*This article has been edited and updated since it’s original posting in 2009.
When you really start thinking about gardening in terms of raising enough food to sustain yourself and your loved ones throughout an entire year, it can be hard to comprehend just how much you should plan on planting. Most of us have no idea what a year’s worth of home-grown food even looks like.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a very specific and exact answer, I’m afraid you just won’t find it. Every family’s needs and eating habits are different. And some foods may not grow well in your region, so each of you needs to tailor your garden accordingly. But I do have a list here for you to refer to, and it’s a great starting point.
The average American, according to the USDA, eats over 800 pounds of food a year, over a quarter of which is comprised of fruits and vegetables. This number is reassuring in that it means that you can grow a substantial portion of your foods on your own land. Keep in mind that a lot of these calculations are based on overall food weight, and not only on the parts used (meaning that pieces that are wasted or thrown out are not counted). The plus side to this is that if you have livestock, like pigs or chickens, you can do double-duty by growing a large harvest and feeding the leftovers to your animals…who will then eventually feed you!
As you learn more about what suits your family’s needs you can adjust the amounts appropriately. Keep a garden journal, and do your best to remember to write in it how many plants you planted, how many pounds of food you harvested, and how long it lasted before you ran out. This information will help you gauge for your family’s particular requirements.
This is a very time-consuming process, but definitely worth it if you want to keep accurate records and grow enough food to sustain your family for the entire calendar year.
How Do I Decide How Much to Plant?
While it would be nice to assume that every family has endless time, space, and resources to grow a garden that is massive enough to feed their family, plus the extended family, plus the entire neighborhood…sadly, that of course is not practical. There are several factors you need to consider when deciding how much to plant, and only one of them is the size of your family.
The biggest factor in determining how much you should plant is how much land you have. You can maximize your crops in a small space by using close planting strategies, thick mulching, and other techniques, but the amount of land you have is ultimately going to be a limiting factor.
Roughly 4000 square feet is enough to sustain a person on a vegetarian diet for a year – of course, that’s assuming your family is vegetarian. If you are supplementing your diet with meats, store-bought grains, or dairy, you probably won’t need quite that much space. However, you do need to factor in space for walking paths, storage, watering systems, etc.
How much you plant is also dictated by your weather and growing season. You can’t expect to have a harvest that is as large and bountiful in Maine as it might be in Georgia. Your growing season is shorter and your climate is colder. Additionally, the weather of any given year, plus your soil conditions are going to affect your planting. If your soil is exceptionally rocky, for example, your yields won’t be as high, and you may need to consider raised beds or other spaces to ensure you have enough room to plant all of the crops you need to sustain your family for a year.
The final factor you need to consider is the nature of the plant. For example, artichokes, rhubarb, and asparagus are all perennial plants that sit in the garden for a full season (or more) until they are ready to be harvested. Other crops, like vining plants, need a lot of space to spread out. If you plan your garden strategically, instead of just tossing seeds willy-nilly, you will have more success. You can implement companion planting so that your plants work off of each other, instead of compete with each other for space.
How Much Should I Plant To Feed My Family For A Year?
Here are a few recommendations mostly found in the book Reader’s Digest Back to Basics. Some of these amounts may be way off for your family, but like I said it’s at least a good general idea.
Again, think about the foods your family likes to eat. If you plant fifteen bush bean plants per person, and you have a family of four, that’s sixty bush beans. That’s assuming that everybody in your family enjoys eating bush beans.
These numbers also do not take into account failed plants. These are just the numbers that are required to harvest for your family. If you plant fifteen bush bean plants per person, and four fail to produce fruit, then really you have only planted eleven plants. So figure high.
Consider, too, how much space is needed to grow a certain amount of plants. Some crops, like tomatoes or beans, produce hundreds of fruits on a single plant and will therefore take up less space. Others, like corn, produce only a couple. If you’re short on space and trying to get the most bang for your metaphorical buck, consider only planting crops that have high yields, or perhaps plant more of those items instead.
Whenever possible, grow calorie crops. These crops tend to have a high caloric content per weight. As a society, we have kind of gotten away from calorie crops, but if you’re looking to truly subsist on what you grow on your own property, these plants are the way to grow. These crops store well and have hundreds of uses, making them more versatile than, say, asparagus. The top five calorie crops are beans, squash, wheat, potatoes, and corn.
Artichokes: 1-4 plants per person
Asparagus: about 10-15 plants per person
Beans (Bush): about 15 plants per person
Beans (Lima): about 10-20 plants per person
Beans (Pole): 2-4 poles of beans per person (each pole with the four strongest seedlings growing)
Beets: about 36 plants per person.
Broccoli: 3-5 plants per person
Brussels Sprouts: 3-5 plants per person
Cabbage: 2-3 plants per person
Cantaloupe: figure on about 4 fruits per plant (estimate how much your family would eat)
Carrots: about 100 seeds per person (1/4 oz would be plenty for a family of six)
Cauliflower: 2-3 plants per person
Celeriac: 1-5 plants per person
Celery: 3-8 plants per person
Collards: about 5 plants per person
Corn: start out with 1/2 lb. seeds for the family and adjust as needed
Cucumbers: 3-6 plants per family
Eggplant: 3-6 plants per family
Kale: 1 5’ row per person
Lettuce: 4-5 plants per person
Melons: 2-6 plants per person
Okra: 3-4 plants per person
Onions: 12-15 plants per person
Parsnips: 12-15 plants per person
Peas: about 120 plants per person
Peppers: 3-5 plants per person
Potatoes: 75-200 lbs per person
Pumpkins: 1 plant per person
Radishes: (succession plant these) 2’ per person
Rhubarb: 2-3 crowns per person
Spinach: about 15 plants per person
Summer Squash (including Zucchini): about 10 per family
Sweet Potatoes: about 75 plants per family
Tomatoes: about 20 plants per family
Turnips: about 1/4 lb seeds per family
Watermelon: about 1/2 oz. seeds per family
Winter Squash: 2 plants per person
Winter Squash: 2 plants per person
Consider alternatives to direct-in-ground planting. While it might seem that traditional gardening is the only option, there are dozens of other ways to grow enough vegetables to feed your family – and keep n mind that the planting and growing doesn’t have to stop just because the first frost hits.
First, remember to use your space strategically. Plant early, mid, and late varieties of your crops. Many people don’t realize that several types of crops, like peas, beans, onions, corn, and potatoes have several stages of crops that can help you mitigate the losses due to pests and disease (as the plants will be in different growing stages at all times) and increase your overall yield. This is a great option if you have unpredictable weather, and frequently lose crops due to conditions such as an early or late frost. It also makes harvest time a bit easier for you, because you aren’t harvesting hundreds of pounds of vegetables to preserve all at once.
You can also plant some crops in containers. This is especially useful if you are an urban gardener, or even if you are considering extending your growing season by bringing some plants indoors later. Plant some tomatoes on your deck in a planter, and you’ll be able to bring the plant inside so it continues to produce after the first frost has hit.
Succession planting is another option that is closely related to the latter choice. Some crops, like beets and radishes, grow very quickly. Therefore, as soon as one crop is finished or about to be finished (if you have the space), you can seed another one right away. This will allow you to receive several harvests of the same crop without having to wait until the following season.
Again, gardening doesn’t have to stop just because the snow has started to fall. There are several option sot keep gardening throughout the fall and winter. Greenhouses, hoop houses, and cold frames are a great way to extend your growing season, as well as to protect your crops from unseasonably warm, wet, or cold weather.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you might also try an indoor growing system. Many people are having great success using hydroponics systems, which involve growing plants in sand, liquid, or gravel with added nutrients (and absolutely no soil at all!). It’s also easy to grow certain crops indoors. Think of ones that mature quickly, like lettuce, spinach, or herbs, but if you start them early enough you can also get a good crop of tomatoes or even potatoes when grown inside as well.
How Do I Make My Summer Harvest Last?
Again, if you’ve been paying attention, you can easily stretch out your growing season so it doesn’t necessarily have to last past the first frost! However, there are many ways to only grow during the summer months and still enjoy a bountiful harvest that will last you and your family throughout the year.
Get used to preserving your own food. Most foods can be canned, either through the use of a water bath canner or, even more safely, with a pressure canner. Experiment with canning recipes to find one you like. Almost any vegetable is delicious when pickled, and this will give you a great source of nutrients during the colder months.
If you can’t can all of your produce – or don’t necessarily like the taste of all of the different vegetables – another option is to freeze your veggies. Just about anything, with the exception of perhaps lettuce, can be frozen. Use a vacuum sealer to help save space in your refrigerator, as well as to reduce the likelihood that your food will become freezer-burnt. You can also dehydrate some vegetables to make them last a little bit longer outside of cold storage.
If you have a root cellar, this is a great way to store hardier vegetables like squashes, potatoes, carrots, and beets. These vegetables will last for several months when given the right conditions.
Growing your own food, no matter how large or small the quantity, is really an endeavor you should undertake. It’s not just about saving money – you will save a ton of money, but as you’re digging into the soil up to your knuckles you may occasionally question yourself about whether the savings are actually worth it! But growing your own food is about much more than the almighty dollar. You’ll learn a lot about hard work, and about reaping the benefits of your hard work, in the process of growing your own garden. Plus, homegrown vegetables are actually a lot more nutrient-dense than those purchased in the supermarket – an extra win.
Plan ahead so that you have plenty of produce to last you throughout the winter. Most of us are lucky in that we can go grocery shopping if we need to – very few people actually need to rely on their own land to get them through the entire winter. However, growing your own subsistence garden is an amazing experience. To do this, your garden can’t take a backseat to everything else you have going on in your life – you need to put survival first and foremost, and really dedicate some serious time, planning, and dirty work towards getting your garden in tip-top shape.
If you are an experienced gardener, and have a good suggestion for planting amounts, or want to share what works for your family, I’d love to hear from you!
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