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You could say that farming is in my blood. My maternal grandparents and great-grandparents were vegetable farmers.

I’ve always had a deep connection with nature, having loved animals, getting dirty, and anything to do with the outdoors since I was a little girl, but it wasn’t until my mid to late 20s that I developed a passion for sustainable living and a drive to grow my own food.

In this article, I explain why and how my husband and I created a backyard farm. I’ll also give tips so that you can do the same.

Jillian Kubala's backyard farm in Long Island, NYShare on Pinterest
Courtesy of Jillian Kubala

Support your local farmers

I want to start by explaining that farming is not my livelihood. Keeping a backyard farm is completely different from farming for a living.

I have a deep appreciation and respect for farmers, though their work and dedication are underappreciated by many. Farmers are the reason that you have food in your fridge and pantry, period.

As the popular bumper sticker says, “No farms, no food.”

If you’re able, form relationships with local farmers. Support them by joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) partnerships or simply purchasing vegetables, eggs, honey, and any other items that they produce.

Buying local food is better for the environment and your regional economy (1).

Plus, if you get to know farmers in your area, you’ll understand how your food was grown and raised. It’s especially important to learn about local farming practices if you’re concerned about animal welfare or pesticide and herbicide use.

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My now husband and I traveled around quite a bit in our mid 20s and didn’t live in the same area year-round, so we weren’t able to start a backyard farm until we purchased our home back in 2016.

We finally had a space to create the backyard farm that we had envisioned for years.

Minimizing our environmental impact and creating a pollinator-friendly farm

We wanted to create a backyard farm for several reasons.

We’re both passionate about sustainable living and minimizing our impact on the environment whenever possible.

Raising chickens and growing our own vegetables, fruit, and flowers let us connect with our food, reduce food waste, and reduce our dependency on grocery stores, thus lowering our carbon footprint (2).

I also wanted to reap the nutritional benefits of having the freshest vegetables, fruits, and eggs available. Plus, I dreamed of creating a beneficial environment for pollinators like bees and butterflies, as well as a sanctuary for birds.

With these goals in mind, we got to work on our backyard farm shortly after we moved into our first home.

Laying the groundwork for our farm

We have about one acre of property. When we purchased the house, the area that’s now the farm — which is a little more than 1/3 of an acre — was taken up by a pool surrounded by a large deck.

The pool was in bad shape (besides, we aren’t pool people). Moreover, I already had a vision of what I wanted to create in that space — a backyard farm.

We took out the pool and all of the decking ourselves, piece by piece. Next, we had a family friend dump yards of soil into the area and level it to create a foundation. We then repurposed the deck material into raised beds for flowers.

Finally, we cut down a few trees to create a sunny space. To minimize our environmental impact, we had the wood milled and used it to create raised beds for veggies. (We also have a nature preserve surrounding our house with hundreds of trees for wildlife.)

We had around 10 raised beds that first year and grew tomatoes, greens, cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, onions, herbs, and winter squash, plus a few types of flowers.

We have a small greenhouse on our property, and I started all of our vegetables and flowers from seed.

Did you know?

You can grow vegetables from seed even if you don’t have a greenhouse. See the “growing and planting” section below for tips.

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Our first growing year was successful, but there was much we didn’t know. When we inevitably made mistakes, we tried to learn from them.

We loved growing our own food so much that we made plans to create more farming space the following year.

When we started the farm, all of our beds were raised beds.

Over the years, we have transitioned most of the farm to in-ground beds to make the most of our limited space. Now, most of our backyard has been overtaken by vegetables and flowers, and we couldn’t be happier.

Raised beds vs. in-ground beds

Raised beds and in-ground beds both have their benefits.

Raised beds, which are typically made out of wood, are containers that hold dirt.

They can be any shape and size and tend to have better draining soil, protect plants against foot traffic, require less weeding and maintenance, extend your growing season, and allow easier access for those with limited mobility (3).

In contrast, in-ground beds are created directly in the ground.

Some pros to in-ground beds include lower water requirements and easier irrigation. Plus, they require less time and money to create. Finally, they’re a better choice for larger plants — like winter squash and watermelons — that take up a lot of space (3).

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We’ve learned which varieties of vegetables taste best and produce most, how much of each vegetable to grow, where to get the best seeds, and more.

Currently, we grow:

  • Greens: spinach, Swiss chard, kale, tatsoi, arugula, and lettuces
  • Carrots: White Satin carrots are my favorite variety
  • Asparagus: a perennial vegetable that comes back every year
  • Potatoes: both white and sweet potatoes
  • Winter squash: butternut, koginut, and delicata
  • Summer squash: zucchini and yellow squash
  • Tomatoes: Bartelly, Sunrise Bumblebee, Copia, and Sart Roloise were my favorite new varieties of this past season
  • Peppers: growing peppers from seed can be tricky, so new gardeners may want to start with pepper plants
  • Alliums: onions and shallots
  • Herbs: mint, basil, and others
  • Nightshades: eggplant
  • Other veggies: cucumbers
  • Berries: a number of strawberry plants, plus we recently started an enclosed berry patch with raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries

I control diseases like powdery mildew by removing affected plant parts or treating the plant with natural remedies like baking soda. I take care of pests with organic treatments, such as diatomaceous earth, that won’t harm pollinators.

I am by no means an expert in organic disease or pest management and refer to professional gardeners like Luke Marion from MIgardener.com, local farmer friends Sang Lee Farms, or Cornell Cooperative Extension when I’m unsure of how to handle a disease or pest.

We fertilize mostly with leaf compost that we create by mulching fallen leaves on our property, as well as blood meal, bone meal, and fish or kelp fertilizer.

Growing flowers

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Courtesy of Jillian Kubala

I became interested in dahlias in 2015 and grew about 20 plants the first year we had our farm. Now, I grow around 500 dahlia plants that represent over 100 varieties.

I sell the flowers to local florists and floral designers as a small side business and love providing the local community with organically grown, unique blooms. The bees and butterflies absolutely love dahlias, especially open-centered varieties like the one pictured above.

I also grow other pollinator-friendly flowers like zinnias, cosmos, lavender, and globe amaranth.

Pests love dahlias, so I control them organically by protecting the blooms with organza gift bags. Although it’s time-consuming, it’s best for our pollinators.

You don’t need much room to grow most types of flowers. If you’re new to this rewarding hobby, try easy-to-grow types like zinnias and sunflowers.

Keeping chickens

We purchased our first chicks in 2016 and have since gotten 2 more batches. We now have 17 chickens that live in a shed, which we converted into a coop with a large run and predator-proof automatic door.

Chickens control pests, provide delicious eggs, and endless entertainment. While they’re easy to care for, it takes work to raise healthy, happy hens.

Don’t get chickens if you’re unwilling to care for them for their entire lives, which can be as long as 10 years. You also need to find chickens that can handle the environment in which you live. For example, look for cold-hardy breeds if you live in an area with cold winters.

Chickens require:

  • a safe, comfortable, and predator-proof coop with roosts and nesting boxes
  • room to roam, scratch, and dust bathing, which are natural behaviors
  • nutritionally complete feed and a clean, consistent source of water
  • supplemental calcium from oyster shells, as well as grit if they don’t range free
  • companionship from other hens

A number of chicken breeds are friendly, docile, and productive egg layers. Some of my favorite breeds include Buff and Lavender Orpingtons, Easter Eggers, Barred Rocks, Cuckoo Marans, and Golden Comets.

If you’re interested in keeping chickens, purchase and install a coop — or construct your own — to create a safe outdoor area before you purchase chicks or hens.

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Here’s what the farm looked like when we were first getting started. // Courtesy of Jillian Kubala

If you’re interested in starting a backyard farm, keep a few things in mind before getting started.

Start small and be realistic

Even though it may be tempting to create a large backyard garden, I suggest starting small with just one large bed (or a few small beds) if it’s your first time farming or growing your own food. You can also try growing vegetables in pots.

Be realistic about how much time you can commit. Also consider your budget, as certain items like irrigation and fencing supplies can be expensive.

Consider your space

Even if you don’t have much space, you can try a hand at growing your own food. Whether you have a tiny balcony in a city or a large backyard in the suburbs, there are ways to produce food.

For those with limited space, fabric pots like these make an excellent choice for growing veggies like tomatoes, potatoes, and greens on balconies or patios.

Keep in mind that some veggies and fruits — including pumpkins, watermelons, and some winter squash — take up a lot of room and aren’t best for those with limited gardening space.

However, veggies like greens, herbs, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, and even potatoes are a great choice for small spaces because they can thrive in pots or small raised beds.

Plan, then plan some more!

Planning is essential when starting a backyard farm. When designing your backyard farm, decide whether you want to install raised beds, in-ground beds, or both.

Try to pick a sunny spot for your backyard farm, and consider factors like soil drainage. Most veggies require 6 or more hours of full sun per day, though some can handle partial shade. If you have heavy, poorly draining soil, you may have to add compost, perlite, or peat moss.

Furthermore, make sure that your backyard farm is protected from pests like deer, rabbits, and gophers, which may require fencing.

Next, decide how your plants will get adequate water. Although hand watering is easy if you have just a few raised beds, a larger farm may require irrigation. We have drip irrigation in our beds, which is effective and uses less water than overhead irrigation (4).

Grow produce that you intend to eat

You can grow endless varieties of beautiful vegetables and fruits. Still, it’s important to be mindful of what you’ll eat.

When we first started growing our own food, I grew veggies I didn’t necessarily enjoy, such as radishes and beets, simply because they were beautiful. I also planted way too many carrots and cucumbers.

Now, we try to only grow veggies and fruits that we enjoy and eat daily.

When choosing which foods to grow, consider your taste preferences and which vegetables you currently eat the most often. I love purchasing seeds from Baker Creek, Fedco, High Mowing Seeds, and Johnny’s.

Growing and planting

Once you’ve created a growing space, it’s time to decide whether to purchase whole plants or grow plants from seed.

Some veggies, including greens, peas, carrots, cucumbers, and squash, are quite easy to grow from seed, while others, such as celery, peppers, and watermelon, are more difficult. You can always start some veggies from seed and purchase others as plants.

Even though having a greenhouse is helpful, most backyard farmers and gardeners start seeds inside their home, basement, or garage. MIgardener has a fantastic blog post about starting seeds from start to finish.

When it’s time to plant, remember that different vegetables have different needs. Some require certain nutrients at planting time, warm or cold temperatures, and various watering needs.

Research the needs of your plants and keep a garden notebook with helpful tips, such as those about watering schedules and nutrient and soil pH needs. Getting your soil tested can also help you determine which solid amendments you may need.

Raising animals

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Courtesy of Jillian Kubala

If you decide to include animals in your backyard farm, understand that this is a huge responsibility. Farm animals like chickens, ducks, turkeys, and goats need attention and proper care to be healthy and happy.

It’s your responsibility to learn exactly what an animal needs before acquiring them. Raising animals can be wonderful and rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.

Consider the environment

To create an environmentally friendly, sustainable farm, consider using organic farming methods and growing pollinator-friendly flowers.

Many pesticides, herbicides, and other plant products are highly toxic to both humans and animals and can kill pollinators and other wildlife. Before you use pesticides or other plant treatments, consider whether it’s necessary.

It’s normal to see insects in your garden. In fact, many insects are beneficial for your garden. MIgardener is a wonderful resource for environmentally friendly pest management.

Another way to make your backyard farm environmentally friendly is to create a haven for birds and pollinators by adding birdhouses and birdbaths and planting pollinator-friendly flowers like zinnias, borage, sunflowers, marigolds, nasturtium, and lavender.

Not only are these flowers a food source for pollinators, but they also make your backyard farm a beautiful space for you to enjoy.

If you’re new to farming, you’ll make mistakes as you get going. Rather than look at these mistakes as failures, it’s important to view them as learning opportunities.

We’ve had plenty of issues with pests, weather, fungal diseases, and seed germination.

Plus, backyard farming can be hard work, especially if you have a larger farm and also work full time. Farming isn’t meant to be an easy, seamless process. It’s often unpredictable and always dirty, but that’s what I love about it.

Farming is a humbling experience and teaches you a lot about plants, animals, and even yourself. Plus, it may boost your health by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, and improving your overall quality of life (5, 6).

Backyard farming has helped me become a happier and more patient, grateful, and forgiving person. It’s also forced me to slow down and enjoy what we’ve created in our own backyard.

Finally, it’s made me realize how important it is to stop and smell the flowers. I hope it does the same for you.

Just one thing

If you’re interested in starting a backyard farm, join a local gardening club or contact your local cooperative extension for advice, classes, or workshops. Gardening groups and farming outreach programs are wonderful resources for beginners.

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