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What Is Homesteading? The Basic Elements

What is homesteading? I looked in my husband’s old Webster unabridged dictionary and was surprised to find that it lacks this word! It defines homestead as “a dwelling with its land and buildings, occupied by the owner as a home and exempted by a homestead law from seizure or sale for debt,” or, “any dwelling with its land and buildings.” The definition for the verb to homestead is “to settle on a property.”

The modern definition of homesteading arises from back in the 1800s, perhaps even earlier, when pioneers in the United States traveled to unsettled land in order to settle it. Back then, residential use of electricity was uncommon, and there were no agricultural conglomerates to produce food or large, multi-purpose factories to manufacture clothing, furniture, and other essentials. So the settlers had to be self-sufficient, growing their own food, making their own clothing, etc.

So today, while the word “homesteading” can technically refer to a person in the city becoming an owner of a small lot with a house, it almost always refers to a lifestyle of becoming as self-sufficient as possible. Within this self-sufficiency, homesteaders endeavor to transform their home and property from liabilities to assets as much as possible. I’ll get into that in a bit. Bottom line: homesteading is a return to a simpler life of less consumption. 

But remember, the early settlers had community

Usually when you come across the topic of homesteading online, the concept of self-sufficiency is tossed about like a hot potato. “The sh*t is going to hit the fan! You must become self-sufficient!”

What these people miss is the fact that the early settlers of the United States did not live independently from one another, as the term “self-sufficient” implies. Rather, they lived as human beings are supposed to live – interdependently. If somebody’s barn burned down, for example, the community would gather together and build them a new barn. When a woman had a baby, other women in the community would make themselves available to help her for the first few weeks.

So if when you think about homesteading, don’t think about a life led in isolation. Think, instead, about a community where the members share their skills and knowledge as needed.

The benefits of homesteading

Raised beds ready for summer planting.

I need to say this right up front: contrary to the popular belief of the self-sufficient/prepper community, not everyone needs to be a homesteader, in the strictest sense of the term. Not everyone is called to that lifestyle – at least, not to the extent of the maxims the “gurus” want to hold people to: “you must produce at least 20% or your own food,” “you must be off the energy grid,” etc.

If at this moment in your life you have to work at a job, and you come home exhausted at the end of the day and barely have the energy to spare to stop at the grocery store on your way home, let alone try to garden, there’s no need to feel guilty or bad about that. In fact, in a future post I’ll be writing about the myths of homesteading where I’ll help wannabe homesteaders in that nine-to-five situation to get rid of their guilt.

All that said, there are definite benefits to the homesteading lifestyle.

Benefit #1: A healthier planet.

When you choose to life a simpler life, a life that steps away from consumerism and unnecessary waste, you automatically reduce pollution.

Benefit #2: A healthier you.

Whether you’re making a meal from scratch, planting out tomatoes, or cutting down weeds to make compost tea, the homesteading lifestyle gets you moving more than the mainstream convenience-based lifestyle. I don’t have to tell you that getting more exercise reduces your risk of developing many kinds of diseases.

In addition, food that you grow yourself is more nutritious – and less toxic – than food you buy from a supermarket. Yes, that includes produce in health food stores. Just like with exercise, we could all use more nutrients, and when we are nutrient-sufficient, we are healthier.

Benefit #3: Less stress.

This might go under the “healthier you” category, but it’s so important I want to give it its own heading.

Also, I’m going to push vegan homesteading here, because the more animals you have on a homestead, the more stress you’re going to have. Plain and simple. Animals require a lot of maintenance and extra expense. 

Be that as it may, in general, a person who homesteads is going to be more frugal. Living frugally equates to the ability to save more money, which leads to less financial stress. 

Many skills that have become attached to the homesteading lifestyle – such as gardening, sewing, and making crafts – are relaxing. The more you can relax, obviously, the less stress you’re going to experience.

Benefit #4: Save money.

I alluded to that above. It’s almost a given that if you make choices that enhance Planet Earth’s health as well as your health, you’re going to end up saving money. 

If you choose to do with what you have, and repair and repurpose items as much as you can, you’re going to save money. 

There are more benefits to homesteading, but those are the major ones. 

And now you may be hanging your head, tears dripping down your cheeks because alas, you can’t possibly homestead because of where you live. 

Chin up! And keep reading. Because you can homestead no matter what kind of dwelling you call home.

Red malabar spinach vine growing around back deck post in suburban backyard.

Where can a person homestead?

If you ask the average person on the street where the homesteading lifestyle happens, they are likely to answer, “Out in the country,” or “In rural communities.”

But go back to how I defined homesteading above. It’s a choice to become more self-sufficient, to turn home and property into productive investments. Given that definition, a person can homestead with any kind of dwelling. Sure, some dwellings are limited in the extent of self-sufficiency you can develop. But any attempt to live a simpler life comes under the umbrella of homesteading.

Apartment homesteading

If you live in an apartment, do you utilize ways to save water? Do you work on cutting back on your electricity usage? Are you learning to reduce your consumption and be happy with what you have right now? 

If so, you can consider yourself an apartment homesteader!

What about growing food? You can produce a non-stop crop of lettuce with a metal shelf and inexpensive blue-and-red LED grow lights. In this video I explain how. Note that we own five acres in the country, yet I grow our lettuce indoors. The reason is that where we live, it gets so warm so fast in the spring, and so cold so fast in the fall, it’s hard to grow lettuce that either isn’t bitter, or doesn’t need some kind of protection.

So, some tenets of apartment homesteading work well for us country bumpkins, too!

You can grow sprouts in jars or on trays in your kitchen. Do you have a balcony? There are all sorts of videos and blog posts online explaining how to make the most of your tiny outdoor space in order to grow food crops. 

In some apartment buildings in some cities, residents are allowed to have rooftop gardens, growing in containers or raised beds on top of the building.

Yes, you can homestead in an apartment!

Urban homesteading

The phrase “urban homesteading” – or, suburban homesteading, if  you will – typically refers to houses on city lots in which the owners endeavor to reduce their carbon footprint and work toward more self-sufficiency. If you own a house, you own some yard space, so you can grow a lot more food than the apartment homesteader. 

You can grow much more than you think, if you plan your garden out right. When we lived in a suburb, we had what is commonly known as a “postage stamp-sized” backyard. We had way less than a fourth of an acre, even combined with the front yard. Yet, it was enough space to keep us in fresh vegetables almost all year (we lived in north Texas, so we could grow greens for most of the winter). 

We also made moves to reduce our electricity and water usage, and we didn’t try to “keep up with Joneses.” Though I don’t think we had any neighbors by that name. 

If you rent a house and your landperson won’t give you permission to dig up the yard to build gardens, you can container garden.

Some urban homesteaders, if their city allows, keep backyard chickens for eggs, or rabbits for meat. Although, as a vegan, I’m not going to encourage either. 😉

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Are you a noob to gardening? Want to learn how to do it with less work, money, and stress? Check out my gardening book,How To Grow Vegetables Without Losing Your Mind.

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Rural homesteading

Ah, space, space, and more space! When you live in the country, you can have a huge garden and a variety of fruit-producing trees and bushes. If you’re not vegan, there is, of course, much more space for keeping animals. In many states once you get outside city limits, codes go bye-bye so that you can get as extreme in your lifestyle as you want, building a tiny cabin for your home, using a composting toilet, collecting rainwater into tanks, and building a solar panel array to collect electricity.

No matter where you live, you can choose to live a simpler life and produce at least a small fraction of your own food. And thus, you will be homesteading.

So now you understand the where’s and why’s of the lifestyle. The big question is, what does it look like? How does a person live out the lifestyle of a homesteader?

How to homestead

From what I wrote about above, you could infer a lot about the how-to’s of homesteading. While I’m not going to go into any kind of depth about beekeeping or growing a tomato from seed to harvest in this post, I do want to give you the ten-thousand foot view about the lifestyle.

Being a homesteader is about:

#1. Having a frugal mindset.

You endeavor to live as simply as you can in order to both save money and avoid unnecessary purchases that will eventually contribute to the landfills. It means you own many fewer machines of convenience, such as dishwashers and food processors, than the average person. It means that you don’t buy anything on impulse. It means that you’re good with purchasing from thrift and consignment stores, and from yard sales, whenever possible.

It means you ask for discounts, use coupons, and stock up when there’s a sale. It means you aim not to own anything that doesn’t either have significance and/or use.

This frugal attitude is the root of all the other homesteading how-to’s. 

#2. Doing it yourself whenever possible.

You make your own meals. If you eat bread, you bake your own bread to go with those meals. You grow as much of your own food as you can. You learn how to make basic repairs around the property and do them yourself rather than hiring out the jobs. You might sew your own clothes, or create your own household accessories. 

And of course, the more things you do yourself, the more frugally you live.

#3. Respecting the planet’s resources.

No one enters the homesteading lifestyle thinking, “You know, I’m going to do this so I can use as much energy as possible and waste all the water that I dare!” Rather, they set up their home so that it will use less energy. They figure out ways to conserve water usage, and collect and use rainwater. 

Homesteaders try to work with nature, rather than against it. This includes endeavoring to use as few synthetic chemicals as possible, both for household use and outside, so as to reduce their “pollution footprint.”

Along with that, they recycle, reuse and repurposes materials whenever possible. Instead of mindlessly collecting piles and piles of plastic shopping bags from the grocery store, they bring their own canvas bags to tote their wares – or reuse plastic shopping bags from other visits. 

#4. Transforming the home from a liability to an asset.

This facet of homesteading actually ties into the others above, but it’s important enough to earn its own mention.

Most homes – including house and property – are liabilities to their owners rather than assets. Even if the owners have paid off the mortgages, the houses and land consume much more than they give back in the way of money, energy, and other resources. 

When we lived in our suburban Dallas home, there wasn’t a single front yard in the neighborhood that was xeriscaped. Know why? It wasn’t allowed! The city property standards required residents to have grass on at least half their front yards! 

And the bushes and trees? Purely ornamental. Despite the thousands of gallons of water poured at the trees’ bases every summer, few produced fruit or nuts. Most people paid a landscaping service to cut their grass and trim their hedges once every two weeks.  

The houses weren’t well-insulated and so were energy hogs. Many – like ours – had a twenty-foot ceiling in the living room. Can you say, “heat sink”? Can you say, “a 50% higher electric bill in the winter”?

When homesteading, on the other hand, people take measures to turn their homes into assets. They use the roof of their houses to collect water. If they have a new house built, they make sure it’s energy-efficient. They only build (or buy) as much house as they need. 

And, of course, as much of the property as possible is used for food production. Often, sections of land are set aside for other kinds of production, like using the woods to grow trees for firewood. Or creating a flower garden in order to sell bouquets. 

The homesteading how-to’s come down to living more simply, and living more frugally. And you can take steps in those directions no matter where you live, no matter your career. 

You can be like my family and take things to extreme, using coolers instead of a refrigerator, having no running water inside the house, and washing laundry by hand. But homesteading doesn’t require extremes.

It simply requires the attitude of simplicity. 

Happy homesteading. 

 

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