While the Homestead Act of 1862 granted land to applicants after five years of living on the land and demonstrating improvements, modern homesteading has no such requirements. Believe it or not, it is taking place right now in backyards across America. Friends and neighbors in urban areas are returning to a lifestyle of self-sufficiency lived by many of our grandparents and great-grandparents. And the best part is that anybody can do it.
Now while raising your own produce may seem daunting, it is quite rewarding. As a fruit and vegetable gardener, I am literally living off the land. With cold frames, my harvest season runs April – early November. Homegrown produce tastes better because I pick at the peak of ripeness. I also save on grocery bills. For example: a packet of heirloom tomato seed may cost around $3. Now compare that to store-bought heirlooms that run $5 – $7 per pound. According to the National Gardening Association in 2009 the average home garden of 600 square feet produces approximately $600 worth of fresh produce.
My savings also continue through canning surplus produce. Homemade ketchup, dilly beans, pickles, and jams grace my pantry shelves.
When Fort Collins City Council voted to approve chickens within city limits, I took another step towards my own backyard homesteading. The ordinance allows for up to six hens, but no roosters, and they must be provided at least two square feet of coop space per chicken. Businesses around town and online sell pre-made coops. If you are a do-it-yourself type, download plans from the web. New materials can be purchased at local home improvement stores or reclaimed materials from sources such as Freecycle or ReSource.
Chickens provide many benefits to the backyard homesteader. For starters…eggs. There is nothing quite like gathering a warm egg from the coop. Besides being on egg detail, my girls get to roam about the enclosed backyard during the day. While they are out, they enhance the garden beds by scratching the soil (shallow tilling) searching for insects. This natural form of insect control is gentle on the environment as well as saving money on chemical applications. And lastly, each week their coop is cleaned out and the soiled bedding is added to my compost bins. This breaks down beautifully, creating wonderful compost.
Now speaking of compost, I have a three-bin system placed in a corner of the yard. Gathered grass clippings, spent blossoms, vegetative kitchen scraps, dried leaves, and of course… the soiled straw bedding all go into the bins. Dried items such as fall leaves or grasses are considered brown material in the world of composting and they supply carbon. Fresh grass clippings or vegetative kitchen scraps are considered green materials and they add nitrogen.
Compost is basically plant recycling. Plant material naturally decomposes with the assistance of water, oxygen, and heat. The benefits include, but are not limited to: improves water holding capacity of soil, improves soil structure, improves and stabilizes soil pH, adds nutrients to the soil, and supplies significant organic matter. With only the labor of adding items and mixing the contents of the compost bins, I have a great no-cost soil amendment. Once the compost is ready, it is tilled into my vegetable garden, creating an improved soil with all the benefits listed earlier.
Another step towards self-sufficiency is beekeeping. My husband and I attended beekeeping classes offered by the Northern Colorado Beekeeper’s Association. Armed with that knowledge, we ordered bees, built our hives and waited for the girls to do their work. Not only are we looking forward to fresh honey, but also increased pollination in our garden (which means better produce yields), and beeswax. The honey will become our replacement for sugar as well as creating mead (honey wine), the increased yields means more savings on grocery bills, and the beeswax will be turned into candles. What’s not to love about beekeeping?
Backyard homesteading is within your reach; whether you garden, keep bees, or raise your own chickens. Your time and effort will be greatly rewarded.