There was a time before our return to VT when I spent 5-days-a-week in a very tall office building in Philadelphia and the remaining hours on our living room floor with vegetable seed catalogs and books from the 70’s with titles like The Owner-Built Homestead, and Farming for Self-Sufficiency. In particular, I was interested in figuring out exactly how much we would have to grow to feed ourselves for one year – not just some of our vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat, but all of them. I wasn’t living in fear of an apocalypse nor did I have some grocery cart phobia. I simply wanted to know the answer, I loved planning, and nothing beats a fresh tomato. So, I started the research hoping to find one source that would lay it all out and make it easy. I didn’t find it, and for good reason – everybody likes to eat different things, and growing conditions vary so much from place to place – a garden in Washington State (Zone 8b) can grow 0.4 lbs/SF of veggies while our Zone 5a produces about half that due to its shorter season. One interesting resource I found was the USDA public service booklet called the Pennsylvania Victory Garden Handbook from 1944 that outlined the pounds per person and the row feet per vegetable required for a year:
So I crunched the numbers for our own set of variables and assembled a base plan which we dutifully set in motion upon our arrival here many moons ago. The resulting spreadsheets, calendars and planting diagrams are still in use – the number of mouths we feed has grown, and so has our understanding of our limitations. So just in case you’re curious, or have some desire to try growing all (or even some) of your own vegetables, or you do have a grocery-cart phobia – here’s the scoop:
- the base plan is for an omnivorous family of four (2 adults, 2 children) and the adults each eat 2-3 cups or 0.7 lbs of veggies per day, and the kids each eat 2 cups or 0.4 lbs, for a total of 9-10 cups or 2.2 lbs per day (The U.S.D.A. recommendation).
- the family eats fresh veggies for roughly half the year and eats stored veggies during the other half – by freezing, canning and root cellaring. So 52 weeks minus 3 weeks of vacation and 3 meals out per week (1 day) = 49 weeks x 6 days/week x 2.2 lbs. = 647 lbs.
- Add 150 lbs for weekend guests and neighbors, and another 50lbs to give to wildlife and marauding insects and diseases.
- Total to grow = 850 pounds
This may sound like a lot, and is probably more than most folks would want to tackle, but it serves as a good base for determining smaller plans. For example, say you are a couple with no kids, you travel a lot, you eat 6 meals out a week, and you only want to eat fresh in the summer and not preserve any food – then multiply 40 weeks x 5 days/week x 1.4 lbs = 280 lbs. A single adult with the same habits might need 140 lbs.
So how does 850 lbs convert into a garden design? The answer of course depends upon which vegetables you like to eat, but for simplicity let’s assume that the adults are willing to eat a wide variety of vegetables and balanced quantity of each, and the kids will probably eat a lot more peas, corn, beans and broccoli than turnips and Kohlrabi. So we take the list of all the different vegetables (about 30 in our case), determine how many pounds of each we will eat fresh and how many will be stored, and then divide each total veggie weight by the average yield per row foot, and then record the number of row feet required for each vegetable. Then it’s like a game of Tetris to fit the blocks together while considering which make good companions or not.
Kitchen garden designs can be elaborate, geometric fantasies of color and texture – but right now let’s use the plain old utilitarian version. A Vermont 850 lb. veggie garden takes up about 4,500 SF (45′ x 100′) including walking paths if it’s laid out in a simple rectangle. Ours is actually in two plots – the outer dimensions of one is 45′ x 70′, and the other (corn and squash) is 45′ x 30′. Inside the planting beds measure 40′ x 4′ with 2′ wide walkways.
So, you don’t have 4,500 SF available in your yard? – no problem. If you only want 280 lbs then shrink the design down to 37′ x 40′. Or if you are a family of four and you want to grow 1/4 of your veggies (212 lbs.) then you would need a garden roughly 35′ x 35′ (1,225 SF), which incidentally is the same size as the new White House Lawn Veggie garden. The average Victory Garden plot covered about the same area and plans were distributed for backyard gardens that measured 35′ x 35′ – in essence families were encouraged to grow 1/4 of their vegetables. Plans for smaller front yard plots were also popular. Today there is a resurgence of Front-Lawn gardening (check out The Edible Front Yard), and most yards in Burlington could fit an attractive 25′ x 40′ garden – almost a 1/4 of your veggies for a family of four!
There are zillions of wonderful sources for vegetable and fruit gardens – for the moment this isn’t one of them (but if you live in New England you should check out the latest books by our local experts – Charlie Nardozzi’s Northeast Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, and Leonard Perry’s The Fruit Gardener’s Bible). My goal here was to answer the questions of how much and how big, and the rest is another discussion. So, here is the design for our 850lb. garden (in 2 plots) to help you visualize – (remember, I can make it pretty, but these are just the facts ma’am):
The next questions naturally are – “how many seeds do I need to plant a 20′ row of carrots and when and how do I plant them?” When I started all this ten years ago I was doing the calculations by hand with my trusty calculator and paper calendars, then I advanced to Excel and Outlook calendar, then I used the Brookfield Farm CSA spreadsheets and Google Calendar, and now all that seems antiquated. Today there’s the new AgSquared software (practically free) that does everything for you, beautifully and with panache (watch the demo video). It probably even has an app to toss you from your hammock when it’s time to pick the beans. AgSquared is set up for small farms and may be a bit overkill for most home gardeners, so the Johnny’s Selected Seeds interactive tools may be a better choice for you. Of course I can help you design a garden that meets all your unique needs if you don’t have time to do the planning yourself, just drop me an email.
So the real question that I’m sure you are asking now is Why the Heck would I go through all the Trouble? What’s wrong with the Farmer’s market or my local CSA? Well, nothing, those are also good choices – but consider these reasons from a funny TED talk with Roger Doiron (Kitchen Gardens Int’l) called My Subversive (garden) Plot:
- You can save up to $2,000 a year on your grocery bill
- Only 2% of American Households today grow any of their own food compared to 40% during the Victory Garden Era.
- Growing food promotes an awareness of healthy eating habits – The average American Family spends only 31 min. per day preparing, eating and cleaning up – that can’t be good for you.
I would add that it’s great exercise, it encourages us to slow down and have Zen moments in the broccoli patch, and is a place where childhood memories are made. If your kids are hanging out with friends in your garden snacking on fresh peas they’re less likely to be at the mall eating a Happy Meal. Maybe it’s time for another Victory – this time it’s a war to win back our health and to increase our sustainability. It might even be fun…