Start Your Own Backyard Homestead
Whether you’re starting off with an acre or two or just an apartment with a small patio, there’s something you can do to provide some of your own food.
Who knew, for instance, that an ordinary front yard can be planted to wheat, which you can harvest and grind for flour? Or that you can grow as many as 15 pounds of tomatoes from just one self-watering container on the back patio? Or that you can keep as many as a dozen chickens on a quarter-acre lot and still have space for vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, and even pigs? How exciting is that!
But before you pile the kids into the old minivan and head out in search of dairy goats and hazelnut trees, take some time to consider the logistics of what you’re about to embark on.
Step into the Yard
The first step is simply to step outside. Take a look around and evaluate your landscape. How much space do you have to work with? Does your yard get enough sun to support a garden? (Most vegetables and fruits need six to eight hours a day in order to thrive.) How much rain does your region normally receive, and at what times during the year? Will you need to irrigate frequently? Do you live in a place that freezes solid during the winter, or will you be able to grow a few hardy greens through the colder months?
If you’re thinking about keeping animals, there’s a lot to mull over, but you can start with the space they’ll require. Chickens and rabbits can be kept in fairly small quarters. Pigs need a surprisingly small amount of space, too (see page 286). You really shouldn’t think about keeping larger animals like goats, sheep, and cows, though, unless you’ve got at least a quarter acre to devote to pasture.
Consider Your Preferences
What kinds of food do you eat the most? Zucchini is one of the easiest and most productive vegetable garden plants you can grow, but if you don’t really like zucchini, there’s no sense in planting it. A good plan is to make a list of the foods you and your family eat on a daily basis and start with that. You can always add a few fun things, too, but better to have your plot stuffed with carrots and tomatoes you know you’ll eat than with ground cherries and exotic peppers you’ve never tried before.
Another preference to consider is how much work you really want to do. Although the idea of making your own cheese from fresh milk may be wildly appealing to you, the thought of being tied to milking a cow or goat twice a day, every day for 10 months straight (never mind feeding and watering it twice a day for all 12 months), may not be. Even a vegetable garden can become overwhelming if you try to make it too large. So start simple and start small.
Follow the Law and Make Nice with the Neighbors
Before you begin, be sure to check in with the folks at Town Hall to make sure you won’t be violating any local ordinances. For instance, each town has its own regulations about what kinds of animals you can keep in your backyard (see page 349 for an overview of different city regulations regarding backyard chickens). Some neighborhoods and planned communities have bylaws to keep up appearances, and might not like it if you suddenly decide to plant a wheat field in your front yard.
Hopefully, your amber waves of Pleasantville grain won’t do more than raise an eyebrow among the neighbors. However, if they’ve gotten only two hours of sleep because your rooster has been crowing through the night, they may be a tad on the twitchy side and less than sympathetic to the goals of your mini-farm. It might be worth a quick meeting with the abutters if you’re hoping to keep animals that will be crowing, bleating, mooing, and emitting odors not normally found in a suburban neighborhood. Even something as simple as the considerate placement of a compost pile (e.g., not over the fence from Mr. Wilson’s barbecue) will be appreciated.
You can grow as many as 15 pounds of tomatoes from just one self-watering container on the back patio.
Preserve Your Harvest
Reading through The Backyard Homestead, you’ll see that each chapter includes not only information on growing plants and raising animals, but also tips on how to use and preserve the food you’ve produced. After all, in most areas of the country, there are only so many growing months in the year. Preserving food — which includes canning, freezing, drying, and root cellaring — makes it possible for you to eat from your own backyard year-round. And even if you don’t currently have a garden or animals, you can try out many of the techniques in this book, using vegetables, fruit, meat, and milk from local farms.
What to Grow, Meal by Meal
One way to start figuring out what to grow is to think about what you actually eat. Try tracking what you eat during an average day and break each meal into its components. You might be surprised at how much of it you can grow yourself! For example, if your family eats a lot of pasta sauce, you’ll want to start your vegetable garden with plenty of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic. Your herb garden should have oregano, thyme, rosemary, and perhaps a bay tree (which can be brought indoors for the winter). When harvest time rolls around, you can make a few batches of sauce and can it for the winter.
How Much Food Can You Produce?
The following illustrations show some of the possibilities for the amount of food that can be produced in an average yard. A quarter-acre lot, planned out well and cultivated intensively, can produce most of the food for a small family. Adding another quarter acre of pasture enables the family to keep a couple of milking goats or to raise steers for beef. These are just examples of what can be done in this amount of space, allowing for a fair amount of diversity. You may decide to forgo the fruit trees and vegetables and just fill the yard with oats. Or you might want simply a flock of chickens and nothing else.
A Homestead on One-Tenth of an Acre
A Homestead on a Quarter Acre . . .
. . . or Half an Acre
By adding a quarter acre of pasture, you’d be able to keep two or three goats for milk or a beef steer to grow through the summer.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much food you’ll be able to produce from your backyard homestead, since so much depends on the kinds of vegetables, fruits, and animals you select, what the weather is like, how long your growing season is, and how intensively you’re planting. But to give you a general idea of just how much it’s possible to produce, given the quarter-acre layout on page 14, here are some ballpark numbers:
• 50 pounds of wheat
• 280 pounds of pork
• 120 cartons of eggs
• 100 pounds of honey
• 25 to 75 pounds of nuts
• 600 pounds of fruit
• 2,000+ pounds of vegetables