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What is a homestead? And how to get started homesteading?

fresh fruit stand in Vancouver, BC prompts the question: What is a homestead?

The term ‘homesteading’ is now synonymous with self-sufficiency, ecological responsibility and outright survival. The term conjures up baskets of fresh produce, happy clucking chickens, muddy Wellies (these are rubber boots), and fun and fabulous homemade clothes but there are so many facets to a homesteading that even self-sufficient people are left scratching their heads, wondering: What is a homestead?

In the broadest terms, homesteading is a life and a lifestyle committed to getting back to basics. It’s about growing your own food; using our resources wisely and being satisfied (and happy) with what we have in the here and the now. In a time of social-distancing, uncertainty about global economic conditions and fears about health, no wonder homesteading is becoming so popular, again. 

What is homesteading?

Traditional homesteading is about living and working the land. It means buying a plot of land — usually an acre or more — setting up a home and farming the land so you become self-reliant and self-sufficient. Homesteaders usually grow their own vegetables and fruit (if the climate allows) and even raise chickens, ducks, and other livestock. 

But the essence of homesteading doesn’t require you to invest heavily in a piece of land in order to become self-sufficient. This is good news since it makes no sense to go into massive amounts of debt in order to start a self-sufficient life. 

How to start homesteading?

woman relaxes at a window with a cup of tea, contemplating her plans and her definition of what is a homestead

Whether you live in the city or the country, it can be a bit intimidating to determine where to start your homesteading efforts, especially if you’ve grown even a tomato plant (and particularly if you’ve never set-up your own off-the-grid energy system). 

The good news is that becoming a homestead farmer — or adopting a few homesteading principles — is relatively easy. 

The first step is simple: Slow down. 

The essence of homesteading is to figure out how to become self-sufficient where you currently live. If you live in an apartment, then consider growing a few plants in your window or on your balcony. If you live in an urban or suburban house, consider setting aside a patch of garden and dedicate it to edible plants. If gardening seems too intimidating at first, consider learning how to can your own food — a process of preserving food, naturally, right at home. 

No matter where you are in the process, here are a few steps to help you get started homesteading. 

Do your research

Take time to read and learn about homesteading and the skills required to become self-sufficient. Find books at the library, talk to friends and neighbours or go online. Vegan homesteaders will appreciate the more than 30,000 followers of Homesteady. Canadians will appreciate the group dedicated to this nation’s homesteading ideals.  There’s a private group for dedicated homesteaders, as well as a group that focuses on homesteading as a survival tool. This is a good place to start, but keep looking as there are so many other resources. We recommend the Seattle, WA based resource, or peruse The Homesteading Hippy or read articles by part-time homesteader and writer Rebekah Pierce, but we might be a bit biased since she helped us write our homesteading guide. 

The idea is to find resources that match your interests. For instance, an apartment homesteader may focus on canning, learning how to sew and growing an indoor herb garden. A smaller homestead, like in the front yard of an urban homestead or the backyard of a suburban homestead, may concentrate on developing a garden that rotates through planting and harvesting throughout the spring, summer and fall. A larger, more traditional homestead could consider ways to increase self-sufficiency, perhaps by taking a portion of the homestead off-grid? Or maybe, setting up a water recycling system, where rainwater is collected, used and then re-used as greywater. 

Pick your project based on your priorities

when deciding what to do with a homestead, consider container planting

After all this research, you’re probably eager to start your homesteading, but be careful. Taking on too much, too soon, can quickly lead to burn out, a feeling of being overwhelmed and, eventually, the abandonment of this ideal. 

To avoid this consider spending a bit of time considering your priorities: 

  • Do you want to reduce your grocery bill or eat more organic foods? If so, you will want to concentrate on gardening and growing. 
  • Do you want to reduce your carbon footprint? Consider going off-grid or developing methods to reduce your water or energy consumption. 
  • Do you want to eat healthier, happy animals? Or do you want to remove animal products from your table but include them in your life? Consider starting a small hobby farm. 

By writing down your priorities you can quickly develop a list of projects that will help you achieve those goals. To start homesteading, just follow the steps to achieve project number one. Once complete (or started and well-maintained) you can move on to project number two, and so on and so on. 

Remember, homesteading is a way of life, not a predefined situation. There are many facets to homesteading and many ways to get to the goal of self-sufficiency. Whether you’ve decided you want to grow and preserve your own food, raise animals or produce your own energy, you’ll want to define and prioritize what is important to you and your family and then slowly introduce each aspect into your daily lives. Consider it a pyramid: You lay the foundation and then keep adding layer after layer. Within a few years, you will be amazed at how far you and your family have gone to adopt this more self-sufficient lifestyle. 

Pick your project, based on space

If you live in an apartment or a condo-highrise, the idea of a robust, farm-like garden may seem a bit ridiculous — and it is! 

Instead, consider growing a container garden — potted plants that house fruits and vegetables rather than green or flowering plants. To make this work, pick a sunny spot in your apartment or on the balcony. Set up a shelving system and purchase plant pots that will help keep moisture in the soil. Good options include self-watering planter pots and unglazed clay pots. If you’re feeling super ambitious you could even set-up a small greenhouse, where you can start seeds and grow plants that love sun and heat, such as Basil, peppers and tomatoes. 

If you have a private garden, you can expand your homesteading options. Consider a larger suburban or urban homesteading garden that rotates plants throughout the growing season (usually from April to October, in most North American cities). Or call your local municipal bylaw office to find out if you are allowed to raise chickens — a popular urban homesteading livestock option. (If you’re a meat-eater, another option is to raise rabbits.)

If you don’t want to start with gardening, consider preserving your own food. This is a great option for bargain hunters who find fresh produce and food on sale and want to buy and preserve this food for use later in the year. 

If you really want to start small, start with a herb garden. Herbs are usually quite robust plants and most can withstand even the most novice of gardeners. Better still, herb gardens typically take up very little space and there’s nothing better than going to the kitchen window to snip off some fresh Rosemary or clip off a few crisp Basil leaves. 

If you want to mix community support with self-sufficiency, join a community garden. A lot of communities now offer community gardens, typically with very nominal fees attached to the participation in these activities. 

If starting a garden feels a bit too ambitious this year, consider the elimination of convenience foods from your grocery list. Instead of buying pre-made frozen pizzas, learn to make (and even freeze) your own). The same applies to lasagna, Shepherd’s pie along with a variety of meat and non-meat dishes. 

Finally, if none of these projects appeals to you, but you still want to adopt a more self-sufficient lifestyle, then concentrate on your pantry. Rather than buying pre-made pancake mix, make your own. Do the same for cookies and cakes and even speciality flours and milk (such as oat flour and oat milk or almost flour and almond milk). More adventurous urban homesteaders can also try their hand at making their own butter, buttermilk, sour cream and ice-cream — all without fancy equipment. 

What to expect in the first year


Even if you follow your homesteading plan, the first year will probably be fraught with troubles and failures. That’s good because the first year of your homesteading efforts is all about learning. 

To help you learn, keep a journal. Whether you put pen to paper or decide to blog, just remember to write it down. Write down your plan, how well it was executed and what transpired. The better your notes, the easier it will be to retrace your steps and tweak the plan for the following year. 

Keep the end goal in mind

Remember, to start homesteading, you don’t need to take on huge debt to buy a large plot of land. You simply need the desire for a more self-sufficient life. Each year assess your priorities and set your goals, then list the projects that will help you achieve these goals. If you get stuck, go back to your homesteading community. Consider this your vital resource for tips, tricks and project ideas. Before you know it, you’ll be celebrating your homestead successes and helping out others who want to make the leap into a more sustainable way of life. 

Image of Romana King

Romana King

Romana King is an award-winning personal finance writer, real estate expert and the current Director of Content at Zolo Homebase. Romana has contributed to business and lifestyle publications including, Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, MoneySense, Globe & Mail Custom Content Team, and The Toronto Star. Among her achievements, Romana won silver for her annual Where to Buy Now real estate package in the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. In 2015, she won a SABEW Business Journalism award. When she was editor of CI Top Broker, Romana helped guide her team to obtain its first KRW Business Journalism nomination, and in 2011, she was part of a small team that helped MoneySense win Magazine of the Year at the 34th annual National Magazine Awards. Her north star is to consistently provide actionable, valuable and accurate information that helps elevate the financial literacy of everyone.

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