The Urban Homestead

many hands at the speakeasy

Oh, boy this was fun. Christine Louise Berry organizes a series she calls The Speakeasy, and I’ll tell you below about the really great one that took place on Sunday. You’ll remember my mentioning Christine’s work earlier. She (the main force behind SmartGals) did that marvellous McArthur Park event with the fragments of plays to be found all over the park, and had the excellent taste to combine it with Mama’s Hot Tamales. A couple of months ago, at a party of hers (to celebrate car-independence in LA!), I met Erik Knutzen, with whom I ended up talking a great deal about lots of things because we seem to be on the same page on many things with regards biking and public transport (he’s part of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition), gardening and sustainability (he’s involved in a lot of land use issues for his day job). So we talked about lots of topics, from composting to the Velib system (and why Los Angeles has essentially already decided not to take that wonderful route, sadly).

Erik, with his partner Kelly Coyne, write a really great blog called Homegrown Evolution (excellent title), which is all about urban gardening, and they are passionate about getting more people to do gardening (as am I, you might have gathered). You’ve probably read my posts on gardening from time to time and thought that it isn’t for you since you’re in a big city in an apartment on the nth floor (where n is some integer greater than one or zero) with no access to garden space. I’ve occasionally mentioned things that you can do in terms of apartment gardening all the same, but since I’ve not said very much, you probably have not given it much thought.

urban homestead bookWell, if that, or something like it is the case, Erik and Kelly’s blog is for you. But even better (‘cos I’m old-fashioned, and am quite a fan of books), you can pick up their new book on the subject! It is called The Urban Homestead. After talking with Erik at the party back in June I cycled off to Skylight Books to see if it was there and they had a newly minted pile of them right there. So I got one and had a look and it is really excellent. I meant to blog it back then, but there was one thing and another and so forth… and then I thought I’d wait until Sunday. What happened on Sunday? Christine made Erik and Kelly the focus of the Speakeasy!

So I showed up there (it is held in the basement of a church in Los Feliz – so rabid fundamentalist atheists might want to chill out a little) at the appointed time, gave the password at the door, and got my $5 discount for not driving. I felt guilty and sympathized with some of my friends (who I was pleasantly surprised to see there – Aimee Bender and a group who car-pooled over from much further away) who could not get a discount even though they carpooled (Ahem!, -Ok, I can see that’s harder to provide evidence of though-)) and we all went down the steps to the dark (relatively) space.

It was rather excellent, I have to say. There was a string band playing in the corner  Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Triple Chicken Foot), and tables with coffee, lemonade, and snacks of various sorts. Lots of people were milling around chatting with each other, and right in the middle were Erik and Kelly, getting people to dig their hands into the dirt and plant! What were they planting? They were using orange peel halves as containers within which to sprout garlic. You can do it on your window sill, and get tasty garlic sprouts for your five minutes of work.


I took some available-light photos to give you a sense of what was going on. Don’t count on them for forensic clarity. Amusingly, I was taking a shot or two of the planting table, and was conscious that I was getting in the way of a guy who seemed to be an official photographer, so I stopped and apologized. He said it was fine, since he was trying to get a shot of me taking the photo, and then I recognized him – It was David Markland from La Metblogs! (I’d met him at the LA Bloggers Live event a while back, you’ll recall). His girlfriend was helping Christine produce the event, and (now I remember) I think she was involved in the MacArthur Park event too. Seems all my circles of friends are intersecting. Anyway, in return I took a (blurry) snap of him taking a photo of the same scene. I wonder if he’ll post about this event too?

planting table at the speakeasy results from the planting table at the speakeasy planting table at the speakeasy

(Click for larger views. In the middle are Matthew and Laura, pleased with their results.)

Here’s a little video giving you (I hope) a sense of the setup.

After a while, Christine clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention, introduced the speakers, who proceeded to do an excellent presentation of some of the simple urban homesteading practices they want to introduce people to, along with other tips on foraging around the city for food (I’ve blogged about the Fallenfruit people before, right? Free produce growing around the city…), gathering tasty herbs in the park for salad, or even annexing a bit of sidewalk to grow things on, or joining a community garden. Erik demonstrated a number of useful practical things (actually, lots of nice examples of basic everyday science being put to good use in making self-watering containers, knowledge about what plants need to be healthy, and so forth. And this is without even getting to things you can do simply with solar energy, such as cooking directly using sunlight…)


I highly recommend the book, and their blog. The book is really so much in tune with a lot of what I care about – people, life, doing things yourself instead of robotically grabbing everything pre-wrapped off the store shelves, re-using instead of constantly disposing, getting involved, and being aware of the ebb and flow of your environment (urban or otherwise) and how it interacts with you and vice versa. It is not more of the somewhat abstract hand-wringing about the environment that we see so much of, that (while important to be aware of and be passionate about) makes it so easy to remain uninvolved in since they are largely concerned with big policy issues, melting glaciers, rapid industrialization in China, and so forth. Instead, it is about local things you can do. As local as your window sill. As local as how you get around your neighbourhood. As local as what you put into your mouth.

An important aspect of all of this (and of great interest to me down to the core) is that this is all about community, and as such is a microcosm for how we ultimately should operate when working on the global problems too. None of this amounts to anything much if it is not coordinated with us learning to form local communities, and really stand in the way of the tendency to isolate ourselves so much from each other while living in the city, especially one so car-centric. Nobody has a huge amount of land right in the middle of the city (or at least, I don’t know any people like that), and few have time to explore all the things you can do in the urban homestead mode (not just growing a few herbs on the window sill, or vegetables in a self-watering container, but how about making beer, or even keeping chickens, or bees!?), but a lot can be done by doing it together, and trading ideas and experiences, and trading your edible results with each other – just sharing life with your fellow human being across the way. Wonderful.


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14 Responses to The Urban Homestead

  1. Jude says:

    What I enjoy about posts like this one is that you all appear to live consciously–conscious that small decisions affect the big picture. It’s nice that community is possible in the big city. Every autumn hunting season, when students find out I’m a vegetarian, they argue with me about what a moronic decision it is. “How can you live without meat?” they ask. I point out that I’ve successfully lived without meat for 38 years, but somehow they expect me to keel over. I know the history of every square inch of the land where I live now, from the oil spills near my father’s shop to the 15 pigs that lost their lives in a flood back in the 1920s and rotted long ago into the soil of the hillside. My botanist daughter taught me the name (and uses) of the pernicious vine my grandfather planted to feed his bees. In a city, though, I’d worry a lot about the toxins in the soil you purchased from previous inhabitants. But I’m sure you’ve all had it checked, right?

  2. Clifford says:

    There’s no particular reason that a city soil patch need be any more toxic than a patch elsewhere. It really depends upon where your soil is. What sort of neighbourhood it was, and what sort of use the land was put to before. If you know the history of your neighbourhood, and the piece of land in question, that helps a lot. Of course (as Erik and Kelly pointed out when this issue was raised), you have relatively little knowledge of all the stuff that you’re ingesting from all the food you buy in the supermarket, so this issue shouldn’t stop you.

    There’s a lot you can do to soil to improve it, and sidestep the issue entirely. See all my posts on compost. Also, see Erik and Kelly’s book about raised beds. Most of the soil I’m growing in wasn’t there when I first came. I’ve added so much and changed it so much.



  3. Clifford says:

    Also, thanks for your observation about the local aspect. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of people sitting around pontificating about the things that need to be done, but who do little to change their own behaviour to help get these things done. The cry is usually that governments should “do something”, that there is nothing significant that the individual can do, and it is left at that. I think that in almost all things, acting locally connects to the global. Getting out and walking that extra mile, or buying some locally grown food in season, is just as important as big ideas about how to transform energy or agriculture policy and so forth. In fact, the latter (policy change) is meaningless without the former (real actions), and it is the example of the former that can help shape policy.

    So yes… Local, local, local, and good old fashioned community.



  4. Katie says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. That sounds like a great book! I once tried to grow vegetables on the balcony of a city apartment and failed so miserably that I completely gave up on the idea. I can’t wait to read “The Urban Homestead” to get some ideas for how to make it actually work.

  5. That looks like fun! And thanks for the recommendation. I occasionally look things up on the Self Sufficientish page. But I really love the community aspect to what you’re describing. I do keep my herbs, and I was once part of a “soup swap” (where a group of friends would take it in turns to make a different soup every week or two, and then dispense it to everyone else in the group in wee containers). Of course, living in a shared flat, one has a pre-made community, so students are lucky that way.


  6. kim says:

    Regarding what you buy in the supermarket, if it’s organic, then it’s safe no?

    and regarding soil, what if the soil is radioactive? what if there is an unusually high content of heavy metals which the plant you’re growing soaks up?

    These are my concerns when it comes to soil outdoors in my garden, or anywhere else for that matter.

  7. Clifford says:

    Well, sure, you can go on instead trusting in an anonymous farmer thousands of miles away to worry on your behalf about soil, pesticides, bacteria, heavy metals, radioactivity (?!!?), and so forth.

    There are several good books on farming, and also organic issues. I recommend looking at some. Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a wonderful example. “Organic=safe” is an oversimplification, since it brings people to the far too hasty conclusion “non-organic=non-safe”. Read for more. It is good to know where your food comes from. A few meters from your back door is a wonderful place to have it come from. Failing that, you owe it to yourself (at least) to know exactly what you are entrusting others to feed you with. You can then maybe make some informed choices. Growing stuff in your garden, where you can easily find out what’s in your soil, or replace it with better soil (as I said above), is a wonderful thing. Assuming it is problematic without even trying to do something to learn more, while at the same time assuming that the food industry has your best interests in mind, is… an odd choice.



  8. kim says:

    I will certainly look into that book, but there is one other thing which bothers me. I am in the UK where the climate is not warm all year round like in california. Now the thing that bothers me is this:
    Can I possibly be 100% self sustaining and grow ALL of the food I need to survive? Because if I can only grow certain items like salads, tomatoes(seasonal) then does that mean I must give up my bananas and papayas in the middle of winter at breakfast, or eating rice and quinoa all year round?

    Even in a warm climate such as California, would it then be possible to be 100% self sufficient? I still think it would be very hard.

  9. Clifford says:


    Nowhere in the main post or in any other post on this blog, or, as I recall, in the books I discussed did anyone talk about being 100% self-sufficient. That is really not the point.

    I should mention at this point that I am from the UK and know from experience that you can grow a huge amount in gardens to enjoy the pleasure of feeding yourself directly from your own hands work. It is a land of gardeners far more than California is. Actually, from my own listening to the UK news and current affairs while here in Los Angeles, I’ve noticed that recently there’s been a lot of discussion there encouraging people to grow more things to eat, whether on a farm or in a cosy flat in Stamford Hill.



  10. Did my mentioning the SelfSufficientish site cause confusion? If you check out the site, you’ll see that their goal is not to be 100% self-sufficient.

    I started keeping herbs not to be self sufficient, but simply because I liked having something green and growing in my flats (which, even if they have had gardens, have not been gardens I am allowed to actually dig around and garden in), and they make my flat smell lovely and basil-y.

    But growing herbs is also rewarding, as Clifford said — I like know that when I make pesto or mint tea, it’s from my very own plants, which I have grown and looked after from when they were tiny wee things.

    (Plus, although it’s not my main motivation, packets of fresh herbs are expensive, and when I buy a packet I always end up wasting half of it since I simply cannot eat a packet’s worth of thyme in a couple of days, however many stews I am prepared to make. So having a thyme plant is much more cost-effective and less wasteful).


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