Many homesteaders choose their lifestyle in order to be closer to the natural world. Rewilding, or allowing natural processes and native vegetation take over parts of your property, is one way to deepen that connection.
“Rewilding is the practice of allowing the landscape to have an element of self-determination,” said Bryan Quinn, principal at One Nature, a landscape firm based in the Hudson Valley of New York that works with rewilding various kinds of properties.
Rewilding can be implemented many different locations, on land of all different sizes, from a small square lot in an urban center to acres of property out in the prairie. It is less regimented than permaculture and more wholly embracing of permaculture’s Zone 5: the wilderness
When Shantree Kacera, founder and co-director of The Living Centre in London, Ontario, first moved onto his 60-acre property in the 1980s, he said nearly half of the land was completely razed — a “clean slate,” as he described it.
Over time, Kacera incorporated rewilding practices into the management of the land. He now teaches rewilding workshops at The Living Centre in addition to sustainable farming practices like permaculture.
“[With rewilding,] you’re allowing nature to be the leader,” Kacera said. “I find it to be much easier.”
The benefits of rewilding
Besides promoting healthy habitats, rewilding provides more opportunities to celebrate the natural diversity of your land through foraging.
“Everywhere I turn, it’s like, ‘Oh, I have to harvest this,’” Kacera said. “We have over a thousand different plants and trees and shrubs that have some kind of function: medicinal, edible or pollination.”
Rewilding is also inexpensive, especially because many rewilded properties do not require machinery to maintain.
“There’s almost no expense,” Kacera said. “You might have a shovel, pruners or a basket, but you don’t really need to have a lot of capital. There’s no need for tractors and machinery.”
Kacera said the practices of rewilding help promote sustainability on your land.
“Right now, we’re two people tending to 5 acres with no machinery,” Kacera said. “My goal is to do it without any fossil fuels.”
The challenges of rewilding
Kacera warned that, because of the diversity of plants and the lack of control over where and when they grow, rewilding can be overwhelming at first.
“The biggest challenge is that it can be so diverse, it can be overwhelming in terms of things not staying in the same place,” Kacera said. “With rewilding, the landscape is changing compared to an annual garden.”
Depending on how much you commit to rewilding and adding foraged food to your diet, Kacera said it can be challenging to adjust to the seasonal fluctuations in what plants are available.
“What things are available on my land in April, what things are available in June?,” Kacera said. “It fluctuates. Your land is changing.”
Your tastebuds will also take some time to adjust to the food you have available.
“Our diet is changing,” Kacera said. “My tastebuds are adjusting to eating something new that my ancestors probably ate, but the grocery stores don’t sell.”
Kacera recommended keeping a record of the plants you can expect on your property each season, like a garden journal for natural landscapes.
“What I recommend is we have a chart of things you can harvest: one for spring, one for summer and one for fall,” he said. “It’s almost like a shopping list.”
Can you practice rewilding in the city?
Rewilding can be extra challenging in urban environments.
“If you live in New York City, you back up to the pavement,” Quinn said. “There is no connectivity.”
Rewilding in the city is not impossible, though.
“You have to define a space and welcome wild processes into that,” Quinn said. “[Think of a] brownstone courtyards, or perhaps the landowner wants to build a 10-by-10 foot square and evolve over time into a more ecologically functional system.”
Quinn also warned to watch out for building codes if rewilding in the city.
“Oftentimes in more dense areas, there are building codes you have to watch out for,” Quinn said. “If the building inspector comes by, say you’re planting a native habitat, not abandoning your land. That’s an important step.”
How to start rewilding your homestead
Kacera said the first step to rewilding is simple: choose what part of your land you want to rewild and stop plowing.
“Rewilding starts as soon as you stop plowing,” Kacera said. “You’re just going with that transition.”
From there, Kacera said that the process of rewilding can be passive, or you can play a small role in kick-starting the transition by researching native plants and sowing some seeds.
“It could take decades for a particular species to find its way into your place, especially rare and endangered plants,” Kacera said. “I’m pretending to be the bird or the wind or the stream to bring that seed back to that piece of land. I’m just supporting that succession.”
To find out what ecosystems or plants are native in your area, reach out to your local cooperative extension, or an organization that focuses on native plants. You can also observe protected or undeveloped lands around you to see what grows naturally where you live.
“That’s the first level of research: trying to understand what’s going to grow with the least amount of effort,” Quinn said. “Look at protected land like forests. If you live in [a city], look at what’s growing in a vacant lot. If it’s growing in a vacant lot, it’ll probably do well in your yard.”
After that, rewilding is a matter of allowing nature to take the lead by letting wild plants grow on the land you have chosen to rewild, with the occasional maintenance and tracking where plants naturally spring up.
“With every passing year, my occupation is more foraging and pruning things back that are overgrown,” Kacerea said.
Can you have a garden if you are rewilding?
Experts agree that rewilding is a spectrum. You do not have to rewild your whole property. You can keep a section for a garden with non-native edibles that you want to eat and still implement rewilding principles on your land.
“I think they can be complementary because there is a lot of good science-backed data on the value of native habitats to things like food pollination and pest control,” Quinn said.
You can also increase the amount of your property you rewild over time.
“It depends on how much you want to change,” Kacera said. “As a homesteader, to be more resilient, you might [start at] 5 percent [rewilded land]. Next year, it is going to be 15 percent, and gradually it changes. Your land evolves, and you evolve with the land.”
Regardless of how much you choose to commit to rewilding, Kacera said that incorporating the principles — even in a small way — is worthwhile.
“It’s a beautiful journey,” Kacera said. “We came from the forest. It’s coming back home to come back to our wild self. To be wild is spiritual.”