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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Garden planning for increased self-sufficiency

I often talk, or write on the Internet, about my life as a "homesteader." This is my preferred lifestyle and I have plied it at three times in my life, now, in three different states, and in the process have acquired quite a few skills. It is not surprising to me, then, when folks ask me questions about all sorts of things home- and homestead related.
It has been my intention to include more homestead-y stuff here in this blog, along with info on my ongoing "Pennsylvania Dutch" hex sign projects. So I was absolutely delighted to be asked recently, “We're working on making a homestead and making ourselves self sufficient---how do we gauge enough vegetables to plant to freeze, can or eat for just the two of us.” I responded that it was a lovely question, and an even better writing prompt. Here follows my response.

How does one gauge enough to plant?

The first, rather flip response that came to me was "You can't. It's a crap shoot." Not helpful, perhaps, but more true than most of us want to admit.

A more accurate version of this not-terribly-helpful answer would be that it's a moving target, controlled and modified by so many variables -- most of which are not under our control and some of which we are not even aware of -- that the best we can do is try to come close and balance it out over a couple of years. Changing variables involve gaining experience, changing tastes and habits as the result of your lifestyle change and one must always factor in Mother Nature.

Pinning down the human-side variables

There are dozens of "how much to plant" lists put out by extension offices, seed companies and random internet blogging experts. Google it, click on a few and read some. If you have ever gardened at all, I am pretty sure you will eventually read a line, like I just did researching for this essay, and burst out in laughter.
My garden, in June of 2014.
It is less than 1/4 that size now!
In my case, I read that for a family of 4, you only need 5 broccoli plants! Now, maybe if you were in the family of --- was it one of the Presidents Bush who let it slip that he did not like broccoli? -- that would work. But if you like it, even in just in season, that does not seem nearly enough. Even though there are just two of us, it is one of our standard offerings on the table. That might be a whole 10 meals for us, if they were a variety that sends out a fair number of shoots after you cut the main head. And that would put none in the freezer at all!

This brings us to two variables on the people side: what your family likes and when in the year you want to serve it, and on Ma Nature's side, we need to consider how various varieties of each species grow. But more on that later.

What does your family like, how much of it do they eat, when in the year and in what form?

It's winter when I am writing this, so I am going to suggest to my inquirer that she begin getting a real handle on what they eat by making notes -- in a diary or on the calendar or maybe in her new garden planning notebook (we all have one, right?) -- every time she serves something she could grow.

I am sure she will miss some... it's easy to overlook the onions you just cut up for that casserole or the tomatoes that went into that spaghetti sauce, for example, so here is the another example of variables! But even if you just record the dedicated vegetable dishes, you will begin getting the idea.

Some of my stores: canned, dehydrated
(for use in soups) and a stash of lids!
This will get you thinking more about what you eat, what you can grow, what you eat fresh (likely from the store in winter), canned and frozen. If your goal is self-sufficiency – or even something close to it – you will probably begin plotting menu changes. See, there is that moving target again!

Since you will have to order seed and begin planting before a year is up, take some time to think about how your menus change, if they do, over the course of the year. More moving targets, 'cause with all those fresh vegetables calling from your dooryard come summer, I cam almost guarantee they will!
Even before I began to eat more deliberately "in season," I craved salads and fresh, raw fruits and vegetables in the summer and hearty storage veg, like carrots, potatoes, and winter squash, along with more meat, this time of year. And there is nothing quite so appealing as the first meals with each vegetable as it comes ripe! I love fresh, lightly steamed green peas and so I know that if I did not plant more than just enough to offer "a mess" at a time for a meal, none would ever end up in the freezer!

How many pea plants does it take for me to pick a mess of peas for a supper for us two? That depends on when in the season I am picking and the variety or varieties I have planted. In many respects this is all going to be a matter of experience. Harvests are somewhat like those bell curves we may remember from school. First a few come ripe, then more and more until many have been picked and the harvest tapers off to the "why bother" department, at least in my garden. Before the peas are all done, the green beans are "coming on."

So to recap things to think about:

What do you actually eat?
What are your staples/favorites?
What do you eat fresh all year long?
How will your attempt to become self-sufficient change this?
What do you eat canned/frozen?
Do you expect to make veg based condiments and ingredients such as spaghetti sauce, salsa, etc.

Mother Nature weighs in

Now that I've got you thinking about the human side of the equation, we've got to deal with Mother Nature, in all her variable glory! Not everything grows in all climates and not all varieties of any particular veg will grow in a given climate, so lets get to know some of the important and relevant biology! (I promise no quiz at the end.)

If you are used to buying veg in the can or box... or some from the fresh isles... the idea that vegetables have "first names" may be surprising news! A green bean is not *just* a green bean. (...And let me digress here for a moment and explain that they are not called "green" just because of their color, but because they are, actually, unripe! The same is true of green peppers. To further confuse you, I will note that some of my favorite varieties of "green beans" are actually purple when picked and do not turn green until cooked!) The bean plants really want to produce "dried beans." Pinto, navy, kidney beans, and all their kin, could be picked when the pods were young and green, and steamed or boiled to eat. Plant breeding over the years has brought us special varieties that hold longer on the vine or plant, have a better taste and usually lack the “string," a hard, fibrous strand running the length of one side of the pod that is common in the bean varieties that are grown to maturity. You will see the fledgling bean seeds if you open a green bean, and any pods you fail to pick in their eating prime will begin to show bumps where the bean seeds are developing. The pod will become tough and hard to eat, even on the most desirable green bean varieties. Green beans in the veg department of your grocer, even though they don't tell us so, will be one or more of the varieties dedicated to fresh eating and might be "Provider" green beans or "Annihilator" or "Cosmos, all varieties offered by one of my favorite local seed suppliers, Johnny's SelectedSeeds. In scientific terminology that would make them Phaseolus vulgaris (the latin for beans' genus and species) var. Provider or var. Annihilator or... 

The same holds true of all your friends in the produce isle. They all come in many varieties, and you will end up doing a lot of reading, thinking, plotting – and still order way too many seeds! Don't fret; most will keep at least until the next year.

As you browse your catalogs, pay attention to the growth habits of the seeds you are considering. Some peas and beans grow as vines and require support. Others are bushier. It's best not to be surprised. The size of your garden as well as how you work will determine some of your choices.

This is just on example of the varieties of growth habit. Some broccoli makes just one, large head; others make a smaller initial head and finish the season with smaller spouts that emerge from the leaf axils (where the upper leaves meet the stem of the plant). There are varieties of all plants with widely varying times to harvest and not all vegetables take the same length of time to be ready to eat. 

This means that to work most effectively with nature, you need to become very familiar with plants and varieties thereof, but also with how the growing season works in your location. Here in Maine we have two online tools that will show you the average last spring frost and the average first autumn frost in your location. Note that not only are these averages and micro-climates abound here in Maine. There are some veg that can stand a light to moderate frost at the beginning and/or end of their growth cycle.

Just like we humans don't all like the same climate, neither do plants! I still see many gardeners planting their whole garden Memorial Day Weekend (which is actually the safe time to begin seeding and transplanting warm season crops in my location) and then fussing because their spinach and lettuce bolts to seed straight away. If the seed packet says to plant "as early as the ground can be worked" they mean it! As long as the seeds won't be sitting in soil wet enough to rot them (grab a handful of newly cultivated earth. It should stick together in a ball in your hand, but break apart easily when poked) it is time to begin planting spinach, lettuce, peas and other veg that like cool temperatures.
Once the soil has warmed up (and if you are a garden/science nerd like me, you will acquire a soil thermometer and check its temp regularly!) is the time for beans, corn, squash, melons and tomatoes.

Seed packets often tell you how many feet of row they will plant, or how many seeds they contain, if the plants are typically started indoors for transplants. But that gives you no clue as to how much actual food that will produce. There is a big difference between 25 feet of potatoes, tomatoes and peas! Fortunately we now have a resource to help us calibrate how many feet of row we may need, once we have a handle on how much our family will need. This resource, again from the helpful folks at Johnny's, will give you average yeilds from 100' of direct seededrow, and a little math will help you scale it up or down as needed. For the tomatoes, peppers and other crops that are usually transplanted out to the garden, check this

Of course Ma Nature always has the last word, so these are once again only guidelines. Specific weather conditions which vary from year to year will have a massive effect on anything you do. As an example, I have had several years of "really bad luck" with spinach, only harvesting enough for eating fresh in salads in season... until 2019, when again I was able to put some in the freezer -- and out of a shorter row, too! So plan to be flexible if you want to minimize what you have to buy from the store and put by extra in years of abundance. While last year's frozen or canned veg may not have as nice a texture or quite as much nutrition as things put by earlier in the current year, if it has remained properly frozen or the seal is still intact, it is still safe, and we eat them here. Our goal is to be as self-feeding as practical and so we use the overages of one year to offset the challenges of the next. 

And, as a hexeri, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the addition of a sign for Abundance on your homestead would never be a bad idea!

Happy garden planning, get ready to order seeds for starting seedlings indoors and do check out for my work, and you can find me on Facebook as well, where I will be glad to answer questions about homesteading and my hex work.

*"mess" is old time country talk for the quantity of a veg that you go pick prior to starting supper.