Tag Archives: book review

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. Continue reading


Book Review! Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

This book is amazing!  I got it from the library, but am seriously considering buying my own copy:  such is the radness contained herein.  Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen also wrote The Urban Homestead, which I dug, and I think this book is even better, or at least a fantastic follow-up.  In the intro to Making It, the authors talk about how The Urban Homestead was basically a book of ideas, and they wanted to follow that up with a practical toolbox.  I’m all for this line of reasoning — we need broad and inspiring visions for the future every bit as much as we need the nuts-and-bolts skills for how to get from here to there.

Coyne and Knutzen have a pretty epic urban homestead from the sounds of things, but many of these projects will also be completely within reach for folks who live in apartments and are just starting to learn how to garden or compost or become do-it-yourself makers of stuff.  I like how approachable they make the process of learning:  the book is organised into five sections:  day to day, week to week, month to month, season to season and infrastructure.   Each individual project gives you a very clear idea of the time commitment you’re making by taking it on.  If you’re working from the day to day section, you can start with what the authors describe as “gateway projects that may addict you to a more homegrown lifestyle,” such as homemade oil lamps that take five minutes to make, simple homemade tooth powder, styling gel (just flaxseeds and water, amazingly enough!), and the like.  Week to week tackles anything from easy one-pot meals to old-fashioned vinegar-based sodas like the adorably named switchel to basic sewing skills.  Month to month will school you on indoor gardening, tinctures, cloth menstrual pads and many other handy things.  Season to season contains more ambitious projects like soap-making, saving seeds, and how to espalier.  Basically, this book will inspire you, but also give you the practical tools and instructions needed to turn that inspiration into concrete results.

If you’re feeling inspired already, but your copy of Making It hasn’t appeared o the library hold shelf, I would recommend checking out Coyne and Knutzen’s blog, Root Simple.  They are mega frequent bloggers, posting anything from cool random DIY links to more involved tutorials or descriptions of their projects.  Definitely worth adding to your list of places on the internet machine to check out from time to time.

My initial quick browse through Root Simple turned up some inspiring and varied projects that I wanted to share:  Our New Earth Oven and How We Built It, Ditching the “Flushie” for a Composting ToiletHow to Roast Your Own Coffee in a Stovetop Popcorn Maker, and 3 Things To Do With Citrus Peel are all pretty totally fascinating, clearly presented, and look really fun to work on.  

Book review: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese

The subtitle of this book is “What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch — Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods,” and while lots of the recipes looked delicious (and the few I tried were exceedingly popular in my household), my favourite part of this book was the commentary about what foods are worth cooking up at home, and what foods should just be purchased instead.

Jennifer Reese is a funny and articulate writer, but more importantly, she is a dedicated do-it-yourself-er who sets out to try homemade versions of just about anything she can think of.  I think most of us who try to live sustainable city lives can relate to her struggles to figure out where to draw the line in terms of self-sufficiency.  In this book, she balances cost, effort and taste when deciding which foods are best made at home and which can be left to specialists.  Each recipe is rated based on the amount of hassle it takes, the tastiness of the results and a cost comparison between store-bought and homemade.    Here’s a sample of Reese’s scientific analysis of homemade vs. store-bought potato chips and orange-apricot conserve:

Orange-Apricot Conserve:  “Make it or buy it:  You can’t buy this jam.  Make it.
Hassle:  In the dictionary under “hassle” there should be a line drawing of a woman standing at a sweltering canning kettle, lifting out jars.
Cost Comparison:  You can’t really compare this with store-bought jam, as there is no product on the market like it.”

Potato chips:  “Make it or buy it:  Buy it.
Hassle:  I went through a box of Band-Aids and half a roll of paper towels one night because I didn’t heed warnings about mandoline safety.
Cost Comparison:  Homemade chips cost about $0.40 per ounce.  Lay’s classic potato chips:  $0.60 per ounce.”

I was stoked that Reese really spares no effort to thoroughly research her decisions.  She keeps bees, unsuccessfully experiments with keeping ducks in her laundry room, cures her own meat, makes her own hot dogs (verdict:  not worth it, in case you were wondering), makes a ridiculous amount of different cheeses, and keeps chickens and goats (“If rather than a lush green garden, you want your outdoor space to resemble a Third World village, I suggest getting some chickens, who will methodically denude the landscape of every blade of grass, low-lying weed, and wildflower.  And if you want to ride yourself of shrubbery and small trees as well, get goats.”).  She lives in a regular suburban neighbourhood, so her experiments are relatable for lots of us city dwellers, and I like her enthusiasm and willingness to experiment.  You get the sense reading this book that she is trying out all these different techniques for getting her food because she is excited about doing it, not because she wants to write a gimmicky book.

In all, you should grab this book at the library, as it is rad!  I liked how fun it was to read, and how useful the recipes are, but I also really appreciated reading about someone else’s internal battles over how to be sustainable and self sufficient, yet still realistic and sensible about what you can fit into your life.

On a similar note, I recently came across this article called The Homesteading Hypocrite.  The woman who wrote it discusses her battles with balancing her ideals with the inevitable messiness that is real life.  She talks about finding herself in situations that feel hypocritical or ridiculous (i.e. being too busy in the garden to have time to cook dinner, so having her partner pick up sushi), and struggling to live a life that conforms to her ideals but is still realistic.  I really dug her honesty and willingness to admit that sometimes we all fall short of our intentions.  It’s so much better to face up to this fact and decide where to go from there, rather than pretend that we’re all doing a perfect job of fulfilling all of ideals and ignore the parts of our lives that still need examination and work.

Creative container gardening

I’ve been seeing a lot of amazingly creative container gardens around lately, so I wanted to put together a post to showcase some of them.  This is the time of the year when folks with an outdoor garden space start to feel excited and inspired to get planting.  For those of us in small apartments or houses without yards, it can be hard to get motivated to start new projects just because it’s spring — after all, the time of year doesn’t make a huge difference for container gardens.  The flip side of this is that, well, the time of the year doesn’t make a difference, and we can keep growing inside year round without having to spare a thought for frost or snow.

Anyhow, for the lawn-less, the balcony-less and the transient folks, here are some amazingly creative and cool looking options for planters.

When I first saw this photo, I got so distracted by the gorgeous candy colours of the planters that it went completely over my head that they were old toilet tanks.  You might not be able to find the same amazing array of vintage tanks that this woman has, but I’m sure you could track down some plain old white ones and they would make amazingly sturdy and and functional planters.  I would try Used Victoria or the Habitat for Humanity Restore, and I bet you’d come up with lots of free or mega cheap options.

I’ve seen a few different variations on pallet planters (everything from how to re-purpose the lumber to build a standard container garden, or just plain plunking the pallet down in your garden and planting into it), but this one is my favourite because of its ingenious use of vertical space.  Fern Richardson, who created the planter in the picture above (as well as creating a great looking book about small space container gardens, that is available at the library) has a full tutorial about how to transform a pallet into a garden.  One word of caution:  please make sure that any pallets you scavenge have not been pressure treated.  The process of pressure treating  puts some seriously nasty chemicals into the wood, and you definitely don’t want them leaching into your food.

If you’re gardening indoors only, check out this fantastic tutorial about creating a kitchen herb garden that hangs right in your kitchen.  Even when I have lots of outdoor garden space, I try to make sure that I plant my herb garden close to where I cook.  Otherwise, I find I just don’t bother to make the trek out to the other end of the garden to grab a few sprigs of parsley (especially if it’s raining or dark out).  This project is a fantastic solutions to that problem, and is a great way to make sure your tasty culinary herbs are exactly where you need them:  in your cooking space.

Bottom line, you can get as creative as you want to with container gardening, so don’t feel limited by a lack of money, building skills, or space.  Container gardens can be in any kind of container.

For some great books on container gardening and lots more inspiration, check out the public library.  I’m particularly fond of The Edible Container Garden:  Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces by Michael Guerra; Apartment Gardening:  Plants, Projects, and Recipes for Growing Food in your Urban Home by Amy Pennington, andThe Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible:  How to Grow A Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers by Edward Smith.

Rad book alert: Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas

This book recently appeared on my household’s field guide shelf, much to my excitement.  I’m always interested in learning a bit more about wild edibles, and this book is hands down the best and most practical field guide to wild foods I’ve found.

John Kallas grew up in a suburban neighbourhood where he spent much of his time practicing his outdoor skills and eating whatever wild foods he could find.  In college, he pursued a science degree while taking courses in wilderness survival, nutrition and edible wild plants, and spent his summers traveling through along back roads of the European countryside, foraging food and learning about the each region’s traditional foodways.  Over the years, he completed degrees in biology and zoology, a master’s in education, a PhD in nutrition, and obtained training in botany and nature photography.  He has been teaching about wild foods since 1978.  Which is to say, he is a guy who knows his wild foods.

Kallas was disappointed in most available wild food guides, finding them to be broad summaries of edible foods, without enough information on the appearance of plants in all their various different stages, and lacking detailed information on how to prepare the foods (let’s face it, wild foods are a lot more appealing if they are palatable, not just edible).  He wrote Edible Wild Plants:  Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate to remedy these shortcomings, and I think he did a damn fine job.  This guide is chock full of good quality colour photos and detailed descriptions, which made me feel confident that I could actually successfully identify the plants I was learning about.  Also, he includes lots of detailed recipes and cooking instructions which give a clear picture of what the foods will taste like and how to best use them.  Almost all of the recipes looked delicious, not just edible.   I would be totes stoked to chow down on a chickweed burrito, faux gumbo or vegan meringue made from mallow, curly dock pie filling, sheep sorrel pesto, wood sorrel ice cream topping or or any one of a ton of tasty recipes included.

Unfortunately, the Victoria library does not carry this book, but we picked up our copy at Bolen’s, and it’s put out by a reasonably big publisher and should be widely available.  You can also check out John Kallas’ website, Wild Food Adventures.  You can find out more about his cool looking courses in wild foods and wilderness survival (see Kallas and some students in mid food prep at the left), and you shouldn’t miss the excellent book review section.  Also, if you’re jonesing for more wild food info right away, check out this article Kallas wrote on making dandelions delicious.