Archive for category Urban Homestead

Newsflash: Midtown Manhattan not the best place to set up an urban homestead.

by wilhelmja on Flickr Some rights reserved.

Last Week, Apartment Therapy posed a Good Question to its masses:  What are the best cities for young, urban homesteaders on a budget?  There were over 70 responses to the question, extolling the virtues of various chicken-coop friendly cities.  The rust-belt featured prominently, with Pittsburgh taking the lead and Detroit (a personal favorite) coming in a close second.  But the rapturous descriptions of Buffalo, Minneapolis (my hometown), Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even Dallas, made me want to jump in the car for an epic road trip to see what the hell these people are up to out there!

Needless to say, Manhattan didn’t feature high in the budget-friendly urban homesteading category.  There were a couple of shout-outs to Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, not Park Slope), but it goes without saying that NYC isn’t exactly teeming with inexpensive outdoor space.  That is not to say it isn’t urban farming friendly, what with upwards of 25,000 acres suited for exactly that purpose and rooftop farming on the rise.  Such is the topic of next week’s Urban Agriculture Conference at the Horticultural Society of New York.  On Friday, March 16th, the Society will be addressing the issue of urban farming: is it merely a trend? The kind that goes hand in hand with an economic recession? Or does it reflect a deeper shift in how we view our food production?  The keynote speaker will be Thomas Fox, author of Sustainable Living in your Backyard, your Community, and in the World, who will talk about the upsurge in urban farming in an historical context.  Afterward, there will be a Q&A with an impressive panel including Annie Novak and Britta Riley, discussing various community projects specific to New York City.

It was also about one year ago that the fracas over the term Urban Homesteader blew up the web (at least the part of the web I hang around).  Since then, there has been an increase in discussion about all things related to raising food in an urban environment and has had me thinking about what that term actually means. By definition, it is an alternative lifestyle. And of course, there are different degrees of urban – there is the urban of Novella Carpenter (my hero), raising pigs, ducks and chickens in her decidedly gritty Oakland neighborhood.  And the Urban of Harriet Fasenfest (another hero) in Portland, Oregon, using the confines of her city lot to sustain her family. And then there is midtown Manhattan: the end of the road on the urban spectrum.

Clearly, I find this topic compelling. What does it mean to participate in urban homesteading in the context of high-rises and limited outdoor space?  Does growing a few plants in your apartment, composting your building and making your own deodorant qualify?  I’m guessing probably not. There is not much about my life that is alternative: we are your run-of-the-mill two-working-parent family trying to subsist in the center of the largest metropolitan area in the country.  We’re busy. Manhattan is about convenience. About delivery. Some days it feels overwhelming. But despite my back-to-the-land fantasies, I love being part of this urban community and exploring ways to incorporate the values of the urban homesteaders into the laboratory of my tiny apartment and busy schedule.  I think it is about examining our routines and questioning our consumption and I am inspired by the fact that it’s a growing topic of conversation in general. How many of you are out there, working 9 to 5 and doing some kind of kooky, sustainable project the other 9-5?  Urban folk, how are you changing up your food gathering and production?  I’m not talking big projects, but small ones – and I would love to hear from you!

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Moving Up the Urban Food Chain

With all this talk of composting, why don’t we move up the food-chain a bit and talk about all the things that happen to food before it ends up in your compost bin?  Food gathering in this country is complex, to say the least, and I suppose it would be safe to say that the majority of the food gathering that goes on in this country happens via the supermarket following a food chain that looks a lot like this charming yet disturbing flow chart created by Rahul Kamath:

Crazy, right?  But even if one tries to minimize dependence on this model by limiting grocery store shopping in lieu of Community Supported Agriculture and Farmer’s markets, it can’t be totally avoided. We live in Manhattan.  It’s an island.  Everything in our kitchen had to be brought here one way or another (see nos. 3, 5, 7, and 9 on the diagram).  That is, unless we were to grow it right in our proverbial “back yard”.  So, what would it take to support our family of four locally?  Well, according to The Remote Gardener, about 2 acres!

Now, we don’t even have 2 square feet of outdoor space, let alone 2 acres, so renegade survivalism is out of the question.  If you live in a city, you are inevitably dependent on a larger system to provide you with food. The question is: does it have to be the system in the diagram above?  What are the alternatives?  Is it possible to grow enough food right here in the five boroughs to support a population of 8 million?  That, of course, remains to be seen, but the answer is sure to lie in some combination of rooftop gardens and vertical farms, as in the idea described by Dickson Despommier in this video:

Of course, Despommier’s vertical farm is still theoretical and has its detractors, but it is an extremely compelling idea and you can see designs for what the buildings would look like here.  Wouldn’t NYC be that much more gorgeous if it was sprinkled with giant greenhouses?  What better way to put to use all of those crazy glass highrises in Manhattan and Brooklyn built during the recent real estate boom, many of which now appear to be vacant. Would it be possible to build a “mixed use” building that both houses people and feeds them?

The Living Skyscraper designed by Blake Kurasek

While vertical farms are visionary, a number of actual working rooftop farms have sprouted up (sorry!) in Brooklyn and Queens. While there aren’t nearly enough to feed 8 million people, developments in the past few years have been inspiring.  Here are a few of the biggest:

  • Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a non-profit organization that runs a 6.000 square foot farm in Greenpoint Brooklyn that was designed and installed by Goode Green and is run by founding farmers, Annie Novak and Ben Flanner.  It is run by interns and volunteers and hosts a number of community educational programs. It’s produce supplies a CSA, area restaurants, and a local farmer’s market.
  • Brooklyn Grange is the largest commercial rooftop farm in the world with a 40,000 square foot farm in LIC, Queens and a new 45,000 square foot addition opening this year in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Although they are a privately owned enterprise, they run a number of volunteer and educational programs and supply food to local markets.
  • Gotham Greens is the newest addition to the Brooklyn landscape having installed rooftop greenhouses to grow food year-around in a hydroponic environment.  Started in 2011, their farm supplies area supermarkets, including Whole Foods.

Brooklyn Grange Image © Cyrus Dowlatshahi

Last Fall, Mayor Bloomberg announced a Green Building initiative as part of his ambitions PlanNYC program that includes rooftop gardens and farms. I wonder what it would take to green the rooftop of my building?

In the meantime, I will go micro-farming with my window garden, experimenting with what can be grown indoors. There are a number of things we can try to grow ourselves that would supplement our food gathering, especially now that we have a WindowFarm. This is what we plan to experiment with this year:

  • Herbs of all kinds
  • Mushrooms
  • Pea shoots
  • Tomatoes
  • Kale
  • Ginger
  • Onions

Of course, this experiment will not even come close to meeting our actual food requirements.  Even if we manage to miraculously produce two healthy heads of Kale, we’d still need about 48 more to cover what we consume in a year.  But it will be fun, and give my children some idea of where food comes from.

What are you growing indoors?

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Windowfarm Update:

After my last failed attempt at starting seeds for my Windowfarm, I had only one set of grow plugs and a few seeds left, so I decided to step it up for round two and invest in grow lights (they came in a box helpfully labeled “GROW LIGHTS!” which caused the front desk staff to raise their eyebrows when we picked it up in the lobby).  But lo and behold, they work!  At first there were just a few sprouts – the arugula is very eager.  But with 16 hours of indoor light a day and the near constant spraying of the sponges in this dry weather, we now have tiny sprouts of kale, tomatoes, shishitos, cilantro, parsley, arugula and basil.  It’s really amazing to watch something this closely and now I’m afraid I will be bereft if they die on me.  But I’m optimistic for a 2012 full of indoor bounty.

Happy New Year!

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Adventures in Windowfarming

Last May, I took a course at 3rd Ward the title of which I could not resist.  Urban Food Production for the Landless is a workshop taught by Brooklyn Homesteader, Meg Paska.  The course covered all of the things one can grow indoors in a small urban space, including sprouting beans, starting seeds, making edible pea-shoot terrariums, and – most intriguing – growing mushrooms in coffee grounds.  Although I like watching them grow, I’m not much of  a sprout eater, but growing young pea shoots is easy and delicious. The mushrooms are on my list to try.  While the workshop was fun, I wouldn’t say we are “living off the fat of no land” here in Manhattan.

It did, however, give me the momentum to pursue building a Windowfarm, something I’ve been wanting to do since learning about the project created by artist, Britta Riley, in February 2009 and first shown at the Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology.  Windowfarms are indoor, hydroponic gardening systems made out of recycled materials – mostly plastic bottles- designed to operate in low-light urban environments.  Riley, an artist whose work deals with crowd-sourcing solutions to environmental issues, was inspired to design an accessible way to promote  urban food production after reading Michael Pollen’s 2008 New York Times article, “Why Bother?”. Originally, the Windowfarm project consisted of an open source web platform developed by Riley called “Research and Develop it Yourself” that posted instructions on how to build your own kit and created an online forum for early windowfarmers – there are now 22,000 of us online – to share their experiences and innovations on the plans.  Unless you’re MacGyver however, the truth is, building a windowfarm is a somewhat complicated process and the plans were intimidating.  Until I learned that you could purchase a windowfarm kit: all the parts are included, you just have to put it together.  Easy peasy.  Except when the kit arrived, I realized it was a little more involved than spending a few minutes hanging it up. So it took me a good, long while to work up to taking all the pieces out of the box.

Installing a windowfarm is best done with two people.  Luckily, my dad is sort of like MacGyver, so over a visit this fall we (mostly he) put the kit together in the only sunny room in our apartment (not that you could tell by this photo):

When fully installed, an electric pump is attached to the reservoir at the bottom of the bottles, forcing nutrient-enhanced water  to the top of the bottles where it trickles back down in a closed hydroponic system.  Of course, before you get to that stage, one must have plants to grow. Based on the experiences of more experienced window farmers and our light situation, I ordered a variety of seeds to try: basil, arugula, kale, cherry tomatoes, cilantro and parsley.  With the seeds came grow-plugs, a spongy, soil-free, seed-starting medium that my daughter was disappointed to learn were not actually the chocolate brownies they appeared to be. Before planting the seeds in the grow-plugs, I was advised to soak them in a solution of 10% Hydrogen Peroxide which is supposed to help the little seeds break through their casings:

After a few minutes, I planted the seeds in the grow-plugs and placed them in an egg carton to germinate.

The first 24 hours were spent – as directed – in a dark closet.  After that, I set them on the windowsill where my windowfarm is installed.  After the second day, I was thrilled to see the arugula sprouting!  I felt awesome.  Like maybe this will actually work.

But it was only the arugula.  Nothing else.  And it didn’t last long, I think the windowsill environment was too cold for the little seedlings and the next day they were dead.  I’m thinking this indoor agriculture endeavor has a higher learning curve than I previously imagined.  But I still have seeds, and I still have grow-plugs and now I have a new indoor grow-light system to help my next batch of seedlings along.  I don’t want to be deterred, because I think this is one of the coolest ideas to come along in the past decade and I would love to see it catch on.

In the meantime, WindowFarm design has evolved to a new level and has a Kickstarter Campaign for their groovy new high-design models that will make it even easier and more beautiful to install in your apartment.  If you support their cause in the next 4 days, you can have one of your very own!  Click on the image below and they’ll tell you all about it. In the meantime, I am starting my second round of seedlings today.

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Indoor mushrooms: the gateway drug.

We’re growing mushrooms!  Shiitakes.  Indoors.

When all of the uproar about the term “Urban Homesteading” began last week, I was dutifully spraying an odd-looking block of sawdust twice a day that had been inoculated with shiitake spores. Inspired by this Huffington Post article,  I ordered it through Amazon as a project to do with my kids  – something more akin to a Butterfly Garden (a family favorite) than actual indoor agriculture.  As promised, within two weeks our sawdust block went gangbusters with mushrooms – enough for one main course for two adults (which is fine because, as it turns out, my children love to grow mushrooms, but not eat them).

In the meantime, the “Take Back Urban Homesteading(s)” page on Facebook had grown to over 5,000 followers, and I spent some time acquainting myself with the dozens (no, hundreds!) of blogs and websites published by people living in various degrees of the urban who are experimenting with sustainable living, growing their own food and reviving lost domestic arts.  Regardless of how the trademark issue ends up, the galvanization of this community has been exciting for this armchair urban farmer.  I discovered Grown in the City and FarmCurious,  sites devoted to practical resources for urban gardening and composting, as well as a number of other interesting folks doing really creative things in small spaces that I will soon be adding to my blogroll.

So, are we urban homesteaders too?  We have the urban pretty well covered.  You can’t get more city than a 9th floor apartment in a midtown Manhattan high-rise – a place I never thought I would find myself, but strangely can’t imagine leaving. As far as sustainability goes, we’ve got it going on: no car, small footprint, features common to living in Gotham.  According to David Owen, New York is the greenest city in America. While I have dreams of keeping bees and chickens on our rooftop, I must content myself with our shared garden that is lovely for playing in a sandbox or having coffee, but doesn’t get enough light to grow food.  So it’s all indoor gardening for us.  Except for one thing:  we don’t actually have any plants.  Mostly because our cat eats them, but also because I recently found out I don’t actually have much of a green thumb.  Last year, we started 5 large window boxes in our sunny stairwell windows, planting everything from strawberries to tomatoes to quinoa.  And it was a dismal failure.  The strawberries developed bugs, the tomato plants produced one puny tomato and the quinoa only grew 4 inches (although it was fun to grow something straight from the kitchen).

So you can imagine my delight when after two weeks of spraying my indoor mushroom farm, I actually got a whole bunch of mushrooms! Enough to sauté over rice or add to miso soup.

I’m hooked and I’ve already ordered another mushroom kit – an actual log this time.  But this project hardly qualifies as urban homesteading – or even urban gardening.  However, it has encouraged me to build a window farm, which you are sure to be hearing more about.

Are you gardening indoors?  I would love to hear what you are growing!

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Who owns the Urban Homestead?

Well, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, as of October 2010 the Dervaes Family does – or at least the term “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading”.  If you are are following such news, you might know of the recent fracas surrounding this issue.  The Dervaes Family are pioneers of the urban farming movement, having started their micro-farm in the mid-1980’s in Pasadena.  Their project has evolved into a full-fledged institute and now they are looking to trademark the terms they feel describe what they do.  Trouble is, the phrase “Urban Homestead” isn’t just about them.  As it turns out, there are all sorts of people in practically every state (including one nomadic Vansteader) doing the same thing, and in the past several years, a loose community has formed on the web.  Pretty awesome, in my opinion.  In fact, when I was poking around  the web looking for a name for this blog, I typed in Urban Homestead and got a whole long list of variations on that theme in the form of URLs.  Now some of these people have received “cease and desist” letters and had their Facebook pages shut down.  Suddenly, this random community of urban farming folks has galvanized to try and convince the Dervaes to stop being so damn un-neighborly.

Aside from my attempts at worm-composting and indoor mushroom cultivation, I don’t really qualify as an Urban Homesteader, but I find this community inspiring and would hate to see what seems to be a growing movement stymied by having to re-identify themselves to avoid legal action by the Dervaes. So I have stopped linking to their site and will be joining the Facebook protest today.  The upside to this controversy is the amount of publicity urban farming is getting and I hope it makes the whole thing more accessible to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be rushing out to install WindowFarms in their apartment or canning their own beans.

To that end, I bring you a few links (among many) of the various urban homesteading projects out there

And a few links to recent articles on the controversy:

If you are so moved and are on Facebook, visit the page “Take Back Urban Home-Steading(s)”, to find out more about how people are coming together online to defend a term that describes a lifestyle, not just one family in Pasadena.

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