The Urban Homestead
City slickers revive the family farm.
By Ilsa Setziol 04/30/2009
You know you’re middle-aged when you get nostalgic for things you hated — or whose charms eluded you — as a child. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, in the 1970s, I longed for Oreo cookies and Lucky Charms — anything with a brand name. Instead, I settled for mom’s zucchini bread baked with homegrown squash. My parents also grew carrots, artichokes, lettuce and rhubarb. Like many in town, they were a bit anti-establishment, but mostly, they gardened to save money.
As I ripened, my taste improved, and homegrown and homemade food became more important, especially after the birth of my son. Now that my husband and I are underemployed, with more time on (and less money in) our hands, we’ve expanded our repertoire beyond a few tomatoes and too many zucchinis.
And we’re not alone. In Southern California, and across the nation, there’s a mushrooming movement of people who grow their own food. “There’s a lot more interest in landscapes that do something — provide food or attract pollinators,” says Los Angeles horticulturist Lora Hall of Full Circle Gardening. “People want more than just a lawn.”
The National Gardening Association says 43 million American households plan to plant edible gardens this year, a 19 percent increase over last year. And Frank Burkard of Pasadena’s Burkard Nurseries says sales of vegetable plants are up 30 percent.
Even the ultimate American household is in on the trend. In March, First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of schoolchildren planted the first White House kitchen garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II victory garden. “I want to make sure that our family, as well as the staff and all the people who come to the White House and eat our food, get access to really fresh vegetables and fruit,” Obama said.
Some industrious folks are going even further. They’re turning their urban and suburban homes into something akin to an old-fashioned family farm. Many of these people also preserve some of their harvest, maybe brew their own beer and tinker with various DIY projects around the house. The gardens are organic; composting is de rigueur. When I met this new breed of urban homesteader, my ambitions — and notions of what’s possible — grew a lot bigger.
In Eagle Rock, assistant set designer Peggy Casey created a sunny, intimate garden that proves edible plants can be aesthetically appealing and don’t need to be confined to homogeneous rows. In her west yard, lacy spring-green cilantro is flanked by jungle-green, broad-leafed bok choy; orange and yellow carrot tops peek out of rich brown soil.
Next to this raised bed, at ground level, vegetables mingle with ornamentals: Spinach neighbors deep-pink carnations, purple sage and blue-blossomed rosemary.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than growing your own food,” Casey says. “I base my meals on whatever is happening in my vegetable beds.” She cans extra heirloom tomatoes or chops them into a pesto that she freezes in cubes. She makes jelly and a sweet barbeque sauce from the fruit of her pink guava tree. Her husband, Erik Hillard, brews beer in their basement and hopes to dabble in wine one day.
Casey and I share an enthusiasm for fish emulsion fertilizer, I discover, but for the most part, she’s out of my league. She’s been gardening since she was a kid, having learned from her parents (she paid attention) and others at a communal plot in Santa Barbara during the 1970s. This spring, she is also growing brussels sprouts, snap peas, beets, broccoli, chard, onions and a variety of lettuces. “I try to seed everything myself,” she says. “so I save my seed.”
I have abandoned several books about organic gardening, all written by people on the East Coast. Many advise starting vegetables and herbs such as peas and cilantro in late spring or summer. My cilantro bolted before I could harvest any. To solve the problem and grow more myself, I hired master gardener Marta Teegan of Homegrown Los Angeles last year to design a kitchen garden customized for our climate.
Casey sympathizes and recommends two books (although she doesn’t use any of the pesticides or synthetic fertilizers they discuss in her organic garden): “Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening” (Chronicle Books; Dec. 1999) and “52 Weeks in A California Garden” by Robert Smaus (L.A. Times Syndicate Books; July 1996). Casey also likes a book that has fast become one of my favorites: “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City” by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Process; June 2008). What this couple is doing is so cool, I had to meet them.
When I arrive at their house in Edendale, between Echo Park and Silverlake, I notice there isn’t a lawn. The front and back yards are a tangle of edible and medicinal plants. In raised beds covering the street strip — that normally barren patch between the sidewalk and the street — sweet peas climb an obelisk-shaped trellis, and cabbages as big as basketballs unfurl veiny leaves.
As we climb up their steep front yard, Knutzen points out several vegetables I recognize — asparagus, garlic, sorrel, fava beans and Swiss chard — as well as some I don’t, such as Jew’s mallow (a green popular in the Middle East) and cardoon (an aster with an artichoke-like flavor, common in colonial American gardens). Coyne and Knutzen also grow tree collards, artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes. “We really like perennial vegetables,” Knutzen explains, “because I’m lazy and don’t like to replant stuff constantly.”
Elsewhere in the yard, a drip irrigation system waters plants most gardeners don’t nurture: dandelion, chickweed, purselain and stinging nettle. Coyne dries the nettles, then brews them into tea, and tosses chickweed into her stir-fries and salads. Europeans brought many of the plants we consider weeds to the Americas as potherbs — wild greens to toss in the stew pot.
The couple’s yard and their yellow 1920s bungalow are filled with DIY projects: a compost bin made from tires picked off the street, a solar oven cobbled from cardboard and tinfoil, a homemade solar dehydrator, a gray-water system that pipes used laundry water to the garden and self-watering pots fashioned from plastic storage bins.
I’m curious how this all came about. Coyne is a former administrative director of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, dedicated to obscure fields of knowledge, and Knutzen is a program coordinator for the neighboring Center for Land Use Interpretation. When they bought their home a decade ago, the couple couldn’t muster enough interest to start a lawn and didn’t want to futz with flowers. “Why grow a lawn when we could grow something useful?” Knutzen says. “I suspect our carbon footprint is quite low,” adds Coyne, “but that was never our intention. It just so happens that a commonsensical style of living is, by default, green living.”
In Pasadena, the Dervaes family — Jules and his three adult children — grow about 6,000 pounds of produce a year on a fifth of an acre north of the Foothill Freeway. They supply local restaurants and document their lifestyle on the website pathtofreedom.com. They also brew their own biodiesel, power their house with solar panels and bake in a cob oven — a stove fueled by scraps of wood and twigs from their property.
The family declined to be interviewed for this story. Spokeswoman Janice Bakke said, “They are the original urban homesteaders” and didn’t want to participate in a story that included the authors of “The Urban Homestead,” with whom they have a dispute. She said the Dervaeses claim ownership of the term “urban homestead” and believe Coyne and Knutzen have infringed upon it. Knutzen and Coyne say neither the family nor its representatives have been in contact with them.
The Dervaeses are also involved in another organic gardening trend: keeping livestock in the city. They tend chickens, ducks and a couple of goats. Livestock are useful for organic gardeners, who don’t apply synthetic chemicals and rely on manures and compost to supply nitrogen to their plants.
After years of pleading, Casey has convinced her spouse to help her build a henhouse and chicken run. Soon, three hens — no roosters — will move in. In addition to better compost, Casey is looking forward to fresher eggs with less cholesterol.
Coyne and Knutzen own four hens and give tips on raising ducks, pigeons, quail and rabbits in the city. “No! We’re not getting rabbits!” That’s my husband yelling into his cell phone when I inform him that rabbit poop is especially high in nitrogen, and, by the way, our son loves bunnies. My son will have to settle for pet worms. (Worm castings are another popular organic fertilizer.)
Back at the Coyne-Knutzen homestead, the couple ushers me into their kitchen, where the cupboards brim with mason jars. Coyne pulls a few off the shelves — homemade marmalade made with a neighbor’s grapefruits, lacto-
fermented (brined) pickles, apple cider vinegar, pickled okra and hot peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and honey from their beekeeping club.
As I wrap up my visit, I wonder aloud if my husband and I could keep on top of so many projects. “We don’t suggest people try to do all these things,” Knutzen says. “We’d just be happy if someone did one or two to start out.” Coyne hopes people will feel more empowered, one project at a time. “Once you’ve mastered one thing and it’s integrated into your routine, then you add something else, so your skill set builds,” she says. “And slowly your house is transformed.”
I take these words to heart. Within a few weeks, I’ve cracked some new garden books and sprouted some basil, tomato and pumpkin seeds. And I’m still surveying my yard for any promising patch of open ground.
Ilsa Setziol gardens at her San Gabriel home. Her blog on exploring nature in Southern California is ramblingla.com.