Kathryn Robles writes about keeping urban homesteads manageable

Self-portrait by Kathryn Robles

Self-proclaimed bookworm Kathryn Robles never expected she would find herself farming — much less in the city — but she decided she could save money for her young family by growing her own food.

Now, her blog Farming My Backyard helps other urban homesteaders start their own journeys by sharing what she has learned through urban homesteading in Portland, Oregon, and San Antonio, Texas.

In our conversation with Robles for our Behind the Homestead Blog Q&A series, she told us why she stopped raising rabbits, how to be a good neighbor when homesteading in urban places and which books are her favorites right now.

Hello Homestead: What inspired you to start homesteading?

Kathryn Robles: I was pretty young when we started homesteading, just out of college and married with two little kids. I wanted to quit my job at a call center, and figured we could manage on one income if we saved more money on groceries.

HH: What were your first homesteading projects?  

KR: I had previously killed a lot of plants trying to garden, but I’ve had good success with pets.  So, the first project we tackled was backyard chickens!

My first time raising chickens went very well because we started out with just three birds. After that we expanded our flock a little too quickly and they required a lot more cleaning and attention. I think three to six hens is a great size for a first flock to learn the basics.

HH: When and why did you decide to start your blog?  

KR: I started writing the blog right around the time we had chickens. I had already been writing a blog about the kids, so I created a second one to record our homesteading adventures.

HH: You write on your blog that you love sharing your mistakes so others don’t have to repeat them. What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made while homesteading?  

KR: I keep continually make the same mistake of taking on too much at one time. Most of the other mistakes spring from that. That would be things like not watering enough [and] letting meat animals grow too large before butchering.

My latest mistake was leaving a tree trimmer unsupervised during our solar panel installation. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way that not all tree trimmers actually have a good understanding of tree biology. We agreed to have someone come out to trim two branches that overhanging our patio, and the trimmer took it upon himself to top the entire tree without checking with us first. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell us ahead of time what day they were coming out and I wasn’t home at the time. Never let anyone work at your home without you present!  Make them come back another day or clear your schedule!

HH: What are your best tips and tricks for homesteading in small, urban spaces?  

KR: Pre-planning is crucial in smaller spaces. If you know what you want, you can figure out how to layer those things together in the space you have. Also, make sure to use your vertical space as well, and anything that is multipurpose!

HH: You have had a number of different livestock during your time homesteading. Tell me about your experience with each of them and what you learned from these experiences.  

KR: Our first animals were chickens, and I love chickens and will probably always have a few.  We raised goats for a couple years. That was a good experience and it’s totally possible to raise goats in small spaces, but if I had them again, I’d want to keep a large enough herd that I could have my own buck.  

We’ve also raised meat rabbits. I don’t like butchering them, but meat rabbits are one of the most productive livestock for small spaces, so we may have them again some day.

HH: What are some of the challenges of raising livestock in urban areas?  

KR: The most challenging aspect of urban livestock is having enough room to compost down their waste without making your own yard unpleasant to be around. Hot, fast compost, and not too many animals are the key.

HH: You have homesteaded in both Portland, Oregon, and San Antonio, Texas. What were the greatest benefits and challenges of these two places?  

KR: Urban homesteading is very accepted and normal in Portland, and it has great weather for gardening. I had a hard time in the winter months when it was rainy, and it can be too wet to start gardening in the spring sometimes.

I am still learning how to homestead here in San Antonio. It has a very different climate and soil structure, so we’re focusing more on rainwater harvesting and solar at the moment while I experiment with gardening.

HH: What were the biggest challenges of the move from Portland to San Antonio?  

KR: The most difficult part of orchestrating that move was figuring out what to do with our livestock and all the trees, flowers and herbs I’d been raising for ten years. We ended up leaving everything except the household pets and some irises that were from my grandmother.

HH: You describe yourself as a bookworm. What are some of your favorite homesteading books, and why do you love them?

KR: “The Small Scale Poultry Flock” [by Harvey Ussery] and “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual” [by Bill Mollison] are my current favorites.

HH: Where is the best place to find homesteading books?  

KR: I get most of mine from the library. Love the library.

HH: You also have four kids. What are some of the challenges and joys of raising children on a homestead?  

KR: The kids have a great understanding of where food comes from and how much work it takes. They really enjoy the different seasons and harvests. It can be difficult to get enough time for projects around the homestead when you have kids.

HH: What chores do your kids do around the homestead?  

KR: My kids mostly help with harvesting and feeding the chickens. They enjoy working with my husband and I, but we don’t really think of that as chores because we invite them to work with us, but it’s fine if they choose to jump on the trampoline or play in the yard instead.

HH: You also have a series of free email courses for homesteaders just getting started who want to do a deep-dive on a specific topic. How did you come up with this idea, and what has the experience of designing and executing these courses been like?  

KR: I’ve found that when I find a new website I like, I don’t always find all the information they have on a particular topic and even if I bookmark things I don’t always see it again. Email courses are great because they come right to you and sit and wait for you to have time to read them in your email.

HH: What are you doing on your homestead right now that you really enjoy?  

KR: We just put some fertile eggs under a broody hen. I’m super excited because I’ve only raised day old chicks before. We also just got solar panels and rain barrels installed, so that’s been an adventure!

HH: What do you hope for the future of your homestead?  

KR: My vision is a multi-layered food forest that requires minimal upkeep. We have the young trees in place right now and need to start adding in shrubs. It’s a very long-term vision! In the immediate future, we’ll be adding some raised beds for annual vegetables.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

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