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How to Plan a Farm and Garden to Feed a Family

How Much Do You Need to Grow?

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Photo © Lauren Ware
Photo © Lauren Ware

You've grown vegetables before. But, like many gardeners, you find you're drowning in lettuce early on, then have zucchini coming out your ears, yet spend the winter buying shipped-in produce, frozen veggies, and canned goods. With some careful planning, you can use your garden energy to reduce your grocery bill and eat more fresh delicious vegetables.

Planning a garden to feed your family can seem overwhelming. How many tomato plants will feed a family of four? It's a good question, and to some degree the answer is going to depend on how much you like tomatoes. But, there are some general yield guidelines that can help you calculate how much to plant of each vegetable. And, these tips will help focus your efforts so that little to nothing goes to waste.

Plant what you enjoy eating. This seems like a no-brainer, but when you're perusing the seed catalogs and see the delicious and prolific Piracicaba kohlrabi variety, it's easy to get carried away. One idea is to dedicate one area of the garden to new varieties or new vegetables, and buy just the smallest amount of seeds. This way you can experiment without being up to your ears in Brussels sprouts.

Analyze your grocery bill. If you keep grocery receipts, or just have a good memory, you can use this as a guide for how much of a given item your family eats in a week or month. Then, extrapolate to the year. For example, buy a 5-pound bag of onions every couple of weeks. 10 pounds a month = 120 pounds a year. If I want to supply my family with a year's worth of onions, I'll need to plant enough to yield 120 pounds.

Think about canning and preserving. Sure, you can feed the family from the garden through the growing season, but what about in the winter? Tomatoes, for example, can be made into sauce, salsa, dehydrated -- or all three! Remember that low-acid foods will need acid added or to be pressure-canned, and always use a current, accurate canning recipe. Some easy vegetables and fruits for beginning canners: apples, berries, cucumbers (pickled), tomatoes, and green beans (as dilly beans). Also, preserving includes freezing foods. Freezing is easy and safe. You can freeze berries, tomatoes, and basically any vegetable (blanching or boiling first, usually).

Extend the season. Canning and preserving is hard work, so minimize how much of it you have to do by growing fresh food longer. Cold frames, greenhouses, and row covers are all great ways to extend the growing season. If you have the space, consider growing herbs and greens in your house in the winter.

Calculate yield and plan rows. This chart from About's Guide to Gardening Marie Iannotti, shows how much to plant per person in the vegetable garden for a variety of popular vegetables. The Virginia Cooperative Extension publishes a similar chart that also shows yields. Remember that these amounts per person don't consider canning and preserving for winter, so you might want to plant additional amounts looking at yield, based on what you plan to preserve and what you expect to eat through the winter.

Keep good gardening records. Tweaking just how much to plant for your particular family is going to take some time. This is such an individual process, based on how much each family eats, whether you are canning and preserving for winter, and your growing season and space. Keeping a farm and garden journal can help you adjust your plantings for the next season. You'll remember that you planted way too much lettuce, and plant less next time. Or, maybe you'll realize that the mesclun greens did so well, you decide to plant enough this year to bring to the farmer's market.

Be flexible. Remember that although having a garden planned out is essential, you can do some adjusting of your plan on the fly. Succession plantings can keep a popular vegetable going through the entire growing season. You can tear up the pea patch when the hot weather hits, and plant radishes for salad.

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