Are you house shopping? Here are garden features you need to look for to get the best urban property that you can transform into a homestead.
So you decided that you want or need a new-to-you house. Maybe your current house is too small or too big, you are moving due to a new job or you are not happy with your current place.
Most real estate agents will say that location is the most important criteria to consider.
While that is important, most home shoppers consider the inside of the house such as the floor layout, the finishes and the general ambience to be the most important.
And then you have gardeners and want-to-be homesteaders that are going to rate outdoor spaces high on their list of must-haves and will be picky about what they can accept.
So how do you balance your needs for the right location, the right house and the right garden features? You can achieve all of them, assuming you have a reasonable budget to purchase a house and some time to search for just the right place.
I’ll focus on the outdoor spaces of course in this post.
Please note that the assumption is that you live in the Northern Hemisphere. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere you will need to swap north for south.
Your property and house orientation and surroundings have a huge effect on how successful your outdoor spaces will be for growing food crops. Sun exposure is one feature that is hard to change if you don’t have it or don’t have it in the right spot.
Since you likely want to grow vegetables or fruit, you need a decent amount of sunshine for a large part of the day. Where you have that concentration of sunshine will matter and ideally you want that to be in your backyard, behind your house.
But why the backyard for growing food crops?
- backyards are usually fenced in, protecting your crops from certain animals such as deer; if there is no fence or it is not high enough, bylaws usually allow for taller fences in back rather than in front.
- many people still see vegetable gardens as not something that they want to display to their neighbours (although that is changing), so the front yard is out in terms of growing vegetables there. Some bylaws or Home Owner Associations (HOA) also don’t allow growing food crops in front of your house. More on that below.
- kitchens usually are located at the back of the house and have a door leading to the backyard, making it easy to step out to get a few fresh tomatoes for a salad or cut a few herbs for a stew or soup
- outdoor kitchens with barbecues are usually in the backyard, again making it easy to grab something from the garden to throw on the bbq
- backyard gardens are hidden away from passerby’s if you are the type of person who doesn’t want to share their harvest freely
- if you live on a busy street you may not want to grow vegetables too close to the street due to pollution from cars and salt spray from winter road salting if you live where there is lots of snowfall
So if you are only considering growing food crops in the backyard, ideally you want your prospective house oriented so that the backyard is facing south. This will maximize the sun exposure.
You can also get away with a backyard with west exposure, like I have. However you don’t get too much sun in the morning, so everything takes longer to warm up. But in the afternoon you may have too much sun and will need to shade crops that don’t like the sun blasting on them all afternoon.
East exposure is okay as you will get sun starting first thing in the morning. However in cooler climates your garden will be in shade for the hottest part of the day in the afternoon, making it harder to grow sun-loving food crops.
North exposure is a tough one to deal with. You will get some sun in the early morning and then again late in the afternoon but you will find it hard to grow any vegetables that need a good 6-8 hours of sun or more. Good for growing some greens perhaps but that is about it.
Sun exposure is of course also going to depend on how tall the house is, how large the property is, what trees already exist on the property and your neighbour’s structures and trees. But if you have the wrong orientionation it could mean having your food crops in an odd location to avoid the shadow of your house.
This might at first seem to be a nice-to-have garden feature and even a luxury, but if you have very dry summers with little rain like we do, you will be glad to have an automated irrigation system.
Yes, you can add it later but it does cost quite a bit of money for the materials and labour. Installing a system later can also be very disruptive to established planting and hardscaping such as paths and structures.
What you want to look for if the house has an irrigation system is that it is split up into zones. This way you have adequate water pressure when watering. A system that has too much on one zone will see a huge drop in water pressure as it tries to provide enough water to all of the sprinklers heads.
One thing to consider and something that I plan on working on as I find time on my own, is to convert an existing sprinkler system to a drip or micro irrigation system. It will help you save water over a conventional sprinkler system.
Without an irrigation system you will need to hand water frequently during dry spells to avoid losing plants. And trust me, that is a time-consuming task that ends up sometimes not being done and then your plants will suffer.
So if your house-to-be has an irrigation system, consider that a huge bonus in making your garden maintenance easier. Which means you can grow more!
Fruit and Nut Trees
When we looked at our current house when it was on the market, one garden feature we really liked was the mature fruit trees in the backyard. I’ve written before on the value of having your own orchard so I won’t repeat the whole story here on the abundance we have in our garden.
Fruit and nut trees can be planted of course but usually take several years to establish enough to bear a decent crop of fruit. A house with an established orchard of fruit trees is therefore almost priceless.
Buying a medium sized tree can be very expensive, depending on the variety. And you have the hassle of getting it home, planting it and tending to it for the first year or more.
So having established fruit and nut trees of any kind is one of those garden features that goes a long way to saving you time and money.
When a real estate agent mentions location, location, location, keep in mind not only the close proximity of schools, shopping and parks, but also the local bylaws and regulations impacting what you can do in terms of homesteading.
These can be a thorn in your side depending on where the property you are looking at is located.
These bylaws could be ones the local municipality enforces or rules that the local Homeowners Association (HOA) has if the property is located in a strata community.
Unless you want to get into legal trouble, you will need to obey bylaws and rules when it comes to all aspects of owning a home. Gardens are usually not an exception.
It can be very limiting whenever you want to:
- build structures such as raised beds, greenhouses, fences (to keep out certain animals)
- paint structures or install certain colours or types of hardscaping (paths, walls, stairs)
- plant any kind of tree
- remove lawn and replace it with other ground covers or plants
- plant vegetables and fruit
- keep chickens or other small livestock
- have a food forest
So be aware of the restrictions as it might limit what you can do in your urban homestead. It could even get to the point where you need to give up on some of the dream garden features you want to have.
This is in reference to walkways, driveways, patios, walls, stairs and other hard surfaced areas.
The least expensive hardscaping is usually concrete. But this is considered to be permanent.
Yes, you can remove it if you absolutely need to, but that involves heavy equipment such as jackhammers. And then you have the problem of getting rid of the concrete you remove or finding ways to repurpose it.
So if there is extensive concrete hardscaping, be sure you are happy with it and can work around it. Especially if you are considering extensive in-ground planting beds. I’ve seen some backyards literally paved completely in concrete!
Hardscaping that is made from bricks, pavers or flagstones is easier to deal with if you want to make changes. Make sure they are set with just sand between them and not set in concrete.
A garden will not be used or well maintained if you can’t access it. So let’s look at two different ways you would access your garden.
Access from the inside
Have you ever lived in a house where there is no way to directly access the backyard from inside the house? While rare, they do exist. Or even if there is a door it may not be convenient if it is located on the first floor/basement and your main living quarters are on the second floor.
If you have to go out the front door, a side door or garage door, walk around the house, through a gate and into your backyard, you will be less likely to use the backyard. It will seem a chore to snip off a few herbs for a soup or grab some lettuce for a salad or pick some fruit for dessert.
We had that initially in our previous house where you had to go through the kitchen, through the tiny laundry room, out the side door, through the gate into the garden. Definitely not convenient!
You are less likely to go outside to tend to your garden if you have to go for a
Now if you can afford it, add a door somewhere on the back of your house to allow access to the garden. In our previous house we replaced the kitchen window with a sliding patio door and build a deck outside of it.
Access from the outside
Similar to the above point, consider how you will access the backyard from the outside. In some types of attached housing, such as rowhouses or townhouses, there is no way to access the backyard from outside of the house.
So when you have visitors to the garden, you will need to take them through the house to the backyard.
This may work fine with friends or family that you have invited for dinner, let’s say. They can grab a drink and a snack on the way to the backyard, chill the wine they brought and store the dish they brought in the fridge or pop it in the oven to keep warm.
However if you have a strict “no shoes” rule in your house, they will have to take off their shoes, carry them through the house and put them on again when they get to your back door.
For people you don’t know well, let’s say a landscape contractor providing a bid on a job or someone who is buying your old deck furniture, you don’t really need them to walk through your whole house.
And keep in mind that anything you want to bring into the backyard will need to go through your house. Soil, plants, trees in containers, rocks, mulch, etc. all need to get from the front to the back. You would need to put down some protective covering over your floors to avoid damaging them. I’ve seen this in some of the British gardening shows, where this is a common problem. They manage somehow but it does look awkward and time-consuming and you run the risk of damaging something indoors.
Even in a conventional detached house, having a garden gate that is too narrow or stairs that you need to go up will make getting large items into and out of your backyard a pain. And it makes the garden less accessible for someone in a wheelchair.
I have that problem with my main garden entrance as I have stairs and a really inadequate ramp. It made it hard to get 3 yards of soil that was delivered in my driveway into my raised beds. I had to wheel the wheelbarrow through my other garden entrance on the north side of my house which meant going the long way around my whole house with at least 30 or more wheelbarrow loads!
You also may need to consider getting a small bulldozer into your backyard if you ever decide to do some extensive regrading work or build a large pond. There are some really small dozers that can fit through small openings, but if you literally have just two feet between your house and the next house or the property line fence, you are going to have problems.
This is the hardest criteria to evaluate in the short time you usually have to look at a property, but can be key to growing healthy plants in your outdoor space. Microclimates are very small areas that have a different climate than the surrounding general area.
Every property has several microclimates. It may be an area that gets full sun all day and tends to be very dry because the heat bounces off a stone wall. Or it could be microclimate on the other temperature extreme such as at the bottom of a slope where cool air tends to collect.
So consider what you want to do in the garden and look for evidence of areas that you may not want or areas that might be perfect for your needs. Yes, you can do things to change the microclimate if you need to but it does require materials and time to do.
I will expand on this in a future blog post but in the meantime, I’ve found this post that gives some examples.
There are more garden criteria that you may want to consider when buying a house. It really depends on what your plans are for your urban homestead and what your lifestyle is like.
But these 7 features in this post will hopefully help in your difficult decision of what house to consider making an offer on. You should then have the foundation you need to transform your new outdoor space into an urban homestead.
If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC