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!


About fulcrumpublishing
Founded in 1984, Fulcrum Publishing is one of the largest independent publishers in the country, with more than 450 active titles. The company maintains a high standard of quality and pride in its books, with the objective of encouraging readers to live life to the fullest and learn something new each day. Fulcrum Publishing specializes in general-interest nonfiction titles with focuses in public policy, education, Native American culture and history, travel and outdoor recreation, environmentalism, and gardening. Fulcrum is headquartered in Golden, Colorado. The Fulcrum Publishing blog is run and updated by Dani Perea. Please feel free to get in touch with any questions, comments, or ideas by e-mailing her at Dani[at]fulcrumbooks[dot com].

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

  1. Pingback: My Book: Modern Homestead | Hip Chick Digs

  2. Pingback: Share Your Homesteading Tips | Hip Chick Digs

  3. heather w says:

    The most innovative tip I can suggest is just to start wherever you are and don’t feel it’s an all or nothing scenario. For me, the gateway drug to homesteading aspirations was no-knead bread. Then I tried saving seeds from an heirloom tomato I got at the food co-op, and actually successfully started them two years later. I dream of chickens and pygmy goats and bees and moving back to the Cascadian climate, but none of those things are going to happen in my life for a few years. That doesn’t mean I don’t have other things I can learn and practice. I’m still a little nervous about canning, for example, but I hope to conquer my fear this summer. Anyway, that’s my tip. Try something. Read books and blogs like Hip Chick Digs for ideas and inspiration. Try something else. Then do it again.

  4. Victoria says:

    Have an idea of what you’d like to do yourself and do some basic research on each item – especially those dealing with raising animals! We did this for the goats and chickens we wanted to raise – and we were ready to take care of them when we were offered 2 goats and 3 chickens, for free (see seem to specialize in “rescues!”). But the preparation – reading lots and joining online groups dealing with the animals in question – was absolutely key. We’re happy and the animals are happy and healthy.

  5. Tina Lau says:

    I’ve been gardening for several years now, and started saving and exchanging seeds. There are online seed exchanges like GardenWeb and Dave’s Garden, and they’re a lot of fun. GardenWeb has “round robin” seed exchanges where you’re in a group of people exchanging many different seeds at once. One thing I didn’t pay attention to at first was that I couldn’t save seeds from hybrid plants (especially important with corn, which is usually hybridized). The seeds won’t come out true to their parent. Avoid this problem by starting with heirloom seeds. There are numerous companies out there that sell heirloom seeds, like Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can also get the seeds for free from a seed exchange if you find out the names of the heirloom varieties.
    You can also give seeds as gifts. Personalize the packages by using a template off the Internet. You can print two packets on a piece of paper, insert a picture of the type of seed, and label the seed and your garden name. Just cut out the seed packet, glue the edges, and put the seeds in. They look quite professional.
    If you start canning, thrift stores are a great place to find canning jars. You can pick them up for practically nothing.
    If you need a lot of soil amendment, don’t buy it in bags. You’ll get it a whole lot cheaper if you get ¼ yard (or more) from a nursery. Either bring bags or throw it in the back of a truck.
    If you have some plants that aren’t quite frost-hardy, throw a sheet or towel over them before dark, and remove it in the morning.

  6. Shauna in Texas says:

    My best homesteading tip? Start. It’s too rewarding to ignore, and too easy to dismiss–and it can seem too intimidating to begin!

    I think the best way to approach homesteading is to realize that everyone starts in a different place. A prior poster mentioned no-knead bread–I started with homemade vanilla, and moved from there to canning, baking, making fermented foods, volunteering on a farm, and growing a garden– but that never would have happened if I never made vanilla.

    Another note: my “homestead” is currently a second-story apartment. Don’t let location keep you from starting,either!

    I don’t think it much matters where you start, but it sure matters that you do. And books like this one are so helpful in making your own path!

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