Urban Homesteading Book Reviews

I tend to spend a lot of time reading about urban agriculture projects (both because I have a rad job that allows me to do so and because I am a nerd who would do so anyway) and recommending resources to folks looking to get started on an apartment balcony garden or amp up their sustainable urban ways.  I’ve put together reviews of four urban homesteading books I’ve read recently (all of which are available at the Victoria Public Library), and would love to hear about what books or online resources you’ve read and enjoyed as well.

Modern Homestead:  Grow, Raise, Create by Renee Wilkinson:  Renee Wilkinson is the author of HipChickDigs.com, an urban homesteading blog that she developed into this book.  I really like her blog — it’s gorgeously photographed, cleanly laid out and uber informative.  Her urban homestead looks rad as well — she has super swanky looking raised beds with neat paths in between, and the whole space looks a million times better put together than any scrappy backyard garden I’ve ever had (this is probably not surprising given that she is a landscape architect and I am just some skid).   Like her blog, Modern Homestead is well laid out, well organised, and full of great photos.  I would describe it as springboard book or a primer, but it’s excellent for that purpose.  There’s enough specific information to give a novice gardener a good solid start on a veggie gardener, to give someone new to food preservation some easy tips on how to start freezing or canning, and to get someone dubious about backyard livestock a bit more informed.  However, if you already garden or can or are genuinely planning on getting yourself a herd of goats, I would recommend seeking out more specific resources on all of these topics.   The lack of specificity in some areas definitely bugged me — for example, I think that if you’re giving plans for a chicken coop (especially for folks who perhaps aren’t used to using power tools or keeping chickens), you should provide illustrated directions, not just a cut-list and some nice shots of the finished product.  With that said, there is a lot of valuable info in this book, and it is written in a very readable style.  Wilkinson writes with a cheerful, engaging tone that sometimes grated on me, but that lots of other people seem more stoked on (as such, the problem may be with my jerkitude, not her writing).   In short, if you’re doing any kind of urban gardening, this is definitely worth a leaf through, and if you’re just getting started on an urban homestead, you won’t regret checking this out of the library or picking up a used copy.

Urban Homesteading:  Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living by Rachel Kaplan with K. Ruby Blume:  This book is written by a woman who is a somatic psychotherapist/educator/activist and the founder of the The Institute of Urban Homesteading.  I mention their credentials because that will give you a good picture of what this book is like:  a mixture of really solid, specific, in-depth information in combination with less vocational but no less tangible instructions on envisioning and building strong and sustainable communities.  I think it’s fair to call it both philosophically and bioregionally west coast, so if you live in a climate with harsh winters or where people don’t use considering “visioning” to be a real word, then you may find it less relatable.   I really liked how specific lots of the information was (i.e. good natural pest control spray recipes, a concise chart with info about edible weeds, plans for a simple solar dehydrator, etc).  There were definitely some areas covered that I didn’t think were the best for learning in a few pages of a book (i.e. cob building and slaughtering chickens, neither of which should really be learned by book reading alone), and there was a lot of space devoted to the philosophies behind local living and urban gardening (which may be of great interest to some folks, but will probably be a bit repetitious for others who have been doing lots of pondering on these topics already).  One thing I noticed about this book is that although it’s described as an urban homesteading book, it’s almost more suburban in terms of space requirements.  I know lots of us here in Victoria have access to ample backyard space, but that’s certainly not the norm everywhere (nor even the universal experience here), so that’s something to keep in mind with regards to how useful this book would be for you.  If you live in a small apartment or don’t have access to lots of green space, you’d do better with a different urban gardening book.  If you have the space to spread out and work on big projects and this book fits your philosophical outlook, you will definitely love it and find it mega useful.

Made From Scratch:  Discovering the Pleasures of  a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich:  Although this book was definitely heartfelt, it really didn’t do it for me, to be honest.  I felt like there was a huge lack of specific information, and it was more focused on the author’s reflections on her journey towards a more homemade lifestyle than a genuine how-to for how to live a handmade life.  If you are living in the city, have never gardened, and have never even considered the possibility of doing so, this book may get you inspired.  Or, it may just seem a bit self indulgent and tedious, as it did to me.  I did like how honest Woginrich was about her experiences — she doesn’t shy away from admitting that she accidentally left her baby chickens out to be killed by her dogs, that she drives a lot, that she has to kill one of her rabbits after her dogs terrify it into breaking its own back, and so forth.  In all, I felt like I was left wanting a lot more helpful information and a lot less personal narrative (a whole chapter on how the author likes buying vintage kitchen supplies was totes unnecessary, in my opinion).  Lots of people seem to like this book, however, so take my opinionwith a grain of salt and give it a try if it seems like it would be useful to you.

The Urban Farm Handbook:  City-Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading and Preparing What You Eat by Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols:  This book was amazing!  It was a great balance of general and specific info, and contained everything I would look for in an urban gardening book.  If you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the gardening info may not be quite as valuable for you, but I think you could still find a ton of essential info in this book.   I found this book mega inspiring in both a large-scale sense (I kept thinking of new homestead-y stuff I could integrate into my own life as I read) as well as on a smaller-scale level (I kept bookmarking recipes to try because they all looked so good!).  This book would be a good inspiration for folks just starting to garden, but it is also a great resource for people looking to move beyond their first efforts at gardening to a more self-sustaining lifestyle.  I really dug such parts as the sample produce eating plan (great suggestions for how to plan what you’d like to eat at different times of the year and plan and stagger your planting accordingly — so often we just end up throwing seeds in the garden and not really coordinating what we grow with the needs of our household), tips for gardening with kids (handy even for those of us who don’t have kids — if you’re working on a community or boulevard garden it’s great to make it accessible to all ages), the producer profiles of various farmers and artisanal food producers, and suggestions for building food communities (specific information on how to bulk buy and form a buying club, for example).  There was also lots of information on general urban homesteading type topics, such as raising livestock, gardening, preserving food and so forth.  In short, get your mitts on this book and get stoked!


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