The Backyard Homestead

Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre!


Edited by Carleen Madigan

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 11, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This comprehensive guide to homesteading provides all the information you need to grow and preserve a sustainable harvest of grains and vegetables; raise animals for meat, eggs, and dairy; and keep honey bees for your sweeter days. With easy-to-follow instructions on canning, drying, and pickling, you’ll enjoy your backyard bounty all winter long.

Also available in this series: The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner, The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects, The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals, and The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How.

This publication conforms to the EPUB Accessibility specification at WCAG 2.0 Level AA.


Start Your Own Backyard Homestead

Whether you’re starting off with an acre or two or just an apartment with a small patio, there’s something you can do to provide some of your own food.

Who knew, for instance, that an ordinary front yard can be planted to wheat, which you can harvest and grind for flour? Or that you can grow as many as 15 pounds of tomatoes from just one self-watering container on the back patio? Or that you can keep as many as a dozen chickens on a quarter-acre lot and still have space for vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, and even pigs? How exciting is that!

But before you pile the kids into the old minivan and head out in search of dairy goats and hazelnut trees, take some time to consider the logistics of what you’re about to embark on.

Step into the Yard

The first step is simply to step outside. Take a look around and evaluate your landscape. How much space do you have to work with? Does your yard get enough sun to support a garden? (Most vegetables and fruits need six to eight hours a day in order to thrive.) How much rain does your region normally receive, and at what times during the year? Will you need to irrigate frequently? Do you live in a place that freezes solid during the winter, or will you be able to grow a few hardy greens through the colder months?

If you’re thinking about keeping animals, there’s a lot to mull over, but you can start with the space they’ll require. Chickens and rabbits can be kept in fairly small quarters. Pigs need a surprisingly small amount of space, too (see page 286). You really shouldn’t think about keeping larger animals like goats, sheep, and cows, though, unless you’ve got at least a quarter acre to devote to pasture.

Consider Your Preferences

What kinds of food do you eat the most? Zucchini is one of the easiest and most productive vegetable garden plants you can grow, but if you don’t really like zucchini, there’s no sense in planting it. A good plan is to make a list of the foods you and your family eat on a daily basis and start with that. You can always add a few fun things, too, but better to have your plot stuffed with carrots and tomatoes you know you’ll eat than with ground cherries and exotic peppers you’ve never tried before.

Another preference to consider is how much work you really want to do. Although the idea of making your own cheese from fresh milk may be wildly appealing to you, the thought of being tied to milking a cow or goat twice a day, every day for 10 months straight (never mind feeding and watering it twice a day for all 12 months), may not be. Even a vegetable garden can become overwhelming if you try to make it too large. So start simple and start small.

Follow the Law and Make Nice with the Neighbors

Before you begin, be sure to check in with the folks at Town Hall to make sure you won’t be violating any local ordinances. For instance, each town has its own regulations about what kinds of animals you can keep in your backyard (see page 349 for an overview of different city regulations regarding backyard chickens). Some neighborhoods and planned communities have bylaws to keep up appearances, and might not like it if you suddenly decide to plant a wheat field in your front yard.

Hopefully, your amber waves of Pleasantville grain won’t do more than raise an eyebrow among the neighbors. However, if they’ve gotten only two hours of sleep because your rooster has been crowing through the night, they may be a tad on the twitchy side and less than sympathetic to the goals of your mini-farm. It might be worth a quick meeting with the abutters if you’re hoping to keep animals that will be crowing, bleating, mooing, and emitting odors not normally found in a suburban neighborhood. Even something as simple as the considerate placement of a compost pile (e.g., not over the fence from Mr. Wilson’s barbecue) will be appreciated.

You can grow as many as 15 pounds of tomatoes from just one self-watering container on the back patio.

Preserve Your Harvest

Reading through The Backyard Homestead, you’ll see that each chapter includes not only information on growing plants and raising animals, but also tips on how to use and preserve the food you’ve produced. After all, in most areas of the country, there are only so many growing months in the year. Preserving food — which includes canning, freezing, drying, and root cellaring — makes it possible for you to eat from your own backyard year-round. And even if you don’t currently have a garden or animals, you can try out many of the techniques in this book, using vegetables, fruit, meat, and milk from local farms.

How Much Food Can You Produce?

The following illustrations show some of the possibilities for the amount of food that can be produced in an average yard. A quarter-acre lot, planned out well and cultivated intensively, can produce most of the food for a small family. Adding another quarter acre of pasture enables the family to keep a couple of milking goats or to raise steers for beef. These are just examples of what can be done in this amount of space, allowing for a fair amount of diversity. You may decide to forgo the fruit trees and vegetables and just fill the yard with oats. Or you might want simply a flock of chickens and nothing else.

A Homestead on One-Tenth of an Acre

A Homestead on a Quarter Acre . . .

. . . or Half an Acre

By adding a quarter acre of pasture, you’d be able to keep two or three goats for milk or a beef steer to grow through the summer.

Estimating Harvest

It’s difficult to say exactly how much food you’ll be able to produce from your backyard homestead, since so much depends on the kinds of vegetables, fruits, and animals you select, what the weather is like, how long your growing season is, and how intensively you’re planting. But to give you a general idea of just how much it’s possible to produce, given the quarter-acre layout on page 14, here are some ballpark numbers:

• 50 pounds of wheat

• 280 pounds of pork

• 120 cartons of eggs

• 100 pounds of honey

• 25 to 75 pounds of nuts

• 600 pounds of fruit

• 2,000+ pounds of vegetables

The Home Vegetable Garden

Your first vegetable garden doesn’t have to be an experience like that of The $64 Tomato author, William Alexander, whose first step was to hire a landscape architect to design his garden. (No wonder that tomato cost $64!) Gardening can be as simple or as complicated (feel free to substitute “inexpensive or costly” there) as you want to make it. The simplest version, assuming you have no land and very little money? Buy a bag of compost and two tomato plants, slice two Xs into the bag, and plant the tomatoes directly into the compost. Voilà! An instant garden that can be set out in any sunny spot.

The next steps up from there, of course, are planting containers (self-watering containers — see page 28 — are an especially good method) or digging in with an all-out in-ground garden. As you gain experience, you might eventually want to try growing most or all of your own vegetables. It’s surprising just how many pounds of food can be produced from a small plot, with the right planning and careful attention paid to soil preparation, watering, weeding, and succession planting. Crop yields will vary quite a lot, depending on which cultivars you choose to plant (cherry tomatoes or plum tomatoes?), weather conditions, and soil fertility, but it’s possible to get at least a general idea of how much you can produce (see page 15). Keep in mind, though, that this kind of undertaking is a lot of work. Start off small, maybe with just a few plants, so you don’t get overloaded.

Chances are, if you’re gardening for quantity, you’ll want to preserve some of your harvest for the off-season. Even just a couple of tomato plants may produce more than you can eat off the vine. There are several ways to “put food by,” including root cellaring, freezing, drying, and canning (see pages 56, 78, 79, and 80), to ensure that you have plenty of food to last once the growing season is over.

Keep it simple and start small. Don’t try to grow everything! Plant just a few easy-to-grow crops.

Start composting. Once you’ve used compost, you’ll realize you can never have too much!

Mulch. To control weeds and retain soil moisture, cover garden beds with a thick layer of organic mulch.

Visit your garden often. Pull weeds as soon as you see them, add mulch where it’s thin, water plants that are dry, redirect wayward stems, look for signs of pests and diseases, and check for produce that’s ready to harvest.

Take notes. Start a journal to record spring weather, what and when you planted and transplanted, when certain pests emerged, and how much you harvested.

Grow what you can’t buy. Concentrate on crops that you can’t find at your local supermarket and ones that offer unusual color or taste.

Plant crops you love. If you adore tomatoes or peppers, grow several cultivars. Try to avoid growing the same selections offered in the grocery store.

Try crops your neighbors swear by. It helps to know what crops are easy to grow in your area — and when they’re easiest to grow. Ask your neighbors, along with experts at garden centers, garden clubs, or the local Cooperative Extension Service.

Be adventurous. Experimentation is one of the most enjoyable aspects of having a garden. Try growing some unusual edibles just for fun — purple-fleshed potatoes, white pumpkins, or kohlrabi, for example.

Start small

Carefully managed, even a small plot will produce quite a bit of food and will leave you time to learn about and enjoy caring for a vegetable garden. If you have lots of space and want to try a larger garden, make it no more than 10 feet by 20 feet. Keep in mind that the ideal size for your garden depends on the crops you want to plant, too. Crops like bush beans, lettuce, spinach, peppers, and carrots are perfect for a small garden, since the plants are small enough to allow you to fit a variety of crops into the available space. However, if pumpkins and winter squash are high up on your planting list, you’ll need to prepare a bigger garden, as just one of these plants can cover half of the bed pictured above.

Start your vegetable garden with a plan, just as if you were designing a flower bed. Lay it out on paper, using tracing pads or graph paper. You’ll have a choice of several grid sizes; four squares to the inch is most practical for laying out a garden to scale.

Tracing paper allows you to overlay this year’s garden plan on last year’s (and even that of two years ago) to plan crop rotations easily. Note each vegetable variety in the layout and, after you plant, the date of planting. It’s important to ensure proper spacing so you can calculate how much seed to purchase.

To get maximum sun, plant the tallest crops on the garden’s north side so they won’t shade shorter ones, or run your rows north and south. Plant vegetable families together so you can plan the rotation of crops in subsequent years.

Know Your Vegetable Groups!

cabbage, kale, broccoli, collards, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts
Leafy Greens
spinach, chard, lettuce

peas, beans, limas
peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants
Root Vegetables
beets, carrots, turnips, salsify, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, onions, garlic, leeks
Vine Crops
cucumbers, melons, squash

A Sun-Blocker Rotation
Trellised tomatoes, beans, peas, and cucumbers, along with corn, can grow 8 to 10 feet tall. To avoid these taller plantings casting shade on other crops, keep these in one rotation on the northeastern side of the garden.

Garden Planning Chart

Raised Beds: Easier Gardening, Healthier Crops

A raised bed is a mound of loose, well-prepared soil, 6 to 8 inches high. The beds can be permanent, with edgings of stone, blocks, timbers, or railway ties, or they can be re-formed each time the garden is planted.

Raised beds are particularly helpful if you are working with heavy soils that drain poorly. In the long run, easy maintenance and the use of hand tools make this method extremely appropriate for the home garden.

What are some other benefits? First, no one actually steps into the raised beds, so the soil always stays porous and loose and never compacts. This loose soil provides good drainage, enabling water, air, and fertilizer to penetrate easily to the roots of your plants.

If you make permanent raised beds, the garden path next to a raised bed is never used for growing vegetables. Because it is constantly being walked on and packed down, it stays dry, clean, and relatively weed-free.

Because the beds are isolated by the paths between them, you can rotate the varieties of vegetables you plant in each bed each year. This allows you to keep one particular family of vegetables from consuming all the same kind of soil nutrients. It also discourages insect pests and pathogens from remaining in the garden soil over the winter and infecting the next season’s crop.

Finally, the raised-bed gardening system makes a beautiful garden that is always orderly and organized because it is so easy to maintain. You can reach into every corner to cultivate the beds and to pull young weeds as they appear. Succession planting will keep the garden constantly filled with vegetables and pleasing to the eye.

Raised beds can be supported with boards (as shown above) or other materials, or they can simply be raked into hills (as shown on the facing page).

Getting Started with Raised Beds

1. To make a raised bed, mark the area with stakes and strings. Sixteen inches is a good width, but some gardeners prefer beds 3 to 4 feet wide. Make your bed any convenient length. Walkways can be up to 20 inches wide.

2. Using a rake, pull the soil from the walkway to the top of the bed. Stand in one walkway and draw soil toward you from the opposite walkway. Do the same on the other side.

3. Enrich the bed with compost, manure, or other organic materials. Then level the top of the bed with the back of the rake. The sides should slope at a 45-degree angle. A lip of soil around the top edge of a new bed helps reduce erosion.

Grow More in Less Space with Less Work

Wide, deep, raised-bed planting has many practical advantages in addition to offering a better growing environment. Because of the high ratio of bed space to walking space, you can grow substantially more vegetables in substantially less space. Switching from “gardener-centered” to “plant-centered” spacing results in dramatic savings. Raised beds are also less work, because they’re easier to weed, water, and fertilize. And after the first year, weeding is almost a thing of the past.

Paths are narrower in a bed-based garden because they are used just for walking, not for wide cultivating machines. There are also fewer paths, because they do not occur between every row. In a traditional garden, the recommended spacing between rows is determined more by the needs of the cultivator than by the needs of the cultivar. In beds, most vegetables can be grown much closer together, resulting in a further saving of space.

Each of these beds takes up 4 square feet of garden space. But planted in a row, beets yield only about a dozen plants in this amount of space, whereas a staggered, wide-bed planting scheme yields more than three times that many.

Successful Crop-Rotation Practices

Succession Planting

1. Harvest your early crop and then turn over the soil, incorporating any remaining plant material. Add a little fertilizer, such as dehydrated manure, to the row.

2. Level off the soil, pulling your garden rake straight down the row.

3. Sprinkle the seeds in the row and then pat down the soil by hand. Bury the seeds with about four times their diameter of soil, then pat it down again.

4. Water the seeds and watch how quickly they come up during the warm summer months. Weed frequently to eliminate competition for the young plants.

Making a Garden Plan

A garden plan doesn’t have to be complex. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be, or it won’t get done in the first place. These drawings show a kitchen garden, first in early summer and then later when the fast-growing crops are replaced by succession plantings. Each plant is identified by a number.

Early Summer

Late Summer

Key to Plants

1. Beets

2. Bush beans

3. Carrots and radishes

4. Oregano

5. Carrots

6. Pak choi

7. Lettuce

8. Chives

9. Summer squash

10. Swiss chard

11. Broccoli

12. Onions

13. Savoy cabbage

14. Peppers

15. Parsley

16. Spinach

17. Arugula

18. Red orach

19. Cucumbers

20. Dill

21. Tomatoes

22. Basil

23. Marigolds

24. Potatoes

25. Peas

26. New Zealand spinach



Early September

Key to Plants

1. Spinach

2. Beets

3. Lettuce

4. Radishes

5. Celery

6. Garlic

7. Leeks

8. Parsley

9. Marigolds

10. Nasturtiums

11. Tomatoes

12. Peppers

13. Basil

14. Kale

A Small Garden, Through the Seasons

Whether your garden is large or small, a garden plan is important to its success. With succession planting, it can provide a steady supply of great-tasting vegetables from spring through late fall, with a few ornamental herbs and flowers adding good looks, too. The plans shown here are just a starting point; you can adapt them to grow the vegetables you and your family like most.

What about a garden of containers? Gardeners have, after all, been growing flowers, herbs, and ornamental plants that way for ages. If you can grow pansies or petunias in a pot, why not peppers, peas, or pak choi? In some ways, gardening in containers is easier than gardening in the earth — the garden plots are small and simple to manage, plants are less likely to be bothered by diseases or pests, and there are almost no weeds. That’s the good news.

Compared to an earth garden, though, a traditional container garden requires frequent watering. Because vegetables tend to be larger plants that grow quickly, they need a lot of water and they need it all the time. The constant watering also creates another problem: All that water coursing through the container takes with it some of the soil’s water-soluble nutrients. As a result, container gardeners need to fertilize regularly.

Self-watering containers draw water up from below, which avoids the loss of nutrients traditional pots experience. The reservoir also supplies plants with consistent moisture; as long as the reservoir is kept full, the plants will have as much water as they need.

One solution is the self-watering container, which is different from a traditional one in that it doesn’t have a hole in the bottom. Instead, it has a reservoir for water and a wicking system to make that water available to plants on demand. The result is a constant supply of water for plants and no nutrient leaching. An additional benefit for cold-climate gardeners is that, because the soil in containers warms up quickly in the spring, heat-loving plants get off to an earlier start and grow more rapidly in self-watering containers than they do in the ground.

What to Grow?

Now, what to grow? And what size container to grow it in? Much of this will depend on the varieties of plants you choose. For instance, you can grow miniature ‘Micro Tom’ tomatoes in a window box or hanging planter, but you’ll need a large self-watering container with lots of soil capacity to grow a full-size ‘Brandywine’. Another consideration is how many containers you’ll be gardening in this season. If you’re starting with just one, you’ll be better off with a container with lots of soil space, so that you have room to grow a few different kinds of plants if you choose to.


  • "Bottom line is, even if you're not ready for complete self-sufficiency, in today's economic climate, it just makes sense to try to produce some of your own food. And this book is a great way to get your feet wet."
  • "The tone is sweet and accessible, and the well-organized chapters cover all the bases…” — July 2009—Everyday Prepper
  • “This book delivers what it aims to sell. Its 368 pages of information on creating a successful, self sufficient, backyard homestead that will keep you and your family busy and eating all year long. 4.5 out of five stars, this is the book homestead enthusiasts have been looking for. Go buy this book!” —Boston Sunday Globe
  • The Backyard Homestead is a comprehensive and accessible guide to starting a vegetable garden, raising chickens and cows, canning food, making cheese, and a whole lot more. Editor Carleen Madigan…a homesteader in her own right, draws on the dozens of books about country living that Storey has published since its founding in 1983.”

    New York Times Book Review
  • “Because you need to brace yourself for what’s on the horizon: The Backyard Homestead. This fascinating, friendly book is brimming with ideas, illustrations, and enthusiasm. The garden plans are solid, the advice crisp; the diagrams, as on pruning and double digging, are models of decorum. Halfway through, she puts the pedal to the metal, and whoosh! At warp speed, we’re growing our own hops and making our own beer, planting our own wheat fields, keeping chickens (ho hum), ducks, geese, and turkeys (now we’re talking) and milking goats, butchering lamb, raising rabbits, and grinding sausage. Oh, and tapping our maple trees, churning butter, and making our own cheese and yogurt. Peacocks, anyone? Need I say more? Well, yes. Stock up on some knitting books because next winter, you’ll want to grow your own sweaters, too."

On Sale
Feb 11, 2009
Page Count
368 pages