How to start homesteading in your apartment

Image by Natalie Williams

The idea of homesteading — living as self-sufficiently as possible with limited impact on the planet — is perhaps more appealing as social distancing upends our lives and forces us to find new ways of doing things.

Though the concept may seem incompatible to urban lifestyles at first glance, it’s possible to live self-sustainably without living off the land. Homesteading is as much a state of mind as it is a style of life.

Renters and city dwellers are limited in some ways, of course. Most renters cannot undertake home renovation or construction projects that other homesteaders may undertake, such as building a barn or a root cellar. Many cities — including Bangor — also do not allow backyard chickens, let alone other livestock, and your landlord may have something to say about it even if they do (you shouldn’t live with chickens in your apartment, anyway). 

Still, there are a number of steps you can take to become an urban homesteader, even if you live in a tiny studio apartment in a city. Here’s what you need to know.

An indoor herb garden can be an asset to culinary endeavors. | Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

Grow your own food in small spaces

Growing your own food is a great first step to adopting a self-sufficient mindset — plus, reducing food miles by eating local produce helps the environment, and what’s more local than your own apartment? If you do not have any outdoor space, it is easy to start with an herb garden in your windowsill, a small plot of microgreens or even a full-blown indoor vegetable garden if you’re feeling ambitious. You can also seek out a local community garden (or start your own community garden) if you want outdoor space to plant. 

If you are lucky enough to have outdoor space already, you can start a container garden or grow vegetables in your front yard. The best crops for first-time growers include leafy greens, herbs and tomatoes. 

You may want to consider starting seeds indoors to help extend your growing season and make your plants flourish. If so, here are a few tips for starting seeds in your apartment, and how to build a DIY seed starting rack on a budget.

Home cooking. | Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

Start cooking

Cooking will help you save money and eat healthier while learning to be more self-sufficient. Start with a few simple recipes, and go from there. You can also learn how to make many kitchen staples — such as bread, almond milk, cheese, butter and nut butter — to save money and reduce food waste. Plus, learn how to cook with dried beans, which are an essential homestead staple (make sure you’re storing your dried beans correctly as well). 

Don’t let busy nights keep you from cooking, either. There are lots of easy, 20-minute meals you can make on busy nights that will help you save money and eat healthy. 

Food waste delivered to Exeter Agri-Energy. | Photo by Ashley L. Conti

Reduce food waste

Homesteaders use all of what they have. Reducing food waste will reduce your impact on the planet and help get you into the homesteading mindset. Plus, reducing food waste right now will help make your stockpiles of food last a little longer through social distancing, self isolation and self quarantine. 

Make an effort to store fresh produce correctly to maximize how long it lasts. Freezing food is also a great way to preserve it. You can use food scraps in creative ways such as meat and vegetable scraps in broth (or, if you are a vegetarian, you can make vegetable broth). If all else fails, start composting in your kitchen. You can seek out a curbside compost service in your area to pick up your compost (in Maine, some cities like Portland, Scarborough, Rockport and Belfast have curbside composting services, but others, including Bangor, do not), or use it in your potted plants.

Some food scraps will regrow if you plant them, like green onions or avocados (though don’t hold your breath for fruit), which is both a fun experiment and a great way to reduce food waste. Other food scraps like citrus rinds, tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells can be reused in other ways, too, for household cleaning, gardening or even punching up your cooking by flavoring grains, tenderizing meats or creating compound butters and infused olive oils.

Sam Schipani joins Kate McCarty, food systems professional at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, to learn how to make and can onion jam. | Photo by Linda Coan O’Kresik

Experiment with canning and fermenting

Canning is an essential homesteading skill, and one that is easy to do in an apartment kitchen. It helps to preserve food instead of wasting, whether it is food you grew or food you bought from the grocery store. You only need a few materials to get started: a water bath canner, mason jars with unused lids, a reliable cookbook from Ball or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Be sure to use jars intended for home canning though — while some processed foods come in lookalikes, they aren’t intended for reuse for canning and can break during processing.

Fermenting is another great skill for preserving food — while providing health benefits — that doesn’t require much space or materials. During the fermentation process, these beneficial microbes break down sugars and starches into alcohols and acids, which helps it keep for longer periods of time without it spoiling. You can use fermentation to make delicious things like kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, beet kvass and more. All you need is a few jars, pickling salts and a good cookbook to get started.

Sam Schipani with homemade dish soap. | Photo by Sam Schipani

Do-it-yourself as much as possible 

Homesteaders are big into do-it-yourself, or DIY — especially when it helps save money, reduce waste or create products that are slightly healthier than their store bought counterparts. In your apartment, you can start by making your own beauty products, including deodorant, lip balm, soap and face wash, as well as your own makeup remover pads. When it comes to health and hygiene, you can also make your own hand sanitizer or prepare natural remedies to ease cold symptoms

Making your own natural cleaning products is a great way to save money while reducing the amount of potentially harmful chemicals in your home. Products including baking soda, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide can be very useful for cleaning around the house (be careful about mixing certain chemicals when making DIY cleaners, though). You can also make your own dish soap, stove top cleaner and produce wash, for starters. 

DIY is not just practical, though — it makes for some fun interior decorating projects as well. You can also make your own candles, which will help reduce the toxic pollutants in your home. In the same vein, consider making gifts for your friends instead of buying them. 

Save resources where you can

Homesteaders tend to be conscious of the impact they have on the planet and the resources that they use. Even if you live in an apartment with running water, you can take simple steps to save water in your daily life, such as showering efficiently, fixing leaky faucets and turning off the tap when you brush your teeth in the morning. 

You can also conserve energy simply by replacing your light bulbs with LED light bulbs. Many household chores such as doing laundry, working in the kitchen or even just spring cleaning can be made to be greener as well by choosing earth-friendlier products and practices. 

Replace disposable items with their reusable counterparts when you can. For example, carrying a set of bamboo forks, using reusable sandwich bags, making a T-shirt grocery bag or using homemade beeswax food wraps to store food instead of plastic wrap — to reduce plastic waste as well.  

Creating emergency kits is one way to prepare for the unexpected, such as natural disasters or man-made emergencies. Components for these kits can be found at local stores, such as sporting goods stores and hardware stores, and online. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

Prepare an emergency kit

Homesteaders are always prepared for the unexpected, even if they live in an apartment. Compiling an emergency kit with first-aid supplies, water, food and back-up power in the form of portable chargers, solar chargers or hand-crank chargers will help you prepare for blackouts, natural disasters or other emergency challenges that could befall you, even from the comfort of your apartment.

Cleaning spaghetti sauce jars to reuse. | Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

Upcycle, upcycle, upcycle

Part of being a homesteader is learning to make do with what you have. Many daily household items can be usefully upcycled, including paper, plastic milk jugs, newspapers, T-shirts, toilet paper rolls, egg cartons and glass bottles. Used canning jars and spaghetti jars can be used again for storage in your refrigerator and freezer, or for crafts. Items you might not expect such as pill bottles, wire hangers, sponges and wood cutting boards also have many uses around the house and in the garden.

If you go grocery shopping, save plastic bags (especially considering some areas are pursuing or have enacted bans on reusable grocery bags to prevent the spread of the virus) and mesh produce bags to reuse around the house as well. Other materials that would normally spend a long time in a landfill breaking down — polystyrene products like Styrofoam, for example — can be upcycled to reduce pollution. 

Upcycling can add extra flair to your apartment decor, too. You can upcycle baskets and other quirky containers from the thrift store to make planters for your apartment. 

Tool organizer. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

Fix the things that you own

Homesteaders will fix what they have instead of throwing it away. Though you may not have farm machinery to repair in your apartment, you can start with your clothing, which will help reduce the impact of your personal shopping habits on the environment while helping you to develop a useful new skill. Learn how to sew on a button, or repair your clothes in many other ways.

Homesteading is not a lifestyle reserved for people living off the land in the country. Whether you live on acres of land or in a studio apartment, applying the homesteading mindset to your daily life will help you to be a little more self-sufficient and self-reliant, while being kinder to the planet along the way.

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