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Chickens In Suburbia: One Couple's Foray Into Urban Homesteading
If you’ve never heard of urban homesteading, you’re probably not alone. In fact, just a couple of years ago, Everett Sizemore — now one of Denver’s many proponents of the movement — was pretty uninformed about what growing food and maintaining animals on one-eighth of an acre entailed.
But he was compelled to start somewhere. “I walked out to my backyard one day and realized I didn’t know what 90 percent of the plants and insects were called. I didn’t know chickweed from pigweed, chokecherry from gooseberry, or earwig from lacewing,” says Sizemore. “It made me think about how far we’ve moved away from nature in the last two generations, and how we’re in deep trouble if there ever comes a time when such knowledge becomes necessary again. I wanted to relearn what was not passed on from my grandparents to my parents — or to me.”
From ignorant to igniting a local tipping point
Sizemore, along with his wife Melissa Blakeslee, was inspired to start living with more self-reliance. First they explored their suburb’s zoning laws, which are quite flexible compared to other counties. Then they read. Books, magazines, Web sites. And they networked with other eco-conscious urbanites.
Searching for a like-minded community, Sizemore started the Greater Denver Homesteading Group simply because nothing like it existed. Today the co-op boasts nearly 375 members who share a passion for urban farming online and at weekly “meetups” around town.
When they’re not hanging out with fellow members, Sizemore and Blakeslee raise chard, chives, cucumbers — and everything in between — on their suburban plot. Sizemore spends an hour each evening in this little partial acre of the world and dedicates one 8- to 10-hour day every weekend cultivating his homestead.
It’s not just about food
“After a long commute, I decompress in my backyard by pulling weeds and watching bees,” he says. “I’ve gone from being on the verge of assault [in traffic] to feeling calm and serene.”
In this contemplative oasis, the couple’s shady north-side fence doubles as a grapevine trellis, and herbs thrive in a xeriscaped, edible front-yard garden fertilized with mulch they make in homemade composting bins. Surprisingly, raspberries have grown the best in Denver’s arid climate; blueberries have fared worst.
Oh, then there’s the chickens, Laverne and Shirley, who keep the couple in eggs. These urban farmers also share space with a pair of dogs, cats and happy fertilizers, the rabbits. A colony of wild bees is the latest addition to the menagerie.
How does one establish a nest of bees in urban Denver? Just ask around, says Sizemore, who turned to his homesteading group to locate a swarm ripe for the snatching. “You can also call the pest control people,” says Sizemore. “They always know the angry homeowners with swarms.”
Apparently, in the spring, the old queen bee leaves with half of her helpers and a new queen takes over. During this short period of “homelessness,” the displaced bees huddle in a swarm, at which time one can “knock them into a box and step away for 20 minutes or so,” according to Sizemore.
Why is urban homesteading spreading like wildfire?
Besides the fact that the average human could catch, transport and reestablish a colony of wild bees in a Denver backyard, the most surprising thing about urban homesteading has been the interesting mix of people attracted to the practice, says Sizemore. “You have your liberals, but we also have close ties with far-right Libertarians, who are interested in gun ownership and how to butcher meat.”
Sizemore thinks the growing interest in urban homesteading comes from a number of merging factors. “The economic situation was a catalyst,” he says. “But there are also underlying issues coming to light because of food recalls, the rising cost of food and a renewed interest in eating food grown close to home.”
Do try this at home
If you, like an increasing number of Americans, are interested in starting to homestead (urban or otherwise), Sizemore offers up some tips from a guy who two years ago was just as uninitiated as you:
- Start with a garden. Learn to grow food first. You’ll get frustrated and burned out if you try everything at once.
- Then grow enough so that you have to learn how to preserve it with canning, drying, freezing, etc.
- When you’re ready for animals, get a few chickens or a beehive. If that doesn’t scratch the itch, try a dwarf dairy goat.
- Learn about and try what interests you most. Sizemore started making his own cheese and yogurt. Blakeslee found a passion for knitting and sewing her own clothes.
And, perhaps most importantly: Don’t do it just to save money. “If you think you’re going to get started with urban homesteading and save a bunch of money in the first couple of years, you are in for a rude awakening,” laughs Sizemore, whose garden offsets about a tenth of his annual grocery bill.
“I do this because I want to learn homesteading skills and be closer to my food,” he explains. “There are other benefits as well — a healthier diet, good exercise, a beautiful garden, being part of a movement in my community — but saving money isn’t a primary goal at this point.”