EVAN & JUDITH
WRITER & FLORAL DESIGNER
Urban Haven in Portland, Oregon
It was November when Urban Exodus visited Judith Edwards and Evan Schneider's Urban Haven in Eastside Portland, Oregon. Their Hive of Industry homestead is tidy and unassuming from the street, ten raised beds filled with cold hardy greens and root vegetables in the front yard. It isn’t until you walk towards the backyard that you realize what a thriving urban homestead these two have created on their quiet street. Every usable space is utilized to its maximum potential. More raised beds line one side of the house and a chicken run on the other side. The backyard contains even more raised beds – twenty-six in total – a spacious chicken coop for their three laying hens and dwarf fruit trees are espaliered against the warm south-facing wall of their workshop. On their less than a 1/12 of an acre of yard, they have been able to grow a substantial quantity of their own food. When Judith and Evan bought their house several years ago, they both wanted to learn to be more self-sufficient and decided to tear up their lawn and make their small parcel of land work for them. They got building plans from the internet and built raised beds with small hoop houses over them so they could extend their growing season into the winter months. Evan, a writer and novelist, works from home and Judith works in marketing and as a floral designer part time. Self-proclaimed homebodies, they wanted their home to be an oasis providing food, well-being, relaxation and comfort. Their goal is to become proficient in self-sufficiency in the city and eventually apply those skills towards building their rural homestead. Avid readers, they have read numerous books to teach themselves how to do everything from cover cropping to coop construction. Although they love Portland, they would like to eventually get to a point where they can work remotely full time and live surrounded by nature. Last year they bought a small plot of wooded land in the rural reaches of coastal Oregon. On their weekends, armed with power tools, reclaimed materials and “How To” construction books, they have been building a small cabin on the property. Now it serves as a weekend retreat, but they plan to eventually move there full time when work and income allow it. While they slowly inch their way towards a life in the country, they appreciate the wonderful things Portland has to offer while enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of their labor. (Click here to jump to their interview)
How long have you lived in Portland?
We’ve lived in Portland for the past seven years (we met each other within a month of moving to Oregon in the fall of 2008). Before that, we each individually lived in different sized cities in different places, from Rhode Island to Saipan. When we were younger, though, we each grew up in relatively rural areas or in modestly sized towns (Evan in New Mexico and Colorado and Judith in Idaho and Oregon).
Did you grow up with growing your own food and raising chickens or was it something you came to on your own?
Evan comes from a line of farmers and dairymen in Kansas and Colorado, and Judith’s great-great-grandparents farmed near Mt. Hood and around the Pacific Northwest. Each of us participated in some sort of family garden and lived a country-like lifestyle when we were growing up, and as we got older—about the time met—our interest in growing our own food and homesteading expanded beyond our individual family pastimes to include the environmental, social, health, and philosophical aspects, as well.
What inspired you to start urban farming?
In the seven years we’ve been together we have entertained—and tried—many ways of living. We’ve lived in houses with other people and pets and large plots of garden area, and have lived in several small city apartments with no growing space at all. Truthfully, when we started to look for a home to buy, we wanted to find a quiet piece of property outside of the city that would allow us to dive headlong into our dreams of having a mini-farm where we could produce a majority of our own food. It just wasn’t the right time for that, however, as we both had jobs keeping us in the city. We ended up finding a small house with a yard in the Montavilla neighborhood of SE Portland and dug up almost every inch of lawn for garden space. Now that we’ve been through a few years of pretty intense urban gardening, we’re very grateful we could ease into self-supporting on a smaller scale. There is a big learning curve in growing and raising your own food, and it’s often overwhelming—at least it has been for beginners like us.
What's been the most challenging part about bringing elements of country living to your urban environment? What has been the most rewarding part?
For the most part, there aren’t too many challenges that seem specific to city gardening. Our front yard garden seems to suffer a little from the heat that radiates from the sidewalk and asphalt in the height of summer, and we battle the neighborhood cats who want to use our raised beds as glorified litterboxes, but we know that when we eventually establish a garden in the country, there will be a host of new challenges that take the place of any issues we have run into in urban gardening. Even the obvious spatial limitations of our urban growing environment have given us a lot of fun challenges that we’ve embraced rather than found inconvenient. For us, the most rewarding part of establishing and tending an urban garden is the special exchanges we share with our neighbors and friends. Most of our direct neighbors have serious vegetable gardens and we exchange a lot of great advice, anecdotes, and actual produce between our households.
What has been the reaction to others to your urban garden?
We’re pleased that, on the whole, people have reacted very positively to our urban garden. Most everyone has been very encouraging, or at the very least has expressed curiosity about what we’re up to. It’s been a long and sometimes grueling process to turn what was a traditional urban lawn and yard into 26 raised vegetable beds full of food crops and many landscaped beds of perennials. There were many months where we felt fairly self-conscious about the work-in-progress nature of our garden, and we worried that our neighbors would be irritated with the big, visual changes we were making to our once conservative yard. However, now that we are more or less finished (it’s important to note that there’s always something that needs mended or improved or buttressed), everyone seems very supportive of our attempt to grow food in the space around our home. We even sometimes get comments from passers-by saying that they enjoy watching our garden change with the seasons and walk down our street specifically to see it.
What do you appreciate most about living life in a city?
The cultural opportunities that exist in a city are difficult to replicate, and Portland specifically is a very vibrant place for art, literature, and music. We love that on almost any given evening we have a wide range of interesting cultural experiences close by that we can attend if we’re in the mood to leave the homestead—which, to be honest, is less and less often as we get more involved with our garden as a means of food, exercise, and education. This isn’t to say that cultural experiences aren’t available outside of a city, but rather that here there are so many great opportunities to surround yourself with passionate, artistic people of all kinds. It’s very inspirational. Also, cities often afford several modes of alternative transportation to help you get around without an automobile if you want—from trains and streetcars, to buses and bike lanes. The easiest way to explain it would probably be that cities provide the freedom of choice. It’s a remarkable luxury and we try never to forget that. There are so many different types of people, lifestyles, restaurants, galleries, purveyors, gatherings, parks—the list of what cities can offer really goes on for a while. In many ways, too, cities are arguably quite sustainable. If set up and maintained intelligently, density, as opposed to sprawl, can be a workable method for humanity to subsist.
Would you ever consider moving to the country?
Though city living is remarkable and responsible on many levels, we have most certainly thought a lot about taking steps toward living a more rural life experience. To that end, in the fall of 2014 we procured a small bit of land in Oregon’s Coastal Range where we are planning to slowly work to establish a fully-functional homestead. The more we have experimented on our urban 1/12 acre, and the more we read and reread books like Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life and John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, the more we’ve come to appreciate what we could do with a little more space. And, despite the amazing opportunities that are available in the city, it has always been our goal to someday find a small patch of earth in a rural area on which we could establish a small-scale homestead/farm to operate together.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of growing their own food?
Start with whatever space you have, even if it’s just a few pots on your balcony or back porch. But also—don’t be afraid to rip out the front lawn if you have that option. Growing an edible garden doesn’t mean that you have to give up your desires for a beautiful oasis or an aesthetically pleasing yard. We love thinking about how we can grow food in an artful way. As far as what you grow, it’s fun to experiment, but make sure you plant items you actually want, and know how, to eat. Read a lot of books and talk to your friends and neighbors about gardening, and always keep your mind and eyes open to what’s happening around you.
Where do you draw inspiration and passion from for your work?
We continue to draw inspiration from others who are actively attempting to become more self-sufficient. On our journey so far, we have met some incredible people who are thinking and working very hard to provide as much as they can for themselves. Though there are many more to explore, some of our most solid role models have been, as mentioned above, Scott and Helen Nearing, as well as John Seymour. In their own ways, these folks tried, and documented, their lifelong attempts to grow their own food and live in close connection with the land. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Stewart Brand, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Barbara Kingsolver, and Dolly Freed, too: these are just some of the talented and passionate people to have worked diligently over the last century to remind humankind how we might live in tandem with the planet more like our ancestors did, rather than perpetuating the belief that the earth is our dominion.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since creating your urban homstead?
We have made a lot of intentional changes in ourselves and our habits in an effort to succeed at a self-supporting lifestyle, but it’s sometimes hard to note the inadvertent changes in oneself. We know we are healthier because we eat from our garden as much as we can, which means we’re eating fresher produce and more of it. We’re happier and more fulfilled because we are proud of the work we’re doing, and we love working on projects and being outside together. That said, we are also busier and working harder than ever before. We are both busy with full-time day jobs, nurturing along side projects, tending a pretty sizable city garden and small flock of hens, and trying to live as self-sufficiently as we can. But we truly couldn’t be happier. It feels like meaningful work to be doing alongside each other.
Walk us through a typical day in your city existence?
For about the past year, our typical day has been one in which Evan wakes up around five-thirty or six and goes outside to let the chickens out of their coop and toss them some scratch. He makes coffee for us, then we usually try to head to the gym for a tiny workout (though sometimes we’re too sleepy and opt for an afternoon workout instead, if our day allows for it). After the gym, we come home and get ready for work. For breakfast, we’re likely to make a fresh juice with vegetables from the garden, accompanied by oatmeal, or an egg on toast. We part ways around 8:30 when Judith drives to work across the river in Camas, Washington, and Evan sits down at his home office to work for the day. We usually stay in pretty close contact throughout the day and, through a bit of ad hoc planning, can work with Evan’s schedule to sometimes be able to accomplish homestead projects during the day like hanging laundry, thawing meat for dinner, or doing a quick, time-sensitive garden task, such as transplanting seedlings if it happens to be overcast, especially in the summer. We meet up at home around five-thirty and if we’ve already exercised, we might do a few projects around the yard while enjoying a home brew or a glass of wine. (In winter this becomes indoor projects with maybe a hot toddy.) We can typically make dinner from garden vegetables and some purchased staples, then we eat together and talk about the day and maybe try to do some planning (we’ve really taken to visiting National Parks recently and are thinking through how to get out and see more of them in the coming years). If it’s summertime, after dinner we’ll go out to water the garden, but during the winter we saddle up to the old fireplace and read, write, catch up on work, or watch something together before going to bed around ten or eleven.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Our biggest and most consistent source of inspiration is the outdoors. We love hiking, camping, and backpacking, as well as driving through the countryside and seeing all of the amazing farms and open landscapes. We feel so rejuvenated after spending time out of the city in the calmer, quieter, more solitudinous places of the world.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Coincidently, our goal for this coming year is really to do some serious planning about how we’re going to go about 1) weather-proofing and fortifying the run-down, leaky, rodent-infested cabin on our property out in Cloverdale, and 2) what the next 5-10 years of our life are going to look like. We have already done the work of taking on some very significant projects, so our biggest task at the moment is figuring out the method and timeline for tackling our next set of undertakings. The challenge will be maintaining and continuing to work at our urban homestead, while also beginning to build up our little forest farm.