Ethical Eating

Urban Homesteading Teaches Suburban Warriors to Be One With Nature

As urban sprawl pushes farther and farther into formerly wild and rural areas, the comforts of modern living are beginning to stress our natural resources. Despite the welcome rains of the past week, anyone with a vegetable garden or even a couple of potted plants can

tell you that typically soggy South Florida is currently anything but. Concerns about world food shortages, water conservation, and climate

changes seem all the more pressing as Florida continues to suffer through one of the worst droughts we've seen in decades.

Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume know a little bit about conservation and what they call heirloom skills in their book Urban Homesteading, Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living.  Kaplan writes about turning our concrete urban environs into useful green landscapes.

Kaplan and Blume imagine a world of depaved driveways sprouting

vegetables and neighbors trading backyard produce and home-raised eggs

over the fence. They write about "pee pee ponics" and "poo poo ponics,"

which are various methods of using human waste to water and fertilize

the plants we use for food.

But while some of their practices,

like raising and slaughtering rabbits for food, might seem a bit extreme

to the average backyard warrior, Kaplan believes in starting simple.

"Just use less," she says. "This

is available to everybody. One can read the book and get overwhelmed,

but the step-by-step approach is something we really all can do. It's a

creative and joyful process that leads to pleasure. This is not an

abstinence model; this is about abundance and sustainability."


you're feeling ambitious, Urban Homesteading outlines methods for

diverting gray water

from the washing machine (make sure you use biodegradable soap) and

running lines throughout your backyard garden. You can even read up on

how to dig your own stream bed and divert rainwater into a man-made


"I'm a renter, so I don't have a lot of control over the

appliances. The bucket is your first resort. You use a lot of water in

the laundry and the bath. Stop up your bathtub when showering and then

use that water to flush the toilet. For some people, that's a radical


In the kitchen, Kaplan says to skip the dishwasher and repurpose a couple of basins.


one to wash the dishes and one to rinse. We catch the water in a basin

and water the plants. I have probably ten trees and 40 different

varieties of plants that I water that way."

Kaplan and Blume

also write about conserving space in addition to resources. Depaving

driveways, vertical gardening, and rooftop planting are some of the

methods they advocate to maximize garden production in the crush of

urban living.

But the philosophy of heirloom skills goes beyond fruits

and vegetables. Kaplan encourages incorporating animals

into the garden. In addition to providing eggs, chickens can be used to

prep soil for planting. Goats give milk but also manure for fertilizer. And rabbits... well, they're tasty.

"It's not

fun to kill ever. My brother is a farmer, and he was always very matter

of fact about slaughtering animals. Ruby [Blume] raises rabbits expressly

for meat. We all agree it's dreadful and there's no glory in it, but we

all agree

that it's part of the transition to being homesteaders instead of


It's pragmatic. We also totally respect when people don't want to do

that. My friend who's an editor is a total vegetarian and wouldn't even


those pages. I don't look forward to it; it's gross. It's strange to see

something go from alive to dead. But once it's dead and plucked, it's

like a

chicken from the grocery store."

Still, Kaplan acknowledges that slaughtering one's animals is not for everyone. But raising animals has other benefits.

"The raising of animals is amazing, and we get a lot from them. That

part's easy -- children love animals. The children helped us build the

chicken coop. My partner named them and started worrying about their

psychology. We have rabbits that we would

never kill -- my daughter is too attached to them. Some people would say

teach your children early, but we didn't want to do that."

For Kaplan, keeping animals is part of the philosophy that

she feels is so important not only to the environment and to our food and

supplies but to our individual well-being. Through Urban Homesteading,

she is hoping to spread these values to as many potential urban farmers

as possible.

"I'm with the native way of thanking the food for coming. We need plants and animals for our bodies to live. We do eat meat and we do eat plants, and when we're grateful for them, it's harder to waste them."

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Rebecca McBane is the arts and culture/food editor for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. She began her journalism career at the Sun Sentinel's community newspaper offshoot, Forum Publishing Group, where she worked as the editorial assistant and wrote monthly features as well as the weekly library and literature column, "Shelf Life." After a brief stint bumming around London's East End (for no conceivable reason, according to her poor mother), she returned to real life and South Florida to start at New Times as the editorial assistant in 2009. A native Floridian, Rebecca avoids the sun and beach at all costs and can most often be found in a well-air-conditioned space with the glow of a laptop on her face.
Contact: Rebecca McBane