Step 1 for the Urban Homestead: Dream and Plan

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Last June I moved into a small brown house on the Colorado Front Range. My plans for turning my new backyard into an urban homesteader’s dream started to form before the house was even officially mine. It’s basically virgin territory back there, so I can do what I want. Starting over from scratch in a new house can be a daunting task, but my brain quickly organized the parcel into potential use areas. Now the growing season is moving in and it’s time to nail down these vague ideas into specific plans. I’m impatient, and I want my property to become as productive as possible as quickly as I can manage.

Coming up with a master plan for your garden is always a good idea. A master plan allows you to do three things: 1) it allows you to really think about what your goals and needs are, and plan to those needs through time, 2) it allows you to build and expand as your budget allows while sticking to those plans, 3) it allows you have a lot of fun.

The first thing you need to do when you sit down and start to plan your homestead (big or small) is determine where the sun is. This involves you checking out your yard in the summer and noting where the sun/shade is once every hour. Do this from sun up to sun down for a few days (say, two Saturdays in a row). Vegetables, fruits, and herbs need a solid six to eight hours of sunlight a day, so if you want food plots in your yard their location is 80% dependent upon sun exposure. What’s the other 20%? Access to water. This is especially important if you live in a semi-arid environment like I do. The basic gist is that if you will need to supply supplemental water to your plants, you don’t want to be hauling hundreds of feet of hose around every day; it will soon become a pain and your plants will suffer. But if you get plenty of rain in your area, I am jealous!

  • Once you know how the sun behaves in your yard, you can decide what you want to include in the whole area and plan their locations accordingly. There are many options for space use, but they generally fall into some main categories, and you can have fun with a rough-drawn plan of your yard and some tracing paper, sketching out locations for different spaces (if you have a plat of survey that’s ideal). Here are some popular use areas and things to keep in mind as you plan out your space:

    Animals: If your local city codes allow it (and many do so don’t assume you can’t keep small food-producing animals) adding some protein-producing critters like chickens or rabbits to your urban homestead can bring many rewards in both food and fun. But first do some research to determine what kind of environmental conditions the animal you’re interested in needs. If you want to keep some chickens, for example, you want them located close enough for easy care and in an area where they can get some protection from excessive wind and sun, but maybe you don’t want them right up against your deck. And make sure you include protecting your food plots from foraging biddies.

    Cut Flowers: I’m a huge believer in allowing garden space for cut flowers. There’s just nothing quite like being able to go outside and cut some zinnias, sunflowers, salvia, marigolds, or other pretty plants to bring joy into the house. Starting them from seed and growing your own allows you to have fresh flowers in the house all season, at a fraction of the cost of buying them at the store.

    Dog/pet run; If you have a dog you might consider a way to separate the dog from the garden at times. I love my dog and she’s well-trained; when she and I are in the garden together I have no worries that she’ll rip into anything. But when I’m gone for an afternoon, I feel better knowing she’s in a nice dog run, protected from her own dogness with a barrier between her, the chickens, and the beds. Plus, it’s just an added barrier against her being stolen or escaping the fenced yard.

    Entertaining: People tend to underestimate the value of planning formal entertaining space in their yards. This can be deck or patio space, but also allow room for ornamental plantings and maybe things like a fire pit or badminton area if you’re into that sort of thing. You’re putting all this effort into planning your yard space, and you may also want to include areas where you can share it with your friends.

    Fruits and Vegetables: People spend most of their time planning these areas. We’ll write more posts on planning how much space is needed to grow food for a family, but you can grow more food in, say, a 4-foot by 8-foot bed than you think. My advice here is start smaller than you think you’ll need until you are skilled at preserving all of your produce.

    Herbs: Nothing beats fresh and fresh-dried herbs to season your food with all year long. And let’s not forget herbal teas. Herbs can also be used as ornamentals, and when I worked as a professional horticulturist long ago, I frequently incorporated herbs (and even vegetables) in with regular landscape plantings. An herb garden supplies us with wonderful tastes, smells, and beauty and a well-planned garden should include space for herbs.

    Orchard: Don’t think you need acres for an orchard; an orchard can include just two or three fruit trees. And you can incorporate your fruit trees in your larger landscape, overlapping with other uses such as entertainment areas, or the chicken/animal area. For small yards there are plenty of dwarf orchard trees available and with proper pruning, you can maintain small, productive fruit trees in the space you have available.

    Ornamental Plantings: I know there are folks out there who feel that plants that are strictly for ornamental purposes are a waste of space, but to me that’s like saying paintings are a waste of space…or music. Some things are worth having simply because you like the texture of the leaves, or the fall color is exceptional, or the sounds of a water garden. Don’t put beauty on the back burner. Life is too short for that.

    Perennial and Shrub Food Plants: These productive plants are planted and stay there, year after year. Not only are asparagus and rhubarb included in this mix, but woody plants like blackberries, gooseberries, and currants are, too. Again, these plants can double as ornamentals, so feel free to incorporate them around your deck or patio, or even your front yard. But once you plant them, they’re there for good (unless you rip them out), so make sure they’re in an area where you can maintain them for full food production.

    Utility: Last but not least, your plan must include a utility area for compost or storing tools if you don’t have a garage. But don’t think such an area needs to be hidden away–it doesn’t. In fact, I believe a well-working compost pile is a thing to show off! Healthy compost piles do not smell, and hiding them away will only make them hard to maintain, and they need sunlight, too. You should be proud of everything you plan in your garden, and the utility area is no exception.

    If you have any tips or ideas for planning a garden, please share them!

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