Questions to Ask Yourself When Designing Your Farm or Garden

Sharon January 30th, 2009

Note: Aaron wrote these out - good stuff, and useful to everyone, IMHO! 

Questions to ask yourself before designing your garden. 

What would you like to achieve on your property in terms of the landscaping of your home and its ability to feed you?  This is the time to dream big and long term. 

What is your timeline- can you make changes quickly or do you plan to make changes over several years? 

How much money do you plan to dedicate to initial changes? 

How much money can you dedicate on a monthly or annual basis? 

How much sun do you get on your property?  It helps to think in terms of number of hours of directly sunlight between March and November and think in terms of the different areas of your property. 

Are you willing to remove trees to increase the amount of sunlight? 

What is your source of water if irrigation becomes necessary?  Can you harvest rain from your roof?   

What is currently growing in your yard? 

How important are the aesthetics of your yard to you?  To your neighbors?   

Are there neighborhood covenants, rules or regulations that are suppose to keep you from growing food or raising certain types of animals? 

Will children be using the yard?  If so what age and how many? 

Will pets be using the yard?  If so how many and what kind? 

Do you use your yard for entertaining purposes?   

Are there special activities like bonfires or hog racing for which you will need to set aside room? 

Would you like to include fruit trees, bushes and edible perennials (plants that come back every year) in your landscape?  If so how much room can you devote to these plants?  (Remember trees are big and produce lots of shade.  Shrubs can get big too.) 

Do you plan to grow annual vegetables (plants you start from seed or transplant every year like corn and tomatoes) and if so how much room can you devote to these vegetables.  By the way you’ll want at least 6, and better yet 8, hours of direct sunlight for this area. 

How much time can you commit to your garden each week? 

How much food, on a percentage basis based on your weekly menu, would you like to harvest from your yard?   

Do you have physical limitations that would make typical gardening difficult for you? 

How much help (significant others, reluctant in-laws, children, household pets pressed into the service of chasing away squirrels) do you have at your disposal?   

How much experience do you with growing plants and gardening? 

Do you have room to over-winter potted plants in your home?   

Do you have sunny windowsill useful for starting seeds or growing sprouts? 

What kinds of animals would you be interested in raising: chickens, turkeys, rabbits, goats, cows, pigs, sheep, llamas, bees, fish, or others? 

What equipment do you own or could borrow?  Think hand tools like shovels and rakes but also mowers and tillers. 

Do you have natural sources of mulch available including baled straw, fallen leaves or grass clippings?  How about cardboard (any appliance stores near by?) 

Do you have room for outdoor containers on patios, decks or porches for growing food? 

Do you anticipate a problem with animals such as rabbits or gophers visiting your garden and helping themselves to your produce?   

Do you anticipate encountering soil contamination due to exterior lead paint or other chemicals previously used on your property?   

Measurements you’ll need 

The easiest way to get the measurements you’ll need to draw up a master plan for your yard will be to dig up a site survey of your property.  You might have a copy tucked away in the material associated with the purchase of your home.  If you rent your landlord, pleased that you’re improving the property, might offer you a copy of such a survey.   

If you don’t have a survey handy don’t worry.  You can take the measurements yourself.  It’s best to invest in some graph paper.  You can by a pad or print some out.  Here’s a source: 

Using the graph paper to record your measurements and a tape measure or other measuring device, record the measurements of the perimeter of your house and any other structure on your property.  Try to also measure the boundaries of your property.  Often you can find pins or stakes or other marks that indicate property corners.  If you can’t than your best guess will have to do.  Try to measure the distance of your home and other structures from the edges of at least two property boundaries.  This will help to more accurately place these structures. 

Don’t expect to get this drawn up accurately on your first try.  Typically your going to use several sheets of paper to record the measurements outside and then come inside to piece them all together for a base plan.  By the way you can use the grids to represent a certain distance, say 5 feet.  This will vary between properties because different scales will be necessary depending on the size of your property.  Count the number of individual squares on the length and width of your paper and divide that number into the length and width of your property.

Or you can just try and get close in proportion to everything you want to show on your property.  This should include all structures but also trees, shrubs, driveways, patios, decks, wells, existing gardens, walls, and anything else you see in your yard.  When trying to measure and place these items accurately it helps to triangulate or take measurements to a certain object from several locations. 

Again don’t try to get all this right on your first try.  Get as many measurements as possible and then go inside and combine your efforts.  It’s likely you’ll have to go back and remeasure a few elements but the more accurate your base plan, the less frustration you’re likely to encounter as you move forward with your plan.  You don’t want to plan for and purchase 15 blueberry bushes only to come home and find that you only have room for 8 or that the play lawn you promised your children for purposes of Frisbee and football really has only enough room for a game of tag. 

This base plan and the questions you’ve answered below will serve as a reference for the design process as we plan your garden.  Keep them handy as we move along. 


Sharon and Aaron

11 Responses to “Questions to Ask Yourself When Designing Your Farm or Garden”

  1. Andrew says:

    If you live in an area where the resolution of Google Maps is good than you can use that image. I moved it the image into photoshop and traced the outline of structures, fences, trees, and paths on another layer. Then i re-sized the image to a convent scale, and printed.

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  3. Rosa says:

    These are great! Thank you, and thank Aaron.

    Google maps of my address would show you we only have shade - you can’t even see the house, just the giant elm tree.

    There is one mostly-sunny spot, and it *was* a perennial flower bed - i’m converting half of it to vegetables this year. I lead-tested the soil last year, and it seems that the previous owner who established the perennial bed did a really good job removing the topsoil there & replacing it with compost & manure. It’s the cleanest part of our yard, except for the two-foot-deep raised bed I’ve established over the last five years.

  4. April says:

    I am getting into garden mode—this is just what I needed to get me going! Thanks!

  5. dewey says:

    I would love to set aside space for “hog racing.” Man, would the neighbors go bananas! :)

  6. emeeathome says:

    We have just had three days of over 110 degrees - yesterday was 114. We are now looking forward to a week of 100 or thereabouts. Coupled with severe water restrictions, the garden is a disaster area. We do have tank water, but that is kept for the vegies and fruit trees

    I even brought the chickens into the house for three days after my best layer turned her toes up. They have been put back outside now the temp is expevted to drop to 100. The spare bedroom doesn’t smell too wholesome right now.

    Next year I am installing more drip irrigation, and maybe some sort of evaporative cooler for the chicken run

  7. Nuno says:

    Really useful post, with a lot of questions I hadn’t thought of!

    I have sort of the reverse problem- I’ve been trying to figure out for a while what is the minimum area for a nearly self-sufficient piece of land because I’m trying to balance a very modest budget with the wish of one day stop living in apartments, which have been the habitat of my family for 3 generations. Fortunately the country I live in has 3500+ hours of sunlight, long growing seasons and a lot of water during most of the year, excluding sometimes drastic scarcity during the summer. However the areas with best soil and services are densely populated and we can only afford smalls plots- around a quarter of an acre. A good thing is that law allows me to keep my bees or let animals graze on municipal rural land.

    I’ve been putting together the minimum areas I would need to produce around 75% of food for 3 people(everything except rice, flours, oils, the odd treat and something to handle occasional emergencies) and my base has been John Seymour’s half acre plan which assumes half your land is put to pasture or rest and the other half for buildings, orchard and horticulture.

    He says this also allows a cow, a small flock of chickens, a few geese, a couple of goats and a couple of pigs (in a pigsty) for 9 months for all of which you have to buy food for in the winter but compensate throughout the year. The problem is that the cow occupies a lot of space and time and, since we pratically don’t eat cow dairy products its main purpose would be to make the soil richer. Also the garden plot seems to occupy a lot of valuable space for an orchard that would be (ideally) capable of absorbing years with smaller yields and maintain a steady supply of fruit most months. I was also wondering if soft fruits could be compatible with some orchard shade instead of having their own plot.

    The problem is how to enrich the soil by myself without the cow and have a similar yield to what it would produce with its help and I was thinking if it’s feasible to practice square inch farming in the garden plot, shrinking it (and in a greenhouse during winter) and fertilizing only from vermicompost, that I would produce in the greenhouse from garden and kitchen waste. The Growing Power NGO has been doing this in their urban greenhouses:

    Sooo… here comes my question (finally):

    What would be your estimate for the smallest area for these objectives (not counting buildings) ?

    Sorry for the long comment and thanks in advance for any information that you may be able to provide. :)

  8. Nuno says:

    (Since I use the metric system I got a bit confused and Seymour’s concise plan is actually one acre, and my budget is enough for around half an acre)


  9. Cassandra says:

    A major concern is soil type and fertility.

    In reading this post, I almost laughed at the comment about being willing to cut down trees.

    Where I live in Colorado, trees are exotic. When we moved to our twenty acres nearly 30 years ago, I had to hire a huge farm tractor to come in with field chisels to at least break the clay up into chunks that could be broken by hand and mixed with horse manure.

    After all this time, I still rely on raised beds for almost all of our vegetables.

  10. Rosa says:

    Cassandra, me too! I grew up in western Iowa, right at the edge where the flatlands start getting really flat and dry - we had trees, along the streams & the river, but they don’t just happen by themselves anywhere else.

    Now where I live, in what used to be the Big Woods, the main part of my weeding is killing trees. Our big American Elm is trying to singlehandedly repopulate the species, I swear. It’s a weird problem to have.

    When we were farm-shopping with friends, we hit a snag because the people from Wisconsin think of “a farm” as a wooded area with clearings for growing crops, and the people from Iowa thought of “a farm” as some big, flat fields with some carefully-cultivated clumps or lines of trees in strategic spots. Turns out we could only afford the second kind and the Wisconsinites were not willing to live in the treeless waste.

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