Ooh, lots to cover here, so brew yourself a nice cuppa something and join me today while I dive into one of the most difficult topics of this entire journey: How much do you need to grow to feed you and your family for a year?
This is the second installment in a series I am working on for you about how to grow enough food to feed you and your family for a year. Be sure to read and watch my previous post How to Grow Food to Feed You and Your Family for a Year: Part 1. In that episode, I go into great detail about how you can figure out your gardening zone and sun zones within your yard, so be sure to read the post and watch the video to learn about that.
I highly suggest you read this post in its entirety and watch the video too, but if you want to skip all the details and get to the table of what I grow each year, hop down to the bottom of the page, where I list out how many seeds I will be planting this year (subject to change as I might plant more).
The cost of staring a garden can be a bit tricky to navigate. It requires healthy soil and seeds. I suggest no-till hugelkultur or raised row gardening or creative raised beds using what you have on hand. Watch for a post next week about how to create your own hugelkultur bed.
My advice is largely this: Look at what you’ll spend on seeds and break it up into a monthly cost. If you’re on a fixed income and have a space from which to garden from, then set aside $20 each month to spend on seeds and go from there.
As a long-term goal, please don’t let the upfront costs deter you; instead, get creative about how to grow great gardens using interesting solutions. Use old ladders to build out vertical gardening beds, use hardware cloth to make trellises, use fencelines for climbers, and don’t forget about all the interesting hanging baskets and old troughs you can repurpose.
For seeds, consider going in with friends and family to order in bulk and remember to let some of your best plants go to seed and save your seeds–eventually, you’ll never have to buy seeds again.
Over time, your small step-by-step investments will offer heady returns. We save thousands of dollars by growing our own food. Not only does it taste better, but it’s better for us, it’s sustainable, and it has an unseen effect–by growing our own food, we have learned how to cook everything we like to eat rather than buying it all in bottles and cans. And by not going to the store as often, we save money, too, by simply cutting down on impulse buys.
Some of you might wonder why we bother trying to save money on our food. A lot of people consider it a basic line item, one that they are accustomed to just spending each month at the grocery store and take-out and restaurants. Some of you spend hundreds, some of you spend thousands, per month on food. We’ve been there in both buckets–the hundreds and the thousands. If that makes you gasp, consider the costs of organic food, gluten-free food, and eating a diverse diet that covers “eating the rainbow” thinking. Then add in gourmet foodie personalities and convenience foods in a high-cost area of the United States and you quickly arrive at, yes, thousands of dollars spent on food per month.
We don’t spend that anymore. Not even close.
And that translates into the ability for us to have extra money to give money to the food bank. It translates into the ability to pay down our mortgage more quickly. It translates into savings accounts for our kids. When the world opens again it will translate into bucket-list vacations. But the reason it works is because growing gourmet food that surpasses anything that we would find at Whole Foods means that we don’t want to buy food anymore that doesn’t taste as good as what we grow and cook ourselves. And it means a deep and abiding love of gourmet good food that we grow that tastes amazing and replaces an entire income stream that I would need to make to support thousands of dollars a month of eating good food.
So, here’s how we do it. Let’s dive in.
Video: How Much Should You Grow?
In this video I discuss this topic in depth and I list out the main buckets of veggies that you should consider growing. I also show you some of my favorite seeds. Please note that I will cover tomatoes, fruits, and berries in separate posts.
The answer of how much to grow is not a straightforward one because unless you accurately predict how much you will love your food and will eat it straight off the vine (and not have any left over to put away for the winter months), and how much you will enjoy giving it away to friends and neighbors and weekly fresh donations to the food bank, you can’t accurately predict how much you’ll need to grow. And that’s regardless of whether you’re omnivorous or vegan. So, consider yourself warned: The more you grow, the more you’ll want grow more!
This is a funny little headline, I know, but it’s here for a reason. Radishes are automatic garden success. Plant a seed and you’ll have a harvest in about 28 days. Radishes are shriek-inducing for kids (“Mom, look what we grew!”), and their colorful little presence in your garden gives you an instant boost of satisfaction and confirmation that you can, indeed, grow stuff, you do have a green thumb, and it’s easier than you thought it would be!
Also, radishes arrive in a huge array of colors and flavors and sizes, making them super colorful and totally fun to grow. They are amazing (ah-mazing) fried up in oil and/or butter with just salt and pepper or your favorite herbs. I roast them in the oven or fry them on the stovetop and everyone in my family loves them. They lose their bite once cooked and instead have a beautiful savory flavor that is sort of sweet and starchy. Plus, radish tops are similar in texture to spinach or chard, and they lose their poky/hairy quality once cooked, so I always chop the tops and add them in at the end of the saute as a wilted green addition to the meal.
Radishes are delicious fried, roasted, frozen and then fried directly frozen, pickled, and fermented. One of my favorite taco amendments these days are spicy pickled radishes with onions.
Here is a list of my favorite radishes to grow successively throughout the year: Easter Basket Mixed Radishes, Watermelon or Chinese Red Meat Radishes, golden radishes (Zlata Radish), French Breakfast Radish, Japanese Wasabi Radish, Giant of Sicily Radish, and Cherry Belle, to name a few.
I can’t underscore enough the role that herbs play in your garden. Think about dressings and sauces and syrups and bitters and signature rubs and seasonings–they all weigh heavily in your enjoyment of food and drink. Herbs are also powerful companion plants, pest inhibitors, and hardy perennials.
This makes herbs perhaps one of the easiest and most important additions to your garden. They are prolific and hardy and they add flavor to every meal. Additionally, they dry beautifully and they are essential to all of your pickles, dressings, and home canned goods. Start with herbs you use daily, then branch into the exciting ones you’ll use to make tea, elixirs, syrups, rubs, and signature seasoning blends. An array of herbs ensure that you’ll have exactly what you need to make your meals sing without much effort. Think creamy homemade ranch dressing with freshly chopped herbs and homemade Italian vinaigrette; fettuccine tossed with olive oil and fresh chopped thyme and cherry tomatoes; creamy soup or fresh caught fish topped with a bright chimichurri sauce; savory tomato sauce or homemade pizza topped with herbed pesto; and of course all the salads you’ll eat throughout the season–from the tender baby greens of new growth to the more hardy seasonal salads of summer (caprese, cucumber, green bean, fresh zoodles), to the hardy winter kale and cabbage salads; then think of your herb teas, your essential oils, your herbed oils, pickles, rubs, salts, and simple drinks like sparkling water with just a drizzle of sweet juice or honey and chopped mint.
I always grow lots of the following herbs
Here’s a list of musts:
Parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, mint (I forgot to mention mint in my video), dill (remember your potato salad and allll your pickles!), cilantro (salsa garden!), tarragon, chives, green onions, rosemary, sage, and savory.
Then play with more interesting ones like lavender, chamomile, marjoram, and more. This past year I planted 20 lavender plants in our front yard, and soon I will bring in a similar amount of rosemary. These are hardy, they take well to pruning, and they give you bowers and sachets to give you away. I love rosemary for its incredible hit of bright flavor in savory baked foods, sauces, flavored butters and oils, and more.
Another herb tip: Plant a bay leaf tree
I remember the day we moved to our farm and I was walking around the yard with a dear plant-knowing friend, and we both stared up at our massive 100-year-old bay leaf tree and said, “I love this big tree, it reminds me of Dr. Seuss,” and she studied it and named it for me: A bay leaf tree.
I use dried bay leaves in all my soups and savory bakes, and I absolutely love it for giant green bouquets that dry beautifully (and can be used in my cooking or given away), holiday edible wreaths that will last all year as a beautiful dried addition to your kitchen, as really stunning homemade holiday gifts, and as a beautiful bouquet filler, as well.
Grow pickling cucumbers instead of slicers
Rather than using up any of your precious garden space on slicing cucumbers, grow pickling cukes instead. That way, you can use them in your salads, sandwiches, refrigerator pickles, ferments, and canned pickles. You will eat the pickles all year long and give them away to grateful friends and family so grow a ton of them. I often plant about 50-100 cucumber seeds. If you have space, add in a few large seedless English cucumbers.
This is one of those laughable headlines because of course we all know those hilarious memes of people wheeling their zucchini harvest around in massive wheelbarrows and depositing them on doorsteps in the night to get rid of the extras, but honestly I harvest about 150-300 zucchini every year and use every single one. I make zucchini bread, chocolate chip zucchini muffins, my Savory Zucchini Soup which I freeze and thaw throughout the year, oodles and oodles of zoodles for Asian salads and Italian preparations, zucchini fritters, zucchini puree which I use as a simple thickening base with cheddar cheese and parmesan and herbs to make an incredible cheesy base for mac ‘n cheese for the kids, and simple shredded zucchini which I freeze and add to soups and sauces all year long.
Grow beans–all kinds
I’ve had people say they don’t like green beans until they’ve tried dilly beans or spicy garlic beans or gorgeous marinated bean salad or fresh-from-the-garden beans or wax beans covered in butter, or tasted a fresh bean directly off the vine on a hot summer day.
Beans are full of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and they are fierce warriors, too, fast nitrogen-fixers for your soil, thus beautiful benefits to your body and your your pantry, and to the overall health of your soil.
And people sometimes forget, understandably, that the dried beans you get from the store once grew in long pods on trellised gardens before they turned into all the varieties you love–chick peas/garbanzo beans, creamy hummus, orca beans, black bean soup, minestrone soup, refried beans, bean dip, edamame, chili–you can grow all of those beans, too. The variation in different kinds of beans is truly fascinating and really inspiring to see what can grow in a single pod.
Personally, I haven’t been able to grow enough to dry and live off of so I order them in bulk from Azure Standard instead. However, I always grow enough to can, freeze, and eat fresh off the vine for months in the summer and fall.
Be creative with your harvest, and your harvest will transform your meals (also, plant-based diets are not just for vegetarians and vegans)
Our family started gardening nine years ago. It wasn’t until we arrived here to our farm that I went into full gardening mode attempting to live off our land. Since that time we became pescatarian (eating fish, but only rarely) and every meal we eat is plant-based.
Aside from the eggs we gather from our free-range chickens, the bulk foods and some amazing raw cheddar cheese and unbelievably fatty, stretchy whole milk mozzarella I buy in bulk from Azure Standard, everything we eat here starts with a base of something we grew in our orchards or gardens.
The best way I can think of to describe the concept of plant-based eating, if you’re new to thinking about it, is just simply to think about your favorite gourmet restaurant and what makes that meal sing for you, plus all the ways you eat meat–burgers, steaks, casseroles, shredded, flanked, ground, filleted, turned into fajitas and tacos and lasagna–and think of vegetables and fruits in that same way.
It’s not about replacing meat necessarily, although for us that is what we do. It’s also about giving veggies their due. You don’t love a piece of steamed meat without any salt or flavor, right? Have you ever shaved off a piece of raw steak and stuck it in a steamer with just water and no salt and zero seasonings and served it up grey and overcooked on a plate and called that good? Nuh-uh. Don’t do that to your veggies, either! You can’t compare carne asada steak to a plain ol’ zucchini or cauliflower florets or plain ol’ potato, that’s not fair. You have to dress your veggies up with the same seasonings and rubs and sauces and fats and oils and dredging and savory cooking methods that you use for your favorite proteins. And suddenly, voila, your food will sing and so will you.
If you’re plant-based or want to add more meatless meals to your week, grow bunches more
My favorite guidelines for how much food to grow for a year have been cobbled together from a variety of sources (see above, plus lots more), and after four growing seasons here, I am now cautious of anyone who tells you exactly how much you need to be able to feed your family for a year. I followed the guidelines every year, doubling each year to see if it would be enough. I now know that the guidelines are way too small for my family….10-15 broccoli plants for the year is simply impossible for us. We’ll use 10-15 broccoli plants in a month if it’s around, especially because I like to harvest it and eat it fresh and then freeze it and put some of it away for the year every month. Broccoli happens to be my kids’ favorite veggie and we like to serve it all the ways–steamed, boiled, stir-fried, roasted, creamed in a soup (hello, broccoli-cheddar soup!), and dipped raw in a creamy ranch. So this year I will be planting an enormous amount of broccoli, likely about 150-200 broccoli plants because I also want to have enough to give away and serve at gatherings. Same for cauliflower. I love using cauliflower in creamy soups, casseroles, roasts, mashes, and stir-fries, so the usual guidelines of 10-15 per year for a standard American diet are not useful for my plant-based family.
Which brings me to my point about how much to plant: You need to plant a lot more than the charts tell you to. After years of doing this, I am actually convinced that bloggers and gardeners don’t want to scare you away from starting a garden, so they pick a number that isn’t horribly overwhelming, plus they can’t imagine you’ll eat as much as they do.
Don’t let these numbers scare you. You can start with 5 broccoli plants to see if they grow well in your garden and that’ll be a huge win.)
How much should you grow? (More than the charts tell you to)
This part is tricky to define, but there are a lot of great charts out there to give you guidelines for how much to grow for each member of your family. The reason it can be tricky is because if you’re new to growing enough food to feed your family for an entire year, you might not realize how much you really need.
Additionally, if you’re new to gardening in general, you don’t realize yet how delicious the food will be. It will taste so vastly different from anything you’ve ever eaten before that you will eat a lot more of it than you think you will, especially straight outta the dirt and into your kitchen. I don’t say this to overwhelm you, because it doesn’t mean you have to work extra hard…It just means you need to plant more.
Here are a few resources that helped me get started with how much to plant for my family of four:
Additionally, depending on your diet (which will likely evolve as you grow your garden), you might currently fill your plate with more protein and starch or carbs than you will after your garden fills out. So while you might normally feel a side salad is sufficient with your protein and pasta, once you get started you’ll start to see that side salad grow into a main course covered in roasted peppers and sweet tomatoes and chopped herbs that will turn into a quick little snack throughout the day and pickles you’ll want to save for December and sauce for your neighbor and your child’s very favorite tomato soup that only your tomatoes can make, and etc. etc. etc.. and suddenly you’ll see that your garden is the center of your food supply.
Here’s my chart
Here’s my chart of what I will grow this year. Don’t let it scare you. Ha! I’m serious. Remember that each stage of the garden gets planted at different times. And check back next week for my installment on how I make this easy by not growing very many things from starts but rather starting nearly everything from seed, directly sown into the ground. That means sprinkling seeds into soil and watering. That’s it. Ok? So, here we go.
|Vegetable||For a family of 4|
|Broccoli (each seed is equivalent to one head of broccoli)||150-200 seeds|
|Cauliflower (each seed is equivalent to one head of califlower)||150-200 seeds|
|Romanesco (each seed is equivalent to one head of romanesco)||100 seeds|
|Cabbage (green and red) (each seed is equivalent to one head of cabbagge)||100 seeds|
|Bok choi||100 seeds|
|Pickling cucumbers||100-150 seeds|
|Carrots (each seed is equivalent to one carrot)||300 seeds|
|Lettuce, multiple varieties||100 seeds|
|Herbs||50 seeds each variety|
|Asparagus (this is perennial)||50 crowns|
|Hardy winter greens (varietal kale, collard, rainbow chard)||100 seeds total; then let them self-seed and become a perennial food forest|
|Onions (each seed or start is equivalent to one onion)||200 starts plus 200 seeds|
|Potatoes, multiple varieties (russet, red, yellow, fingerling)||300 seed potatoes|
|Squash, many varieties||50 seeds|
|Tomatoes, many varieties||100 seeds|
|Peppers, many varieties||25 seeds|
|Sweet corn||200 seeds|
|Beans (bush and trellised, multiple varieties)||200 seeds|
|Peas, snap, sugar, and peapod||250 seeds|
|Radishes, multiple varieties (each seed is equivalent to one radish)||400 seeds|
|Beets, red and golden (each seed is equivalent to one beet)||200 seeds|
|Turnips (each seed is equivalent to one turnip)||100 seeds|
|Rutabagas (each seed is equivalent to one rutabaga)||50 seeds|
|Artichokes (these are perennial)||50 plants scattered throughout the yard as decoration and food|