Book Review: The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

I got my husband The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City for his birthday.  We recently bought our first house and I thought the book looked like an excellent resource in assisting our family in realizing the organic-yuppie dream of creating our own garden. Based on my cursory skim of the jacket blurb I thought the book would be about planting tomatoes in my backyard and harvesting homegrown lemons off the patio. Typical grow-your-own advice for the intrepid new homeowner.

Turns out this book is more than your standard Better Homes and Gardens resource. More like a DIY (that’s Do-It-Yourself to the non-do-it-yourselfer) guide taken to a hardcore level. It’s written by folks who seem to be prepared to withstand any major calamity of human or natural origins while they ride out the storm in their off-the-grid Los Angeles bungalow.

As I perused the advice on guerrilla gardening in public spaces and keeping wild quail for eggs, I got the feeling that the book almost amps up the reader for some sort of progressive response to the apocalypse, without coming right out and saying so.  It’s a sort of leftist manifesto to sustainability, eco-friendly living, and urban community for those who have long-since mastered growing a lemon tree on the patio. A sort of hipster thinking-person’s alternative to the back-to-nature hippie advice of our parents’ generation.

My first clue was the guide to urban foraging. Things like grinding flour from recovered acorns, the legal wiggle room allowed when plucking fruit from your neighbors’ overhanging trees, and how to safely dumpster dive.  Seriously cool advice, if not somewhat surprising.

Diving deeper than the dumpsters, I learned about peeing in your own compost, building a wormery, and raising hens in the yard. I was all for it and ready to take the kids out to buy some chicks until I got to the part about cleaning their nasty poultry bottoms. I do enough of that with the small human members of our household. And then I turned to the page on building your own luggable loo/self-composting toilet. It’s basically a bucket in the bedroom. Wow.

Along the way are all sorts of handy projects that take DIY to the extreme. The authors eschew buying expensive compost kits and chicken coops in favor of metal trashcans and busted old vans. They advocate growing your own living curtains out of climbing vines and ripping up the lawn to let wild edible weeds take over. Folks who have apartments are advised to plant secret gardens along highway medians and grassy parking lot green patches. Reduce, reuse, recycle and save money and stick it to the man while you’re at it!

The authors strike me as the sort of educated Ready-Made readers who live in Berkeley or Brooklyn and fetishize mid-century furniture. The extremist, back-to-land living that The Urban Homestead makes the case for is not for militant black-helicopter types. More like citified, yet eco-minded, farmers market shoppers who want to take it to the next level without giving up the creature comforts of urban living or really cool design.

Extremism aside, this is an excellent book for those who are ready to dip their toes into gardening and farming, or taking sustainable living to the next level.  The Urban Homestead’s main weakness lies in its breadth not depth. It almost covers too much ground with its detailed instructions on making your own sourdough starter before moving on to harvesting water off the roof.

As an added bonus, this book is quite a handy guide for folks living in San Francisco earthquake country, or any other city that is at high risk for potentially losing services in the face of disaster (i.e. any city). We were reminded after the Katrina nightmare that we are totally on our own in the event of calamity—that local, state, and national government will pretty much be useless. I’m keeping many of the self-providing lessons of The Urban Homestead in the back of my mind in case of such an event. And I think I’ll throw a copy into the earthquake kit for reference in case the shit goes down and we have to ground flour from foraged acorns or recycle our graywater. Or even just grow our own tomatoes.

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