Urban homesteaders and lawyers and bees, oh my!
My dad was a gardener. We lived on a small farm, but the philosophy of urban homesteading was how our family lived- we grew it, canned it, froze it, gathered it, repaired it, built it ourselves or did without. No one invented that, it’s just what you did. My dad planted a huge garden every year, and we grew far more than we could eat. He did that in order to make sure there was a lot of produce to fill the boxes we delivered in the middle of the night to widows, poor people and retired folks who had a hard time making ends meet. That wasn’t an outreach program, it’s just what you did.
How my urban homestead got started
Years later, after I finished college, got married and had a house of my own, I was finally ready to put in my garden. Except that my house wasn’t on 10 acres, it was a tiny city lot. Instead of cleaning the chicken coop and putting that on the garden, I had to search for a source of manure. Still, I knew what needed doing and began doing it. I wanted my children to know how to grow their own food, how to cook it fresh and preserve it for later. I put in a small garden in my nearly invisible-to-the-naked-eye backyard, and began growing as many vegetables as space permitted. The lack of space was a problem, but the biggest problem was that no one else in my neighbourhood was doing this. In fact, no one ever came outside! We’d lived and gardened there for 3 years without seeing some of the neighbours, ever. That bothered me most of all.
That’s when I tore up the side lawn to build large raised beds.The beds bumped up against the sidewalk all along one side of my property. Well, that got the neighbours’ attention. People came up and said,”Someone will take your vegetables!”. Splendid- that was exactly what I was hoping for! Within a few weeks the lettuces were up and growing, I had the trellises built for cucumbers, melons, squash and beans, and it was finally warm enough to plant out the tomatoes and eggplants. Because the neighbourhood I lived in was very ethnically mixed, I found seeds for a variety of unusual (to me) veggies, and grew bitter gourd, a bunch of Chinese greens, the Middle Eastern cucumber and the gorgeous purple Italian vining beans. Soon, I had neighbours walking by asking about the vegetables- what were they, whose were they, could they buy some? I labeled the plants, spent hours outside talking to anyone who’d stop by and explained that the food was for whoever wanted it.
Soon, people were waiting outside when I got up in the morning. We would weed and water before the sun got too hot, I’d start the next round of seedlings in flats and tend to them, and people began staying late to talk to each other. Two women, both from Lebanon, had lived next to each other for 3 years yet only met at my garden, and they became fast friends. Children in the neighbourhood liked to pick the cherry tomatoes and eat them still warm from the sun. Old Greek ladies began stopping by to pull leaves from a wild grape which grew up the side of my garage, and I began receiving plates of delicious fresh dolmades. This is how I became an urban homesteader, and why- because in the end, its all about building a community, and my garden on my first urban homestead grew both food and friendships.
How an urban homesteader and her new husband got bees in their bonnets
The one thing my first urban homestead lacked was a beehive. I’ve been collecting books and reading articles about bees for years. However, my yard was much too small to accommodate vegetables, dogs, kids and bees, so beekeeping remained a dream. Then, I remarried. While house-hunting with my fiance, I mentioned that if we had a large enough property we could raise bees. Now, New Hubby is adorable and loves the idea of gardening, although he is strictly a city person- but the instant I mentioned bees, he was head over heels in love with the idea! He began reading about bees, and we signed up for an excellent short course on hobby beekeeping. Armed with our newfound knowledge and a credit card, we bought two hives and two boxes of bees, and set out on the newest adventure in our quest to live more sustainably. The ride home with two boxes of irritated bees in the backseat of the minivan was interesting, but once installed in their new hives, our girls have been calm, amiable, and most important, hard-working. We were lucky, as this past summer was reportedly the best for honey production in years, but our first-year hives produced a fair amount of honey for us. As soon as we bottled the honey last fall, we made the rounds of the neighbours, thanking them for not panicking when we brought bees into an otherwise peaceful suburb, and giving them jars of beautiful fresh honey. In doing so, we also got the opportunity to talk to many of them about what we’re doing here, what urban homesteading is and why we feel so strongly about it. Maybe we haven’t made any converts, but we did get a lot of requests for veggies this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to grow much more than we need and will be able to send boxes of fresh produce over to the neighbours. Not because it’s outreach, but because it’s what you do.
What’s the big deal about being an urban homesteader?
It’s all about the community, to me. Sharing gardening tips, extra seeds and new curse words when the weather plays some capricious trick on a newly planted tomato bed is what makes urban homesteading so appealing. Growing my own food and teaching my children not only how but why we do this is important to me. It’s partly a way to pass on my dad’s legacy to the grandsons he never knew, and partly a way to show them how important it is to take care of each other. That’s why the notion of anyone trying to own the phrase ‘urban homesteader’ makes me angry. Urban homesteading is all about sharing- knowledge, tools if we live near each other, seeds by mail, and physical labour when needed. Trying to control the movement, taking credit for it and preventing others from being able to practice their livelihood is not a part of urban homesteading. Helping each other to improve is what it’s all about, not a big greedy grab for fame. The Dervaes family have suffered the biggest loss in this fracas. They have lost the admiration and respect of much of the urban homestead movement. They’ve lost the right to be a voice for any of us. Most important, they have lost the support of a huge group of wonderful, caring, sharing people. That’s a lot to throw away over a two-word phrase. I am an urban homesteader- and I am both proud of and humbled by the others in the movement that I’ve met over the past week. I’m going to be helping with the battle over the name, both by using my title proudly and by doing what I can to support the legal battle which is sure to follow. I’m going to help my fellow urban homesteaders because it’s just what you do.