When my family and I plant our garden each spring, we select which vegetables and fruits to plant for the year like we might pick out treats at a candy store: I love to have fresh tomato sandwiches, so we plant a few sweet tomato plants; my husband loves ripe-from-the-vine cantaloupes, so we plant a few of those too. And so on. We think of our gardening produce as an added bonus to the food we are going to get from the grocery store throughout the summer months.
Gardening this way is fun and rewarding, and it saves us some money on our grocery bills, but it is a far cry from the type of gardening people do when they garden to be completely self-sufficient. Because gardening for self-sufficiency is the pinnacle of gardening and an excellent emergency preparedness practice, today we are going to look at just how self-sufficient gardeners do it. And maybe along the way we can incorporate some principles into our own gardening to get a little bit closer to being able to feed ourselves.
Feeding a family purely on things we have grown requires a lot of planning, time, work, and space. Adhering to the following principles can help us to approach this lofty goal.
PLAN EVERYTHING OUT
As much as I enjoy my spontaneous crop-choosing for the year, self-sufficient gardening is not the place for spontaneity. Self-sufficient gardens must be carefully planned so that enough food is harvested to feed all the members in the family. If you want to figure out how to feed your family on your own crops, you can start by figuring out what and how much your family regularly eats. One good way to do this is to save your grocery store receipts for a month. At the end of the month, look at what quantities your family ate of each produce item for the month. This will give an idea of how much food you need to grow.
After you know how much you need to grow, you can then look at yield charts to see how many plants of each crop to plant in order to grow the amount you require. Here are a few good yield charts for reference:
This process will not be exact, and you are probably going to have to tweak your garden a little bit year after year until you find what is right for your family. Keeping a gardening journal is one great way to remember what you learned from this year’s garden and apply it to the next. Your personal experience as recorded in this journal will probably be the most valuable resource you have on your path to self-sufficiency.
THINK IN TERMS OF STAPLE CROPS
Staple crops are crops that are calorie-dense, nutritious, high-yielding, and easy to harvest and store. Mother Earth News lists the following as the best staple crops based on the preceding measurements: sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, wheat, beans, peanuts, squash, collard greens, cabbage, and kale. Other gardening experts add onions, berries, and summer vegetables to the list. In reality, staple crops will vary based on your family and what they regularly eat, but keeping in mind crops’ relative yield and calorie density is a helpful way to get the most use out of your garden.
USE GARDEN SPACE WISELY
Some estimates say that you need 4,000 square feet of space to feed a person for a year on home-grown crops. For most of us, 4,000 square feet is a garden size that exists only in our dreams. No matter what kind of space you have to work with, here are some gardening principles that will help you maximize on your crop yield.
1. Use most of your space for staple crops. You may love your pumpkin plants, but think about planting fewer than usual this year to free up space for more calorie-dense, higher-yielding crops like those we listed earlier.
2. Plant densely. Most people grossly underuse their gardening space. Plants can usually be planted very close together and still be healthy. (Actually, some gardeners say close planting makes their soil even healthier! Read here for more.) As an added bonus, covering nearly every inch of your garden with crops crowds out weeds.
3. Use succession planting. Get three for the space of one by planting early-maturing varieties early in the season (lettuce, peas, radishes, etc.), then medium-maturing varieties in their place, and then late-maturing crops in the same place later.
Even if your garden space is small, you might consider growing all of one food item that your family eats. For example, you might grow all the onions you need for a year or dedicate your garden to wheat growing to make all of your bread for the year. Just because your garden is small doesn’t mean it can’t support you in a major way.
MASTER FOOD PRESERVATION
Food preservation is key if you are trying to feed your family throughout the year on crops you have grown yourself. Learning how to can, dehydrate, and/or dry your fresh produce is vital to spreading your food out across the year. If you’ve never preserved your garden produce before, this year is a great time to start!
There are a lot of fantastic reasons for gardening—mental and physical health, lower grocery bills, plain and simple enjoyment, etc. But done the right way, gardening can also allow us to be completely self-sufficient in our food needs. This gardening season, as you contemplate what kinds of crops you will plant, consider taking small steps toward raising a garden that could sustain your family by following the principles above.