Book Review
Title: "The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City"
Authors: Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Publisher: Process Media, 2010; 330 pages; $16.95

My town, Oakland, Calif., claims to be the epicenter of the urban gardening movement. The urban part is pretty self-explanatory. What is surprising is that it’s an everyday occurrence to overhear conversations at Oakland neighborhood coffee shops about backyard beehives, chickens and goats.

Oakland ranks near the top of American cities when it comes to vegetable consumption. Wanna find the average 30-something Oaklander on a Saturday morning? Your best bet is the sprawling, certified-organic Grand Lake Farmers Market (though, admittedly, the popular Belgian waffle truck, the rotisserie chicken trailer and the knife sharpener stand are not, strictly speaking, organic "veg").

My home sits on a quarter-acre lot; standard in middle America, but massive in my city — and an intimidating prospect to consider planting. I’m also borderline-obsessed with the idea of growing what I eat, sustaining a home-grown, organic, plant-heavy, waste-light diet, all just a few miles from the financial district of San Francisco.

It’s tough to envision and execute on converting my quarter acre of weeds into a quarter acre of orderly urban farmland. And then, there’s this: I was in my 20s before I realized you could make waffles at home. I’d only ever known the frozen. No joke.

So, how on earth was I going to go from that to the doyenne of where my dogs can run wild alongside bees, chickens and goats, where my compost nourishes my homegrown food, and where my own personal beehive pollinates my own plants?

So, I was excited to lay my hands on "The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City," by Los Angeles homesteaders Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, part of Process Media’s Self-Reliance Series.

I had hopes for a basic guide that rendered this daunting task a whole lot more doable; "The Urban Homestead" did not disappoint. It also became very clear from the jump that Coyne and Knutzen were writing for me, but not only for people with a big yard in which to plant their food.

Urban homesteading, by the authors’ reckoning, is definitely a real estate issue, but they exhort readers to be flexible in how they think about the real estate it takes, reimagining apartment windows, front yards, vacant lots and even fire escapes as their own urban farms: "The truth is that you can grow a hell of a lot of food on a small amount of real estate. You can grow food whether you’re in an apartment or a house, whether you rent or you own."

But it’s not only about real estate and food — Coyne and Knutzen include generating your own water, power and even self-reliant transportation in their broader definition of what homesteading can be. At the same time, they invite readers to take as much — or as little — of their homesteading advice as they like, explaining: "we homestead at our own pace, to suit ourselves."

Chapter 1 — Start Your Own Farm — offers basic concepts, strategies and practical principles for growing your food in an urban setting, both on small (container gardening) and large (guerrilla gardening in vacant lots, for example) scales, and everything in between.

Chapter 2 provides detailed, user-friendly instruction on Essential Projects for the new urban gardener: starting a compost pile, outdoors if you have the space; or with worm bins if you live in an apartment or condo; mulching; installing drip irrigation and raised beds and controlling pests organically, to name just a few of the many projects covered.

This lengthy chapter is so meaty in substance (although perhaps fruitful would be a more appropriate descriptor!) and answered so many beginner’s questions I didn’t even know how to articulate, it is well worth the cover price of the book, several times over.

Urban Foraging — looking for and eating wild-growing food in the city — is the subject of Chapter 3, which also covers the fine art of dumpster diving.

Chapter 4 is all about that holy hallmark of the serious urban homestead, Keeping Livestock in the City (hint: think chickens, not cattle). Oh — another hint that is also a real estate knowledge tidbit: Roosters are illegal in most urban areas (due to their crowing), but you don’t need them unless you want chicks — hens will lay without a rooster.

Chapter 5 — Revolutionary Home Economics — is much less socialistic than it sounds; it’s all about preserving foods, making homemade beer and wines, breadmaking and housecleaning — all with natural, homemade products.

It also offers a fabulous section on house and apartment hunting for the wannabe homesteader. The final two chapter names are utterly descriptive: Be Your Own Utility: Water and Power for the Urban Homestead, and Transportation.

"The Urban Homestead" is a wonderfully simple, entertaining and plain English guide to the need-to-knows and what-not-to-dos of running a self-sufficient household in an urban area. It is beautifully designed and compact in a way that belies the massive amount of utility it contains; very like the small carbon footprint of the joie de vivre-packed lifestyle it describes.

I imagine my copy will sit on my kitchen counter for years, and I visualize that it will probably collect a smudge of soil here and there, or a drop of strawberry preserves over time. And that, I’d suspect, is just as the authors would have it.

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