If you’ve been staring at the patch of grass in your backyard and wishing there was something else you could do with it, you’ve come to the right place. Whether you are just beginning your first vegetable garden or are an experienced urban gardener looking to try something new (drying your own herbs, perhaps?), here are nine ideas to inspire your backyard farmstead.
Why rethink your backyard? A typical backyard, made up of a big green lawn and maybe an area for grilling and eating outdoors, can be great for playing and entertaining — but it’s not the only way to work your outdoor space. Imagine the joy of picking fresh salad greens just before dinner from your veggie garden, harvesting fruit from your own trees, collecting fresh eggs from your backyard flock or gathering honey from your own hive. Even a small garden takes work, to be sure, but the pleasure of producing food in your own backyard can be worth the sweat.
Plant a vegetable garden. A vegetable garden is where many folks interested in producing some of their own food begin, and with good reason. You can devote as much (or as little) of your yard to edibles as you want, and even beginners can have great success planting a first garden when it’s kept to a manageable size.
Are you ready to start a vegetable garden?
- Do you have a spot in your yard that gets full sun?
- Do you have the time to water and weed your garden each week?
- Do you have any big travel plans? If so, is there someone who can care for your garden while you’re away?
- Do you have deer, rabbits or other critters in your area that may try to get your veggies? If so, will you be able to create a barrier that can keep your garden protected?
RELATED: How to Plan Your Edible Garden
Dry herbs and flowers. Drying herbs like lemon balm (for tea) and flowers like lavender (for sachets or bath products) can extend the harvest of these fragrant plants. Herbs and flowers also tend to be lower-maintenance than vegetable gardens, making them a good choice for gardeners who want a useful crop but have less time to spend gardening.
Are you ready to grow herbs and flowers?
- Do you have a sunny spot to grow a bed of flowers? Flowers and herbs can do well in pots, too, so you can grow these even on a patio.
- Do you have space to spread out or hang up herbs and flowers to dry?
- Don’t forget that you can also cut fresh flowers for bouquets and use fresh herbs in your cooking!
Grow an orchard. Even a single productive fruit tree can produce plenty of fruit for a family to enjoy each year. If you have the space to plant a small orchard, consider which fruits you love to eat as well as which you can store, or turn into jam or sauce. And even those with small yards can do well planting dwarf varieties, which have the added benefit of being short enough to harvest completely from the ground … no ladders needed!
Are you ready to start an orchard?
- Do you know which fruit or nut trees do well in your climate?
- Do you own your home or have permission to plant trees if you rent?
- Do you have the space to accommodate full-size trees, or do you need to find dwarf trees?
- Are you prepared to wait several years for the trees to mature before enjoying a full harvest?
- Do you have the resources to hire a pro to prune your trees each year, or can you take a workshop to learn how to do it yourself?
Keep a flock of backyard hens. Chickens can make highly entertaining backyard buddies — that also happen to produce the freshest, tastiest eggs you will ever have. They can cause quite a bit of mayhem if allowed to run loose on your lawn or in your garden (hello, chicken poop; goodbye, plants) so it’s worth investing in a secure coop and enclosed run, and letting the “ladies” out in the rest of the yard only on (supervised) special occasions.
Are you ready to keep chickens?
- Are backyard chickens legal in your town? Be sure you know the specifics of your local ordinance before committing to a flock.
- Do you have experience keeping other pets that require daily care, like a dog or cat?
- Are you able to invest in a secure, predator-proof coop and run?
- Are you home enough to be able to take care of your flock morning and evening each day?
Start a compost pile. If you have a garden, making your own compost is a logical next step. By saving your kitchen food scraps, chicken droppings (if you have a backyard flock), dry leaves and yard waste, you can create your very own stockpile of “black gold” to enrich your garden beds.
Are you ready to make compost?
- Do you have critters in your area that may try to get in the compost bin? If so, you will need a securely closed container.
- Collecting food scraps (along with eggshells and coffee grounds) from the kitchen is an easy way to add to your compost pile and reduce landfill waste. Keep a small bin with a cover in your kitchen to make collection easy.
- Remember to add “brown” organic matter between layers of “green” (kitchen scraps). Good additions for the brown layer include dried leaves, hay, straw, wood chips and trimmings from trees. Keeping a pile of brown matter near your compost bin makes it easier to remember to do this.
- Turning your compost pile often will help the contents break down faster.
Line-dry your clothes. There’s something meditative about hanging up clothes to dry on a line — plus it saves energy by making your dryer unneeded (at least during the warmer months).
Are you ready to line-dry?
- Do you have space for a clothesline? If you have a homeowners association, check the rules before setting up a clothesline within view of neighbors.
- Is the weather in your area good enough? Frequent showers can thwart your best line-drying efforts!
- Still not sure about line drying? You can always test the idea by setting up a small drying rack on the back porch.
Collect rainwater. Rainwater harvesting is a wonderful way to ensure that you have plenty of water to use on your garden, even in times of drought when there may be water restrictions.
Are you ready to collect rainwater?
How much water would you like to collect, and how much room do you have? Rain tanks and barrels come in many sizes.
Is the runoff water from your roof exposed to lead or any other hazardous materials? If so, it’s not safe to use on food crops.
Worried about your homeowners association or neighbors? Look for (or special-order) a rain barrel that matches your home’s exterior, and keep it on the smaller side or position it at the back of your house.
Be sure your rain barrel or tank has a secure screen to prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs in the water.
RELATED: How to Install a DIY Rain Barrel
Collect honey from your own hive. Honeybees help pollinate the garden, leading to a more productive harvest, as well as providing fresh honey for the lucky hive owner. And beekeeping doesn’t require a lot of space, so even those in urban areas can get in on the sweet fun.
Are you ready to keep bees?
- Does anyone in your household have a severe bee allergy? If so, it’s best to take a pass on the hive.
- Do you have a spot to position the hive away from entrances to your home? While a hive doesn’t take up much space, if placed too close to your entrance, you may have a few unwanted visitors buzzing in.
- Does your town allow beehives? Most don’t have regulations against keeping bees, but it’s always a good idea to check first.
Keep goats, ducks and other creatures great and small. Chickens are good “starter” farm animals, but if you’ve kept chickens and want more on your homestead, ducks, goats, sheep and other creatures offer other benefits — along with additional work. Duck eggs are delicious and great for baking, a milking goat can keep your family in fresh chèvre, and sheep may be a knitter’s ultimate companion, providing wool to spin into yarn.
Are you ready to keep other farm animals?
- Is your neighborhood zoned for the type of animals you want to keep?
- Do you have ample space on your property to keep the animals you want? Bear in mind that some creatures (like sheep and goats) can have a distinct barn-y smell that you will want to keep a distance from your house.
- Will your neighbors be OK having farm animals next door?
- Do you have the time and dedication to commit to caring for a barnyard animal? Milking animals especially require an intense level of responsibility, and should be taken on only by those with the experience and long-term commitment.
- If you need more education about caring for farm animals, is there a local workshop where you can learn more?
Living the life. A backyard-turned-farm, whatever your version of it may be, is certainly a lot of work — but it also provides a rich source of homegrown entertainment. Why go out, when you can enjoy a delicious local, organic dinner right in your backyard, steps from where the ingredients were grown?