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Suburban Self Reliance: Sustainablity in Small Spaces

Avatar for James Walton James Walton  |  Updated: April 9, 2020
Suburban Self Reliance: Sustainablity in Small Spaces

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We are on the cusp of another great exodus from American cities. About 5 years ago there were young people flocking to hinterlands from larger cities and towns in order to homestead and live a more sustainable life.

After this battle with the pandemic and the economic implications to follow, there will be another wave of people running from the crowded streets and high rises.

While there are things you can do on 40 acres that you could never dream of doing on your suburban lot, there is still a sustainable lifestyle available in many of the suburbs around the nation.

You cannot fall into the trap of HOAs and you may even have to test your political and legal acumen a bit. However, when you come out on the other side you will have earned something. It will be something better than any award, plaque or accolade you can imagine.

I am talking about a home and a small plot of land that produces food and enjoyment for your family. Whether that be in the form of gardens and hens or goats and solar panels, you will live a life that puts you in alignment with your own humanity.

So what does it take to create your own sustainable suburban homestead?

How Much Room Do You Really Have?

The sweat was beading down my head and soaking my sweatshirt. Summers in Virginia are unrelenting and even mid-morning can be a bit of a monster.

Ripping through saplings, brambles and some larger trees, I was dressed in sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt with a woodsman’s ax and some manual hedge trimmers. I was also battling grape vines that were well established in the treetops.

Why the sweats? Well, I thought it would be a great workout and I am allergic to poison ivy, I hate chiggers and I was too young and ornery to wait for the fall to make this project happen.

Before this expansion, we had a decent sized yard, for a suburban lot, with a small section of wetland forest behind us. The family before us had a small garden in that version of the yard.

Without the expansion, we would have assumed our space to be just what was inside the fence when we bought the home.

That expansion is now home to

  • 3 Raised Beds
  • Potted Green Beans and Trellis
  • A Chicken Run
  • A Potato Bed
  • 2 Peach Trees
  • A Patch of Blackhawk Raspberries
  • Several Paw Paw Trees
  • Hazelnut Trees
  • Our Wood Pile
  • A Trampoline for some fun

How much room do you really have in your yards? I say yards because your front yard is not just for grass. Some front yards turn out to be better growing locations than backyards. Depending on how the sun hits your property.

It might be time to reevaluate the space you have. It might also be time to stop worrying about what your neighbors will think if you place a raised bed or several fruit trees in the front yard.

Chances are you have a lot more growing area than you think. You probably have a cozy little corner for a coop or maybe an area that can be carved out for such a use.

Protect Your Investments

When we started our suburban prepping journey we had two pit bulls and a newborn. I would stare out the window in dismay as my wet-nosed, brindled, angels would sunbathe right on top of my beautifully mulched growing areas and crush the poor seedlings beneath them.

As the children grew they would also destroy my gardens by pulling kale plants completely out of the ground in their quest for a crisp leaf. Of course, when your 3-year-old is eating raw kale you can hardly be angry with them.

You simply have to adapt.

Then the chickens came and they ravaged everything they could get their beaks on. No seedlings were safe. Even full-grown turnip plants would suffer under the type of gang warfare that was levied upon them by the small flock of chickens.

They were my greatest adversary but I refused to pen them up all day. They should have free range of the yard to feast on bugs, seeds, and weeds. That’s how you get those incredible backyard hen eggs that put the supermarket’s to shame.

Fencing and elevation will be your greatest allies if you wish to have both a working backyard for kids that is also growing food in many forms.

Small Fenced Enclosures

For your chicken coop and smaller garden areas, you will likely enclose the entire area off with some kind of fencing. I like a simple wood frame of 4×4 posts and 2x4s. I attach simple chicken fencing to this and make a quick gate.

We move our fences and coop a few times a year to give the area a break and to put our birds back on some fresh growth. Because of this, I don’t cement the posts in and it allows us to easily move the enclosures around. If it turns out we don’t need that area fenced anymore I can easily disassemble the whole thing, too!

Small Mobile Fencing

Simple 2×2 framing can be covered in fencing and moved from bed to bed or used to protect young plants in early spring.

These can be designed pyramid style or rectangular depending on the type of plants. Obviously your youngest plants are the most vulnerable and need to be protected.

High Raised Beds

Another great protection method is to build raised beds on legs or build them on top of other things. I have a crude chicken run that used to be part of my first coop. This year I added a raised bed on top of it. This is about 3 ft high and provides some protection from the birds and dogs.

Early in the year, I caught Link, our smallest pitty, on top of the bed. I have since added some obstructions to the area to keep him out. There are lettuces and spinach growing in their now. So I have a lot to lose.

If you don’t plan on fencing off an entire area exclusively for your garden and livestock than you need to get creative and take the protection of your plants and animals very seriously.

Suburban Perennials for Edible Landscaping

What do you see when you look out the windows? What are those bushes growing in the yard? How about those trees? Do you know anything about them?

They were probably there when you moved in and you haven’t given them thought.

What if that bush by the door was a Nanking Red Cherry bush that produces small little red cherries each year. They come back year over year and they are delicious?

What if those succulents were replaced with lavender or rosemary?

Why not eat your landscape or use it to make things like fragrant soaps and tinctures? The condition of modern landscaping is based on two things

  1. Hardy plants that animals don’t like to eat and humans don’t have to concern themselves with
  2. Designs that require repeat service throughout the year. (Mulching, aerating, fertilizing)

The beauty of vining grapes or kiwi can rival any ivy on the market. These foods will come back year over year and provide you with some incredible nutrition, too!

You can also make wreaths with those grapevines when it comes time to cut them back.

The rabbit hole for wild edible landscaping is pretty deep but here are some plants you should consider.

  • Walking Onion
  • Goji Berry
  • Persimmon
  • Ground Nut
  • Elderberries
  • Feijoa

Rain Water Collection

“So, can I use the rainwater for my venus flytrap?”

My son Carter has always been a garden goer. He has been eating foods right off the plant since he was old enough to get outside and chew them up. However, he has never taken an interest in caring for the plants.

His new obsession with carnivorous plants has changed that. He is on the hunt for water that is not chlorinated.

That which comes from our hose is chlorinated water and is really not the best for any plants, or the soil they are nestled in. The chlorine damages the microbiology of soil and can increase disease and pests.

A few rain barrels can give you over 100 gallons of water that you can use for watering plants, making compost tea or even taking inside to wash dishes, if you are concerned with water conservation in general.

We have a great article here at Backdoor Survival about setting up your own water catchment system.

Powering Essentials with Solar

“James, I don’t think we could power your whole house but we can make sure your lights, televisions, refrigerator all stay on in an emergency. ”

Joe Ordia of PEG Solar here in Virginia has been pushing me to towards solar solutions over the past few months. He has taught me a very important lesson when it comes to alternative energy.

The use of alternative energies in your home is not an all or nothing proposition.

It’s easy for us to get gummed up over the idea of living off-grid. Either we have the solar and wind power to go totally off-grid or we just stay on the grid. This line of thinking has a lot to do with not wanting to break free from power companies and their convenience.

While it might be fun to bounce around YouTube and imagine taking on a solar project, talk to some pros. They can put a lot in perspective for you in one phone call.

Most solar companies will talk to you on the phone for free. Don’t mine them for free information about your home but if they offer a free consultation, take it!

Their sales time is tasked with getting you on board. They will either pull that off or not. Either way, you get some good info about your home and solar power.


I have told my goat story too many times on this blog! Instead, we should talk about a conversation I had with a neighbor just a few weeks ago?

“What do you have chickens? Are you allowed to have chickens in the city?”

My neighbors, walking his dog and peeking into my yard shared a common sentiment that most people share. They don’t know the laws and they don’t know what they can or cannot have in their own backyard.

Since ignorance of the law is no defense, we opt for fescue because we know it won’t get us fined, unless we don’t cut it.

Animals like rabbits, chickens, and goats are all great backyard livestock for the urban homestead. Ducks could be an exception but you would need some kind of water source and they can get nasty if you don’t manage them.


Most areas will not allow you to keep dozens of chickens and you likely will not be able to slaughter the birds, either. However, you can keep enough chickens to provide your home with plenty of eggs.

There are laying breeds and there are meat breeds so be sure you invest in a breed that does the laying better than the…meating.

If you have a sturdy coop, a simple run, feeders, waterers and access to some good feed and bedding you are basically in business with chickens.


For the suburban goat owner space is going to be an issue. Milking a goat or keeping one around for fibers or even entertainment are all reasonable motivations.

The Nigerian Dwarf is a type of goat that is small in stature but still a milk producer. If you feed them well they can be great milk producers and stand only about 20 inches tall.

Goats will devastate any area they inhabit. They will chew everything that grows down to the dirt. To deal with that you could either move them during the year or you can invest in one spot and create a pen for them inside of that location.

The jump from chickens to goats is a big one but goats are little knuckleheads and they are great to have around.

Editors Note: Sam says you better have a good fence if you want to keep goats. Here is an example that led to switching to sheep at the Biggers’ house: Goats knocked a small tree over, shorted out the electric fence wire that was run on top of a woven wire field fence and then used the tree as a bridge over the fence which allowed them to start eating grapes. They are very creative and determined animals.


I have very little experience with rabbits but we have a great article here at Backdoor Survival about raising meat rabbits in small spaces. This is perfect for the suburban homesteader.

Rabbits are cute but they are also delicious!


The options for the suburban homesteader are many. It’s interesting living in the suburbs and watching the people who live there.

You see, I believe we have fallen under the spell of convenience and the more we depend on it the harder it is to break that spell.

What else could explain how we lost most of our survival skills and instincts over a simple 100 year period. The spell of convenience has not done us in completely but it has robbed us of a lot.

Maybe the potion is what laces those perfectly manicured lawns. Those idealistic homes and yards, picketed and primped, are incantations that pull us further under the spell.

Total dependence.

Once you start planting food, watching hens bandy about the yard and look at your property as a food-producing resource rather than something purely aesthetic it is liberating.

The shroud begins to clear and you realize all the power and freedom you have if you choose it. Break that dependence and seek out sustainability on your own version of the suburban homestead.

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3 Responses to “Suburban Self Reliance: Sustainablity in Small Spaces”

  1. Adding edible plants to ornamental gardens is easy. Even with an HOA, most people can’t identify which plants are edible and which are ornamental. As long as you don’t have raised beds that are empty all winter and look like freshly dug graves, and don’t plant in square blocks and straight rows, kale, lettuce, peppers, eggplant, small determinate tomatoes, clusters of onions and garlic, carrots or beets planted along a walkway, bush beans planted at the base of roses or other bushes and trees, scarlet runner beans on a tall trellis, small squash like delacata growing on an arbor, clumps of wheat or oats instead of ornamental grasses, are all examples of food plants that your HOA won’t recognize as food, and will never complain about, even when they are in the front yard. There are lots of books and websites dedicated to edible landscapes. It’s easy to find reasons not to grow vegetables–takes a little more work to find opportunities to grow them.

  2. I’d love to chat with you about how to make this kind of change when you live in a trailer park. Ours is owned by a canadian company that operates purely on “does it make me money” so every little thing is regulated. even the color we can paint our shutters . (my shade of purple was ever so politely declined) What can I do in an area where the soil is hardpan, the neighbors treat my yard and belongings like their own and my income is less than 1k a month?

    • Maybe you can talk to your neighbors about a joint gardening project. Whether they really take it up or not, they’ll know what you’re trying to do, and may be less likely to trample your seedlings. (My soil appears to be a prehistoric stony beach, with a smear of imported topsoil to support a little bit of grass. It’s not hardpan, but a pick is actually more useful than a shovel in making a new garden plot.) So, you need tools, organic soil amendments, and seeds. I’ve gotten good tools for very little cash at garage and estate sales. Share them with your neighbors. If you cook with raw vegetables, save peelings and cores to make compost with. If there are trees nearby, grab the fallen leaves, twigs, pruned branches, etc. and put them under your soil. Keep them moist so they decay into fertile soil. Your first crop might be bush beans. They don’t sprawl like tomatoes and squashes do, and they don’t need deep soil like carrots do. You can protect them from rabbits, deer, and groundhogs with a chicken-wire cage if necessary. Choose a few of the plants not to harvest, so the bean pods mature and dry; those will provide the seeds for next year. You may not get a harvest this year, but you need to start feeding the soil before the soil can feed you. The best time to start doing this is ten years ago, but the next-best time is today.

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