Renee Wilkinson: Blogger, Fire Escape Gardener, and Raiser of Bantam Chickens


It takes quite a bit to pull me off my high horse after I have done something “homemakery,” as I call it (i.e., cooking food from actual ingredients, instead of putting a TV dinner into the microwave). For instance, I baked an apple pie a few weeks ago to impress someone special, and when I pulled it out of the oven and it wasn’t burnt to a crisp nor did it taste like dog food, I wanted to immediately change my name to Martha Stewart.

Then along came Renee Wilkinson, creator of the popular site and our newest Fulcrum author, and knocked me right off that horse. Not only does Renee cook, bake, garden, and can, she also raises bantam chickens (named Pearl, Maude, and Florence) and bees (I don’t believe she names the bees, though). This woman is amazing and so is her book, Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create (April 2011, 978-1-55591-748-7), and not just because she is so resourceful and innovative, but because she provides simple, practical advice—even for people like me, with little time, space, or know-how. (What cool tips do you have to make your urban space into a sustainable home? See GIVEAWAY details below…)

I recently caught up with Renee to discuss her inspiration for Modern Homestead and the process of writing her first book. I think she’ll quickly become your idol too. Plus, isn’t she cute?

Please talk a little bit about your decision to begin this journey and write Modern Homestead. How different is the process from writing and maintaining
Renee: I remember beginning my early gardening adventures and feeling really uncertain about whether I was doing it all “right.” The books I found at the time didn’t seem approachable for a beginner, so I fell back on my parents and grandparents for gardening advice. A few gardens down the road, I started to make the transition from urban gardener to urban homesteader—keeping backyard livestock, canning the harvest, and getting involved in the local food system. Around that time I started as a way to reach more people who were interested in urban homesteading, but, like me, couldn’t find a lot of practical information online or in books.

The blog turned into a responsibility after a few years. I felt, and still do, like I owe my readers frequent posts. There are still lots of people out there looking for help, or at least looking for community. It’s nice to know we’re not alone on this adventure. When Fulcrum approached me about writing a book, I felt like this was my chance to reach even more people. This was the book I wish I had those first few years.

The process was really serious for me. I was balancing my first year of graduate school with living long distance from my partner. Researching and writing the book was my escape from all that. It was a chance to draw stories about keeping goats out of my grandparents. I got to read all kinds of books to really flesh out my knowledge on the more obscure topics. It was a pleasure to write—to just swim around in that lifestyle I love—but it was also stressful. Looking back, I’m really not sure how I balanced it all!

What was the most challenging part of creating this book? Do you have any advice to share for hopeful first-time authors?

Renee: An author friend of mine, Laura Irwin, gave me this advice before I committed to the project: “Don’t write a book unless you really, really want to write a book.” At the time it seemed silly. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to write a book? But a few months in I knew what she meant. It’s a huge project once you get a month or two in. My buddies would go out for beers and I would need to say, “No, I’ve got writing to do.” I was like a broken record for months.

Creating a production schedule was immensely helpful. It’s a massive project and you have to split it up into bite-sized pieces. It feels good to cross things off that list, knowing you are still moving forward despite the months of work ahead. I broke it down by chapter, then by section, gave myself timelines and stuck to them. I also front loaded my schedule, to leave a little wiggle room toward the end just in case I needed it. And of course I needed it.

Where do you get your energy to do all this modern homesteading? I am very impressed.

Renee: You could certainly make the argument that I am hyperproductive.  I guess I grew up in a household that valued that. We had chores, my dad was always needing our help in the garden, my mom always had a long do-to list that she needed help with…

Despite being so productive, I balance it with serious downtime and try to take really good care of myself. I can spend hours working outside, which is really meditative for me and keeps me pretty centered. I get a lot of sleep and eat pretty healthily, which keeps me fit and energetic. Life is short, sometimes too short, and I just want to get every drop I can from mine.

What is the most valuable project featured in the book that a newbie to gardening or canning or raising livestock can learn?

Renee: Boy, that’s a tough one…I’ve found that the fear of doing something “wrong” often paralyzes people into doing nothing instead. So although it’s not really a project, I think the most valuable thing a newbie can learn from the book is that we all have to start somewhere. The book is full of good projects to start this adventure.

Perhaps one of my favorite projects is the bantam chicken coop. It’s so small and easy to move, and chickens are such cute little creatures. I wish I could go back in time to some of the small rentals I lived in and build this coop. I always thought I needed to wait until I had a huge house that I owned, but this is a project great for small spaces and rentals.

For folks interested in canning, reading about how important it is to can with friends will be a huge help. Friends, finger foods, and good music will make it such a fun experience. I’ve done it without these things and the time just seems to drag on and on.

And for those getting their hands dirty for the first time, the soil information is super important. You have to know how to cultivate good soil if you want a good garden. Period.

GIVEAWAY: We will award one of our readers a free copy of Modern Homestead: Grow, Raise, Create for providing their most innovative homesteading tip (in writing or picture). Please send your tip via our Facebook page, or comment on our blog. Results will be posted and a winner will be awarded on Thursday, March 31. We can’t wait to see your ideas!