- Have you ever wondered how much space it would take to grow your food? Maybe you’ve wondered just how much space it would take to grow all of a certain crop to have enough for the year. The answer to both questions is–it depends. It depends on what you want to eat and how you are growing it. John Jeavons asked what was the least space needed to grow all one’s food more than forty years ago and has been working on the answer ever since, including the sustainability aspect. You need to consider the soil and grow soil building crops along with your food crops. I wrote an article that is in the new (Oct/Nov 2012) issue of Mother Earth News called A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency. It includes planning charts for vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains. There is an additional chart online for oilseeds. You can find the article and charts online, however it all looks much nicer in the magazine. You can use that article to begin your own planning.
The charts with the article show estimates of yields you might get if you follow the GROW BIOINTENSIVE® principles explained in Jeavons book How To Grow More Vegetables. I follow those methods, so my blog posts and videos will give you additional understanding of how to put GROW BIOINTENSIVE into practice. The charts also have a column showing the average yields in the U.S. for conventional production. These figures are guidelines for you to use in your planning, but in reality, what you really need to know is how much you can grow in your soil, in your climate, with your schedule, etc, etc. In other words, there are a lot of variables. My suggestion is to just jump right in and get growing. Learn as you go, see what you can do, then improve your skills and soil each year.
In 1997-98 I had a small CSA and decided to include snap beans in the offerings. I had already been selling vegetables to two local restaurants for five years, so I was attuned to doing a trial and estimating the harvest, or so I thought. I had grown a bed of beans in the garden close to the house and had measured the yield and recorded the time it took to harvest, wash and pack. I set my price according to those figures. The crop for sale, however, was planted in another garden on our property, in beds that had not been in production for as long and had not received the mulch and compost over the years that my trial bed had. The yield was not as high and it took longer to pick the same amount of beans, since each grab brought a few beans, rather than a handful. It was definitely a lesson learned. Knowing what I had achieved with the trial bed, however, gave me hope for the newer garden and a yield to aim for.
If you really want to provide a significant portion of your food from your garden you would be looking at growing things that fill you up, so you would be thinking about growing calories. In Jeavons book there are columns in his Master Charts that show how many calories, and how much calcium, and protein are in each pound of food for each crop. Consider corn. If you are already growing sweet corn, using the beginning biointensive yield of 17 pounds of kernels per 100 square feet, you would have 6,800 calories of food in that 17 pounds. If you grew flour corn-corn for cornmeal- and achieved the beginning biointensive yield of 11 pounds of dry kernels, you would have produced 18,216 calories in 100 square feet of garden space. Of course, the sweet corn, depending on the variety, might have been ready to harvest 3-4 weeks earlier than the four corn. The corn stalks provide important carbon for your compost pile. If you grew sweet corn, it is to your benefit to leave the stalks standing for 4 weeks after the harvest of the ears, giving them a chance to produce more lignin. If you were doing that, you might as well grow flour corn.
There is nothing like growing staple crops. In her book, The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe talks of growing five staple crops that “you need to survive and thrive”. Those crops are corn, beans, potatoes, squash, and eggs. (She prefers duck eggs). Deppe has to avoid gluten, making corn her grain of choice. She even includes her recipe for cornbread that has no wheat flour in it.
For fun, let’s take a look at beans. If you grow snap beans and achieve the beginning biointensive yield, you would have 30 pounds of beans from a 100 square foot bed. Those 30 pounds of snaps would give you 4,230 calories. If you grew those beans all the way out to dry seeds, the beginning biointensive yield is 4 pounds of dried seed, giving you a yield of 6,152 calories in the same space. Of course, they would be in the bed longer and you would have to keep the bean beetles from taking out the plants before they reached dried seed stage. One great advantage of growing dried beans is that they don’t need to be cannned. Just put the dried beans in a jar and store them in your pantry. Cowpeas are my dried bean of choice. They grow better for me to dry seed than other types of beans and the bean beetles ignore them. Find out what grows best in your area. At Ecology Action in Willits, California, pinto beans grow well. I have never been successful with growing pinto beans to seed here.
This should widen your thinking as you make notes for next year’s garden. Some more thoughts about planning a diet of homegrown foods are at my post On Growing All Your Own Food. I was recently at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania, and at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Virgnia the weekend before that. It was encouraging for me to meet so many people who are anxious to learn to grow their food. It proves there is hope for the world, after all. We are living in exciting times and we need to embrace that. Enjoy the adventure!
Find more on Planning for Eating at http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/planning-for-eating.aspx.