To some degree, a lot of us are probably in the situation where our gardens are never going to fully support a family of four. We by and large don’t have space. Many of us grow to lower our grocery bills, get healthier and tastier produce, and add some to our emergency stockpiles. So for us, the answer is actually easy: stock enough to double or triple the garden, focusing on the things that grow best, and buy already-prepared versions or dehydrate your own for plants that aren’t as productive. It does me little good to have a six cubic foot freezer packed with seed if I will plant less than a pound of seeds total a year.
For others with more space, who are considering growing enough to feed their families during a time of long-term hardship and are trying to establish just how much land they would need to do so, that answer isn’t sufficient.
Even for smaller gardens, we want to know what’s worthwhile planting. A first-timer who puts in just one or two pea or bean plants is likely to be in for a surprise – you’re most likely not going to get a meal from that, almost certainly not all at one time, and definitely not for a family of four. Therefore, it’s reasonable for us to want to know about how many plants we need to feed ourselves, just like people with dozens of acres to call home. We’d all like to have enough produce hitting a basket at once to put a few meals on the table.
Smart people and the ones who have come before us have come up with guides that will help with that. The key word there is “help.” Most come from extension offices and with a little poking around the internet, can be located. Most of this article is actually devoted to why it only helps. Once you see them, you’ll have a better understanding of why it’s only “help.”
There are two general types of guides. Some tell you how much yield a certain row-foot coverage will produce and other types that tell you how many plants you need per person or how much seed/seedlings need to be secured per person. Some can go farther or overlap.
I am just delighted with the Virginia Tech guide. It’s made for an area close enough to my three primary growing areas to be worthwhile shoving at people when they ask me, and the pdf includes seasonal planting/sowing guide as well as a yield estimate, and it includes how much seed (by weight) or the number of seedlings or crowns that are needed for every ten row feet.
The South Dakota State guide includes planting dates, but that is region specific, and only suggests a number of plants or row feet per year for eating fresh.
Kendra from the blog “New Life on a Homestead” complied the numbers suggested in Reader’s Digest Back to Basics and added a few things to it from her own experience (which is building fast and is a very good read if you find yourself with time this winter, especially if you go back to 2010 when she was getting started). That list can be found here, although you should still get one of the many editions of Back to Basics – it has all kinds of goodies in it.
A Grain of Salt
Anytime someone offers a “one size fits all” guide or solution, it should be taken with a very large grain of salt. For everyone, growing methods (square foot gardening, companion planting, high-density planting, row farming, hand-tools or small machines or small tractors) and some other factors significantly affect garden yield. The type of plantings, irrigation, mulching, and other non-living human-controlled or nature-controlled conditions that most affect gardens are called abiotic factors. Abiotic factors, the living components around us, also play significant roles in how successful every garden is.
Not only will the yields vary – sometimes significantly – from what growing guides suggest, but also the guides themselves aren’t perfect for everyone. Our needs for corn, beans, beets and potatoes will be different depending on whether we’re eating them as a side dish or counting on them for the bulk of the family’s caloric needs. (Most leafy greens and fresh veggies are diet food, so it’s the starches and protein crops that will provide the most bang per ounce calorie-wise).
Some of the guides specify that they’re for “fresh” eating. Even that leaves wide aisles of leeway. I think “fresh eating” must mean once or twice a month to some people. For example, I eat a salad at least once or twice a week, with about half a head of lettuce per salad. South Dakota State took a ten-foot stab at cutting lettuce but didn’t touch on head lettuces, but Virgina Tech is way, way off by suggesting 4-8 pounds. That’s a month or two for me, max. But others may have a tiny salad with a steak or a big salad once a month.
It’s tough for a bunch of people who’ve never watched your fridge and eating habits to guess how much you’ll consume. It happened in the “squash” categories, too, in a really big way, and squash can be pretty disparate to loop into just two categories. They came pretty close to my in-ground potato estimates of 1-2 pounds per row foot (I no longer grow potatoes in the ground).
Additionally, these numbers are most usually built for open ground, chemical fertilizer, and chemical pesticides. They don’t take into account shared-space, shared-time poly-cropping or companion planting. That’s a lot of a system to build in. On top of sunlight and planting style, which both affect yield in a pretty significant way, for good and bad, there are two main types
Foolproof growing guide
There is no such thing as a foolproof growing guide. They all have flaws. But there is one guaranteed way to learn your own average appetites and yield. Keep a notebook.
You have to know what your soil and growing methods yield. Even if you only plant a few specimens as a test each year, you can end up with a really good idea of how long each cultivar takes it to germinate, when you see the first produce from it, when main produce yields begin, and how much the plant yields over the season. It’s not entirely painless. It takes some discipline. A clipboard with a simple tally sheet hanging near the entrance or in the kitchen can help.
A small food scale can make it more specific. You may also want to keep track of week high and low temperatures, rainfall, and other notes – like whether or not it’s a “dog carrot” because it’s never sweet, and what the temperatures and rainfall were the week or two before lettuce bolted.Some of my notebooks are on 13-inch graph paper because there are so many columns, but it means that I know how many plants it takes to make a meal in my planters. Obsessive? Maybe.
You know what’s even more obsessive than just tracking garden production? Keeping track of the fresh and canned produce your family buys, so you aren’t just working off what a guide says is about average for consumption, then tripling or quadrupling it for canning and dehydrating to store it for winter, then multiplying that by family members. You can count a supermarket can of green beans as about a pint. You know you need x number of bushes for a pint of canned green beans (collect them in the jars or cut them into jars during dinner prep if you’re not growing enough to can produce, it’ll be close). You know your family buys y cases of green beans from the supermarket. Now you can multiply x and y and come up with z – the number of bushes that you would have to plant for eating fresh and canning (or dehydrating) if you were trying to feed your family from a garden.
Trying to estimate the number of acres a family needs for a garden is painful, no doubt. The guides are just that: guidelines, averages. They typically use a very specific growing method with the expectation of fair to good soil, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation, and at least small garden machines. They don’t account for clay or sandy soils that haven’t been amended, fruit trees, and other factors. There is almost never a calorie total included with the recommended planting amounts. All that makes it difficult to predict how much space a person needs, let alone create a one-size-fits-all guide. What’s most important is knowing how your methods and appetites stack up compared to the averages provided by the extension offices for your state.That requires keeping good records on both aspects of food production – both supply and demand.