5 basics for bringing real-life ‘Farmville’ to city living

Book Review: 'Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living'

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Book Review
Title: "Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living"
Authors: Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011; 304 pages; $16.95

America is becoming a nation of movements — a country of communities gathering together to change whatever it is they don’t like about the status quo or think could be done better.

One of those movements is the broad umbrella we could call sustainable lifestyles, which I’d say encompasses everything from residential solar energy that gets your home off the grid to the backyard chicken coops and beehives that have become trendy in cities big and small.

Fortunately, the members of this movement are inclined to document and share their experiences and learnings so that the rest of us can benefit from the media — books, pics, videos and diagrams — that they’ve produced.

One of the latest specimens of this inspirational and instructional genre is "Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living," by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume.

In "Urban Homesteading," Kaplan and Blume (longtime proponents and practitioners of urban homesteading in the San Francisco Bay Area) offer readers a tome as hearty and satisfying as the foods they recommend growing and preparing.

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The authors say that city practitioners of sustainability often work around the limitations of their surroundings and dwellings to focus on one or two elements. Urban Homesteading offers advice centering largely around five basic areas of sustainable living:

1. Plan. After briefly illuminating the dire straits in which we find ourselves with regard to climate change and fossil fuels, the authors make a case that instead of waiting for the government to take action, responsible and productive citizens can minimize the damage they personally inflict on the earth, and help boost its resilience to the damage that’s already been done.

Introducing readers to the basic tenets and principles of permaculture — the practice of living in a way that sustains itself over time, within the limits of nature — Kaplan and Blume walk readers through process of creating a personal sustainability plan. The goal? To "track inefficiencies of use and begin to remove them, step by step, from our lives."

The authors guide readers through the process of calculating things like their carbon output; waste generated; food, energy and water used; making them aware of the skills they will need and the time commitment required to live a sustainable lifestyle.

2. Working the land. "Start small," exhort the authors, as they educate readers about the process of experimenting with urban gardening and farming. Kaplan and Blume parse out the easy-to-grow foods that are ideal for a novice gardener’s first season, and specify which ones might be best to grow the next time around. They take a similar approach with tools, advising readers to buy the best tools they can afford but to buy no more than what they need — and ideally, to figure out how to share them with gardening neighbors or buy them used.

Throughout the chapters on growing food and tending livestock — yes, in the city! — the authors take every opportunity to foster a community-sharing ethic, including suggestions sprinkled throughout on projects amenable to being carried out in groups or rounds (e.g., first your house, then your neighbor’s) and a fairly detailed section on launching a community garden.

These sections are heavy on the color photos, diagrams, and detailed how-tos for everything from creating a seed ball to testing and preparing soil, and a myriad of other need-to-knows for those looking to grow and raise their food in an urban setting.

They’re also chock full of rallying cries like "turn your lawn into your lunch!" and provocative perspectives of working on yourself while you work on your surroundings, like using the 10 daily minutes it takes to execute one of the recommended methods of composting to serve as a 10-minute meditation on change by turning the pile as you ask yourself questions, like "What habit of mine would I like to compost?" and "What habit would I prefer?"

3. Food. Here, the authors cover everything from preserving foods at home (e.g., canning, freezing, brewing, and making cheese) to best practices for supporting your local farmer’s market and community-supported agriculture projects, to gleaning and foraging food from the "wilds" of your city.

One of the most novel and useful pages in the book is a three-year, line-item plan for transitioning your food practices from the realm of consumer-only to becoming a producer in your own right.

4. Light-footprint home. This wide-ranging series of chapters offers information that will meet readers wherever they are — or want to be — with respect to diminishing the footprint their physical home leaves behind. Kaplan and Blume offer everything from guides to natural building materials for ground-up construction to reducing the waste, water and energy your existing home consumes, a little or a lot.

5. Personal and community ecology. The final section of the book centers around taking care of yourself and the city or community in which you live, and offers a smattering of suggestions for replenishing the energy that is so often depleted by city life, from practicing yoga to creating a homegrown ‘guild’ of neighbors with whom you can join in sustainable living practices.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

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