The Garden That Ate Our Yard: A Retrospective

 Planted garden beds stretching along a couple of terraces in a backyard. Flowers from some bolted lettuce in front of a wooden garden bed.

 I was sitting out in my backyard this morning, sweating, after having done some much-needed cleanup in and around the garden, when I was struck by one of those sneaky blankets of smothering nostalgia that creep up on you from behind suddenly, then fling themselves over your eyes and wrap you up in reverie until something mundane comes along to throw them off so you can breathe again. This time, the blanket looked like my yard, before I started gardening. 

It occurred to me just how much the place has transformed, and how much work I’ve done since then, back in the spring of 2022. I also occurred to me that I haven’t really documented that too much. I’ve done a little, but not really in an organized way, so I thought I’d take the time today just to make a list of what we did each year. I might have pictures, but I don’t have the time to go and hunt for them, so this list will have to do for now. Maybe it will be helpful to someone else looking to start something, and maybe it will just help me wrap up in that blanket again on some cold day in the future. 

We started gardening to try to reduce our grocery bill. There are ten people in my family, and eating healthy is hard and expensive, and supply chains aren’t guaranteed. The goal was to make it a little easier, a little more secure, and (hopefully) a little less expensive. 

Our yard is hardly ideal for it, though. It’s small. The house sits on a 1/4 acre and has a huge driveway, a detached garage, and rock retaining walls. It’s west-facing with tall trees shading it for a lot of the day. It’s on a pretty steep slope, seeing as we live on the side of a mountain in northern Utah. There are deer. There are slugs. There are grasshoppers. We still needed room for the kids to play outdoors. All we had was a mostly dead lawn (thanks to a once-in-a-century drought) and two terraces overgrown with vines and weeds. Here’s what we did:

YEAR 1 (2022):
  • Decide to start gardening.
  • Watch a lot of YouTube videos and read some stuff. 
  • Decide on the organic, no-dig approach.
  • Clear away the stuff on the terraces and sheet mulch with cardboard boxes and free wood chips that later turned out to have been full of grubs.
  • Build 5 shallow, wooden raised beds and fill them with spare dirt and grubby wood chops, topped with not enough compost and a little raised bed mix. 
  • Build a couple sets of wooden steps for easier movement between terraces.
  • Build a rainwater harvesting system (restrictions on city water thanks to drought) that holds about 350 gallons (one IBC tote).
  • Plant a bunch of starts from the only local nursery we knew about in both the raised beds and the in-ground “bed” where we still had some exposed dirt.
  • Build a wire fence at the top of the yard to try to minimize deer traffic. Add motion-sensitive solar lights. 
  • “Condition" some of our clayey soil to be more sandy by adding actual sand—DO NOT DO THIS!
  • Immediately regret adding actual sand.
  • Try growing in containers.
  • Have an unexpected encounter with palo verde beetles, which aren’t supposed to live this far north! Maybe it was the wood chips?
  • Stumble our way through the first season, relying heavily on YouTube and dumb luck.
The result? A mediocre harvest of tomatoes, peas, potatoes, and assorted plants (I don’t really remember what) that definitely did not pay for itself, but was very rewarding and fun. There’s something addictive about being able to walk out your back door, pick a vegetable off the plant, and immediately eat or cook with it.

YEAR 2 (2023):
  • Deepen one of the existing beds and build more. Now both terraces have defined beds (at least on half of their length)! 
  • Shore up the in-ground bed on the top terrace with rocks from the yard. 
  • Remember that we can get cheap compost from the dump.
  • Borrow my parents’ truck to get massive amounts of compost and fill the beds. 
  • Remove the fence separating the side yard from the back so we could plant in the side yard (the worst place on the entire property, but we didn’t know that yet). 
  • Use the rest of the compost to make in-ground beds in the side yard, and an herb garden by the kitchen. This required clearing a lot more vines and weeds. 
  • Learn how to use straw as mulch, and to grow potatoes.
  • Use straw as mulch and to grow potatoes.
  • Experience volunteer plants from last year.
  • Find out about several more local nurseries, and start to develop favorites.
  • Order seeds from a catalog!
  • Lean into perennial foods, like herbs and Egyptian walking onions.
  • Watch a ton more YouTube videos. 
  • Try companion planting.
  • Double the capacity of the rainwater system.
  • Start to see the value of flowers, and plant some on purpose. 
  • Add a bird bath!
  • Fight grasshoppers ALL SEASON LONG.
  • Learn about organic pest control methods (YouTube).
  • Stumble slightly less. 
  • Start to feel like we know what we’re doing.
  • Be wrong about that.
  • Think far enough ahead to plant things in the fall for next season (mainly garlic).
  • In early winter, plant a couple currant bushes and some raspberries in the FRONT yard. This is getting serious.
The result? Homegrown herbs are AMAZING. Seriously, we need more space for this. I can’t live without it anymore. Also, a much better harvest. This was the year we had our first full meal sourced entirely from the garden. That’s grocery replacement, baby! No going back now! Also, yes, our kids do like squash, whether they think so or not, and we managed to grow our pumpkins for Thanksgiving pumpkin pie! Though not in time for Halloween, regrettably. But it was great progress, and the garden was really starting to feel like part of who we were. Plus we got way too many tomatoes, and homemade salsa!

YEAR 3 (2024)—SO FAR:
  • So many YouTube videos, but now I have favorite channels, and OPINIONS.
  • Get started earlier.
  • Enjoy the early fruits of perennial herbs.
  • The Egyptian walking onion survived!
  • Discover the difference between first year herbs and second year herbs (Like a 300-1000% increase in size, depending on the plant).
  • Finish converting the terraces to raised beds.
  • Successfully use netting to discourage bird damage.
  • Have a late snow weigh down our netting and squish all the delicate plants underneath it.
  • Discover that delicate plants can still be quite resilient!
  • Ditch the netting, for better or worse.
  • Try starting warm season plants from seed. 
  • Fail abysmally.
  • Build a sturdy but portable tomato trellis.
  • Build a flimsy and portable bean trellis.
  • Plant twice as many tomatoes.
  • Expand the herb garden all along the side fence (I’m addicted to herbs now, and I’m not going to change).
  • Move the bird bath, making it much more successful.
  • Discover just how many pollinators like to have a nice place to get a drink.
  • Add three bird feeders of different kinds.
  • Plant native flowers and shrubs to provide food and habitat for birds. 
  • Lean harder into companion planting and interplanting.
  • Add another currant bush out front (the others actually survived the winter!)
  • Clear space in the front yard for two more beds, mainly for more herbs and flowers. Pollinator friendly-stuff!
  • Add a flower bed around one tree. 
  • Try to be consistent with an organic fertilizer schedule.
  • Let our grass grow long in some defined areas to support local wildlife.
  • See a HUGE increase in local wildlife. 
  • Get very excited about that.
The result? We’ll see! But so far we’ve had more meaningful harvests much earlier in the season, we’ve been thrilled at the response of the local wildlife, and we’re more hooked than ever. There are now TWENTY-SIX (26) dedicated garden beds: some in-ground, most raised. Some for flowers, some for food, many for both. Most are small. We also have a handful of containers and a multitude of plants intentionally growing in places that aren’t defined enough to call “beds.” And I have ideas for where to put more. 

Like I said in the title, this is slowly eating my yard, and I’m ok with that. My kids still have some room to play, and we’re close enough to local parks to go there often. Plus we have a quiet neighborhood where they can run around to different houses without a problem.

So what’s next? Well, this year, we’re still focusing on building wildlife habitat and converting some our sprinklers to drip irrigation. We do rely on the rainwater collection a lot, but the sprinklers cover our remaining lawn (which we’re slowly converting away from turf grass toward more sustainable alternatives) and help supplement the garden. 

But truthfully, we really want to move to a larger, better situated space. As our kids get older they need more living space (who knew?), and while we’re incredibly grateful for what we have, we’d like to establish a home that our kids can come back to for support as adults. A place for grandkids to gather and young, struggling families to fall back on. Heaven knows what we would have done without that kind of help, and this generation will likely have it even harder. 

We also want to be able to really replace more of our groceries. We’d like to grow fruit and nut trees, but that’s not possible with our current yard. We’re considering trying out chickens, but there’s hardly room for that now, either. I’d also like to be more serious about compost than we are. We have the waste for it, but not the square footage. 

If there were fewer of us, or if our yard got more sunlight, we could probably do just fine with what we have now. But I also have larger, more community-focused motives for this desire that I won’t get into now. 

Let me just wrap up by saying that the changes of the past few years show no signs of slowing. The garden is a transformative force in our yard and in our lives. Just as we’ve shaped it, it’s shaped us, and that cycle feels very healthy and rewarding. I hope it continues for many years to come. 


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