How Much to Grow for Self-Sufficiency
How much do I need to grow to be self-sufficient? One of the things that I’m asked most often is how much food someone needs to grow to feed their family for a whole year. I thought today I’d have a go at answering that question. In this article explain how I decide how much to grow for to be self-sufficient in various different vegetables.
The first step to work out how much to grow to be self-sufficient is to look at what you eat now.
One of the key things is for you to be honest with yourself about how much fruit and veg you actually eat. There’s no point in growing loads of food if you don’t eat very much of that particular food. That is, unless you know beforehand that you’re going to be able to swap it with somebody who’s growing something else and you can do an exchange for something that you do like. For example, a couple of years ago my next-door neighbor and I agreed at the beginning of the growing season that I would grow all the runner beans for both houses and he would grow all the zucchini (courgettes) for both houses. This meant I could use more of my growing space for other things that I know I like. So there is an exchange, not only of the actual goods, but also of growing space.
Calculate what you eat now
The simplest way to work out what you actually eat is to think about a typical week of food in the winter and the spring and the summer. For example, onions. In the winter we eat lots of soups and stews, so we probably use at least one onion a day in parts of spring and autumn and most days in winter – about six months of the year.
At one a day we need about 180 onions to see us through. And then we also use onions in the rest of the year as well, but probably only half that number. So I think I’m looking at 270 onions that I need to grow to see us through the year. And although we’ve got the luxury of plenty of space here that still takes up quite a lot of bed space in the garden.
Adapting your diet
With things like potatoes, we grow them but store very few of them as once they have run out we move onto the other root vegetables. Root veg that will store in the ground over winter like parsnips, celeriac, carrots, swede, and root parsley. We tried root parsley for the first time last year and really like it.
We’ve adapted what we think of as some of our staples to fit in with what can easily be stored in the ground. For us it means that we have to grow fewer of potatoes and have fewer storage issues. Once the potatoes are harvested, they need to be stored somewhere. The ability to store carbohydrate rich root vegetables in the ground is an absolute bonus for me.
How to store your harvests
Leading on from that you’ll also need to think about your storage options. How are you going to store all the produce that you’re growing?
Here in the UK there are lots of vegetables that will sit in the ground quite happily over winter, including lots of brassicas and root vegetables. There are some foods that I just wouldn’t attempt to store, soft leafy greens like lettuces. I like to pick those fresh. So if I want lettuce all year round I need to think about ways to grow that in small numbers but a constant flow of it throughout the year. That is possible by careful selection of different varieties. By late summer and early autumn I sow seeds for lettuces that will see me through the winter to early spring, particularly the hungry gap. Successional sowing allows me to keep going with those fresh leafy salad foods.
Although this article is about how much to grow to be self-sufficient, it is worth building up to this slowly. It is easier to become self-sufficient in one vegetable or group of veg at at time. Gradually increase your veg growing over time.
Choosing alternative vegetables
Once you’ve decided which vegetables you eat most often and how much you eat of them in a year, it’s worth having a look at the alternatives so you can build in a bit of security and resilience. If you are heavily reliant on that veg crop that fails, you could be stuck for food for the rest of the year. By growing a wider variety of veg and some alternatives, hopefully if one fails the other one will see you through.
Let’s go back to that example of onions. I was going to grow 270 onions, which takes up quite a lot of space. But I also know there are other ways to get that onion taste in my food without having just the bulb of the onion. As onions start to mature, their leaves will bend and the tops will flop over and at that point I will harvest that greenery. I’ll leave some stem for the onion, but I take most of the greenery away.
In the kitchen and I chop it up into very small pieces and then I freeze it. Because those onion greens are much like spring onions or scallions, you can use them in your cooking as a replacement. They are great in things like omelettes, flans and stir fries where a milder onion flavor is called for. What it actually does for me is almost doubles in volume the amount of onion flavor and I can get from each plant. The bulbs are stored by stringing or plaiting. Then I have all the green leaves that are chopped and put it in the freezer. They don’t even need to be defrosted. I just grab a handful of frozen chopped leaves and throw them in the cooking. They defrost very quickly and as they’re cooking.
The other thing I do is replace some of the onions with leeks. Leeks can be planted fairly closely together and are good at sitting in between other crops. As you harvest the other crops, the leeks stay in the ground for the winter. You can eat the white and green parts of the stem. But you could take the green leaves on the top of the leeks and chop and freeze them. You then have the mild onion, leek flavor to add to food later in the year. This means that you’re using more of the plant, so the growing space that you’re using becomes more efficient.
By thinking through each vegetable group in this way, you can calculate how much to grow to be self-sufficient in that particular veg.
Dual purpose plants
How much you need to grow to be self-sufficient is drastically reduced by using as many crops as possible in two ways. For example, I know we really like red cabbage. I shred them and freeze them as spiced red cabbage with apple and spices like ginger, cinnamon and clove. I freeze them in two person portions. That’s not necessarily the most efficient way to store them. But I know I need to prepare food in autumn for us to eat in the winter. Cabbages can also be stored in netting, in a cool place like a shed or a damp free garage.
To try and get the most from the growing space, dual purpose plants are a real bonus. For example, beetroot Chioggia, has young leaves can be picked and used in salads and in stir fries. Don’t strip the whole plant – leave some leaves to help the plant grow you can have these as a crop. Then you get the roots as a crop once that has grown too.
The same applies to peas. I grow mangetout, also known as snow peas or sugar snaps. These are grown under cover during the autumn and winter so that I can harvest the pea shoots. Pinching out the growing tips make the plants bushier and low growing. Once the weather has warmed up they grow d from multiple stems and produce lots of snow peas. So I’m getting two crops from the same space and that’s what I try and do as much as possible.
The same applies for vegetables like broad beans. You can eat the broad bean tips. Once they’ve grown and produced about four or five sets of flowers, you can pinch out the tips. This does two things; it discourages black fly from attacking them, but it also gives you another green leafy meal.
Making the most of the crops that you grow
So now you can work out the answer to ‘how much do I need to grow’? Once you have harvested your crops, this article shows some great ways to get even more from your veg.
Listen to this podcast episode, in which I talk to Kevin Espiritu of Epic Gardening about polycultures, successional sowing and interplanting.
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Thanks Liz. This is really thought provoking as I plan to get rid of the lawn in my garden and turning the whole area into veg plots next year. We have been eating the leaves from my sprout plants and curly kale for weeks now and rainbow chard has given us plenty of fresh leaves too. I’ve just ordered a load of vegetable seeds ready to start the growing season.
Really good article Liz – literally food for thought! This is our first serious attempt at growing most of what we need in veg so it’s baby steps really and a bit of an experiment. I went bonkers in sowing tomatoes but we do use a lot of them so it will be interesting as the season progresses to see whether or not we have enough or too many for our needs/ability to store/preserve. I would like to become self sufficient in greens this coming year. That would be a big achievement. Thanks for the tips in this article – very useful as we plan the next few months.
Do you ever factor in what you think the weather will be like in the following year ? as the summers seem to be getting wetter with less sunny days.
Really useful article, thank you, Roo 😊 x
If you’ve grown your own food this year, did you manage to grow enough of any one type of veg to feel self-sufficient in that veg? Are you planning to grow more, or less, of something next year? Please leave your answer as a new comment below.
I took on an allotment in December 2019, and was delighted to harvest twenty winter squashes this autumn. They are delicious and I like them a lot, but a squash a week for five months is a lot of squash.
On the other hand, we only had nine bulbs of garlic, which didn’t last us very long at all; this year I’ve put many more in, probably too many (but one of the beds is prone to flooding and I was worried I might lose the crop if we had a wet winter, which we have — so far the garlic hasn’t drowned, but I won’t be surprised if we end up with white rot in that bed).
I have never, ever successfully grown enough peas that any of them make it to the table. I love fresh peas so much, I always just eat them straight off the plant.
I’m not fond of most brassicas, so we don’t grow many. I did try growing some broccoli this year to see if I liked it better when it’s fresh, but it was even worse!
Six courgette plants may have been an error, given that none of us are wildly enthusiastic about courgettes.
Thankfully, when we do have surplus, it’s not a problem: my church runs a soup kitchen, which is always willing to take any excess produce and feed it to people who are hungry. We have a “soup garden” in the churchyard, too, and we’re looking at getting some of the soup kitchen guests (and some of the volunteers) involved in growing food alongside us. For the soup garden, self-sufficiency isn’t really an option (we’re serving ~160 meals/week, plus the food parcels), though we do grow at least some conventional veg. But our focus this year will be on foods that don’t get donated often but do make a real difference to cooking, like fresh herbs, and some of the more perishable leafy greens which pack a good nutritional punch but need to be picked fairly fresh.