Gardening for Food

Food Production

Self-sufficiency and food production seem to go hand in hand. It can be a daunting task and potential recipe for failure for a beginning or even a seasoned gardener. There is a current boom in gardening in the United States. This is good, however, the glossy pictures in seed catalogs and gardening magazines often have little to do with food production. The first thing to realize is there are two types of food to grow in your garden, the kind you eat now and the kind you store for use after the gardening season is over. The average growing season in the U.S. is six months. Roughly speaking this means you need to grow half to eat now and half to save for later. Often what happens is that people end up with a bumper crop of produce in mid-summer that they end up giving away because it’s not the storing kind or they don’t know how to store it. Then come winter they are back in the grocery store.

Steps to successful food production:

VegetableEx: green beans
Times Eaten Per Week – Fall/Winter
(x 26)
2 (52)
Times Eaten Per Week – Spring/Summer
(x 26)
1 (26)
Total Times Eaten Per Year78
Number of Plants Needed36-78

1.       What do you eat?

This seems like a simplistic question until you recall all those people who plant radishes who wouldn’t dream of eating one. Fill out the following chart for yourself. Ideally this should be done by keeping a list in the kitchen and putting hatch marks next to the item every time you eat it. But let’s be realistic, you want to garden now. Just be aware this list will be fine-tuned over a number of years.

You will of course noticed that the conversion from how often you eat the vegetable and how many you should plant isn’t obvious. It depends on a number of things: how big your family is, how fertile your soil is, how good a gardener you are, and the productivity of the plant. But this simple example still shows that those glossy magazine pics mentioned above showing six green bean plants in a pretty little garden will, at most, give you 12 meals. So do the math.

2.       What should you plant?

After making a list of what you actually eat, decide which of these are the “eat now” kind and which the “store for later kind.”

Eat now Kind (Example: Lettuce, zucchini) The strategy for growing these kinds of vegetables is staggered planting. Unless you plan on eating 25 heads of lettuce in one week, don’t plant that many. Figure a head of lettuce per day and pad for losses due to poor germination, pests, and weather…..plant 10 lettuce seeds per week.

Store for later Kind (Example: Potatoes, onions) Ideally these type of vegetables are planted and later harvested all at the same time. Then they are stored or processed. It means the work to grow these is concentrated at the beginning and the end of their season. Staggering their harvest times can save you work and stress!

3.       Timing-Days to Maturity

Beginning gardeners are often under the impression that one goes out into the garden on Memorial Day with one’s basket of seeds, rakes a plot, and “puts the garden in.” Then merely keeps it watered and weeded until harvest. This is only one way and not the most productive way. First, often beginning gardeners think it’s too late; they’ve missed their window of opportunity if everything isn’t in by May 30th. As mentioned above many plants should have a staggered planting schedule. If you miss the first week or two there is still plenty of time. Many plants such as carrots and spinach can be planted in late summer for a fall harvest. I often plant cucumbers in the same plot after I have planted peas and put in a second batch of beans after I harvest the garlic. Still others can be planted in the fall and overwintered for early spring harvest. We are still pulling leeks planted last year. Read your seed catalogs and packets for information on “days to maturity” as well as best germination conditions. Experiment and take notes. You will quickly develop a list of YOUR favorites and the best times to plant them based on your success.

4.        Storage-Do you have the room?

Produce can be stored for the winter in freezer or root cellar with little or no processing. Planning ahead in the first case can mean the purchase of a separate freezer. Vegetables do need to be blanched (boiled for a short period of time) then rapidly cooled, drained and bagged. After this the only challenge is keeping track of what you have on hand and what you use. A list attached to the freezer will help you use what you have and also be a valuable tool for planning quantities for next year’s garden.

Root cellaring is the oldest method of food storage. This method consists of finding or creating a location with ideal conditions for long team storage. There are two areas with different conditions necessary for storing the widest range of produce. One cool and dry for squash and onions, the other cold and moist for carrots and cabbages. Processing by drying or canning needs only a cold dark cupboard for storage while these methods take more time, effort, and equipment up front, produce stored this way can keep for months or even years with no extra energy or attention. Lots more to come on food storage in future blog posts!

~ Kat

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