Backyard farms are wonderful, but they are work. Minimize the work and maximize the return on your investment of time, money and energy by planning an effective model before you’ve poured in cash, blood, sweat and tears. For a plan that forms the backbone of your successful backyard farm, here are the essentials you need to consider:MICROCLIMATES
The first question you need to ask yourself is this: Where are the microclimates on my landscape? Microclimates suggest where different systems should be located on the landscape. What areas of your yard stay cold all winter long? What areas of your yard are windy? What areas of your yard receive full sun year round? Knowing where sun, shade, wind and water exist on your landscape allows you to make smart decisions.
Learn about your microclimates simply by observing your property during the different seasons. Want to plant a tree in your yard that is susceptible to blossom damage by late spring frosts? Place that tree in a deep shade pocket on the north side of your house. The tree will stay dormant longer and will have a better chance of escaping late freezes. Found a fruit-producing bush that you like that is particularly wind-resistant? Plant several of those shrubs in the windiest spot in your yard to “break” the wind for more sensitive plants on your landscape. Have a favorite fruit tree that is one zone higher than your current climate zone? Plant that tree in full sun, facing due south, up against a stone or brick wall. The southern sun will heat the stone or brick, creating a heat pocket for the tree. Learn the microclimates in your yard, and use them to your advantage.ZONE AND PROXIMITY
Your next question is this: How often do I plan to visit each system? If it’s a few times a year, place it further from your back door. If the system is one that you need to interact with daily, or even twice a day (chickens come to mind), place this system closer to your back door. The idea here is to save footsteps—as many as possible. Over time the trips back-and-forth really start to add up. Keep the things you need to access often close; place other systems further away.WATER
The third question, and the most critical for folks in arid or semi-arid regions: Where is the water on my landscape? If you have an urban or suburban backyard, you’re looking for the water coming from your downspouts.
Determine where the water comes down from your house, decide where you can move the water to (don’t sink the water near the foundation of your house), and then plant fruit producing trees, shrubs, or vines. The idea is that every time it rains or snow melts off your roof, those permanent fruit producers should be receiving water. Plant your water first, then plant your plants.
And finally the fourth question: How do I best integrate the systems on my landscape? Integrating your systems into your landscape is the best way to reduce your inputs of time, money and energy. If you integrate your systems together in appropriate ways, nature will do much of the work for you.
Chickens, for example, eat bugs, produce nitrogen-rich fertilizer and turn soil. These particular chicken habits are not so good for your garden at the height of the growing season, but they are fantastic at the end of the season. Why should you be clearing garden debris, turning soil, and working in soil amendments when your chickens could be doing it for you?DRAWING YOUR DESIGN
Once you have your microclimates, water zones, and system integration ideas, it’s time to put them down on paper. You will need to purchase or draw a map of your property. I recommend buying a topographic map of your property. The topographic lines indicate the slope of your property, which will help immensely as you make decisions about how to move water away from your foundation and to planting zones. Use tracing paper over your map and draw several designs. This design is not written in stone, and as such you need to be able to change the plan as new information becomes available.
By taking the time to plan your backyard farm, you are effectively able to design out work and design in productivity. You will never regret your investment. Your backyard farm is cheap insurance against future economic downturns, food recalls, and other disruptive events. Plan your farm, build your farm, and then enjoy the benefits of producing food in your own backyard. I am absolutely certain you will be glad you did.KEY PLANNING QUESTIONS
Where are the microclimates on my landscape? Observe your yard and its microclimates.
How often do I plan to visit each system? Think about placement based on what you need to access most often.
Where is the water on my landscape? Look for where water rolls off your rooftop and out of your drainage pipes.
How do I best integrate the systems on my landscape? Give thought to how elements of your backyard farm can do the work for you naturally.SYSTEMS
A system is something that contributes to the landscape, can be integrated with other systems and supports the farm’s productivity. Systems are often living things (plants or animals) but can also be conditions on the landscape or specific features. Here are some common systems for backyard farms:
- Vegetable gardens
- Fruit producers (trees, shrubs, and vines)
- Backyard poultry
- Composting worms
- Fish (aquaponics)
If you are dreaming about building a backyard farm, there are some things you should definitely be doing. Here is a short list of actions you will want to take:
- Talk to your spouse and family
- Talk to your neighbors
- Consider your time
- Consider your budget
- Plan for what you are naturally drawn to
- Ask yourself what systems complement your landscape and lifestyle
- Use what you have lying around first; buy something new second
“Your best chance at a bountiful and rewarding backyard farm will begin and end with the planning you do.”
Christine Faith is a backyard farmer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.