A Word on Self-Suffiency

Let’s talk about the big question of the year: “How much do I grow to feed my family for the year?” It gets asked, and then for some reason that question leads to the talk and belief in self-sufficiency, and then “self-sufficiency” becomes a buzz word and gets batted around all over the place, so let me clear the air on that.

Here’s the thing — and sorry — we normal, everyday people with everyday yards CAN’T grow enough to not need food from another source, and you can’t grow everything you need, either. I’m not even sure that people with large acreages can do it. I doubt it. It would take a huge investment and a ginormous skill set.

For us mere mortals, either we don’t have the land for it, we don’t have the skills for it, we’re not in the right area to grow something, or we don’t have the money for it (or all of the above). And some of these things apply to people with large acreages as well.

Let’s just think about it for a minute. Can you grow:

Sugar? Cocoa? Coffee? Tea? Enough of anything to press it for cooking oil? Or enough animals to provide you with lard or butter to use in lieu of cooking oils? Can you grow enough wheat or barley or oats (or all three) to feed your family on TOP of all the other things? Can you grow enough wheat or barley or oats or corn to feed your livestock, if you have it?

Do you have an oil press? Do you have a grain mill?

Haven’t convinced you yet? Then can you mine salt, or are you near the sea for desalinization? Salt is absolutely necessary to survival-for you AND for livestock. No one ever thinks of salt.

See what I mean, jelly bean?

You cannot be self-sufficient, so that thought has to be de-coupled from the first question before you can approach anything like an answer. How do I know? Because I am someone who not only grows a large amount of food, but has butchering skills, preservation skills, fermentation skills, some foraging skills (work in progress), sugaring skills, and dairying skills. All that-and I’m not 100% self-sufficient, and can never be. I still rely on others to provide what I cannot, and that has always been true for everyone, everywhere, all throughout time. However, I don’t rely on others for very much.

You can get to something you can call self-reliant. This is how I’ve learned to think of it, over the years. You absolutely CAN make so much of a dent in your food bills or take yourself so far off the merry-go-round that is the supply chain that you won’t notice that you don’t supply 100% of your own food, because your external inputs will be minimal. If the price of that external input sharply increases, well, you hardly use it, so it hits your wallet less. If you can’t find it? That sucks, but maybe you have an alternative (or a little stash-which lasts longer if you only need a little of it each time). The beauty of this is that not only do you produce your own food, but also that you have the SKILLS to do so. That makes all the difference in the world.

Pretty garden picture break

So How Much Food Do We Grow?

Ok…we’re over the “self-sufficient” buzz word, and we have accepted that we can become more self-reliant IN SOME WAY. If you are going to grow your own food, the best way to approach it is to follow this advice: Grow what you’ll eat, and eat what you grow. Do not waste your time on anything that you really have no intention of eating, and if you grew it, you’d better learn to eat it. This means that you. Will. Eat. Differently. Why? Because there’s no such thing as a hot dog tree, that’s why. And macaroni can’t be picked off the vine.

To arrive at the answer to that first question, you need to be very honest with yourself and ask the following questions:

1. What do you and your family eat now?

If the answer is something processed, you’re going to need to do a re-examination of your eating habits, because none of that is feasible. Plus it’s not food, so stop eating it. But let’s say it’s something like pasta and sauce, which you’d normally purchase. You can make that meal from your yard almost entirely (yes really. We’ll talk). Make this list, and once you have it, go to the second question.

2. What would you and your family like to try to eat? Would you be willing to make any changes to your diet?

In order to answer this question you get to have a little fun. Go and buy small amounts of the things you think you’d like to try. Look up a recipe. Make it. Do you like it? Is it something you would be willing to put into your repertoire from now on? Write it down, and go to question three.

3. What can you actually grow in your area (remember frost zone/hardiness zones) and in your yard?

You look at your lists from questions one and two and check to see if the ingredients in those dishes are something you can grow because you A) have a warm or cool enough climate and B) have enough space. This is how you arrive at what you are going to grow.

4. But what quantities to grow?

When you figure out how often you like to eat the things you like to eat, and that gives you a shape as to quantity. For example: if you like soups and stews once a week, and most of the bases of soups and stews are carrots, celery, and onions, then you know you need at least 52 onions, maybe 104 carrots, and 104 stalks of celery to cover that for the year, to begin with. There’s the beginning of your answer. You do this in a general way for all the things you like to eat regularly. If you like pasta with sauce, then you need to grow plum tomatoes. If you use an onion in every dish you make, then you’d better grow at least 365 onions, no?

Knowing the frequency you eat some things can help you shape the quantity. However, I won’t lie to you and say that you’re going to grow exactly what you need the first or even the twentieth time you do it. You just keep trying to refine your system, the best way you can. That’s the best you can do. And that is why the answer to that first question on top is so deeply personal. I don’t eat what you eat, you don’t eat what I eat. And no one with calorie counts or recommendations does, either. You have to figure it out yourself.

How to Fit All That Food

Here’s (thankfully) where I can give you some concrete advice. The numbers above (104 carrots, 365 onions, etc) are scary when you take them at face value, but that stuff fits into less space than you think, so never fear. I grow in raised beds, which have fixed dimensions, within a fenced in area, due to stupid heavy deer predation. I use a modified square foot garden with intercropping/companion planting and succession gardening, which means I pack those beds full of plants, make sure the plants in the same beds get along well together, and then ruthlessly yank them out when I feel they are past their prime (or they were eaten) so I can put something else in their places. Oh yeah.

Very high tech graph paper representation of a garden, just to give you an idea

This is how you get more food out of a finite space. I do my planning on graph paper, because I’m old school. I plot out my beds, look at the seed packets for what I’m going to grow and note the distance between seeds that they print on the back of the seed packets. Then I do math. For example, let’s use the carrot count from above-104. I have a 4×8 foot bed and I want to grow carrots. Carrots can be thinned to 3–4 inch spacing, meaning even at 4 inch spacing I can grow 16 carrots in a square foot. There are 32 square feet in a 4×8 foot bed. 32×16=512 carrots. I estimated I needed 104 carrots above, remember? So I don’t need the whole 4×8 foot bed for them- need 2×4 feet of that bed, and even that gives me extra (always plan on extra-there WILL be failures). MATH! Now I can see that the number above is a lot less scary than it looked. And when you consider that you can actually tuck carrots in among other plants in the garden (see companion planting above), you don’t even need all of that 2×4 foot space.

If you are not old school, and shun graph paper as my 18-year-old son does, there are garden planners online for you to use. This is just one of them. You put in the dimensions of your beds, plug in what you are going to grow, and if you choose square foot gardening, it tells you how much you can fit. I recommend finding one you might like using and using it. They are a great starting point.

This was a long article, sorry about that. There is a lot to say, and I’ve been trying to keep it short, but this was a big subject. If you have any questions on anything, just leave me a comment. If anyone has anything to add, please feel free. I think we should all learn from each other.

Next time we are leaving the garden and going off into the orchard. See you next time!