In 1975, my parents left New York City for a tiny one-room cabin in rural New England. It was a textbook example of back-to-the-land Hippie idealism. Tucked away amongst hidden maples and pines, their little retreat was everything New York was not — wood stove, outhouse, a forested Eden to entertain their long-haired, grass-smoking friends. They lived in that cabin for ten happy years, punctuated by the ultimate bummer, my arrival. With me came the sober realization that children may require a bit more structure than their little commune could provide. So they packed up the Volvo and moved into the suburban valley below.
Since then, I’ve heard many stories from their youthful adventures, but the most frequently targeted recollection over the years has been the self-sufficiency and freedom they gained from their cabin’s expansive vegetable garden. To hear them tell it, growing their own food was the foundation upon which their pastoral retreat was built.
Ever impressionable, I’ve found myself craving a similar level of self-sufficiency in my own adult life. However, I’ve always felt limited by a habitude of apartment dwelling and a distaste for leaving the city. It wasn’t until I moved into a wonderfully sunny house in East Los Angeles that the opportunity seemed truly at hand. My change in living situation brought not only a vow to finally dive into food cultivation but also a uniquely millennial thought. It took my parents years of almanacs and neighborly advice to achieve their agricultural success. Could I, with the trove of information provided by the internet, attain those lofty heights in less time? Perhaps even surpass them? For the life of me, I couldn’t see why not.
The kind of back-to-the-land living my parents pursued is more generally called homesteading. As Mother Earth News points out, that’s a term whose meaning has shifted over time, but most modern definitions focus on the lifestyle’s emphasis on isolation and self-sufficiency, especially through food production. If your thoughts turn to Thoreau, you’re in the right ballpark. Unfortunately, it was a ballpark to which I was unwilling to buy a ticket. Self-sufficiency? Great! Isolation? Not so much. Enter urban homesteading.
UC Davis defines urban homesteading as “An urban household that produces a significant part of the food, including produce and livestock, consumed by its residents. This is typically associated with residents’ desire to live in a more environmentally conscious manner.” Now this was more like it, urban millennialism meets an idealized holdover from the baby boomers. Urban homesteading promised a way for me to grope for the nostalgia of my parents’ bygone years while continuing to reside in the city I’d come to call home. It also seemed zeitgeisty enough to have a wealth of instructional knowledge available online, a hypothesis which was confirmed by a quick Google search.
That search turned up a myriad of blogs reassuring me that my goal of growing a cornucopia of food from my tiny backyard was firmly within reach. In fact, the top result for “Urban Homesteading” was the studiously chronicled pursuits of a home located a mere twenty-minutes away. For those who believe in signs, this one was fifty-feet tall and painted in day-glow pink.
The blog in question, simply dubbed “The Urban Homestead,” details the pursuits of the Dervaes family in the creation of their “fully functioning urban farm.” The homestead boasts an annual haul of 6,000 pounds of organic produce as well as robust egg production, honey cultivation, and other bucolic mainstays. 90% of the family’s diet comes from their small plot of land beside the 210 freeway.
It’s probably not difficult to imagine my rapt attention as I read about the Dervaes’ success. I consumed post after post, scrolled endlessly through their rustic imagery, and even considered visiting the home, though I ultimately nixed the idea in a decision that was informed in equal parts by social anxiety and laziness.
Still, The Urban Homestead provided the fire that I needed to ignite my engine. The home seemed to represent exactly what I was looking for, a way to incorporate sustainability and a concern for the environment into my detached urban lifestyle. Motivated by my parents’ stories and an Instagram post extolling the virtues of “Just starting,” I took the plunge and made a trip to my local garden shop.
Plant nurseries are wonderfully fanciful places. If you haven’t been, I recommend you go immediately. If you want to most faithfully follow in my footsteps, I also recommend largely ignoring the advice of the knowledgeable staff-members you will find there. While the greens and herbs they recommend may be in season, they won’t make the same splashy entrance you hope to achieve from a tomato or pepper plant. Ignore the fact that the plants you want to grow will struggle in weather that is too cold for them. You are a pioneer.
Or just do what they say and enjoy a vastly better outcome from your impending months of hard work. But I digress.
After my visit to the nursery, it was time to get gardening. I dug. I planted. I fertilized. I watered. I obsessed over sun exposure. I mixed spray bottles of paprika-water to “organically protect from aphids” (it didn’t work). I scrolled through countless pages of online gardening tips. And when all else failed, I called my parents. You might not be surprised to hear that their decades of food-growing experience ultimately became a valued resource for my own horticultural pursuits. Go figure.
So just how successful were those pursuits once it came time to reap what I had sowed? Against all odds, not too bad. No, I didn’t end up sprouting a full urban farm that first year. In contrast to the Dervaes’ 6,000-pound annual harvest, my yield in pounds was probably closer to six. Still, that amounted to a fair few tomatoes and peppers plucked from the soil behind my house, and proudly were they plucked. Though any success that first year probably owed more to the forgiving nature of California’s sunny climate than any aptitude on my part.
Of course, while I was proud of my veggies, I gained much more than food from the experience. I gained humility. Humility to realize that urban food production is nothing new. My incessant Googling showed me that history is full of examples of urban gardening, such as Victory Gardens during World War II or community gardens in the inner cities of the 1970s. Even the Dervaes homestead was founded before I was born. The truth is that people, urban or not, have always sought a deeper connection with the food they consume. The thought that I could improve upon that legacy could be described charitably as hubris, or more accurately as arrogance.
I’m now in my third season as a backyard gardener, and things are looking up. Last year’s harvest was bigger and more varied than the first. Expectations are at record highs for the season to come. Three years in, having gained some of my most valuable knowledge from parents and friends, I can say that there’s a certain nuance to food cultivation that’s hard to gain from the internet. There’s probably a reason the idea of homesteading revolves around the idea of home. It’s the transfer of knowledge from those closest to you that often proves to be the most effective teacher of all.
So, no, I haven’t been able to match my parents’ abilities to grow food, though it’s my parents themselves who’ve provided the majority of my knowledge toward that pursuit. Ultimately, that seems appropriate, since our attitudes about food are tied so closely to those that came before us. My goals have been inspired by my parents’ idealism just as that idealism was a rebellion against the processed foods of the generation before them. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to another year of coaxing nourishment from the soil. At the very least, it makes for a good story. Maybe it’s one I’ll someday tell my kids.