How I Fed Myself Entirely from My Backyard, One Summer.

Allow me to elaborate and provide some context. I’ve always been motivated by maintaining my independence and freedom, and becoming increasingly self-reliant.

One day I’ll be as happy as them

Why?

Apart from wanting to be more self-reliant, the single biggest reason for me was that I really like plants. I want to have as many around me as possible at all times. It might be crazy or obsessive, but they really provide me a special kind of peace and comfort… maybe like an emotional support animal.

Another reason was pride, because it was very satisfying to know I had my food needs covered right out of my backyard. Furthermore, at the time I was doing this I was also reading about how President Roosevelt promoted the idea of ‘victory gardens’ during WWII. So I guess there was a little historical inspiration too.

Yet another reason was for peace-of-mind. By growing my own food, I knew where it was coming from, and could guarantee the most minimal exposure to harsh chemical pesticides.

How?

I kept a backyard garden with chickens.

I didn’t have a lot of space. The lot size of my property at the time was only 0.13 acres, with most of that being taken up by the house. My total garden did take up about half of my backyard with the garden being roughly 25 ft. X 30 ft. The chickens were right next to the garden in a fenced area of about 14 ft. X 30 ft.

Voila! My two food generators: the garden and the chickens

Here’s a list of what I grew

  • chard, spinach, basil, tomatoes, corn, beans, carrots, raspberries, sunflowers, summer squash, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, kale, mint, broccoli, broccolini, jalapeños, bell peppers, blackberries, cantaloupe, honeydew

Here was the lay of the land

I’ve heard some people call this urban homesteading

The photo above shows the property where I carried out this ‘gardening experiment.’ I sold that property a few years ago so not sure what the backyard looks like now.

The garden

Yellow lines indicate where the fences were. You might also notice that there were some massive trees that shaded much of the backyard. Fortunately, my lot was oriented east/west so the parts that weren’t shaded did get full sun, which was about a third of the main garden area.

I organized the main garden area into about 10 rows. Before forming the bed rows, I tilled up the area with a gas powered tiller I rented from Home Depot. That took less than an hour. With the soil nice and soft, I used my trusty hoe to mound up the soil into rows running east/west.

On the rows that got full sun I planted my tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, peppers, basil, sunflowers. The shadiest rows, I planted my chard, spinach, broccoli, broccolini, and kale. The carrots, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, and melons went in the middle sections.

Of course, before planting my seeds I had to set up some automated irrigation to make sure my plants would get watered while I was away at work. I bought some kit online after searching for drip irrigation kits online. Each row had it’s own line of drip tape that was perforated every 12 inches. The water was distributed to the drip lines from a manifold line that was connected to a garden hose attached to an outside faucet on the house. On that faucet I had a digital timer attached that I bought from Wal-Mart. That little timer made sure my plants got watered without me needing to be there.

This photo demonstrates an ancient farming practice. I implemented a similar practice quite regularly with splendid results. Photo by Zhang Kenny

The timer and drip tape were instrumental in surmounting my laziness. With the timer, I didn’t have to remember to water anything. Using the drip tape reduced weed growth and water loss so that saved me time, money and effort… my favorite.

Lastly, I tried another cultivation technique for the raspberries, blackberries and cucumbers. While surfing the internet one day, I stumbled upon the use of bales of hay as a growing medium so I decided to try that too.

I lined up hay bales along the fence that ran between the main garden and the chicken run. They were set out there in January to allow some time for the inside of the bales to decompose. Then when planting time came along, I just put the plant or the seeds directly in the bales and ran a soaker hose along them for irrigation.

The birds

Fortunately, my neighbors didn’t mind all the birds in the backyard. And to be honest, I had more than just chickens. At my highest count, I had 10 chickens, 4 turkeys and 4 ducks. The ducks were my favorite because they stood around the water all day quacking and it reminded me of people telling jokes at the office water cooler.

The turkeys were the hardest to manage. They looked the most like dinosaurs, so they were my lawn raptors. Those birds were so much more wild compared to the ducks and chickens. I had to get bird netting to cover the chicken run because the turkeys kept escaping because they preferred roosting on top of my neighbors roof at night. They would do this even in winter despite the heated enclosure I had for them.

All in all, I came to the opinion that poultry makes for better pets than the standard dog or cat, with the exception of roosters. No roosters! I accidentally had two roosters initially, because I bought a random set of chicks that had male and female chickens. Once they matured, they got loud. So, not long after that I gave them away to a farmer friend.

I had several reasons for not wanting to have roosters. The main reason was that I don’t like waking up that early. Another reason was because I didn’t want to piss off my neighbors. Oddly enough though, an elderly couple lived two doors down and told me they really enjoyed hearing the rooster go cockle-doodle-doo at sunrise.

NOT IN MY BACKYARD! Photo by Camerauthor Photos

After that, I just kept hens so every bird laid eggs. These eggs were delicious! So fresh. I tried them all, even the turkey and duck eggs. Some of my chickens even laid green eggs. It was weird at first, but eggs are eggs and I grew to like the duck eggs most. The eggs accounted for most of my protein during that period, apart from the occasional burger because summer barbecues and such.

Another benefit from having the birds was there were fewer bugs buzzing around because the birds were eating them.

Was it worth it?

Yes, I would definitely say it was worth it! Now take that with a grain of salt because I might give more weight to the intangible benefits than most would.

…But there you go, at you least you know my bias on that, allowing you to factor that into your assessment. However, if I were to guesstimate, then money-wise I would say I broke even.

Upfront Costs

I’m not including costs because they will vary by region.

  • tiller machine rental from home depot
  • irrigation lines
  • seeds
  • birds
  • faucet timer
  • chicken netting
  • hoe
  • chicken coop materials

Regular Costs

Again, not including costs because these will also vary by region.

  • water
  • chicken feed
  • electricity

Benefits

ate a wider variety of food/veggies

spent more time outside

consumed more fiber

reduced my carbon footprint

… and I was able to be more neighborly because I shared my surplus with my neighbors

How Could I Have Improved This?

  • storing surplus — canning, freezing, pickling
  • selling surplus — farmers market, neighbors, facebook marketplace, etc…
  • selling the seeds — seeds can be a high margin retail product especially if you have heirloom varieties
  • better weeding practices — if I would have done this even once a month I could have increased my yield
  • succession planting — this is where you plant a new crop in the same spot of an earlier crop immediately after harvesting it
  • cold frames — these can be used to grow all through winter in hardiness zones as cold as zone 5
  • … the list can go on and on

Things to Consider If You’re Interested in Feeding Yourself out of Your Backyard

  • water — this will increase your water bill, but using efficient watering practices can make that increase negligible
  • shade — this will determine what crops you can grow
  • hardiness zone — this will also determine what crops you can grow and when
  • amount of effort one is willing to give — this will determine how much you harvest, but as I’ve mentioned previously, the bar is set pretty low. You’ll be surprised how much you can yield, even when it feels like you’re intentionally being lazy
  • amount of space you have — this will also determine how much you can grow
  • renter or owner — obviously if you own the property, you’ll have fewer restrictions to what you can do
  • are chickens allowed in your neighborhood ?— most cities are starting to allow backyard chickens, but of course, you should absolutely check your city’s code as well as any relevant covenants or h.o.a. regulations. In all honesty, I had more chickens than was allowed by my city’s code. However, I do not condone breaking any laws! so, umm… just ignore that last part.

Conclusion

The work involved might not be for everyone, but I am described by others as lazy so I reckon anyone can do this. The return of food I got for the amount of effort I gave astonished me. I wish I had tracked my yields, but needless to say I always had more food than I could eat.

Sometimes the garden would go a couple of days without water because I turned off the outside faucet and forgot, and Colorado has long, hot days in the summer. I would also cut corners on my weeding. People often mentioned that I would get bigger yields if I weeded more often. I listened to them, but ignored their unsolicited advice. I already had too much food, so I personally couldn’t justify putting in the extra effort. The point I’m trying to make is that I probably did more things wrong than right, and nonetheless, I still had a shit-ton of food (that’s an official unit of measurement in my head).

Anyway, I would say sustaining oneself from the backyard is definitely feasible with minimal effort and worth it. For those who argue that it’s not worth the financial cost, then I would counter that they are probably spending/estimating more than they need to be spending. Even if that is the case, I would further counter that that’s a worthwhile expense with regards to the increase in quality of food they’ll be eating.

In my opinion, the only reasonable argument against attempting to do this backyard farming thing is a lack of time. The time it takes to set-up the irrigation, prepare the soil, manage the chickens, maintain the plants, etc… is arguably not worth it to some people. I would agree with that, because time is the only thing we can never get back in life.

I do have a counter argument for that, as well. If you don’t have extra time, then make your kids do it… if you have any. Just make them grow the veggies. It’s a harmless chore to ‘impose’ upon them and they’re wasting time on their phones, anyway. Interestingly, I’ve even heard talk that kids are more excited to eat their veggies when they grow them. But who am I to give parenting advice? I’ve never raised any kids.

Anyway, pardon my pushiness. You can actually disregard everything you’ve just read, because I can’t even take my own advice. I live in an apartment now so I can’t do a majority of what I just mentioned. So, back to the drawing board. Maybe I can figure out how to do some apartment farming!

my first apartment tomato

I hope you have found this mildly entertaining and thanks for reading!

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