Marin Residents Get Sustainable in their Own Backyards

Learn about homesteading, beekeeping, gardening, and environmentally-friendly clothes at Earth Day Marin this Saturday.

When early pioneers set up homesteads across the American frontier, they had to be self-sufficient by necessity. The settlers moving into California in the 1800s grew all their vegetables, canned their preserves to last through the winter, and raised their own animals on the farm.

Today, Marin residents easily run to the store for those things. But more and more residents are setting up "urban homesteads," raising chickens in their backyard and growing what they can.

"Absolutely, we've seen an increase in interest," says Elizabeth Baker, former Interim Director of , which offers classes on these topics.

Urban homesteading, as the movement has become known, encompasses everything from beekeeping to composting. The idea for these would-be pioneers is to do what they can to become sustainable members of society.

Petaluma resident Rachel Kaplan, who has become a spokesperson of sorts for the movement after writing Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, started learning to can preserves and grow things in her garden after having a baby. The world seemed like a dangerous and scary place in the early 2000s, she says, and she wanted to do something positive to add to her son's world.

Learning these sustainable gardening skills for herself became that positive solution.

"I find myself less and less frightened by the world and living in the solution," she says.

Kaplan will be giving a workshop on urban homesteading this Saturday at 4 p.m. as part of Earth Day Marin at the Civic Center.

For a lot of environmentally-conscious residents, what Kaplan is saying makes sense. 

As the focus on eating local and understanding the connection between fossil fuels and our food has increased, so too has the desire to do something tangible about those things. In Corte Madera, . Across Marin, have increased the number of talks they give on vegetable growing and home gardening. Home chicken pens dot the county landscape. And organizations like Sustainable Fairfax are welcoming the increased interest in everything from composting to gray water systems.

According to Baker, a recent beekeeping class brought in 23 eager beekeepers. "Beekeeping is the new keeping chickens," she says.

"It's happening all over, not just in California," says Kaplan. She should know. After learning these skills the hard way -- by doing them herself, she's sharing her knowledge all over the country.

Sharing is actually part of the whole movement. Maybe you have some extra eggs, but no sun to grow vegetables. Swap with your neighbor. 

Kaplan gardens at her house, the community garden, and uses a friend's garden who has more space. She has arrangements with neighbors who don't pick all their fruit so that she can glean what's leftover. She tries to keep a low waste household and recycle water. She trades eggs and kills the chickens every now and then. 

But she also buys chickens and yogurt. While her friend and co-author, Ruby Blume, is part of a goat ownership cooperative in the East Bay, that's not an option for Kaplan, so she buys most of her own meat too.

"Self-sufficiency is a myth," she says. It's not important that people worry about being completely self-sufficent, but just that they start with whatever they can.

"Everybody should start where they are," she says.

To learn more about urban homesteading and how to do some of these things in your own home, visit urban-homesteading.org. Kaplan will be speaking at Earth Day Marin on Saturday, April 21 at 4 p.m. at the Civic Center. Get more information about Earth Day Marin.

Also at Earth Day Marin:

Shamini Dhana also had a eco-awakening after having her daughter. The former banker decided after her daughter was born in 2005 to start an organic, environmentally-friendly line of clothes for kids.

Though the Mill Valley mom had helped work at the Rio Summit in 1992 as part of the U.N. Association, it took her nearly 20 years before she realized what she wanted to do as a global citizen. After her daughter was born, "it was (like) a lightbulb," she said.

There were tons of organic clothes for babies, but virtually none for tweens. So Dhana developed Dhana Eco-Kids -- a line of organic clothes that are inspired and designed by international artists to help promote the idea of interconnectivity.

The line will be making it's debut in a fashion show at Earth Day Marin, complete with local kids walking the runway.

"These are kids who are very much interested in the environment and giving back," she said.


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