Urban homestead: Couple grows produce, chickens at Marion home

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A historic home, built in 1860, sits on a double corner lot near downtown Marion. Complete with wide front porch and a turret on one corner, this house fits right into the shady, tree-lined neighborhood.

But take a closer look at the yard, and it quickly becomes clear something more is going on here.

With chickens roaming the backyard and summer squash growing in the front yard instead of flower beds, this is an “urban homestead,” pioneered by local couple John Lane, 45, and Kelli Kennon-Lane, 31.

The couple bought the house about seven years ago and in 2011 started their blog, thesustainablecouple.com, where they write about their adventures growing as much food as they can in the middle of town.

Situated on a double corner lot near downtown Marion, their yard is bigger than most urban properties and offers ample room for their chickens, rain barrels and raised garden beds.

The raised beds employ square-foot gardening, a system that allows intensive, space-efficient vegetable production.

“It’s the only way you can get as much food as possible in a small amount of space,” Kennon-Lane said. “We eat almost exclusively from our garden in summer.”

The produce is supplemented with eggs from their chickens and meat and other products they buy from local farmers, either directly or via farmers markets and the New Pioneer Co-op. They also barter, trading eggs for honey and swapping produce with other gardeners.

Much of the summer’s produce gets preserved to last through the winter. At the end of the season, their pantry will be lined with Mason jars filled with tomato sauces, strawberry and jalapeno jams and “pickles of every kind.” More produce will fill their freezer, especially kale and Swiss chard, which Kennon-Lane likes to have on hand for green smoothies.

They’re working to incorporate edible landscaping into the front yard, where herbs in pots crowd their front porch.

“Our porch is our happy place. We sit out here quite a bit,” she said.

Summer squash put out bright orange blossoms along a fence row, alongside peppers and cabbage. Last year, they grew green onions along their front walk for Feed Iowa First, a local non-profit that works to fight food insecurity by growing produce for local food banks.

“I think front yards are kind of a waste of space. You can grow food and have it be very beautiful,” Kennon-Lane said.

She acknowledges that on a street of smooth green lawns and stately old homes, not everyone enjoys the aesthetics of urban farming. She said the couple tries to balance respecting their neighbor’s sensibilities and staying true to their own beliefs.

“The neighborhood has been amazingly receptive to the chickens and all the things we’ve been trying to do,” she said. “You have to walk this very, very thin line between neighborliness and doing what you want. Do everything with a kind heart and with generosity.”

Mostly, the six chickens wander the fenced-in backyard freely, sheltering in a small coop in bad weather and when the couple leaves home. They get along amicably with the couple’s two dogs.

Once or twice, a chicken has flapped over the fence, but they usually quickly return — the yard means safety to them, and they’re chickens, after all, not keen to have adventures. Marion’s backyard chicken ordinance also stipulates their wings must be clipped, so they can’t get too far.

The couple started their blog in 2011 as a way to keep family and friends updated on what they were doing and answer questions about how they were doing it. Soon — they’re not sure exactly how — they realized people all over the country were reading it. Along with garden and chicken updates, they offer recipes and tips on everything from making homemade laundry soap to setting up a rain barrel system.

Their system uses 11 barrels, eight in the backyard and three in front. Situated under a downspout to catch rainwater, the backyard barrels are connected with PVC pipe, so one downspout can fill all eight. They can catch a lot of water — a single heavy rain earlier this month filled five barrels in one night. One barrel is enough to water all of the garden beds. To get water pressure, Kennon-Lane lowers a sump pump hooked to a hose into the barrel she wants to use.

It’s a straightforward system, one they set up themselves — DIY is their ethos. Lane, an electrician who has worked in construction, built the raised beds and the chicken coop, fashioned from used materials. He also set up a worm composting system in a blue plastic bin next to their garage.

“I’m more the builder,” Lane said. “I like working with my hands — that’s fun for me.”

Kennon-Lane said starting a system like this can be time consuming and requires upfront capital. But once the garden gets going, she estimates she spends only 15 to 20 minutes a day on weeding and watering.

“I’m cheap. There’s something about buying tomatoes from the store when I know I could grow hundreds of them for nickels, so the frugal aspect is big for me,” she said. “We have the energy, so why not do it ourselves?”

They don’t just do all this to save money, however. They want to be good global citizens, and living sustainably is part of that, they said.

“We have social and environmental responsibilities,” Kennon-Lane said. “Definitely we have to think about the big picture.”

Writing about their passion has translated into activism. The couple helped shape Marion’s urban chicken ordinance two years ago and more recently, an urban agriculture ordinance.

A mentor at the Grant Wood Area Education Association with a background in teaching, Kennon-Lane hopes to someday make sharing the urban homestead lifestyle her full-time job. The couple started teaching urban homesteading classes at the Marion Public Library this year and were thrilled when every class quickly reached capacity. They will teach the series again this fall at the Indian Creek Nature. Enrollment will open in August.

Their advice for those looking to start their own urban farm?

“Start small, with a pot of herbs on your porch or a small composting bin,” Kennon-Lane said.

Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

“Our first backyard garden failed,” Lane said. “It’s all a learning experience. We did a lot of classes. Part of giving back is now teaching them.”

Learn more

Read more on the Sustainable Couple blog: thesustainablecouple.com.

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