Thursday, May 13, 2010

Gardening for self-reliance

Most people who garden get just a taste of sustainabilty

I find it interesting to observe people's gardening activities. I see a many gardeners planting a small patch (10 feet x 10 ft) in the back yard or maybe planting a few containers. In most cases, 20 to 50 percent of what they plant is flowers. Now, I enjoy looking at a flower and marveling at its intricacy and symmetry as much as the next person, but you can't eat most flowers.

A few tomato and lettuce plants will not feed a family through out the year. No, feeding oneself from a garden requires a lot more land and a lot more planning and effort.

A good method is to determine how many meals of each vegetable and fruit you will need per week and how many weeks each year you will need those foods and work backwards to how much to plant. Then plant at least 50 to 100 percent more than you think you will need. (Seeds sometimes fail to germinate, the weather may not favor what you have planted, pests can take part of your harvest.) You can always compost any excess you produce.

Now, we need to prioritize.

Start by determining what your staple foods are. For me vegetables include greens such as lettuce or kale, tomatoes, beans, corn, wheat, potatoes, squash or pumpkins, onions. Fruits I like are strawberries, blueberries, apples, peaches, cherries and pears. The order is not important here. You might also peek at a food pyramid to see if you've got our basics covered.

Next, ask yourself what you can buy at a good price locally. In my case, that would be potatoes and wheat. There are large potato farms within 100 miles in the Skagit Valley. Washington state is a major producer of grain (mostly wheat) and there are several good grain farmers in Eastern Washington who market directly to the consumer. I feel I can trust their products to be healthy.

Second, ask which vegetables and fruits that you could grow really offer a major taste or nutritious advantage over store-bought food, even if it is local and organic. For me, that would include tomatoes, corn and strawberries. That consideration really raises the emphasis on producing these yourself.

Also, ask which foods are really easy to grow and which require more experience or specialized growing conditions. This might shift your priorities. For example, many fruits require several years of care before they prduce. It would nt be wise to plant a dozen apple trees and expect to get your apple needs met in the first 2-3 years. But this should not rule them out in your longer term planning.

Now my list of vegetables I will grow for myself for the next year is narrowed to greens, tomatoes, green beans, corn, squash or pumpkins. The fruits are strawberries. Everything else I will either plan for the future years or purchase locally.


Lettuce matures in about a month in the summer and can also be grown year round in a small greenhouse and certainly in a protected cold frame for 9 months of the year. Since it matures fairly radidly, I will make several small successive plantings. The Grow Box is the ideal environment for lettuce production. I will make a new planting each month and discard a box of lettuce when it has passed its prime.

Kale is very easy to grow and can survive outdoors in our climate year round. In the winter months, production is slowed so if you want kale in the winter, give it some protection. I will make several successive plantings of kale -- spring, summer and fall.


What could taste better than a vine ripened, juicy tomato. In the summer they are so delightful. I have also learned to can tomato products (juice, paste, and whole or quartered tomatoes). Since tomato is high in acid, it cans easily and safely. Each year I like to have plenty of fresh tomatoes to eat from late July through September and enough to can two dozen quarts of tomato jiuce and at least another 24 quarts of sauce or whole tomatoes. You may also wish to dry tomatoes. This means that I will need at least 50 tomato plants. For juice I prefer the heavy-bearing "cherry" tomatoes. For caning whole tomatoes, i prefer a medium-size red tomato such as Early Girl or similar. Eating fresh can be anything. I also like to plant a few yellow tomatoes each year. They are lower in acid and great tasting, expecially the little "pear" yellow tomatoes.

Green Beans

I love green beans. They used to call me "Green Bean Dean." I can grow beans that are much more tender and tastier than any bean you can buy. My beans are only shipped from the garden to the kitchen and they don't have to be tough enough to withstand 1-2 weeks of storage and shipment before they reach the customer. I like to have at least three meals of green beans each week for 9 months of the year. At 1/4 lb/meal/person, that figures out to 76 pounds needed for freezing and we'll eat or give away another 24 pounds when they are fresh. So figure on needing 100 lbs of green beans. I figure I'll plant 3 100 foot rows of bush style green beans, 20 ft of yellow beans for pickling and 2-3 'teepees' of pole beans that will ripen after the bush beans have passed their peak.


Another of my favorite winter-time foods is corn that was frozen fresh from the garden last summer. I'll need about the same amount as the beans -- 100 lbs. To ensure that I get enough and have some to share, I'll plant 6 100 ft rows of corn.

Squash and Pumpkins

Last year we harvested 30 very large pumpkins. We froze 1 1/2 of those pumpkins for pies, custards and cobblers. They were all gone by January. This year, I'd like to freeze the equivalent of 3 of those pumpkins. We'll plant 9 hills of pumpkins covering an area that is about 20x30 ft. That'll give plenty to preserve and give away.


Last year we froze 30 pints of strawberries and we expect to run about a month before berries are ripe this summer. Perfect! We discovered that we really like frozen strawberries, so this year I'd like to freeze 50 pints. That'll require a patch at least 5 ft x 30 ft. I prefer a summer-bearing plant instead of the ever-bearing kind. I feel I get a larger yield and the work is all done at once instead of being extended over the whole summer. Strawberries bear well for three years and you should not get any production the year they are planted. (Pick off any blooms the first year to force the plants to build strong root systems the first year.) Strawberries should be planted in succession plantings each year and the two-year-old beds should be retired each year. This will require an area of 15 x 30 ft at least. I'd double that if you want to have some to share and prepare for unfit weather.

Apples, Blueberries, Cherries, Pears and Peaches

Washington claims to be the apple producing capital of the world. Great! We will buy apples locally. (However, we have also planted a few specialty apples for our eating enjoyment in future years.) There are numerous local Blueberry farms where we can U-pick at a reasonable cost. Same for raspberries which my wife enjoys. None-the-less, we have planted some bushes and canes of each for our fresh eating enjoyment. Cherries can also be bought cheaply from Eastern Washington, but we have planted 2 cherry trees for future eating. Peaches don't do well west of the Cascades but they do very well east of the Cascades, so we'll buy peaches. We'll plan a trip to Eastern Washington during peach season and bring home some to freeze.

To support all of this food storage we depend on several modern conveniences: a 20-cu-ft freezer, a 7-quart pressure caner, a food dryer, a squeezo food strainer and about 4 dozen glass canning jars. I'll discuss those in another post.

1 comment:

  1. Dean, I sure appreciate your post about sustainability. I grew up in a home where the food the garden produced was critical to our sustenance. We grew everything and what we didn't grow, our relatives did and we swapped produce, helped each other harvest and preserve. I would love to be that independent for my family. We do have a pretty elaborate garden system at our home, here at Starbird, and soon we will be attempting to grow more edibles at our forest property on Whidbey Island. Unfortunately, Starbird hasn't proven that productive for us without much more labor than we can provide. I do look forward to getting more in this spring so it all is not lost. I look forward to hearing more about your new place and what your plans are for farming it.