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
Plants we use for healing: Arnica, Echinacea, Mushrooms, Garlic
Asparagus (Mary Washington variety)
Sorrel (lemony greens, very tasty!)
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
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: www.RosemaryPureLiving.com or on her YouTube channel.
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