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Gardening Indoors to Beat Winter Doldrums

winter, arizona, meme dry heat

There are hundreds of memes out there on the internet about how ironic life can be sometimes. The one that springs to my mind, I made myself.

But seeing the 9" of snow (and the -2º temperature) that my part of Arizona experienced in early January made me remember why I have been growing tropical plants inside for so many years.

It all started in early 2008 when I started the Gardeners with Altitude garden club here in St. Johns. We had a huge seed-starting class at our local library where we had over 50 people in attendance. We discussed all the things that could be started indoors and I was asked if I had ever grown citrus. Now, I realize that most companies cannot ship citrus plants to Arizona due to agricultural restrictions, but I immediately went home to see if there were any that could. What I found was that I could not find any. But lo and behold, a mere two or three weeks later, while perusing my local Home Depot in Show Low, I found kumquats, loquats, and oranges in little pots. I brought them home. 

Limequats on tree

It wasn't long before I realized some of the trees were going to do better than others, and that first winter, I harvested 10 kumquats, one orange, and a handful of limequats, like the ones in the picture above. 

In the summer, when temperatures outdoors are much more favorable to the happy little trees, I moved them outside of the house where they could take advantage of that great sun. The problem with potted plants in Arizona sun and summer temperatures is that they can bake to death in the period of a couple hours. That first summer, after bringing the plants outside to the fresh air, I was gone most of the day to do some shopping and what-not, and I came home to an orange tree that looked very dead indeed. I drenched it with water and in a couple weeks, all but one branch had revived. 

Since then, the orange tree has died, and though the kumquat continued to put on a handful of sweet-peeled, tangy fruits for a couple years, it, too, finally kicked the bucket. But I added to my tropical fruit collection by adding a banana tree a garden club member had to be rid of. It has had several pups grow from it, and I've given away banana plants to several people. 

Lemon tree

Recently, I acquired this great lemon tree. 

This picture doesn't show just how crazy beautiful the plant is, but here are some lemons it produced this winter; the first year I have had it!


And the limequats from the tree above:


One thing I have learned the last several years about caring for plants like these inside the house include making sure to fertilize, watching the water level, making sure they have enough heat and light, and helping them pollinate. 

Tropical plants like citrus, pineapple, bananas, and kiwi benefit greatly from a little fertilizer every few weeks during the blooming and fruiting periods, specifically. I use Neptune's Own fish fertilizer on my plants because growing as naturally as I can is important to me. Because it is a water-soluble liquid fertilizer, getting on a good fertilizing routine helps with making sure they are getting enough water, too. The soil should be fairly dry an inch or two down, but never more than that. These plants produce high-water-content fruit and they need enough water to produce blooms and fruit.

A south- or west-facing window can usually be sufficient lighting if the days are long enough. Here in northern Arizona, I like to supplement with some grow lights or even fluorescent shop lights when the days are less than 10 hours long. Keeping them warm enough indoors is as simple as making sure they are in the house rather than a garage or storage area. If its warm enough for you, it is warm enough for them.

The last thing about making sure you get decent fruit from these types of plants is to help pollinate the blossoms. Commercial growers sometimes swear that the blossoms will fertilize themselves, but I find I get a much better harvest from my baby trees if I take a paintbrush around the blossoms a couple times during the bloom period. 

Hopefully you can beat the winter doldrums by growing a few indoor plants, even fruits, for yourself. To me, nothing beats a fresh glass of lemonade in January, courtesy of your own indoor tropical garden!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Two Natural Cidermakers Share Their Approach to Sustainable Orcharding

Cider Makers Working Apple Press

The welcome note to MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader below is written by Nicole Blum and Jonathan Carr, followed by a brief word on sustainable orcharding by Jonathan Carr.

Hello MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers! We’d like to introduce ourselves, tell you what we do, what we are thinking about, and how we do it. We have been farming since the late 1990s, starting this life together running a tiny market garden on family land in Ireland, serving the upscale Dublin market.

After moving back to the United States in 2001, we were fortunate to find an affordable, but overgrown orchard, in Western Massachusetts, where we have spent many a year clearing land, building our house and barns, rehabilitating fields, planting apple trees, pressing apple cider, and envisioning what makes ecological sense for this beautiful hillside.

We have been supporting ourselves running a modestly successful farm business for the past nine years, selling our natural hard cider and traditional cider-based products at farmers markets, at wholesale, and online. We are business people of sorts, which is strange to us, but which has given us a real world tutorial on the economics of food. And now, 16 years in, we are taking stock.

Sharing the Business of Natural Cidermaking with You

This space will serve as a reflecting pool for us to share our past successes and stumbles out in the orchard and back in the kitchen, but it’s also going to be a living lab to dig deeply into appropriate farming and orcharding practices in light of climate challenges.

Can we have a light footprint on the land and still get rewarding harvests? We are working to build a sturdy, resilient orchard and farm which is climate-adaptive, low-energy input, soil-regenerative, and follows the realorganic” standards.

We are expressly setting out to think both big and small, while living joyfully and fully. We plan on sharing delectable recipes and plenty of crafty goodness, as well as all of the skills we have gathered as orchardists, cidermakers, farmers, quasi-homesteaders, inventors, builders, and people staring at an uncertain future with great hope in their hearts.

Does all of this sound like a tall order? Maybe so, but is there really any other choice? Please come join us along the way as we strive to farm gently, eat well, and thrive in our place with our values intact.

Our Approach to Sustainable Orcharding

So let’s jump right in!

How do we practice sustainable orcharding here? The short answer is evolution - both personal and at the orchard level. I say personal because our growing approach is a palimpsest that has passed through many stages: first by-the-book “organic”, then (after a stint in grad school) reluctantly brainwashed to use chemical controls (didn’t last but a minute), and finally, embracing a Fukuokan, deep-orcharding, natural farming perspective. Sounds groovy — what does that even mean for our 1,800 apple trees?

Apple Tree Sap Cider Making

Farming Principles of Masanobu Fukuoka Applied to an Orchard

We follow three main tenets: 1. No spraying. 2. Minimal intervention via pruning or mowing. 3. Feed the soil, not the tree. Now, you can probably guess that the orchard can look pretty bedraggled at times when only getting mowed once per year! However, the understory grows full of flowering plants that nurture beneficial insects for most of the season until we mow prior to harvest.

Cropping has largely slipped into a biennial pattern — good one year, poor the next — the trees’ clever strategy for making sure that pest levels can’t build up. We choose to live with that, although I understand why most apple growers do everything possible to achieve consistent annual bearing through thinning fruit — to have a consistent income, for example.

Incorporating Wild Apple Varieties

So, onward to orchard evolution: the big picture.

In standard orchard practice, well-loved apple cultivars are grafted onto rootstock, which is a sort of vegetative propagation. That’s how we maintain specific clones of named apples. However, apples are incredibly genetically diverse when allowed to sexually reproduce. Plant an apple seed and you never know what kind of a tree you will get!

An incredible diversity of tree forms, vigor, fruit size and color, leaf type, etc. is unleashed, including the ability to adapt and thrive in local circumstances. That’s why we’ve started collaborating on the process of collecting and evaluating promising wild apples, growing and bearing well without the benefit of human oversight.

We can’t cling to old varieties of fruit if they are not adapted to pest and disease pressures, needing to be sprayed with chemicals to stay healthy and make a decent crop of fruit. We need to keep planting new seeds, let the process of evolution keep unfolding, and follow where it takes us. Excelsior!

Silvopasture in an Apple Orchard

The final piece of our management system is one we are shifting over towards with our new plantings: Silvopasture.

In orchards of old (1800s and before), fruit trees were “high-headed”, i.e. scaffold branches were developed at 5 or 6 feet off the ground. Lollipop trees! This allowed passage of both cultivating/mowing implements and grazing animals.

Some apple orchards in Normandy are still maintained in this ancient way (les vergers haute-tige), with cows grazing contentedly below. Benefits include better air circulation to reduce foliar diseases, access for mowing near trunks (especially if you don’t maintain herbicide ‘control’ under the trees), animals mowing for you and eating fruit drops (helping to control pests), and ease of harvesting (if you shake the apples onto tarps). Drawbacks include southwest injury on the exposed lower trunks, less accessible canopy for pruning and hand harvesting, and a longer establishment period.

We don’t know anyone in the States who has an intentionally high-headed orchard. Do you? We’d love to connect.

Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum co-own Carr’s Ciderhouse, where they produce natural hard cider from sustainably-grown apples and other delicious, traditional cider products. Their goods have been featured by the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yankee Magazine, Real Simple, Food and Wine, Town and Country, and Cidercraft. They are the authors of Ciderhouse Cookbook (Storey Publishing, 2018). Connect with Jonathan and Nicole on Instagram and Facebook.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Planning for Spring, Thinking About Sandy Soil

Obligatory chicken pic. 

It's called "Kalkaska Sand."

It's the official soil of the great state of Michigan. And I'll be honest with you: it's a challenge. Maybe it's the drastic change. I spent all of my gardening life before now growing in the heavy, nutrient-rich clay in the near-suburbs of Detroit. It was heavy, and wet, and would turn into something like cement, cracking in the hot sun. 

And now? My soil is more like what you find at the beach. Literally. I can dig into it with my hands. It's fast-draining, warms up quick in the spring (which is great since our growing season is so short) and planting has never been easier.


There's always a but.

All of that lovely lightness does come with a few drawbacks. It drains very, very quickly and doesn't retain water well at all. It's also fairly devoid of nutrients. So since we started gardening here a little over two years ago now, our focus has been on not only digging new beds, but in amending the soil in those beds so our plants will be as productive as we want them to be. Here's what we've been doing.

Improving Sandy Soil

Honestly, it's all about amending this soil, just as it was with our heavy Detroit clay. We're adding as much manure, and topsoil, and leaf mold and compost and chopped leaves as we possibly can. We have a small flock of hens now and their composted manure is just a beautiful thing for the garden.

But it's not a quick fix. Maybe if we only had one small bed and focused on that, all of this would happen faster. Or if we had a larger budget to purchase truckloads of compost and manure. But we're doing this on a budget and relying partially on what we can buy as far as soil amendments while doing as much as we can to find and make free soil amendments.

Which means compost. So much compost. I loved composting before because it's so good for my plants, but it's become even more of a necessity here. In addition to the aforementioned chicken manure and bedding, we compost:

fall leaves
food scraps
used coffee grounds
grass clippings (even though we're on ten acres, we still find it worth it at this point to mow some of it with a regular walk-behind bagger mower, just so we can collect the grass clippings easily)
pine needles (we have so many pine trees...)
wood shavings from my husband's woodworking business
shredded paper (not glossy)
and nearly anything else that we can possibly add to a compost pile

In addition to composting, mulch has been integral in helping our quick-draining soil retain some of its moisture longer. It also helps the plants' roots stay a bit cooler since sand heats up fast -- which is great in spring when you're impatient to get a garden in, but not so great when you're in the middle of a drought and heat wave. 

And after a couple of seasons, we're starting to see a difference in the first couple of beds we made and started amending. There were very few earthworms in our soil before, and we saw them regularly during our most recent growing season. The soil is holding moisture longer. It's still not perfect. But it's getting there.

And that's a lot of what gardening is about. It's more about the long game than the immediate payoff. Of course, we want tomatoes and lettuce and sunflowers. But every year, we work and we improve so that we can grow even better next year. 

It's a good philosophy to have, not just in gardening, but in the rest of our lives as well. 

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Sowing to Harvest: Growing Onions

Photo by Getty Images/rootstocks

Growing Onions from Sowing to Harvest

Yellow, red, and white varieties of bulb onions are available to the home grower.You can find a list of varieties by double-clicking on the Onion icon in our Garden Planner. Add some onions to your plan then view the Plant List to check recommended sowing, planting and harvesting dates for your garden.

Planting Onion Seeds

Sow onion seeds into plug trays or pots in a greenhouse or cold frame for the earliest start, at least a month sooner than outdoors sowings. Sow four to eight seeds per plug tray cell.

Onions prefer a sunny, open spot in rich, well-drained soil. Grow them in raised beds or on mounds if your soil is heavy and tends to remain wet.

Transplant the clumps of seedlings while still quite small so as not to disturb the roots. Planted each clump about 4in apart.

Sow seeds direct into the soil once the soil has warmed up in spring. Mark out seed drills about half an inch deep and a foot apart. Plant the seeds thinly, cover back over then water. Thin the seedlings in stages until they’re about 2in apart for smaller bulbs, or 4in apart for fewer but bigger onions. You can enjoy the thinnings as green onions. Cover early sowings or transplants with row covers.

Some hardy varieties of onion can also be sown in late summer for an extra early crop in spring or early summer.

Planting Onion Sets

In many areas you can buy onion transplants for immediate planting. Alternatively, plant sets: part-grown onions which save time sowing. Unfortunately they don’t store as well as onions grown from seed or transplants, and they are more likely to bolt, (there are some heat-treated varieties available that are more resistant to bolting), but they are very convenient.

Plant sets 2-4 in apart in mid spring once the soil has warmed up a little, leaving the tips poking out of the soil. Some varieties can be planted in early fall for harvestable bulbs up to two months earlier next summer.

Onions must be kept well-watered in dry weather. Keep weeds in check by hoeing between the rows and hand weeding within the rows.

Harvesting and Storing Onions 

Harvest time is not far away when most of the leaves have bent down towards the ground. Allow bulbs to swell and color up for a few weeks before harvesting.When they’re ready, lever them out of the ground using a fork or trowel.  Onions for storing need a period of curing somewhere dry and well-ventilated first - an airy shed or a greenhouse is fine. In warm, dry climates you can simply leave the onions where they are on the soil surface. Space bulbs out for good airflow between them – you may like to use a rack for this. After about two weeks the skins should have toughened up, and they can then be stored in nets, tied into bundles or woven into onion strings. Onions will store until at least midwinter, and as long as spring.

Get More Tips with These Great Gardening Resources

Our popular Vegetable Garden Planner can help you map out your garden design, space crops, know when to plant which crops in your exact location, and much more.

Need crop-specific growing information? Browse our Crops at a Glance Guide for advice on planting and caring for dozens of garden crops.

More Videos

Watch more videos on gardening techniques and other self-reliance, DIY topics on our Wiser Living Videos page.

Milkweed, Monarchs and Home Gardeners to the Rescue

Monarch in east Texas at Thanksgiving

On a Wing and a Prayer - Monarch Butterflies and Home Gardeners

Almost everyone knows about the steady decline of the Monarch butterfly from one source or another. Today is different and the Monarchs need every home gardener. It’s a bad news/good news situation, but there’s a much bigger upside to this story. 

The Bad News 

The Xerces Society - a leader in Monarch butterfly conservation - released the official Thanksgiving Monarch Overwintering count for the 2018 season. The numbers are grim, with “an all-time record low of 28,429 monarchs counted…This number is an 86% drop from the previous count done at Thanksgiving 2017, when 192,668 monarchs were counted…” This represents “a dizzying 99.4% decline from the numbers present in the 1980s. In short, only one of every 160 monarchs present in the 1980s exists today.” 

Here is what that decline looks like -

  Western Monarch Decline

Graphic used with permission from Xerces Society - permission granted by Matthew Shepherd, Xerces Society Media Manager

This drastic decrease from last year’s count is partially the result of many late-season storms and a wildfire season in the West with unprecedented severity. The bigger, long-term issues are the continued loss and deterioration of suitable habitat including non-native plants, along with increased pesticide use. 

Some Historical Perspective 

That’s the bad news, and it is terrible indeed - but it’s not the whole story, nor the end of it. Let’s put this into some perspective. 

In 2007 and again in 2009, overwintering Monarchs were at record-low numbers but were able to recover somewhat and increase their numbers in the years following. From 2012 through 2016, the population increased to levels higher than the previous decade. 

This was the result of local and regional governments, organizations and concerned local citizens creating favorable habitats with milkweed and nectar flowers for the Monarchs to rest, feed, and lay eggs. 

Last season’s storms and especially the widespread, massive fires in California and across the western states have severely damaged or destroyed many of those habitats.


What to Do Now 

Home gardeners enter the story at this point and start saving the day, one garden at a time. Both the Xerces Society and the Southwest Monarch Study have called for planting a great many more milkweed for the caterpillars and spring-blooming, nectar-giving native flowers for the adults.

Southwest Monarch Study says, “Remember here in the desert regions of the Southwest we have adult monarchs and larva right now and they will begin their spring migration in the coming months. Let’s create more monarch habitats and engage in Citizen Science that can make a difference.” 

The solution to this problem - both short and long-term - is more milkweed and nectar plants everywhere there are Monarch breeding areas and migration routes. This means almost everywhere in the US, as new migration routes and breeding areas are being discovered. 

Home gardeners are an integral part of the solution, as their widespread, independent, decentralized, private action makes the difference - planting milkweed and nectar plants creating migration and breeding pathways across the different regions. The legions of home gardeners can sow enough seeds to grow into food and nectar for this upcoming spring breeding and migration. 

Milkweed is the only plant the Monarch caterpillar can eat, otherwise, it will die. 

Yet, planting a stand of milkweed is only half of the solution – the adult Monarch butterflies need nectar and pollen to feed on. 

Make sure you plant both milkweed and nectar-producing flowers to keep the adults fed and strong so they can lay lots of eggs and continue their journey each season. Both spring and fall flowering native plants are important as food for the adult butterflies. 

Milkweed pod with seed

Hand-Grown Milkweed 

The best milkweed to plant is native to your area, hand-grown by experienced growers working to maintain the genetic vigor of the plants. We have partnered with a group growing more than a dozen different milkweed species across Arizona for more than five years. 

Seed is grown at different elevations and locations to test the vigor and adaptability to variable conditions, as well as research how well Monarchs utilize them in various places. The seed is hand-grown, hand-harvested, hand-cleaned, and hand-packed, creating the highest quality milkweed seed available. 

Terroir Seeds is the exclusive partner with Arizona Milkweeds for Monarchs, offering these unique milkweed species to home gardeners. The sale of each packet of milkweed seeds supports continued on-going research. Volunteer citizen science is the foundation of the group, overseen and backed by professional scientists from Northern Arizona University. 

Current research includes:

Monitoring the habits of the Monarch butterfly and how they use each species of milkweed, much of which is not known even today.

Determining which milkweeds are susceptible to which pests and diseases, and what to do about them in an integrated,      holistic manner.

Finding which companion plants reduce pest populations on milkweed and which ones attract predators to feed on the pests, such as aphids.

Improving and refining seed germination methods, along with harvesting and cleaning processes.

In the desert Southwest, there are more than 40 species of milkweed, more than 50% of the total diversity in the continental US. Arizona has the second greatest species diversity of milkweeds next to Texas. 

What You Can Do 

Home gardeners didn’t create this dilemma, but we - you and I - are the best possible resolution in these unsettled times. 

Several organizations are working with regional and local governments to get more seed planted, but layers of rules, bureaucracy, and manpower limitations hamper them. For instance, one organization has a goal of planting 5,000 seeds on public lands in Arizona, working with Arizona Game & Fish, U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, Tonto National Forest, and Coconino National Forest. 

We can plant that amount - and more - in a week with home gardeners sowing seeds in our own gardens, creating a much larger network of habitat that can’t be mowed or sprayed or removed without notice or permission, unlike on public lands. 

As Fiona - our good friend and partner in another milkweed project - said so well, “What we get is priceless. One day, in many gardens around this area and scattered throughout the southwest, the most ephemeral of creatures – a butterfly – will lay her eggs on the milkweed that has been grown there especially for her, and the stunning caterpillar that emerges will have all the nourishment it needs right there. Soon thereafter, through the miracle of metamorphosis, a monarch butterfly will continue the journey. We may only get a fleeting glimpse of this whole cycle, but that’s OK – we just need, it seems, to know that we are part of a bigger whole that is life on earth.” 

Will you join us in planting some milkweed and nectar flowers?

Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice, and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Growing ‘Piment d'Espelette’ Peppers

Photo by labordebrana/Pixabay

On a recent episode of Fine Cooking filmed in the Paris apartment of Patricia Wells, Ms. Wells was whipping up a chimichurri sauce for the steaks. As she took a pinch from a jar, she noted: “This is ‘Espelette’ pepper. I grow the peppers on my farm in Provence and grind them myself.” Unfortunately, I don’t have a farm in Provence, but I do have one in Texas. Today, I am confined to a great container garden and I do grow the ‘Espelette’ Pepper, dry and grind it myself.

My recipes very often list “Espelette, if available” in the ingredients. ‘Espelette’ pepper is somewhat like the familiar Italian-style red pepper flakes, but sweeter and fruitier. It tastes more like ripe peppers. ‘Espelette’ has about the same heat as ground black pepper.

Years ago, I found the seeds at a small seed company, but that source disappeared. Last year, I finally found the seeds again from Jim Duffy at Refining Fire Chiles, a passionate young pepper farmer. This year, he still has ‘Espelette’ but also a new category: Peppers of France and Spain! I’ve ordered a few new varieties from him — very exciting.

The new French and Spanish varieties appear to be mostly mild or sweet peppers.

Save money. I have found ‘Espelette’ pepper in powder form. It’s usually about $14 per ounce. Grow your own. You’ll love the peppery flavor in so many recipes.

How to Grow Piment d’Espelette Pepper in a Home Garden

Plant seeds in the germination tray for your choice method at least eight weeks ahead of your plant-out date. Grow out nice seedlings using organic fertilizers.

When it’s time to move seedlings outside in your area, set the plants out about 2 feet apart in the rows. I have to container garden now, so I plant 3 pepper plants per GrowBox (see The Grow Box) and see insert in the February/March 2018 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Keep well fertilized with an organic preparation specific to tomatoes and peppers. (The plants can get floppy but seem OK.)

When peppers form, be patient. Let the peppers get completely red and ripe. I pick as they ripen and put them on a dehydrator tray. When the tray is filled, turn on the dehydrator and dry them until they are completely brittle, which can take two days.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can string the peppers with a big needle and strong or doubled thread to hang from hooks in a clean, dry area. Then put them into a very low oven, about 225 degrees, until brittle.

Photo by Wendy Akin

When completely dry, store the peppers in an airtight zipper bag until the season is finished. When they’re all dry, pull off the stem ends, empty out the seeds and then grind the peppers. You could use a spice grinder, but with any quantity, the food processor is more practical. Grind and grind until the peppers are a flake-y powder.

It’s handy to wear a face mask, but regardless, shake and pat the processor and let it stand a bit to settle the powder. Carefully, holding your breath, empty the powder into a jar. I then make several 4-ounce jars for family and friends. Label the jars. Keep your jar handy to the stove — you’ll use it a lot.

Wendy Akin is a happy to share her years of traditional skills knowledge. Over the years, she’s earned many state fair ribbons for pickles, relishes, preserves and special condiments, and even a few for breads. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Planning An Acreage Garden: A Mixed Annual & Perennial Garden for a Family of Five

Planning An Acreage Garden 

The past 10 years I have had my suburban lot vegetable garden: six 10-sq.-ft raised beds in my backyard: small scale gardening.

After moving to our acreage in rural British Columbia, Canada, I now have a big garden to play in! I can grow corn in big sections, and a large area for trailing squashes and prize-winning pumpkins (okay that’s a bit optimistic). I can grow artichokes and watch their prickly lavender blossoms attract bees and butterflies! The possibilities are limitless.

The question is, what size garden does a family need? There are many things to consider when planning a vegetable patch for a family of five. First, we are just starting our farm and therefore need to focus on high-calorie foods that are easy to grow and are nutritionally dense (to get the ‘best bang for the buck’, or really ‘best bang for our precious time’). Also, my plan is to store a lot of it in our root cellar. That means lots of root vegetables, apples, cabbage, etc. We are not planning on selling any of our harvest at a local market. Too much to take on for our first year! Like Joel Salatin has advised to newbie farmers, “take it slow”.

There are a million and one projects we could spend our time on this upcoming season, but we’ve narrowed it down to:

Electric Fencing (because we have lots of predators and deer here)
A Big Garden (1st have to clear brush, 8 foot tall grass, and small trees)
Improving the House (some basic upgrades to the kitchen and bath)

So having a big garden is a high priority for us, since buying fresh food is expensive in our remote area. We want quality food grown right on our land.


Farm to plate distance? About 25 feet

John Jeavons (Mr. Biointensive Gardening, and his book: How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine), recommends 4,000 sq. ft of growing space per person, if you use his biointensive methods. However, that includes growing grain for yourself and for soil fertility. Jeavons has an impressive amount of charts in his book showing you exactly how many seeds you need and space requirements for all types of vegetables. For our first year, we won’t have the time to grow grains and “compost” crops, but we do plan to try that in Year 2 or 3. Brett Markham of the Mini-Farming Handbook recommends about 700 sq. ft. per person, assuming you’re just growing vegetables and high-calorie root crops for yourself, and leaving out fruit trees, nuts, and grains.

I plan to have wide planting “rows” or maybe you could call them beds, but they won’t be raised. The reason I want to do this is because having narrow traditional rows will compact the soil too much with walking and it’s harder on the microorganisms. If I have wider rows, the plants have a nice wide buffer area for spreading their roots and developing a small ecosystem that supports itself. After reading about it in How to Grow More Vegetables, I was sold on making my rows wider. I plan to build up the rows each year by adding lots of organic matter in the fall, bordered with felled trees, so over time they will become somewhat “raised” beds. Since Jeavons recommends 4,000 sq.ft. per person, but 60% of that is grain/carbon crops, then it should be actually 4,000 x .40 = 1,600 sq. ft. per person. I’m going to use Jeavons’ numbers since his educational farm Ecology Action has been collecting their biointensive farming data for over 40 years!

How Big of An Area Should We Till?

If my planting rows are 4ft x 25ft (easy to handle sizes - you can reach across into the middle of four feet easily), then we would need 16 rows per person.

4 x 25 = 100 sq. ft.
100 x 16 = 1,600 sq. ft. (enough for one person’s needs)

We are not a true family of five since we have two babies in that number, so it’s roughly four people eating.

1,600 sq.ft. x 4 (people) = 6400 sq. ft. or 64 rows that are 4 feet by 25 feet to feed my family. I’m going to round down to 60 rows. Just to give you an idea of how big that is, an acre is 43,560 sq. ft. So it’s about 14.5% of an acre, or just over 1/10th of an acre. 

Without pathways, that’s a total area of 256 ft x 25 ft. But I’m going to put rows side by side (like columns in an excel spreadsheet), so the garden will be a 25 foot bed butted up against another 25 foot bed and then continuing down to 30 rows side by side 30 rows. With 4 foot of walking space between each them. Then you have 240 feet by 54 feet (total tilled area).

What Foods Do We Eat Regularly?

I think it’s important to list all of the foods that we eat on a regular basis, that way we’re not adding too many frivolous crops to our seed list. Joel Salatin suggests this too! We are in Zone 6-7 in our area and our growing season is about 4 months long.

Herbs: Parsley & Dill
Greens: Lettuce, Chicories, Bok Choi, Mustard, Arugula, Cabbage, Kale & Chard, Spinach
Root Crops: Carrots, Kohlrabi, Potatoes, Parsnips, Sweet Potatoes, Sunchokes, Rutabaga & Turnips
Alliums: Spring onions, Leeks & Storage Onions
Tomatoes (Cherry & Sauce Tomatoes)
Beans: Drying Beans (Cassoulet, Taylor, and Black Turtle varieties), Broad Beans (Windsor variety)
Vines: Zucchini, Pole Beans & Peas, Butternut Squash & Pumpkins
Edible Flowers

Plants we use for healing: Arnica, Echinacea, Mushrooms, Garlic


Asparagus (Mary Washington variety)
Egyptian/Walking Onions
Chinese Yam
Sorrel (lemony greens, very  tasty!)
Turkish Rocket

Fruit: We already have apple and cherry trees + lots of blackberries here, so that will be enough fruit to manage for Year 1

I’m gonna be honest with you: I have a much longer list of plant “wants”, but I have to put aside my desires and focus on practicality. Just my list of herbs is probably a page long! But for now, that is my short list of foods that we use and eat regularly, and nothing more. I think I’m ready to make my seed order for 2019!

My Favorite Canadian Seed Sources

West Coast Seeds

Salt Spring Seeds

The Incredible Seed Company 

Hawthorn Farm

Richter’s Herbs 

What are your tips for starting a big garden?

Rosemary Hansen is an Author, Homesteading Mama, and a Chef. She has spent the last 10 years “homesteading” in the city. She and her family have just started their off-grid homestead in rural British Columbia, Canada. Her books, Grow a Salad In Your City Apartment and Rosemary’s Natural Cosmetic Guide are a great way to ease into a healthy, pure lifestyle. You can connect with Rosemary at her website: or on her YouTube channel.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

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