Suburban Self-Reliance is Possible

Self-reliance and community cooperation can be obtain without acres of farmland, but you will need to pick up suburban food-growing skills.

Reader Contribution by Staff
article image
by Niche Brislane
A small culinary herb garden in a windowsill of a cul-de-sac home.

As more of the world comes to realize the importance of self-reliance, self-sufficiency and self-sustainability, the necessity is pressing on those without acreage to do something to reclaim their ability to provide for themselves, however possible.  This series aims to serve as an in-depth guide for readers who live in jungles of suburbia to take their first steps into securing some of the most basic needs of survival.

A huge part of knowing where you’re going is knowing where we came from. This serves to orient you to our place in history at this time: a pivotal moment where regressing from our modern technologies will be the pinnacle of humanity’s adaptation to the challenges we’re facing. A brief history lesson will summarize just how dependent we have come as a modern society and help us better understand how we came to depend so much on others, particularly corporations, for things we can do ourselves. Let’s take a step back in time.

Historical Agriculture

Movies, shows and many other mainstream media portrayals focus on the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, or the fashioning and utilization of tools or weapons as the important early human achievements. Curiously few linger on the agricultural acumen of early people. But in agriculture is where we first see people form the backbone of self sufficiency: Awareness of needs beyond the moment and the self-appointed responsibility toward survival.

This backbone is what forged early people to no longer depend on the immediate availability of what nature allowed; much like most of society depends on the immediate availability of the grocery store. The act of taking personal responsibility for our immediate and long-term preservation is at the core of early agricultural efforts. As we as humans advanced, we fine-tuned growing crops, tending trees, berry bushes and domesticating livestock. We adapted to weather changes and developed ways to store grain, preserve food like drying, keep ourselves warm, and raising our newly domesticated animals.

Refrigeration Changed America

U.S. society saw the distance between the consumer and the farmer grow during the late 1800s. As cities and towns became more populated, the demand for more fresh fruits, meats, and dairy as a year-round supply provided from the countryside began to rise. Self-reliance during this time appeared as home root cellars, moving delivered ice into homemade ice boxes (and eventually refrigerated railroad boxes), until the refrigerator was invented with its mechanically manufactured ice.

The ability to keep things cold revolutionized the ability for mass production and storage to meet these needs. Relieving many farmers of the burden to raise animals, grow gardens and preserve most food for themselves. Many families no longer needed to seek out properties that included enough farmland to sustain them.

Convenience Stores

With these conveniences, villages and towns gave way to suburbs and cities where many housewives found themselves traveling far to the countryside for their produce, crafted goods, meats, and other necessities. To avoid extra, unnecessary trips to the farmlands, many homes featured a backyard garden, a modest flock of chickens for eggs, and a milk route to deliver more perishable goods. For everything else, there was the farmer or specialty stores: the butcher, the woodworker, the blacksmith.

The introduction of the full convenience store in 1916 revolutionized access to many of our needs all in one place. Serving as the delivery, storage, and distribution facility all in a more convenient location to the consumer, convenience stores offered a larger, stable income for the farmer. The convenience store became the middle between the producer and the final consumer.

This was, in this writer’s opinion, an idealistic balance between self-sufficiency and cooperation with your local farmers or small specialty businesses. Every home played their own small part in keeping goods on their tables and outsourced either directly to a farmer or specialist and the convenience store.

This is where our series will focus, as this lifestyle embodies the self-reliance and community cooperation that you can obtain without the miles of wide open farmland to make it happen completely on your own.

Where Self-Sufficient Living Diverged

In the timeline we see above, it’s hard to understand or pinpoint how we’ve faltered. We’re fighting for toilet paper while paying over 10 bucks a pound for beef. Where have things gone so wrong? The answer is quite shocking and simple: We became complacent.

As more and more of our desires became geared toward convenience, we took the weight off our shoulders one task at a time to the point where we relinquished all our personal responsibility and much of our rights. These traditional practices had safeguarded our own home’s success.

This transition in society by no means a purposeful outcome and does not mean that we’ve gone past the point of no return. Much like the many who have already done so, you can reclaim that peace of mind, the responsibility ,and the rights that we’ve let go of. I also recognize that for those in urban settings, you won’t just get a milk cow tomorrow and start an orchard of apple trees. So where do we start? Much as the mighty oak tree, we start from the ground up.

Grow a Garden as a First Step

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” –Audrey Hepburn

Americans shelled out a whopping $13.77 billion in 2019 for culinary herbs and spices. In 2021, a whopping $1.77 trillion was spent on produce, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. That’s a lot of hard-earned money that could be better used to start your journey to self-reliance in the form of a modest garden. More than 1,000 kinds of veggies, fruits, herbs, and spices can be grown across the majority of the United States — meaning a good chunk of your food that can be grown in spring, summer, or fall to be harvested on-demand or preserved for the winter months.

Start by looking at what herbs you use the most and see if they grow in your area by checking the USDA hardiness zone on the USDA website. From there you can take a look at your gardening accommodations. Do you have enough space in your yard? In your windowsills? On a balcony? Along the small grassy strip of your driveway or along the garage?

Start looking for anywhere you could fit a few small plants. If you have zero options, then this would be an excellent time to exercise some community values and reach out to friends, neighbors, relatives or anyone else who might be interested in supplementing their budget in lieu of a quaint garden.

After you’ve established which kinds of plants you want to grow and where you’re going to plant them, you can move onto the more exciting aspects of preparing your home garden. You want to plan your garden in accordance with the space you have. Plants in your list might have different light, space, or weather preferences as well as lifespans. All your seed packets should have information on them that helps you learn what that plant likes best, so you know where it will thrive best, such as in a shaded spot or in the sunniest part of your yard.

Consider the Life Span of Food Plants

For those who may need the refresher, the lifespan of a plant is germination or the sprouting of the seeds, vegetation where the plant grows its bulk, reproduction or time that they produce flowers, seeds, pods, tubers or other means of expanding with the last stage being death. All plants follow this lifecycle with only three variations in that cycle. Annuals, for example, live this cycle for up to one year from seed to death. Biennials stretch this lifespan for two years and lastly, perennials can live for years upon years.

With this in mind, a good rule of thumb is designing your garden for the plant’s lifespan. If you plan on making a garden with the intention to plant different things in the same spot the following year, you may find yourself baffled as the plants you thought to be dead burst forth amid your new crop the following spring.

When No Growing Option is Available

The home garden is one of the smallest ways you can actively take a step towards growing your own food, saving on your kitchen spending and stockpiling your pantry. However if growing is completely out of the question for you, be it in a small patch of land or a kitchen windowsill, there is one more way to get spices for your cabinet. Visit your local farmers market and buy from more local or private farmers. This takes some dependency away from the big box brands (which, as of late, have been unreliable anyway) and invest it into your close community with your nearest farmers and ranchers.

So dive right into the seed catalogs or websites to kick off your planning, as spring is just around the corner. Be sure to check back for the next article, where we’ll go more in depth on how to make small steps to secure dairy and eggs and meat for your home, all while avoiding the grocer.

Niche Brislane is an Amish-raised farmer and prairie pioneer enjoying all the fruits of a life well lived in harmony with the Earth. She seeks to share and teach the rewarding life of frugal self-reliance. Connect with Niche at Stag Valley Homestead, on Facebook and Instagram, and on her blog.

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  • Updated on Jan 23, 2022
  • Originally Published on Jan 21, 2022
Tagged with: Nebraska, Niche Brislane, Reader Contributions, suburban