A well-planned garden can provide your family with the freshest, most nutritious produce, plus a more secure, self-reliant lifestyle.
Photo By Matthew T. Stallbaumer
Providing high-quality food for your family year-round takes foresight and planning, plus healthy doses of commitment and follow-through. Whether you grow as much of your food as you can or you source it from local producers, the guidelines here will help you decide how much to produce or purchase. The charts linked to in “Plan How Much to Grow” later in this article will also help you estimate how much space you’ll need — both in your garden to grow the crops, and in your home and pantry or root cellar to store preserved foods. Here’s a step-by-step plan to help you make the best use of your garden space (or farmers markets) to move toward homestead food self-sufficiency.
1. Establish Your Goals
Make a list of the foods you and your family eat now — and note the quantities as well. The charts linked to in “Plan How Much to Grow” further along in this article assume a half-cup serving size for fruits, vegetables and legumes, and a 2-ounce serving for dry grains. If your servings differ from the charts, be sure to adjust your calculations accordingly.
Decide what you’d like to grow, noting the foods your family prefers and recognizing that not every crop will grow in every climate. Research different crop varieties: Some crops — such as melons — require long, hot days to mature, but certain varieties need fewer days to reach maturity, which allows them to be grown in areas with a shorter growing season.
Don’t be afraid to start small and build gradually toward food self-sufficiency. A good starting goal might be to produce all of a certain crop that you use. An early milestone for me was growing all of the green beans we needed for a year and all of the ingredients for the spaghetti sauce I canned. Maybe you’ll aim to eat at least one thing from your garden each day. Keep your goals in mind as you’re planning a garden.
2. Choose a Gardening Method
I recommend following the guidelines of “Grow Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farming” as developed by John Jeavons at Ecology Action in Willits, Calif., and explained in his book How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Jeavons’ form of biointensive gardening, which can sometimes produce higher yields than less intensive approaches, focuses on eight principles:
- Deep soil preparation
- Intensive planting
- Companion planting
- Growing crops for carbon and grains
- Growing crops for sufficient calories from a small area
- Using open-pollinated seeds
- Integrating all processes into a whole, interrelated system.
Using biointensive gardening methods, garden beds are double-dug and compost is made from crops grown for that purpose (some of which, such as corn, also provide food). Together, these techniques create a system that not only feeds the soil but also builds and improves the ecosystem. You can see these biointensive gardening techniques in action on the DVD “Cover Crops and Compost Crops in Your Garden” (available at Homeplace Earth).
3. Plan How Much to Grow
You can plan either by the number of servings of various crops you want to eat, or by the amount of space you have available in your garden. First, decide how many servings your family needs for the year for a given crop from the charts on the following pages. Divide the number of servings by the number of servings per harvested pound (far-right column in the charts linked to below) to find out how many pounds you need to grow or buy from a local farmer. (This number of pounds is for produce straight from the garden — not the weight after trimming and peeling.)
After you know how many pounds you need, you can deduce how much space your crops will require in your garden based on the estimated yield from the gardening method you choose. Divide the pounds of homegrown food you need by the pounds per hundred square feet for the yield you have chosen (two middle columns in the charts). The result is the number of 100-square-foot beds you’ll need to grow that crop. Of course, your garden is most likely not divided into 100-square-foot beds, but you’ll have an estimate of the total area needed to produce a given amount of each crop. If you have limited garden space, work this calculation in reverse, planning your top-priority crops first.
Ultimately, the yield you achieve will depend on many factors, including your soil, climate and management skills. That’s why the charts below offer a range of possible yield estimates.
Use the following charts to plan your garden based on the projected yields of various crops:
4. Keep Good Records
Keep a record of your plans and activities. You can keep a notebook or a computer record, but you’ll find that you can plan better if you have notes from previous years on hand — perhaps you planted way too many green bean seeds last summer or you started your broccoli seedlings too late. At the least, you should know how much seed you used, the area you planted, and whether the amount you produced was too much, not enough or just right. (A good garden-planning resource is the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Vegetable Garden Planner.)
5. Preserving Food From Your Harvests
When I first started gardening here in Ashland, Va., I felt the need to do as much canning as I could. I still can green beans and some tomato products, such as tomato soup (I consider that my “fast food”). If you prefer canning, following directions closely is especially important. You can find a compilation of MOTHER EARTH NEWS content on canning in our Home Canning Guide. Additional information is available at the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, including the USDA publication The Complete Guide to Home Canning, which is available free to download.
My attitude toward canning has changed now that I eat fresh from the garden as much as possible all year. I grow crops that store well all by themselves so that even in winter we have carrots, beets, onions and sweet potatoes (learn more in Food Storage: 20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them). Another method I’ve shifted toward is solar dehydrating — my solar food dehydrator is a wonderful food preservation tool, and I use it as much as I can. You can learn more about solar dryers from Eben Fodor and the folks at SunWorks. I no longer can applesauce, but I can easily make it as needed from dried apples, and the bulk of my tomatoes are dried by the sun.
Freezing is a convenient option but requires a power source year-round, making your food vulnerable to power outages. The book So Easy to Preserve (also available online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation) has information on freezing and drying in addition to canning. I only depended on a freezer for large quantities of meat during the years we raised our own pork and beef or bought a year’s supply from a friend. Now, however, I buy in smaller quantities from local farmers or share a larger order with neighbors and friends. You could also raise your own smaller animals and process them as needed for the table, thus eliminating the need for preservation altogether.
Want to Do More?
Oils. If you raise livestock, you can render their fats to create cooking oils such as lard and tallow. (Learn more about making and using lard in the book Lard: Cooking With Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient.) If you raise dairy animals, you can turn the cream into flavorful sweet or cultured butters. (Read How to Make Butter and Buttermilk.)
You can grow sunflowers, pumpkins, peanuts, hazelnuts and other plants to make cooking oil from their seeds. Some nuts and seeds contain more oil than others — for example, almonds, hazelnuts (filberts), peanuts, sesame seeds and walnuts have an oil content of more than 50 percent. For best results, be sure to use oilseed varieties of sunflowers and pumpkins, which have an oil content of about 45 percent. Find a chart detailing the yields you can expect from growing various nuts and oilseeds, including their oil content, in Growing Nuts and Seed Crops for Homegrown Cooking Oils.
To obtain oil from your nut or oilseed crop, you will need to invest in an oil press. I have successfully pressed homegrown hazelnuts and peanuts in a Piteba oil press (available from Bountiful Gardens), which yielded 3 1/3 tablespoons of oil per cup of hazelnuts and 4 tablespoons of oil per cup of peanuts. (Learn more about Using A Piteba Oil Press.)
Sweeteners. Keeping bees to produce your own honey is easy, plus having these pollinators active in your garden will help increase your yields. Bees forage over several square miles, so encouraging the enhancement of the ecosystem in your community will be to your advantage. A single hive may produce up to 50 pounds of honey per year. (Read Keep Bees, Naturally! to learn more.)
If you live in an area with sugar maple trees, you can make your own maple syrup from the sap. One to three tapholes per tree are typical, and each taphole yields 5 to 15 gallons of sap. Ten gallons of sap boils down to about 1 quart of syrup. (Check out Enjoy Real Maple Syrup for more details.)
You could also grow sorghum to satisfy your sweet tooth. According to Gene Logsdon in his book Small-Scale Grain Raising, an acre of sorghum can produce about 400 gallons of syrup. From a 100-square-foot planting, you might expect close to 10 gallons of juice, which will boil down to a gallon of syrup. (Read one homesteader’s account of working with sorghum in Making Sorghum.)
Watch for more information about making sorghum syrup in MOTHER EARTH NEWS next year! — MOTHER EARTH NEWS
Livestock. Backyard chickens are a relatively simple starter livestock. After they begin laying, expect about 200 eggs a year from each hen. After they have outgrown their usefulness as layers, they can become stewing hens. If you raise chickens for meat, Cornish Cross chicks raised for eight weeks typically finish as 4-pound broilers at a feed cost of about $1 per pound. (MOTHER EARTH NEWS has compiled extensive poultry resources on our Chicken and Egg Page.)
Goats or cows can provide your dairy products. A family cow can produce 3 or more gallons of milk per day. Its calf would yield about 350 pounds of meat at 18 months. When we had a cow, we milked only once a day, letting the calf have the rest, and then we’d take the calf for the freezer at about 10 months. (Learn more in Keep a Family Cow.)
Goats and sheep need less space and feed, making them ideal for small acreages and even some urban lots. One dairy goat can provide about a gallon of milk per day and offspring for meat. Raising a kid to 6 months yields about 30 pounds of meat, including bones.
For other meat options, a feeder pig raised to 7 months (about 260 pounds) can yield about 100 pounds of meat. You can use a pen, but adding pasture is ideal. If you only have a small space, rabbits may be your meat animal of choice. Litters from one 10-pound doe can produce 80 pounds of meat per year. (Learn more in Rabbit: A Great Meat Animal for Small Homesteads.) If you’d like to raise both rabbits and chickens, the book The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City has a plan for a rabbit-chicken integrated housing system.
Remember that the road to food self-sufficiency should be a community effort. You don’t have to do everything by yourself: Decide what you can do, share the surplus with others, and find like-minded people to embark on this journey with you. Enjoy the adventure!
Gardening educator Cindy Conner is using her decades of gardening and food preservation experience to detail how to grow a complete diet in a small space and get the food to the table using the smallest amount of fossil fuels. You can follow her research and find her informative DVDs at Homeplace Earth.