How Big A Garden Will Your Family Need?

May 31, 2013

Subsistence Farming



Corn bed

This space is the author’s personal corn bed ready for planting

“Can you feed yourself off your land?” That question comes up over and over and over again on homesteading forums, in farming discussions and amongst preppers. The answers usually range from “heck no” to “sure, I could like, do it tomorrow, man.”

Throw both of those answers out. The first guy is a defeatist – and the second guy is almost certainly exaggerating.

Once you accept that it is indeed possible to feed yourself off a piece of land… the second question is – how much land? That’s where things get really tricky. You have to ask yourself a few questions first. Let’s handle those one at a time before digging deeper.

Personal Question #1: How much time do you have?

Are you thinking you’re gonna grow all your calories in between your job delivering pizza and your many other responsibilities? If you’re tight on time – you might want to just work more hours and snag the rejected pineapple/salami/onion/anchovy experiments the cook likes to make between orders. It takes some serious hours to plan, plant, slaughter, harvest, feed, water, etc.

Personal Question #2: Are you willing to work like a madman?

Growing your calories isn’t easy. They don’t fall into your hands. We’re not living in the Garden of Eden anymore. We gotta work like crazy, no matter what people tell you about amazing irrigation systems, earth boxes or their friend that grows buckets of tomatoes in just minutes a day. Finding ways to save some work are really important… but you are still going to have to work. Can your back handle it? Will you do it?

Personal Question #3: Will you actually eat what you grow?

I’m amused by people that grow gardens… and yet live on soda, chips, etc. Their food growing is a hobby – it’s not a major part of their diet. You’ll recognize these folks because they’re the ones giving away lots of produce rather than canning it. They’re the ones who complain about the “mess” created by their apple tree out front. They’re the ones who love to grow a few jalapeños and a tomato plant on the patio. It’s a good start… but unless you’re willing to eat in season, dehydrate food, plus can and make your produce a big part of your day-to-day calories, forget it. Drop the soda and drink your own cider from that “messy” tree… and you’re on the right path.

Assuming that you have time, a desire to work, and the desire to actually eat what you grow, now you need to figure out what it will take to grow it. The first question – as I mentioned above – is almost always “how much space does it take?”
That’s a huge question… and requires you to ask yourself a few more questions.

Land Question #1: What’s your rainfall/water supply look like?

If you’re growing in an arid region, you’re going to need a lot more space. I’ve currently got two patches of corn growing without irrigation. One patch is spaced at 18” between rows, the other is spaced at 36”. If they both live, I’ll be thrilled… but my bet is that the tighter spacing runs into difficulty if we get a couple of dry weeks in a row. Many people have this idea that gardening in wide rows is something home gardeners adopted from factory farming. The thought is: “Hey, that’s the extra space machinery needs for access and harvesting.” However, that’s not actually true. Yes, tractors need some space – but the reason old-school gardens had that huge spacing was because the plants needed all the water they could get. Generous root spacing lowered competition between plants and ensured they’d survive in a time without easy access to water. Imagine watering a cornfield with buckets from a creek and it makes sense. My experiment is a test of the ground’s water-holding capacity. Your land will vary. If you’re in a rainforest, you can plant really tightly. If you’re in Arizona, you’re going to need a lot more space between plants.

Land Question #2: What is your climate?

In much of the tropics, feeding yourself is really easy. There are no seasons to speak of, other than dry and rainy times. You’ve got a massive diversity of food crops to pull from – and many of them produce year-round or at multiple times. Ever wonder why bananas are always available at around the same price in the store? They’re basically non-seasonal. Sweet potatoes are a perennial in the tropics – plant them once, then dig now and again when you feel like it. Fruits, nuts, and pretty much everything grows really fast down there. When you’re a plant… not freezing half the year, not putting on a whole set of new leaves and not fighting to get all your reproduction done in a few warm months of growing time, and not being knocked back by frosts and losing your leaves again… you can get plenty of food-making done. On the other extreme, if you’re in some place like Alaska, you’re going to have to deal with a short season of getting things done in the garden and packing away as much as possible while the sun shines. There’s a reason the Inuit lived on seals, fish, whale and other game, rather than on veggies.

Land Question #3: What’s the fertility of your soil?

If you’ve got rich, deep, loamy topsoil, you’re going to be able to grow with ease. If you’re hacking into yellow nutrient-depleted clay, life will be tough. It’s going to take a lot more land if the land is poor. In the case of really bad land, you might want to concentrate on livestock like goats, which can take weeds and brush and turn them into human food, rather than on growing lots of crops. Think nomadic herdsman, not farmer. You’ll likely be healthier than a heavy carb-eater, too.

But – How Much Space Does It Take?

If you’ve answered the questions above, you’ve made a good start towards figuring out the space. Theoretically, no matter what the climate, if you were willing to make radical changes in your diet, you could probably live on an average suburban lot. How so? Mealworms and spirulina! However, most of us don’t want to do that. We’d rather eat meat, eggs, veggies and fruit.

Let’s be serious – this takes space. With a big one-acre garden, two acres for goats, and another two acre for your orchards, food forest, chickens, ducks, ponds, etc., you could live pretty well in a good climate on good dirt. In the tropics, you could probably do it on an acre or two. In rough dry land, you might be talking 20 or even 100 acres. It’s all a matter of how creative you are and what you grow/raise. I’m constantly amazed by the diversity some permaculturists are able to pack into tiny spaces. Sometimes being limited in a good thing! We tend to think “Dang… I need a lot of space…” then we get a bunch of space… and fail to utilize it well. I encourage people who are just starting out to pick a little space, make it as amazing and productive as possible, then expand. Scatter-shot approaches can work on big areas – but you may be surprised by how much you can do in just a little space. (For inspiration, check out the Dervaes family.)

Each area (except perhaps the Sahara) is able to support something… if your neighbors are doing great growing peanuts but poorly at cabbage, you might want to get your food more from legumes.

Now let’s take a look at a few homestead staples you should try. All of the crops I’m going to discuss have different yields and space requirements – but through constant experimentation, you will figure out what works best.

Roots are your friends

Sweet potatoes: high yield, high nutrition.

Sweet potatoes: high yield, high nutrition.

Grains are the first thing most of us think about when we think about feeding ourselves. Yet that’s one of the last places we should turn (with the notable exception of corn, which I’ll cover below) for calories in small-scale homesteading. The labor and space required is somewhat ridiculous. Yeah, it can be done – and I’ve done it on a small scale – but by the time you get enough seeds together, the loaf of bread you’ll make was totally and utterly not worth the effort. Are you ready to hook up a plow, sow, buy a scythe, cut, bundle wheat into sheaves and pray it doesn’t rain, rub the husks off and chuck grain into the air on a breezy day to get rid of the chaff, then grind the stuff? This is why the Irish loved the potato. Roots are your friends.

Where I am, I grow malanga, cassava, potatoes, boniato, icicle radishes, garlic, African yams, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets and carrots. Up north I grew a huge bed of Jerusalem artichokes (as written previously), plus beets, potatoes, leeks, green onions, radishes, onions and horseradish (which you probably couldn’t live on without severe pain). Many roots will stay in the ground beyond the short harvests of other crops. Try leaving tomatoes on the vine – no dice. Forget to pick green beans? The plant gives up. Roots are usually much more forgiving and should play a key role in keeping you fed.

Squash, Beans and Corn

We may think of pumpkins and squash as nice decorations in fall – but for Indians, and the pioneers that followed them – squash meant survival. Many of the old winter squash varieties are large and can store for six months or longer. If you’ve got the climate and the space for these powerhouses, growing storable squash should be a priority. Likewise, beans are a good source of storable protein. Nab old-school shell beans and try a variety on your land. Though their yield isn’t as good as some survival plants, beans will repair your land by adding nitrogen. Crop them between other species and count the beans as an extra bonus. A particularly good plant to mix with beans and squash is the old stand-by: corn. Sweet corn isn’t what you want for survival – you want old grain varieties like Hickory King, Bloody Butcher, or Hopi Blue. Think scrappy, tough and uncorrupted by genetic modification. Grits, corn meal, polenta corn. Unlike other grains, corn is easy to harvest. Intercrop it with squash and beans in the “Three Sisters” method and you’ll get much more use of your space – plus confuse pests.

Chickens and Eggs

Chicken1Say you’re sick of potatoes (for an amusing story on that, check this out). That’s when you’re going to want an animal to turn those tiresome veggies into something sustaining. Enter the chicken. Eggs are simply one of the best things you can eat, despite the cholesterol Nazis. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals plus protein and fat and will fill you up better than vegetables alone. The problem with raising chickens is that you’re going to need to feed them as well as yourself. Unless you have a good stretch of free-range pasture/woods and a nice patch of food just for them, you’re going to have to buy in feed… and yet again, you’re not self-sufficient. There has to be a balance between bird population and feed. For a family of four, I’d shoot for 6-8 laying hens and one rooster to protect them and provide you with the next generation of birds. Chickens don’t need much space, so I’d add them directly after my gardens get established. I’d also go for tough homestead dual-purpose breeds that are good at foraging, not something cutesy.

Eat Wild

SmilaxTip

Smilax: young shoots are edible and delicious.

Do you have wild areas beyond the edges of your cultivated space? Identify useful species and encourage them. I found wild plums, black cherries, wild grapes and other edibles after moving to my property. Though these are low-yield plants, they’re also sources of food I don’t have to work for. Add to them the wide variety of uncultivated edible greens that pop up during various seasons and you’ve got something to nibble most of the year. From blackberries to puffball mushrooms, smilax (also known as greenbrier) shoots to black walnuts, figure out what’s out there and how to use it. Think like Sacajawea.

BUT HOW MUCH SPACE DOES IT TAKE, DANG IT?

Don’t hit me – but the short answer: only you can figure that out on your land and in your climate and with your own abilities and time. Start with heavily utilizing what you have and concentrating on high-yield crops like roots. Then move on to squash, beans and corn, then add chickens and learn to forage for wild edibles. Beyond that, don’t forget good producers like cabbage, kale and green beans. If you have a little more space, pack in a food forest and get long-term tree crops rolling, including health-packed berries and nuts. I’m doing a lot of this on one acre. Though we’re not self-sufficient yet, we could definitely go for some months without buying any food if need be. And as the trees mature and the perennial root crops really get going, that length of time will increase.

Though I’m a big fan of reaching the destination of completely feeding my family… the journey itself has been highly enlightening thus far. Every day we inch closer to the goal – and if you work hard, you will too.

About David Goodman

David Goodman is a naturalist and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David writes a regular column for Natural Awakenings magazine in North Central Florida, posts on the Mother Earth News blog, owns a nursery of hard-to-find tropical edibles and grows roughly 1.5 zillion plants on his one-acre homestead. In mid-2012, he launched www.floridasurvivalgardening.com as a place to share his ongoing experiments with tropical and temperate crops. He currently has over 20 intensive beds, multiple field plots, over 100 fruit trees, two food forest projects in different climates and a series of ongoing experiments in-progress - all of which bring him closer each day to complete food security. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie. Visit his daily blog here: Florida Survival Gardening

View all posts by David Goodman

15 comments on “How Big A Garden Will Your Family Need?

  1. Practical Parsimony on said:

    I never buy chicken food. They eat what I eat, but they don’t like potatoes at all. The do love sweet potatoes. I have 1/3 of an acre and with help could grow enough to feed me from that.

    • Chet on said:

      Are you a pretty experienced gardener then? In my start at growing food I have definitely made mistakes that if made post collapse would have been catastrophic.

      • David Goodman on said:

        It may be that your chickens simply aren’t accustomed to potatoes. Mine like them boiled but not very much raw. How many chickens do you have to feed? If you’re pulling it off from your garden, great!

        • Practical Parsimony on said:

          Right now, I only have two because of raccoons. But, I am building them up to four. There is only me, so that is more than enough. I live in a city that frowns on chickens in the yard. I was told that as long as there are no complaints, no problem. So, I try to stay low.
          I feed them scraps–tomatoes, strawberries, oats, eggs, shells, and they free range on 1/3 of an acre. I pulled up turnips that bolted and they ate all the leaves. My hens do like sweet potatoes cooked and mashed potatoes seasoned with lots of salt.

          They eat the skin and gristle from chicken bones, stripping the bone clean. I am confident I will never need or buy commercial chicken food. The reason animals must have antibiotics is because of the corn fed to them, diseased and fungus ridden. Mine never have had vaccines or meds.

          Disability keeps me from gardening. But, I might have to find a person with no yard to plant on mine and we will share. I have all the tools for gardening and lots of buckets and shelves for growing up. I have a huge basement to protect chickens and plants if the need arises. Actually, a greenhouse could be set up in the basement for some food. There are eight huge windows for light, also.

          • Chet on said:

            Good Work, Practical Parsimony. Don’t let the disability keep you down. Knowledge of how to do things is going to become VERY valuable in the near future. Thanks for chiming in.

  2. Practical Parsimony on said:

    Very good post!

  3. MaddMac on said:

    If I didn’t have to spend the time working a 40 hour week to pay taxes and my debt, I’d say it would be possible to grow all I need to live. But, there are 2 other problems that I’d have to over come. 1. I’m addicted to the garden roto-tiller and 2. My age is showing in how much I can do in a day.
    I’ve read Ruth Stouts books on No Work Gardening and I’m slowly trying to go that way. The obstacles she mentions about finding enough “deep mulch” is very real and would be worse during a post-SHTF.
    Knowing that gas for the tiller will be hard to find during a post-SHTF event, I’ve started “practicing” more with raised beds and I’m hoping to use compost and cover crops to keep from depleting the soil.
    Its all still a work in progress but I sure would like to have a bunch of young boys (or girls) helping out on the homestead. Just ten years ago I was able to work sun-up to sundown. I’m afraid of what another ten years will bring.

    • MaddMac on said:

      BTW, my current garden is just over 1/2 acre in size. The wife has ordered that next year I must downsize if I can’t find help. But I sure do LOVE my garden

    • Chet on said:

      Have you looked into more of a permaculture solution with perennials?

      I have the problem of NOT being in love with tilling, so I look for animals and perennials to provide as much as possible. Like chestnuts to replace corn… chickens or pigs to replace tilling etc.

    • David Goodman on said:

      I’d hate to downsize. I’m with Chet – perhaps look at perennials.

      I’d also do all I could to kill debt. I’m debt-free and that makes a huge difference. Life is more flexible.

      You might also have luck with spacing things further apart and letting the rain take care of your gardens. Cutting out some irrigation time is a good thing.

  4. julie hostetter on said:

    My boyfriend and I were both raised in families with large gardens. Now we are looking at feeding a family of 6 this way. I have always done canning and freezing on a small level just because I enjoy it but now want to be able to feed our family largely from our garden and chickens. We already have the chickens and we feed them what we eat also. We also hunt so we have duck and deer year round. I would be interested in some recipes for duck if anyone has any!!

  5. Michael on said:

    Absolutely wonderful article by David Goodman, excellent posts and blogs. How refreshing to find such wonderful kindred gardening spirits. Would I be asking too much to request a weekly newsletter? I have not found better, more accurate or appropriate information anywhere…please keep this blog going in the form of a newsletter. I have just moved to a new apartment with a large south-facing patio where I have a 20 foot long solar hydroponic system growing varietes of mint, herbs and watercress plus many large containers which contain 5 fig trees, a banana tree, a mulberry tree, several papaya trees started from seed, corn, squash, greens, beans, okra, tomatoes, peppers, onions and much more. Let’s keep this going. I will try to post photos once I become more familiar with this format.
    Mike

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