The Backyard Homestead

edited by Carleen Madigan (Storey Publishing, 2009, 368 pgs.)

According to its cover, The Backyard Homestead promises to help readers produce all the food they need on a quarter of an acre of land. While not everyone has access to this much land, even readers with a small backyard in the city are likely to find some bits of useful wisdom in this compendium of urban-farming lore. It contains sections on:
• vegetable and herb gardening;
• growing fruits, nuts, and grains;
• raising poultry for eggs and meat;
• raising other animals, such as goats and sheep, for meat and dairy; and
• gathering food from the wild.

One nice feature of this book’s discussion of vegetable and herb gardening is that the authors provide guidance on the entire process, from preparing the soil to preserving your harvest and saving seeds for the next year’s crops. In just a few pages, the book provides the basics on such topics as garden planning, raised beds, cold frames, and crop rotation.

The Backyard Homestead provides an A-to-Z overview of commonly grown vegetables, which is sprinkled liberally with tips on utilizing your harvest, such as using cabbage in sauerkraut and pickling cucumbers in brine. Ever wondered how to braid your homegrown onions or garlic correctly for decorative and practical long-term storage? You’ll find concise guidance here. There are also tips on freezing or canning fruits and vegetables for future use.

In the section on herbs, you’ll find ample guidance on selecting, growing, and using culinary herbs. You may want to use some of your herbs while they are fresh, but there is also some useful information on how to dry or freeze your herbs for long-term storage, making your homegrown herbs a year-round resource. There is also advice on making herbal vinegars and tea.

The section on fruit includes such valuable information as pruning tips, which types of fruit do best in various parts of the country, and how to dry the fruit you grow. The authors also provide instructions on how to use homegrown fruit to make flavored vinegars. Along with ample advice on growing apples, a fruit that does well in our region, there are step-by-step instructions on how to make apple cider.

Ever dreamt about having your own mini vineyard? You’ll find a lot of advice here, including how to calculate the size of your personal vineyard based on how many gallons of wine you would like to produce and how to make wine in small batches. There is even a recipe for wine flavored with dried flower petals. According to the authors, the best grapes for the Finger Lakes region are Chardonnay, Riesling, Ravat 51, Cayuga Seyval Blanc, Chancellor, Foch, and Delaware.

It might not have occurred to you to grow your own oats, wheat, or barley, but according to the book’s authors it can be done on a small scale in a backyard garden. Corn, rye, millet, buckwheat, and rice are also discussed in the section on grains. Homegrown corn is more common than homegrown rice and is easier to manage for most gardeners. The authors provide growing advice and guidance on drying and storing harvested corn. The discussion of homegrown wheat includes information on how to prepare your own flour, which could present some unique cooking options if you are also growing your own fruit. Completely homegrown blueberry pie, anyone?

There is also a section on growing your own beer, which includes guidance on growing barley and hops in a small plot, malting the barley, and brewing the beer. There are even recipes for various types of beer, such as dandelion bitter or brown ale.

The section on nuts includes tips on which nut trees are easiest to grow in backyard gardens, such as walnuts and hazelnuts. Unfortunately this section is very brief and not as detailed as the other sections in the book. It may not include enough information for gardeners who have their hearts set on producing nuts for home consumption.

Have you been entertaining daydreams about breakfasting on omelets made with fresh eggs? The Backyard Homestead will guide you through the process of choosing the right chickens and establishing a flock of your very own. It is important to note that the chicken breeds used for egg laying differ from those bred for meat, but the authors provide information on both. Storing and cooking with fresh eggs is also discussed, as is butchering. The authors even provide plans for a simple chicken coop. Turkeys, ducks, and geese are also briefly discussed.

Those readers who think on a slightly larger scale might be interested in the book’s information on keeping livestock in one’s quarter acre. Ever dreamed of producing your own milk and meat? Perhaps some backyard goats or sheep are for you. Or if you are dreaming on a still larger scale, how about keeping a cow? For each type of animal, The Backyard Homestead provides an overview of common breeds. There is also an extensive discussion of how to milk goats. Once you master milking your goats or cows, you can follow the book’s simple instructions for making your own cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream. Raising pigs and rabbits for meat is also touched upon briefly. Although the book does not provide details on butchering the larger animals, it does explore what you can do with the meat, covering such topics as how to freeze and thaw meat properly, how to make homemade sausage and jerky, and how to smoke meat.

In a section titled “Food from the Wild,” the authors provide basic instructions on backyard beekeeping, foraging for wild edibles, and making homemade maple syrup. Although it seems likely that readers would need more than four pages of information to take on a task like beekeeping, the book provides a nice overview of how to get started with a small hive. The discussion of foraging includes recipes for such treats as rose-hip jam and dandelion wine. If you are lucky enough to have sugar maple trees in your yard, you may want to peruse the brief discussion of syrup production.

For such a compact book, The Backyard Homestead packs in a considerable amount of practical information. Although you might need to look elsewhere for more detailed guidance if you are serious about specific aspects of urban farming, it is a very helpful introduction to the possibilities of small-scale, personal farming in an urban or suburban setting. Please stop by the Rochester Civic Garden Center’s library to check out this informative guide.

Reviewed by Andrea Kingston, RCGC library volunteer, September 2010.