Before you begin to design your new self-sufficient lifestyle, you should fully consider and define your goals. Some gardeners fly by the seat of their pants, but as with all things in life, it is much easier to get where you want to be if you know where you are going. This is especially true for anyone who isn’t gardening simply for the pleasure of it but for self-sufficiency, or even survival.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but studies show that when faced with too many possibilities, humans tend to experience more indecision and less happiness. In a few moments, you will stand face to face with what might seem like a tremendous amount of choices, but rest assured that while you may still experience some indecision, your happiness will be guarded by a simple ground rule: work with what you have. Nothing brings a gardener as much misery and disappointment as working against this, whether that means growing as if in another climate, or pining away for plants you can’t cultivate in the space available to you.
Working with What You Have
Let’s begin by defining exactly what it is you have to work with. This will immediately tell you what choices you have and what you don’t have. As you go through this chapter, you may benefit from keeping a notepad at your side for taking down details about your situation.
We will start with the most obvious question: How much land do you have? Your ambitions to feed yourself will always have to be checked against how much land you have access to. Estimates range from a quarter acre to two acres to fully feed one person, and if you want to grow wood for heating, you will need another acre per house. If you want dairy in your diet, you may need to add several acres, lest you want to harvest food for your livestock. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make a huge difference with much less land, or even without land in the traditional sense.
If you have very little or no land to work with and want more, you might not have to grow everything that you need; instead, create a network of people who share what they grow. You could also acquire more land by renting, joining a landshare community, negotiating the use of public or shared land or doing a little guerrilla gardening.
If you have no garden space at all and still want to feed yourself, consider balconies, window sills, window boxes, hanging baskets, rooftops and indoor growing with artificial light. Take your time to think long and hard about what space is really available to you. Did you know you can even grow food under your kitchen sink?
Assuming that you have some land: What are you allowed to do with it? Finding your limitations is not just about what you can and cannot do; it’s also about what you may and may not do. If you live in a national park or under the rule of a homeowner association or strict city council, you may have restrictions on front yard usage, trees and livestock. Make sure to know your rights and obligations.
What’s your budget? Self-sufficient gardening does not have to be expensive and might one day even supplement your income, but the money you have available today and in the near future is going to affect what you can and do and when. Less money means going about things at a slower pace, doing more for yourself and maybe skipping that dreamy heated greenhouse all together. And budgeting isn’t just about finances but time: Your schedule will affect the type of growing techniques you use and how much you can hope to achieve per year.
What is your soil like? Are you basically living on bedrock, in which case you’ll need to add soil, or is your backyard gorgeously deep and fertile? Is it so compact and full of stones that might ruin a rototiller and preclude ever growing a straight carrot? How does it differ across your land? This will impact your plant choices later on, but for now make yourself aware of these things so that you know where you can and cannot grow as things stand today.
What is your climate like? Find out when your earliest and latest frost dates are. How cold does it get during an average winter? How long is your frost-free period, and how high does the temperature get in the summer? You may be able to extend the warm season and protect fragile plants with glass or plastic, but unless you are growing your food indoors under grow lights, you will be limited by your climate. Don’t despair: Unless your climate is quite extreme, there is still much that you can grow.
What other limitations do you have? Are you alone in your gardening, or will you have help? Do you suffer from a chronic pain, causing a stiff back or inability to bend your knees? Don’t be tempted to ignore your limitations; they will come back to haunt you.
- Philosophies of the Kitchen Garden
Now that you have considered what you have, it is time to consider your preferences and how they will affect your planning process.
Do you aim to survive or to live well? Some people come into self-sufficient gardening because they want to eat more nutritious, tastier and more sustainable food. Others come into it because they like to be prepared and want the tools to survive hardship. Are you one or the other—or somewhere in between? If you only aim to survive, you can get away with using less land that’s dedicated to growing calorie-dense crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes and parsnips. You will not get a lot of variation and in the long run may get deficiencies, but you will survive. Living well takes more land, more work and much more variety.
Do you want to save your food or savor it in the moment? Do you have the storage capabilities, the time and energy, and the inclination to cure, to freeze, to can, to pickle, to ferment and to dry? Do you want to create your own prepping supplies? Or would you rather grow a continuous supply of seasonal food year-round, always eating what is fresh? Then again, maybe your goals fall somewhere in the middle.
Do you prefer to be land or work efficient? Few gardening methods are both, but many can be combined in different parts of your new survival garden. Whether you have quite little land or a lot, a land-efficient method enables you to grow much more food than is conventionally done in a limited space, but you will often have to put in more work. A work-efficient method, however, is a gardening philosophy that aims to make your garden as self-sustaining as possible. Be honest with yourself. Be ambitious, but know you’ll only disappoint yourself if you plan to put in more work than you are really willing to do.
Land-efficient methods include square-foot gardening, double digging, intercropping, succession planting and vertical stacking.
Square-foot gardening is a method popularized by Mel Bartholomew, who felt that conventional farming methods wasted far too much space in the home garden. Instead of long rows of produce, square-foot gardening uses a grid system, often made out of wood. Each square is very densely planted and can be continuously harvested and resown. It’s a popular method for small-scale gardens and beginner gardeners, and one of its finer aspects is that it promotes variety and claims to save up towards 80% more space than conventional growing. However, it is poorly adapted to creating large surpluses of nutrient-dense food for storage.
Double digging is sometimes known as the French market garden technique. It requires deep soil and a lot of manpower in the beginning, but it creates a great growing environment that allows for dense planting. When converting a lawn, the top layer (one spade blade deep) is removed and put aside. Then another layer of the same depth is removed, and the top layer is placed on the bottom, grass facing down, with the bottom layer on top. As long as you avoid walking on this soil, it will be beautifully adapted for growing deep, straight roots, meaning plants can be kept closer together.
Intercropping is the process of planting fast-growing crops with slow-growing crops. When you harvest the early plants, that gives the newly sprouting late plants the sunlight necessary to finish growing.
Succession planting is a technique that is easily combined with other methods of growing. Simply sow, or plant out, new plants when you harvest. The moment a square inch opens up, it is filled.
Work-efficient methods include permaculture, growing local varieties, mulching and no tilling.
Permaculture is a gardening philosophy aimed at creating largely self-sustaining systems that mimic the natural world. In addition to a kitchen garden, a permaculturist may have a food forest where fruit trees, shrubs, perennial plants and self-sowing annuals mix in guilds designed so that the neighboring plants give each other the nutrients they most desire. In this method, landscaping work ensures a continuous supply of water. It’s difficult to design, but eventually a permaculture garden cares largely for itself.
Growing local varieties is not a method in itself, just a small trick to save you some work! Plants that are adapted to your climate and soil will flourish without your constant attention.
Mulching is the process of adding a layer on top of the soil to protect the plants. It could be wood chips, paper, grass clippings or just about anything that insulates. The mulch helps by making it harder for weeds to get light, but it also keeps the sun from killing the top layers of beneficial organisms in the soil, acts as a temperature regulator, and maintains moisture. A great mulch also breaks down over time, adding nutrients to condition the soil.
No till is a technique in which the soil is not dug once the patch or field has been established. It increases the beneficial organic matter in the soil and promotes water retention, meaning that you do not have to water your plants as often. And, of course, you never have to break your back digging!
Are you doing this for you or for the planet? Your politics are no one’s business but yours, but you need to consider them. How do you feel about conventional pesticides and herbicides? What about fertilizers: conventional or organic? Are you willing to use chemicals, as long as they aren’t applied directly to the edible parts of plants? If you are going to keep livestock, how far are you willing to go for the welfare of your animals? Your perspective will always inform your choices, and if you are actively aware of your standpoint, you will be better prepared to set goals that you will be inclined to live up to.
Gnothi seauton, the oracle at Delphi advised: know thyself. If you feel that you do, you are ready to move on to planning your new self-sufficient garden.