Columbia 'urban homesteaders' work to live self-sufficiently

Monday, July 12, 2010 | 9:44 p.m. CDT; updated 10:27 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 13, 2010
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Annette and Charlie Triplett of Columbia are "urban homesteaders." They are attempting to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle in the city by using things such as raised gardens and a worm composting system.

The size of the original urban homesteaders' garden in California was originally misstated.

COLUMBIA — Charlie Triplett describes his childhood experiences with gardening as unpleasant.

Although his father, a truck driver, insisted on planting an enormous plot every year, he and his mother were less passionate about the weeding and upkeep.

Triplett no longer has to worry about weeding. He and his wife, Annette, try to grow as much of their own food as possible in raised garden beds on their urban homestead, a block off Broadway in the Old Southwest neighborhood.

Raised-bed gardens — essentially containers that sit on top of the grass and hold soil mix — mean no more pulling weeds.

The Tripletts are part of a movement of "urban homesteaders" attempting to live more self-sufficient lifestyles in the city. For them, this means composting, growing their own food or buying it locally, and walking or biking when possible.

Instead of living on a lot of acreage in the country, the Tripletts manage their sustainable lifestyle on Edgewood Avenue near downtown Columbia.

Although the urban homesteading movement is gaining traction nationwide, there is not a way to quantify how widespread it is.

Adam Saunders, board president and co-founder of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, said it exists on a spectrum — some families grow a few tomatoes, while others grow most of the food they eat.

He listed a number of reasons for the growing interest. Among them was lowering the cost of food, reducing carbon footprints, generating income from produce sales and the gratification of self-reliance.

“One of the biggest benefits is how rewarding it is,” Saunders said. “You can always see progress from day to day.”

The country's original urban homesteaders, the Dervaes family in Pasadena, Calif., produce up to 6,000 pounds of produce annually on a garden that was 66 feet by 66 feet not far from Los Angeles.

For the Dervaes family, urban homesteading is a career. For the Tripletts, it’s about finding a balance.

During the week, they work full time. Annette works for MU Extension and assists in coordinating a farm-to-school program that helps kindergarten students understand from where food is coming from and encourages healthy eating.

Charlie works as a web designer for the MU College of Engineering.

“I really enjoy working in an office, doing design work," he said. "There are parts of our jobs we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.”

Annette checks on the plants almost daily after work but because of their work schedules, they usually tend their garden on Sundays.

“Oh, my squash has bloomed!” she said to her husband last Sunday. “This wasn’t here yesterday."

She said she first learned about urban homesteading in November 2008, around the time she and Charlie purchased their 1930s-era Craftsman-style bungalow.

At that point, her only gardening experience was a few small tomato plants in a container in the apartment where she and Charlie lived before moving into their home.

“Just seeing that it could be done on a larger scale made me feel like I could do a piece of it here,” she said.

The summer after the Tripletts moved, they built their first raised-frame garden bed, using the system described in “Gardening Len’s Way,” an e-book by Len Pense.

Their strategy was to take small steps in the beginning rather than tackling too much at once.  During the first year, they grew tomatoes, peppers, carrots, green beans, and eggplant, and planted a grape vine, strawberries and blueberry bushes.

This summer, they built two more raised-frame garden beds, added two additional grape vines, tried pumpkin in a pot and expanded their crop to include melons, squash, corn, sweet potatoes, peppers and garlic.

Annette thought about having chickens, Charlie's not intersted. However, they have worms for a vermicomposting system, and they hope to keep bees in the future.

The worms live on kitchen scraps, such as strawberries, tea bags and eggshells, and rest in a bed of moistened phone book pages in bins in the Tripletts' basement. The worms break down the organic matter to create vermicompost, which can be used as outside fertilizer.

The Tripletts also have a compost pile in the backyard and hope to someday have enough fertilizer to “close the loop”so they no longer need commercial fertilizer.

The couple urge those interested in starting their own urban homestead to start small and go for easy victories.

This week's victory was a batch of strawberry freezer jam, which Annette made with strawberries from their garden for the first time. Charlie photographed the project for, the blog they use to chronicle their efforts and share them with the community.

In the long run, Annette hopes to organize workshops, such as how to plant blueberries or bake bread, to help spread urban homesteading practices to others in the area.

Despite the availability of similar classes in Columbia, she said she believes there is a high demand for more of them.

“Even people who live in an apartment can grow something on the balcony or windowsill,” she said.

“I like the idea of being able to encourage other people to grow their own and gain a measure of self-sufficiency and to be able to have more control over their food system.”

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Annette Triplett July 13, 2010 | 8:31 a.m.

Just one clarification: the Dervaes family in Pasadena grow their produce on a 1/10 acre plot, not 66 square feet. This 1/10 of an acre is their entire city lot, minus the house and a few other smaller structures.

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer July 13, 2010 | 10:04 a.m.

Thanks for pointing out the error! It was an editing mistake, not the reporter's mistake. Theresa had written that it was a 66-foot-square garden, and that was mistakenly changed to 66-square-foot garden. The story has been updated. Thanks again.
— Joy Mayer,

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