wonder if you can fit in a storage room, and if so, whether or not you can get a handyman to build it since you’re not handy.
In the absence of an actual greenhouse, try unsuccessfully to start seeds in a sunny basement window. Sigh when they grow spindly and the cat digs them up. Skip a year and then try to start seeds in an upstairs bedroom, where you can close the door to keep out the cat. Sigh when they grow spindly and die when you transplant them.
Buy a cheap greenhouse that collapses in the first big storm. Set it back up again only for it to blow up over your six-foot fence and clear across the parking lot next door during the second big storm. Toss its remnants into the dumpster.
Harvest fresh food from your garden continuously from April to December and feel good about that. Eat from your garden year-round when you count food you’ve put away in storage and feel good about that, too. Learn how to use a brake bleeder to suck the air out of your jars of dry goods, prolonging their shelf life.
While working in the garden one day, hear gunshots. Walk into the front yard to see cop cars roar up two houses down, officers hopping out with guns drawn. Run inside. After witnessing smash-and-grabs at the neighborhood pharmacy, hearing of a different, drive-by shooting at the end of the block, and consoling your hairstylist when her brother is murdered, hope this will all settle down when things go back to normal.
Decide it’s time to get chickens when the price of eggs soars to $7 a carton. You’ve been reading up on the subject for years and feel like an expert at this point, so you order five female chicks, which is just under your city council’s limit of six, and they must all be hens. Hire a handyman to build a mobile coop called the “chickshaw,” the design for which you get from a celebrity homesteader who wears a newsboy cap. It costs as much as your first car and won’t fit down your narrow garden paths. You have to coax the chickens to sleep inside it instead of in a tuft of comfrey in the run you’ve fenced off for them. At eight weeks, a predator slips in through the egg door and feasts on every last one of your feathered friends.
Stop to talk to your neighbor and notice his chickens. Ask how many he has. When he answers “six,” smile and nod as you mentally count at least ten that you can see from the front yard. Smile when you find cartons of eggs from him on your front porch the next day. Give him a big, fat bag of coffee you can no longer drink as a thank you.
Laugh when you hear roosters crowing with defiance each morning.
Start a Substack to chronicle your experience. When a celebrity food writer advises you to put “homestead” in the name of your Substack, after you’ve already paid your sister for a new logo that doesn’t say “homestead,” wonder if the food writer actually looked at any of your posts. Critique her salad-obsessed Substack, which you followed for a while until you couldn’t read about salad anymore. When she calls you rude in the comment section and both blocks and reports you, wonder why she can dish out but not take criticism and if all elites are like that when they’re new to a democratizing platform like this one.
Make friends withand because Erin and Lynn get you. Make friends with because weeds are herbs and with when she riffs on your going home series with her own take. Guest on ’s Dodcast and find that you’re self-censoring. Connect with because he is kind and accessible and because he’s as angry as you are but not afraid to express it.
Perfect a technique for making pectin-free jam when pectin makes you sick. Share it with your readers and make friends withbecause additives trigger his condition, too. When pasteurized milk makes you sick, purchase raw goat milk from a local farmer who lets you pick it up at the farmer’s market just a few blocks away. Use it and your neighbor’s eggs to make ice cream since there’s nowhere in the city you can buy ice cream that doesn’t contain additives. Wonder why you haven’t been doing this for years.
Ditch your supplements, which you’ve been taking in some form or another practically since birth, because you realize they’re probably triggering symptoms. Immediately feel better.
Wonder if society will ever go back to normal or if this “new normal” really is all you’re going to get.
Wonder if you should move to a rural area where you can keep dairy goats and raise more chickens.
Wonder if that’s just too crazy an idea for you to have now that you’re in your fifties.
Register your urban garden as a farm, one of only two in the whole city. Begin researching grants to pay for a greenhouse, electric fencing, a drip-irrigation system, and more. Realize you’ve missed all the deadlines.
Attend a homesteading conference and watch the meticulous, careful, respectful butchering of a pig and several chickens. Wonder if you could really do that yourself. Learn more about sourdough and fermentation. Feel superior in the area of gardening.
Think maybe you are, in fact, a homesteader after all.