Part 1: How to Grow Food to Feed You and Your Family for a Year

I am excited to share with you my journey learning how to grow enough food to feed my family for a year and create a sustainable modern homestead. This will be a multiple-part series that I will be sharing all week, so stop by tomorrow for another installment!

I’ve been gardening for ten years now–from a couple of raised beds in our 6,500 square foot urban lot in Seattle, to our first country home, a 1-acre sloped lot with varying areas to plant, and much of my garden there was created by arduously clipping away weeds and Devil’s Club to create my first hugelkultur garden (my favorite permaculture method for building no-till gardening beds), to our current heritage farm of 5 rolling acres on a 1901 homestead with orchards, berries, permaculture beds, and our first tilled cornfield that I am amending this season to create a rich soil planting medium for spring. We’ve been here nearly 5 years now and we’ve been working hard and making a ton of progress in growing a sustainable homestead with orchards, gardens, and free-range eggs that provides us with most of what we eat.

Video: How To Get Started Growing Food For a Year

What do we eat?

We are a family of four. Three out of four of us are gluten-free for medical reasons, and we are all pescatarian and mainly vegetarian and often vegan. A term that’s being used a lot to define how we eat is called “plant-based,” which might sound fancy, but it’s not. Plant-based eating can be for everyone, even if you hunt for your meat or eat homegrown or locally-grown beef and chicken and make your own pork sausage from scratch–or buy meat from Costco with a goal to support local meat farms this year. No matter where you are in your journey, if you plant your garden, you will start to eat more healthy, flavorful, nutritious, vitamin-and-mineral-rich food than you do without a garden. And that’s a simple truth that I will promise to you and sign with golden ink.

By growing all our own fruits and veggies, and keeping a flock of backyard chickens that produce free-range eggs that I use in all our baking and as a high-nutrient, high-protein binder for some of my plant-based meals, we are able to find nearly everything we need here. Everything else that I purchase in bulk from Azure Standard or Costco or from local farms and stores here, honestly, is frosting on the cake.

Know your gardening zone

The very first thing you need to do as you set about planning your garden is look up your gardening zone with a zip code finder. I use the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder. Your gardening zone is like your birth date and social security code and house address; it’s the starting point for all of your gardening endeavors and you’ll use it to figure out what to plant, when to plant it, and how to find other gardeners who grow in your same gardening zone so that you can get help with your specific gardening questions.

My gardening zone

I’m in Garden Zone 8b. My gardening zone is characterized by a relatively long growing period with the ability to grow most, but not all, plants. The things I can grow here, and when I can plant and harvest them, are sometimes good guidelines for other gardening zones, but rather than make specific hard deadlines here about when or how to plant something, I will advise you to look to the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder to find guides for your gardening zone using your zip code as a starting point.

Every zone has different growing criteria. For example, it’s typically pretty difficult to grow citrus here without a hothouse. You might have different zone specifications to work within, and while I have prolific apple trees and plum trees, you might likewise be able to grow gorgeous citrus and giant bright lemons but have difficulty growing apples.

Planting guides–when to plant what?

I use the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder and the Farmer’s Almanac Planting Guide as my baseline guidelines for my planting zone when deciding when to plant my garden. I enter my zip code or garden zone and assess from there. These guides give you specific windows and guidelines for when you can put your roots and leafs and alliums and and fruiting plants in the soil. Of course, these are guidelines and are subject to weather trends and your own best judgement. Obviously, if the soil is frozen, no amount of calendaring online will solve the problem, you’ll just have to wait for the soil to thaw. But it’s a great way to sort out some of the basic skeletal structure of how you will go about your gardening seasons, and, perhaps most importantly, it helps you get excited about when you’ll be able to harvest and eat your favorite foods!

Likewise, many seed packets and any gardening planting guide worth their salt will go into even minimal specifics about when to plant seeds–e.g., fall or spring, before frost, after frost, summer when soil is a specific temperature–all spaces for you to explore in your own planting zone and within your own property.

Always look to your zone guidelines for planting and go from there.

Map your sun zones

Knowing where your sun zones are in your yard is possibly the most essential aspect of your gardening goals. To get started, check your map or compass and figure out where the southern part of your yard is. I use Google Maps as a perfect starting point because the satellite photos are quite clear and up to date and they offer an aerial view of my property including all of my sun-blocking trees and structures. They are set up just like a map is, with the southern portion of your property on the south (bottom) part of the map, making it really easy for you to know where the main sun exposure is going to come from in your yard.

The southern portion of your property is where your ideal sun exposure is going to be. The sun from the south that spills to east or west portions of your yard are also great places to get good sun for your plants.

Make sure you study your trees and big structures. Are there trees, barns, next door neighbors’ homes, garage, or barn blocking your southern exposure sun? Start with Google maps or another favorite mapping tool. Then, remember that your key (most effective plant growing) solar exposure happens between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., give or take several hours depending on where you live.

While your sun zones will be the biggest predictor of your garden’s growth, one of the most common misnomers about gardening is that everything needs to be in full sun. In fact, there are some plants that do better with just 3-4 hours of sun per day. Lettuces, for example, bolt quickly and go bitter in the summer sun. We had luck with growing slow-to-bolt lettuce varieties all summer long and well into fall in our kitchen garden which has western exposure and a tall tree line not too far from the edge of it. Not ideal for big ticket fruiting varieties like massive slicing tomatoes (although I did grow a few) or big peppers and hot zone items, but plenty for green leafy lettuce varieties, herbs, and some fabulous cherry tomatoes.

Soil temperature vs. air temperature

Don’t get confused by the thermometer on your car or house when determining when you plant your garden. It’s really about how warm your soil is. So, for example, if it seems to be reaching warmer temperatures and things are starting to buzz, you will feel a building excitement and impatience about getting your seeds in the ground. But if you have another frost, your baby tomatoes and cucumbers will be majorly bummed unless you’ve kept them under a warm dome or landscaping fabric at night. Remember to test your soil temperature in the evenings and look to weather trends before planting your fruiting crops.

Did you know?

Did you know you can use a common kitchen or baking thermometer to test your soil temperature, like one of the ones you might use to test your turkey for doneness? It’s true! Pretty cool, right? Here’s how to test your soil temperature.

Planting by the Moon?

As noted in the Farmer’s Almanac, there has been some resurgence lately in planting by the moon’s phases. While I don’t have a lot of experience in this nor at this point much to add to it, I do know that we plan our beach trips according to the tides, which are directly linked to the phases of the moon. The moon determines whether we’ll have a big beach to play on or just a ribbon of sand or even a surge of water across the roads. Planting by the moon is based on this same ancient philosophy of deciding when you should plant various crops according to whether the moon is waxing or waning as determined by whether your plants need more or less water. This might be a fascinating foray for you into the moon’s phases and ancient wisdom, or you might choose to ignore it completely. For the record, this will be the first year I will fold the moon’s phases into my gardening plans, and I am curious how it may or may not affect my success. I’ll keep you posted.

Don’t let space (or lack of it) scare you: Be creative about how and where you plant your garden

Remember, too, that even though I write to you from a 5-acre farmland, the entire place is not planted with food, not even close. In fact, if you folded up my gardens into vertical spaces, you would see how it could all fit into a much smaller space. I know from experience that I could have grown a similar amount of food from our 6,500 s.f. urban lot in Seattle. It’s a matter of using space differently, and in the case of an urban garden, it likely means deciding to not have a lawn–think vertical beds, ladder kiosks, trellises, fence lines filled with vining plants, hanging planters, greenhouses, window boxes, picnic tables under grape arbors and hammocks in herb gardens–the whole bit. If you dedicate every inch of your land to growing food and flowers, you will have a haven of productivity similar to what we grow on our small farm.

Look to others for inspiration

One of my favorite resources for using space effectively and creatively is Seattle Urban Farm Company. They do such cool things with rooftop gardens and vertical gardens and bucket gardens and all kinds of awesomely creative and beautiful presentations.

Another fabulous resource is Pinterest. You can check out my Pinterest boards on my kitchen garden/small space gardening and my permaculture gardens, for some inspiration, and then pin away as you search for your perfect design vision.

Thinking about your edible garden differently can be a big way to transform the feeling of drudgery and fear around the work involved in planting a garden. That beautiful flowering thyme that you want to use in your casseroles and soups? It’s a gorgeous and prolific border, too. The rosemary that tastes amazing chopped up fresh in a sauce or atop a beautiful fresh catch of fish? It’s a beautiful lush and bright smelling addition to your front yard and along your walkways.

For a quick and fun view into how to use various methods in your gardening endeavors, here’s a video I made together with my husband’s illustrative powers showing how to use a permaculture method called hugelkultur in your garden, how to plant according to sun and shade zones, and how to transform a urban space into a small farm.

Video: Hugelkultur and Small Space Gardening

Follow the joy

Food is delicious. It should be delicious. Your experience growing food in your garden is one that will bring you joy. I absolutely believe this because I experience it daily. The entire process of putting a seed in soil and watching it turn into food that you can enjoy and share is, quite literally, addictive. The process of growing and harvesting food enlivens all our neurotransmitters that have been built on this cycle of planting and growth and harvest since the beginning of time–the joy of anticipation and of harvest in your garden are the same ones fed by, for example, your delight in travel, shopping, or adventure–the full spectrum of anticipation, growth, harvest, and storing for the future is what creates a fundamental feeling of delight, security, contentment–and joy.

Here’s a fabulous article on the serotonin-dopamine cycle of planting and harvest, aptly named Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression. While gardening doesn’t fix everything nor am I advocating that it solves everyone’s mental health, it certainly helps with health and healing, one seed at a time. Here’s another interesting take on this concept from Permaculture Magazine: Soil Helps Depression, in which studies show that the bacteria in organic soil mimics the effects of some antidepressants:

“Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has, indeed, been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

So, while growing food in and of itself is a joyful endeavor, one in which you connect with the earth in a different and new way, the most important way to enjoy the process of growing your own food is to make it truly delicious. Grow the food you love to eat. Make a list of your favorite foods and the ones you want to eat more of. Chances are there are some common elements that you can identify–flavor, texture, smell, even your favorite things to mix up in the kitchen are important in deciding what you want to grow. There might be things you’ve never tried, too, that you want to grow. But grow the things you love to eat and not the ones you don’t like. I know this is obvious, but it’s a concept that creates hang-ups for many new gardeners. If you’ve tried eggplant numerous times and numerous ways and simply don’t like it, don’t grow it….Even if the charts in your gardening zone say it’s the perfect veggie for your garden.

Tomorrow: How Much Should You Grow?

Check back tomorrow for my video and post about how to figure out how much food you need to grow so that you have enough for your family to live off of for a year.

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