Yearning for a more self-sufficient lifestyle? The solution might be as close as your own backyard. Whether you have an acre outside of town or a tiny city lot, you can benefit from making the most of your yard’s natural assets. The key is to treat your yard like a microfarm that needs investment, enrichment, harvesting and replenishment—and manage it accordingly.
Reduce lawn area. The typical swath of sod requires regular feeding, watering, weeding and mowing. With many communities mandating outdoor watering restrictions, not to mention environmental concerns about chemical fertilizers and emissions from gas-powered mowers, eliminating some or all of your lawn can be a positive step in creating a more earth-friendly, sustainable yard. One alternative is to simply tear out the turf and plant low-maintenance native, water-wise grasses, xeriscape plants or drought-resistant ground covers; you’ll reduce water use and have more time to enjoy your yard.
Converting lawn space to a vegetable garden goes one step further because land that previously sucked up resources can now generate abundant food. Growing your own produce still requires time and attention, but your investment is paid back in delicious edibles rather than do-nothing grass. A home compost pile can provide natural fertilizer to enrich soil while proper mulching can reduce the amount of water and weeding needed.
For step-by-step instructions about how to eliminate grass in preparation for a garden, read “Turning Sod Into Garden Soil.”
Landscape with edible plants. Many plants can do double-duty in the garden, providing color, foliage and visual interest while also producing food for you and your family. Fruit trees, many of which flower in the spring, can provide shade that cools the house in summer months. Dwarf varieties are a good choice for smaller yards, and fruit-bearing bushes such as raspberry, currant and blackberry can add structure to the garden and bear sweet berries for many years.
Produce plants can also be colorful, practical alternatives to flowering annuals. For example, scarlet runner beans are fast growers with showy red flowers and edible pods. Rhubarb’s giant ruffled leaves and vivid red-to-green stalks make unusual garden accent plants, and red and yellow cherry tomatoes provide bright pops of color. Edible flowers such as pansies and nasturtiums make pretty additions to salads, and nothing beats the sunflower for charm and height in the back of a sunny garden. Grapevines can be trained up a trellis or over a pergola, and colorful Swiss chard can be planted in hanging baskets. Ground covers such as strawberries, oregano and creeping thyme can fill in spaces under taller plants.
Grow the produce that makes sense for you. Consider what you buy and eat most, and plan your garden accordingly. If you make smoothies for breakfast, you might want to grow strawberries or kale for a ready source of ingredients. Perhaps your kids favor broccoli and peas, or you use a lot of fresh spinach and lettuce for salads. If you’re into beer making, you might consider growing your own hops. If you love to cook, you might grow hard-to-find gourmet foods such as haricots verts or French fingerling potatoes.
Periodically review your garden’s output from a financial perspective and calculate the cost of purchasing produce versus growing your own. If you love golden raspberries, which can be expensive and scarce at the store, you might save money by cultivating a few canes. On the other hand, if local sweet corn is three ears for a dollar in your area, it might make more sense to invest your time, money and garden space to grow another crop.
Re-evaluate your efforts at the end of the season, too. Were the beets a bust? Did you end up with a plethora of zucchini and not as many tomatoes as you’d have liked? Make adjustments to next year’s garden plan so you’re investing time and resources growing the things you will most eagerly eat and use.
Grow up. No matter what size yard you have, you can grow more food in less space by planting some crops vertically. Grow vining plants such as pole beans, peas and cucumbers straight up, supported by posts, teepees or cages. Vines can be coaxed to trail up a downspout, and trellises, wires or netting can also be attached to fences. Sprawling plants such as tomatoes, melons and squash can be trained to grow upright on heavy cages or trellises.
While they may need a little more attention to be sure they get plenty of water, vegetables grown vertically are less likely to be attacked by ground-dwelling slugs and snails, and they’re less susceptible to fungal diseases because of improved air circulation.
Use your rainwater. If you install rain barrels under your downspouts, you can collect and use the water that accumulates after a storm to irrigate parts of your garden. Commercially made rain barrels are available in many sizes and materials, and typically range in size from 50 to 80 gallons. Look for a model that has an overflow valve that kicks in and directs water away from your home when the barrel reaches capacity, a fine-mesh screen to keep insects out, and a spigot valve at the bottom to connect to a garden hose. You can also make your own; find instructions in How to Make a Rain Barrel. As a simpler alternative, you can simply place large stockpots outside when it rains and use the water for irrigating small spaces.
Not all states allow rainwater collection, so be sure to check regulations in your area. Even if you can’t install a rain barrel, you can still benefit from thundershowers by planting moisture-loving plants such as watercress, chervil or sorrel near areas where your gutter downspouts drain, or, if you live in a rainy area, creating a rain garden (get instructions in Reduce Stormwater Runoff with a Rain Garden). Also, enriching your soil will increase its ability to absorb and hold moisture—and reduce the amount of water that flows away from your property and down the storm drain.
Raise small farm animals or bees. Do you have a yard with a sturdy fence and space for a hive, coop or shed? Honeybees, fowl and small animals are increasingly being permitted on residential properties in many places; check your local zoning ordinances and research licensing or permit requirements. A modest flock of laying hens can supply your family with eggs, and the birds’ droppings provide excellent fertilizer. For milk, you might consider Nigerian Dwarf goats, which grow to about 70 pounds and can produce up to three quarts of milk a day. Honeybees are rarely aggressive and can often be kept in urban areas; in addition to providing honey and beeswax, they’ll help pollinate your garden. You can read much more about all of these possibilities.
Make your own soil enhancements. A compost heap or bin will complete the circle of life in your backyard, turning garden trimmings and food scraps into rich humus. Digging in compost improves garden soil by adding nutrients and organic matter, and it helps plants grow because the roots can reach deep in soils that aren’t compacted. Best of all, everything you need to make compost is usually readily available in the yard: grass cuttings; leaves and leaf mold; clay soil clumps; garden debris; and plant waste (just don’t add diseased plants or invasive weed plants that are in seed). You can find instructions to make a compost bin out of reclaimed shipping pallets (often available for free from area stores) in DIY Shipping Pallet Compost Bin.
Spreading a protective layer of mulch on top of soil and around plants reduces water usage and combats weeds. Organic mulch will also improve soil as it decomposes, and many yards already have materials that are perfect for the task—from grass clippings and leaves to pine needles and compost. If you need more mulch than your yard provides, you can always offer to clean up your neighbor’s yard in exchange for autumn leaves. Read more about compost and natural fertilizers in All About Organic Garden Fertilizers.
Harness the Sun
Dry your clothes for free. Electric clothes dryers are among the most expensive home appliances to operate, costing the average family $100 in annual utility costs. Hang damp laundry on a clothesline instead and take advantage of free sunshine and breezes to dry your clothes. The savings don’t stop there: Your dryer should last longer with less use so you’ll save on repair costs; during warmer months you’ll avoid adding heat to the air in your house; and line-dried clothes often last longer because the fibers aren’t worn from the movement in the dryer.
A few municipalities have banned clotheslines for aesthetic reasons, but a retractable clothesline, a collapsible model or a small standing rack may work for you. For stiff clothes such as cotton towels and blue jeans, a five-minute final tumble in the dryer after drying on the line will generally soften the fabric. Of course the biggest reason of all to hang laundry outside may be the fresh, clean aroma of sheets dried in the sunshine.
Power lights and small electronics. Even if you’re not ready to invest in rooftop solar panels, you can still channel your yard’s sunbeams into a free energy source. Consider solar-powered lights for nighttime illumination around your yard. The panels absorb sun power during the day and gradually release the light in the darkness. If you invest in portable accent lights (some look like candles or Mason jars), you can also bring them inside to cast a warm glow at your dinner table.
If you’re tired of replacing the batteries on your electric toothbrush, you can capture the sun via small solar chargers that will power rechargeable AA and AAA batteries as well as USB-compatible cell phones and GPS units. (Read more in Energizer Rechargeable Solar Charger.) Other easy-to-use solar gadgets include sun-powered radios, calculators and flashlights.
Try solar cooking. If you live in a dry climate where the days are typically sunny and hot during harvest time, you can preserve a variety of fruits and vegetables by dehydrating them in the sun. Dry the beans you pick from your garden, preserve your tomatoes by sun-drying them, and make your own fruit leathers and dried fruits such as plums and peaches—free of the preservatives and additives sometimes found in commercially dried foods. You can purchase a solar food dehydrator or make your own; for complete instructions read “Build a Solar Food Dehydrator.”
For even greater versatility, you can harness sunbeams to power a solar oven. On a sunny day, you can cook rice, eggs, chicken or fish in an hour or two, and if you have three to four hours you can cook vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and beans or even bread and muffins. Read more at “Making a Solar Cooker for Free.”
Our yards can also be places where we can enhance our health. Consider these ways your yard might become your at-home health ally.
1. Create a relaxing retreat. We become calm in the presence of breezes, birdsong and the gentle sounds of moving water. Consider creating a relaxation oasis in your yard by sectioning off a portion, planting wonderful-smelling plants all around (try lavender, lilac or lemon balm) and installing a fountain or other water feature. Add a comfortable chair and go to your private oasis whenever you need a moment of pure serenity.
2. Build an outdoor yoga studio. Exercising outdoors is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Cordon off a section of your yard with an outdoor privacy screen or a trellis planted with vining plants. Make sure it’s somewhere where the ground is flat. If you need a hard surface, LifeBoard is a portable hard floor designed for yoga practice on carpet or outdoors. It’s made out of 50 percent recycled and 100 percent recyclable materials and available from Amazon for about $100.
3. Grow your own medicine. Medicinal herbs—including chamomile, lemon balm, calendula, echinacea, yarrow and more—are easy to grow and transform into homemade medicinal products such as tinctures, teas and skin balms. Read about our 10 favorite, easy-to-grow medicinal herbs at The Medicinal Herb Garden: 10 Best Herbs to Grow.
Backyard Farm Bloggers
Visit these websites for ideas and inspiration from real-life people who are making the most of their urban and suburban gardens, and sharing their photos and experiences online:
Tenth Acre Farm
Amy Stross and her family tore out their lawn and planted an edible landscape in their suburban lot in Cincinnati.
Battery Rooftop Garden Blog
Gardening 35 stories above Manhattan, a team of intrepid growers raises everything from peaches to potatoes in a lush rooftop garden.
The original urban homesteaders, the Dervaes family farmers harvest 3 tons of organic food each year from a 1⁄10-acre garden on a city lot in Pasadena, California.
Eliza Cross is the author of seven books, including her most recent cookbook, 101 Things To Do With a Pickle. She blogs about sustainable living, organic gardening, good food, simplifying and saving money at Happy Simple Living.