When The New Pioneer asked for new contributors, I immediately thought of some of my friends and their efforts to become more self-reliant. They are what I like to call “urban pioneers.” I wrote this article about our family and three others to encourage others to discover that they can achieve some independence and grow nutritious and tasty food, even if all the space they have is the balcony of their condo or townhouse.

Bill & Diane: Flying Toward A Dream

The Hart Family

This is our story. We are the epitome of the urban pioneer wannabes. We started reading “back to the earth” type magazines nearly 40 years ago, right after we were married, and have continued to read, study and grow our own food. We both had careers in the Air Force and raised two wonderful children; one is a BSN studying to be a family nurse practitioner and the other is a chef in an upscale supermarket. After 20 years, we retired from the Air Force, I got a dream job with the Pentagon Renovation Program and Diane started to work with the VA counseling veterans, but quit to raise the children. She taught and tutored in the children’s school and homeschooled them for several years. Whenever possible, we started small gardens with varying success.

Our first house looked like all the others on the block but it had a yard that backed up to the forest, and bunnies would come out and gambol in the yard, which influenced our decision to buy the house. Bunnies coming out of the woods were cute when they first showed up, but not so cute when they took a bite out of the strawberries. Of course, it might have been the squirrels, the moles or maybe even deer that did the damage. We’d have nice big stalks of corn with wonderful large ears with lots of silk one day and the next day they were gone; we had large blackbirds pulling the seedlings out of the ground—very discouraging to say the least.

When we lived in Texas, we planted pecan trees, strawberries, watermelon and other standard garden fare. We even made a compost bin from scrap wood and chicken wire that worked really well. Before we moved, we took it apart and all the watermelon rinds, grass clippings and other material had decomposed into rich compost.

We dream of living in a log cabin and raising our own food, chopping firewood and hunting. So far we’ve chopped wood, hunted a little and started gardens of questionable quality. We haven’t given up on our dreams, and while we may never get into a log cabin, we are happy to be together and plan on devoting more time to the garden. The success is not so much in the harvest but in the effort. We are, after all, urban pioneers!


Ivan & Amanda: Backyard Permaculturists

Ivan and Amanda

Ivan and Amanda have been married for 15 years and have five children. Ivan is a project manager for an IT solutions company and Amanda is a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom. She has also done some video blogging about her garden,which fills about half of their backyard and extends up both sides of the house to the front yard. Small hoophouses cover their raised beds. A large compost bin is also under one hoophouse.

The garden is very diverse, filled with a variety of tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers and other vegetables. A fantastic variety of herbs and spices have their own beds and are interspersed between the vegetables. They have planted paw paw, kiwi and apple trees and allow some weeds to grow in the garden as decoy plants, knowing that leaf-eating bugs like decoy weeds better and leave the vegetables alone.

They have encountered a couple of difficulties in their urban yard. The soil is poor, almost clay-like. To fix this, they use permaculture principles, preparing the beds by digging 2 feet down, placing organic material such as logs, leaf mulch and horse manure on the bottom, and then covering it with a layer of soil mixed with mulch. The material at the bottom will continue to rot for a long time, fertilizing and releasing nutrients into the soil.

The lack of sun is another difficulty since the only garden space available is between the house and trees, which only gets about half a day of sun. To mitigate the situation, they have oriented the plots to receive the maximum amount of sun.

The children are involved and help with the garden chores. They have small garden plots of their own and are encouraged to experiment with different seeds and plants.

RELATED: 10 Keys To Urban Pioneering 


Adam & Charity: Living Big On Less

Adam and Charity

Adam and Charity have been married 10 years and have three children. Adam is an IT security specialist and Charity homeschools their children. They are the most rural of the families. Their house is situated between corn and sorghum fields, but a busy highway is right off of their driveway. They have about three-quarters of an acre with a small herb garden and a much larger vegetable garden that gets larger every year. Like Ivan and Amanda, they employ permaculture principles.

They have 10 chickens, a rooster and three ducks. They had more chickens but a dog got into the hen house and killed and injured several. The nesting boxes are plastic bins they received for free because they were cracked. The chickens are fed a customized, homemade, organic, non-GMO feed blend. One month they ran out of the custom feed so they used commercial feed, and three days later the chicken manure started to stink and several of the chickens got ill. After going back to the homemade feed, the smell was gone and the chickens got better.

One obstacle they overcame was finding land equally suitable for a family, gardens and chickens. They do consider this property as a small but good training ground to prepare them for a much larger space, and they figure that if they are faithful in little, they will be faithful in much.

Adam and Charity’s biggest obstacle has been the weather. This past summer was unseasonably cool and dry so the vegetables did not flourish as much as they expected. They are concerned that if they have another very cold winter the garden soil will take too long to warm up. They found out that their permaculture techniques worked better without the chicken manure during the dry spell. They are right at the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains and the weather sometimes sweeps right down on top of them. The wind can be especially brutal when the temperature dips way below zero for days or weeks at a time, but Adam and Charity are happy with their lifestyle and will persevere.


Angela & David: Jacks Of All Things Self-Reliant 

David and Angela

Angela and David have been married for 11 years and have two children. David is a construction and project designer. He designed their home and acted as the contractor. They live in a bedroom community with a homeowner’s association (HOA) with covenants, so they are restricted to what they can do on their property. Be sure to investigate with your state, county and local governments and HOA regulations to make sure that what you are doing is not prohibited.

Angela homeschools their two children and is an entrepreneur and photographer. She started four years ago with just one 4-by-8-foot garden and now has four plots and many pots. She grows a variety of big and miniature tomatoes, several different types of beans, bell peppers, okra and some plants she is not sure about. One is something she got from the grocery store that sprouted in the compost. It might be a kiwano melon. She has four cotton plants, not enough to make anything from but enough to show the children how cotton grows.

The soil is not very good, mostly hard dirt with rocks. Angela dug down at least a foot and then broke up the soil for another foot and replaced the top layer with dirt, mulch and manure; her vegetables are now thriving. They have a compost pile in the back where they put all of their  food scraps.

They are now are on their second year of raising bees and have two hives. There has been a learning curve with some setbacks, however. One morning Angela opened the hive and found the majority of the bees had eaten the honey and pollen, swarmed and flown off. She had not recognized the change in bee behavior.

She now knows how to prevent an unscheduled bee exodus. Because these are still relatively new hives, the bees produce just enough honey to get through the winter but not much more. Raising bees right now is more about pollinating plants and not harvesting honey. Angela’s passion is sharing her garden and bee activities with others and getting them started with their own gardens.

RELATED: Tips For Building An Urban Mini-Farm

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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