I’ve always lived in a small space. In fact, the “one acre” of One Acre Farm is lavish, compared to all my past homes. I grew up in a modest suburb, with a small vegetable garden in the backyard. Then came college dormitories, and, after marriage, a series of apartments. Our first house was on a postage stamp suburban lot, where we grew a few vegetables and herbs in a patio bed and some containers, right outside the kitchen door. I loved that little kitchen garden. It wasn’t much, but everything we grew was literally within arm’s reach of the kitchen.
Although one acre is big to me, it’s small to others, which explains why I am often asked for suggestions and resources on how to start a small farm. This post is my answer. A bit long winded, maybe, but that’s testimony to the fact that you can do a lot in a small space! First, some basic words of advice:
- Start small. After all, you only have a small space. But seriously, this is especially true if you contemplate raising animals. Get small ones, and just a few of them. If you’d have to keep them in cramped and crowded conditions, it would be better from an animal welfare stand point, to buy eggs, dairy products, and meat from a local farmer who can provide space enough for them express their natural behaviors.
- Produce what you like to eat or use. Radishes are easy to grow in a tiny garden, but why plant them if you don’t like them?
- Let your creativity soar, and scan lots of online images for ideas, especially on small space gardening. You’ll be amazed at what some people have done to make use of cramped quarters.
- Go for a diversity of products, rather than a large quantity of a few. This creates a healthier ecosystem, which is better for wildlife and helps prevent pest outbreaks. Read more on that concept in Permaculture Principles for Practical Gardeners and Farmers.
How to Start a Backyard Farm
This post contains links to online shopping, which is a way for you to support One Acre Farm at no additional cost to you. Click here for my full affiliate disclosure. Thanks for your support!
Container gardening is an excellent choice for a small-space farm. Many vegetables and herbs can thrive in containers, and some do well even indoors. How about microgreens indoors? You do need to water container gardens very frequently, however, because containers dry out quickly. Container grown trees also need protection in cold winter climates, because the roots are not insulated as well as those of trees growing in the ground.
Raised beds are a good idea for small space gardening, because the yield is better. In square foot gardening, a grid of 1-foot squares is placed on the bed to guide you in planting even more intensively
Vertical gardening is the new wave of urban agriculture. Check out some uber creative examples on my Vertical Gardening pinterest board here, and follow it if you’d like to see my updates.
Some vegetables that are usually associated with larger scale farming can produce well in a small space with a little extra planning and care. Even corn can succeed, if you understand its pollination requirements. Read my tips on growing corn in a small space here.
Vertical gardening within any farm also adds vertical habitat for the local wildlife, once again creating diversity which helps prevent pest outbreaks, as you can read in Permaculture Principles.
Fruits, berries, and nuts
Strawberries are a classic, for small-space gardening. I’m sure you’ve seen those tall strawberry jars in garden centers. Strawberries can thrive in them, with proper care.
Blueberries grow as shrubs, and some varieties are quite compact. Perfect for small-scale farming. With plenty of sunlight and careful attention to soil acidity, they can produce well in containers. We have blueberry plants scattered around the yard. With their bright red autumn leaves, they even have ornamental value.
Some fruit trees come in dwarf varieties that fit nicely in small backyards, or even in containers. Our 3 small apple trees produce more apples than I have time to preserve. Our pear trees are just getting started, but with some luck, they’ll eventually produce as well as our apples.
Grapes can be grown on an arbor, making excellent use of vertical space. And, they can be easily pruned to keep them from outgrowing their space. Our Concord and Niagara grapes make excellent juice.
Hazelnuts are one of the few nuts that grow as shrubs. However, some hazelnut varieties are trees, so be sure you know which you are getting. Ours grew quickly and produced abundantly just a few years after planting 2-3 foot tall plants.
Angora rabbits produce a silky soft fur that can be blended with wool for a luxuriously soft natural fiber. Rabbits don’t need a huge amount of space, but they do enjoy playing, exploring, and eating wild forage. While they are often touted as animals that do well in cages and hutches, it’s hard for me to imagine that they are happy under such conditions. We kept ours in a shed with an outdoor enclosure, and also let them free range in the chicken yard in the afternoon. They are active and curious when given the opportunity to explore.
Shetland sheep are a small breed with a beautiful fleece that’s a favorite for hand knitters and weavers. A small flock could be a good choice for small-scale homesteading, where livestock are permitted. They can also be used for meat and milk. To learn to start your own flock, read Raising Shetland Sheep.
Nigerian dwarf goats can be milked, and will also fit in a good sized backyard where livestock are permitted. You can make your own cheese and goat milk ice cream.
Bee keeping requires little time and little space, as long as it’s done where there are plenty of nectar sources. In fact, even if you don’t keep bees, it’s a good idea to provide nectar sources. They will attract wild pollinators, which will boost your yield of fruits and vegetables. Here are some useful tips for attracting pollinators, whether you are interested in honey bees or wild bees.
Syrups from sap
Maple sugaring is a possibility of you have maple trees in your yard. Read how we tap our sugar maples and make syrup here. Syrup can also be made from the sap of at least 22 trees, as you can read here. The main advantage to sugar maple sap is its higher concentration of sugar. This means that less time and energy are needed to boil it down, but you can tap other trees if you have the time and fuel.
Chickens are becoming increasingly common in suburban and even urban farms. For small backyards, consider keeping a few bantam (miniature) hens. Their eggs are just as tasty as large eggs. Read about the pros and cons of backyard chickens here. I’m often asked to recommend books on chicken care. I prefer the information-packed and time honored standards, such as Gail Damerow’s A Guide to Raising Chickens, and The Chicken Health Handbook. And Carol Ekarius’s book, Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds, has beautiful photos and informative descriptions of many breeds of chicken and other poultry.
Quail are small and quiet, and are allowed in some towns and cities where chickens are not. The eggs are very small, but with supplemental light, they can produce as many eggs as chickens.
Rabbits, chickens, ducks, and quail can be raised on very small farms for meat, and small sheep can be raised for meat in a more generous sized backyard. Some livestock breeds can even be raised for dual purpose: poultry for both meat and eggs, and sheep for both fiber and lamb. So factor that in, when you select your breeds. But be sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Can you really kill, or send to slaughter, the animals you have cared for? If not, you can instead buy from a local farmer.
Aquaponics is a system of growing fish and vegetables together, so that the waste from the fish fertilizes the vegetables. The plants, in turn, clean the water, which is then recirculated back to the fish tank. Here is a remarkable example of a family that converted an old swimming pool into an aquaponic system where they raise fish, chickens, vegetables, and herbs. Now that’s an inspiration!
If you have no land at all, you can learn to forage for wild edible nuts, seeds, berries, leaves, shoots, and roots. This is a wonderful way to develop an intimate relationship with with nature. There are many excellent books on foraging, but be sure you understand sustainable foraging practices before you begin.
Learning to forage can be a daunting task, for those who are not yet skilled in plant identification. My advice is get some books on plant identification, and learn to identify the plants growing in your own neighborhood. Then read up on them to find out if they’re edible. You’d be surprised how many of them are. It’s easiest to learn plant identification if you break them up into groups: trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, etc. I started by learning tree identification, and began foraging their nuts and berries.
There are some excellent foraging blogs to consult, but for your own safety, I strongly urge you to get some respected books, and to attend programs of experienced foragers.
If you manage to produce, or forage for, a lot of any one food, you’ll want to learn how to preserve it. I don’t do a lot of preserving, because I prefer to grow small amounts of many different things. But I do dehydrate tomatoes and apples, and can applesauce and a few jellies and jams. Here are some great ways to preserve:
- Dehydration (my favorite, because the end product takes up much less space)
- Hot water bath canning
- Pressure canning
Feel free to ask questions, and share your own tips and resources for small-space homesteading, in a comment!