Producing your own food creates a sense of independence and gives you firm control over the quality of the food you consume. From my experience, you can produce enough food to feed one person in a year from as little as a tenth of an acre.
Sustainable gardens might not produce as much food as intensively farmed lots but the food is delicious and very nutritious.
What is a Self Sustaining Garden?
Nowadays, commercial and even small-scale farmers ship in a lot of chemicals, fertilizers, seeds and even organic manure into their farms to keep them going. If this supply were to die, the farm would not survive.
A ideal self sustaining garden produces everything it needs to keep going. The garden uses on-site compost, relies on perennial crops, produces seeds for the next growing season and even has means to naturally take care of pests and diseases.
True self sustainability can be achieved through a structured farming approach called permaculture. You can still get your farm very close to self sustainability without adopting all the 12 pillars of permaculture.
As a beginner, you will be better off starting with the more achievable partial sustainability before moving on to full scale permaculture.
Pro Tip: Hitting over 90% sustainability on small patches of land year after year is almost impossible. This guide will be easier to implement if you have at least an acre of land. It can work on something smaller but it won’t remain sustainable for long
You’ll Need Crops and Livestock
Most people think of crops (vegetables to be specific) when they hear the word gardening. I was none wiser when I started researching and implementing my gardening skills.
Plants might be the easiest to produce but you will need the livestock to help you regenerate soil, tackle some pests and supplement your diet. Even if you are vegan, a couple of chickens will feed on food remains, eat grass in fallowed sections of the garden and give you a good share of droppings that make awesome compost.
It All Starts With Choosing the Crops and Animals
The first step to planning your new farm involves choosing the basic food your family will consume year in year out. These staple crops will form the backbone of your garden. They will dictate how much you space you need and the gardening techniques you will use to keep the farm sustainable.
Here is an example of the selection I made when setting up my farm.
Leafy greens are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are easy to grow and will even take root in pots and containers. They will form a basis for any healthy meal. Most need close supervision and can be harvested once while others like Tree Collards are perennial if you protect them from the frost.
- Swiss Chard
You can try out these alternative vegetables that are easy to grow and will add more diversity to your salads and meals
Continuous Harvest Plants
These will keep producing after maturity until they die. Most will stay around for a year or slightly more. Careful harvesting leaves the plant alive and well, meaning you can pick more ripe produce in days from the same plant.
- Indeterminate Tomatoes
- Pole Beans
Easy to Store Crops
Since only a few gardens in tropical climates or those encased in a greenhouse (or an earth ship) will stay viable year round, you have to look for some crops that are easy to process and store for use during the ‘hard times.’ The most common crops in this category include:
- Winter Radishes
- Winter Squash
- Sweet Potatoes
Growing some extra crop to harvest during fall gives you more food stock when going into winter. The choice here will vary depending on the weather conditions during winter but you can go for things like:
- Fast Growing Vegetables
If you have a sizeable piece of land, going for a patch of field crops is a good way to get your farm to 100 percent sustainability. Field crops tend to be high calorie easy storing foods that intercrop well with other crops. They also produce a lot of foliage that you can use to feed your animals or composting pit. You can plant easy to grow crops like:
- Different types of Legumes
Happy Foods, Flavors and Spices
Once you have taken care of the basics, you can go for crops that spice up your meals. These don’t take much space and some like pepper can be intercropped. Go for things like:
- Passion Fruits
Livestock will be a good optional addition to any farm seeking to achieve self sufficiency. The choice and number varies depending on how much space you’ve got. For starters, it would be wise to begin with domesticated birds as they eat less than animals like goats and pigs. Here are some good examples to start with:
If you want to take on more, you can check out this list I did on the best beginner-friendly farm animals.
Fruit trees might take a while to mature but they will still be a crucial addition to your farm. Look for ones that can survive your area’s weather though. You don’t have to clump the trees into an orchard. You can plant the around the farm perimeter to form a windbreak or in strategic spots within your garden to create shade where necessary. Popular go-to fruit trees include:
- Pear Tree
- Apple Tree
- Cherry Tree
- Peach Tree
Designing and Planning the Garden
Once you have the main crops and animals you want to rear in mind, you can go on to the next step of designing the garden layout and preparing the soil. This is a very crucial step if you don’t have a lot of space at your disposal.
You can draw up a plan on paper or use a gardening planning software for this step. However, you first have to understand:
- How different parts of your garden will interact with each other
- How much space each crop needs
- The type of nutrition your crops will need to remain productive
- Set aside some space for supporting services and crop rotation
ProTip: If it is your first time growing anything, start with two or three garden beds and grow basic staples to hone your skills. Try some vegetables and root tubers like potatoes for a start.
Create a Garden Layout that is Interdependent
Before you start zoning and designing the garden, think of ways you can intercrop and have different plants or livestock in your inventory share the same space. This is a good way to ensure that you put all your land into good use without depleting the soil.
For instance, intercropping nitrogen consuming crops like corn with legumes that add nitrogen to the soil will minimize the need for nitrous rich fertilizers to boost your corn yields.
Pole beans can support themselves on the corn too hence saving you the cost of investing on support poles.
Grow Root and Leafy Vegetables on Raised Beds
Building growing beds gives you a good opportunity to turn over the soil, get rid of weeds, stones and roots. A bed gives you a small and manageable growing unit that is easier to take care of compared to a large open field.
The space between beds creates perfect walking isles and places to run irrigation pipes. Adding manure to the bed and tilling it a fresh before planting again will also be faster and easier.
Plant Shade Trees or Shrubs if its Hot
Very few vegetables and food crops do well under direct summer sun. It evaporates them fast forcing them to wilt. Growing some shrubs like blueberries could give your plants some cheap protection from the sun.
If you live in an area that experiences hot summers and severe winters, you will have to install a greenhouse for year-long growing hence planting shade trees and shrubs might not be a priority.
Design Your Garden With Crop Rotation In Mind
Crop rotation is a good way to protect your crops from plant-specific pests and diseases. It also gives your soil a chance to regenerate since it is not being forced to give up the same nutrients by supporting the same plant year in year out.
Choose the plants that go into any given section depending on what was growing there last. Your goal is to help the soil recover as much as possible without giving pests and disease a chance to build up to unmanageable levels.
Create Exclusion or Seclusion Zones for Your Livestock
Livestock might be fun and productive but they rarely know how to differentiate between fodder and human food crops. Everything edible is food to them.
You can keep them away from vulnerable crops by either rearing the livestock in confinement or growing the crops in isolated units.
A lot of Land? Isolate the Crops
If you have big lots of land, letting the livestock roam is cheaper than confining them. They can forage for food out in the open hence putting less strain on your production system. In this case, install fences to keep them off the crops.
- An electric fence or barbed wire fence will work well on small gardens where poultry presence is not a problem
- Go for a chain link fence or a greenhouse if you want to keep poultry out
Half an acre and above is enough to let poultry and small animals like rabbits run free. You will need more if you want to rear goats, sheep, pigs or cattle on free range.
If you have limited space, the best approach would be sticking to poultry. Confining them to a specific location or to their coop will also be more efficient. After all, chances are they can’t get substantial nutrition from foraging around your small lot.
Preparing Your Garden Soil
A rich soil gives you the perfect basis for your self sufficient garden. Getting the soil to the ideal fertility levels and keeping it there should be a priority. It doesn’t matter if you are breaking ground on previously unused land or not. You still have to take on this step before you start growing.
Tilling the Land and Making it Arable
The first step should be digging up the soil to get rid of stones, roots and debris. According to the University of Illinois extension department, you should till up to a depth of around 10 inches when thinking of growing vegetables and going to a depth of up to 18 inches when planning to grow root tubers like potatoes (the alternative would be growing the root tubers in raised beds).
If you are working on virgin land that has never been worked before, you could opt to do double digging.
- Divide the garden into sections of around 1 foot wide
- Dig up soil on the first row to a depth of 12 inches and scoop it out with a shovel placing it along the side of the last row on your lot
- Till the remaining soil in the first row to a depth of 12 inches
- Move to the second row and drop the first 12 inches of soil from the second row into the first row hence filling the void
- Till the second row to a depth of 12 inches
- Repeat the process until you are done with all the rows
Once you are done, you should have rows of soil that have been dug and loosened to an amazing depth of 24 inches.
Adding Compost to Your Garden
ProTip: Compost plays an integral role in guaranteeing the long term productivity of any self sustaining garden. Learning how to produce and use it is a must. I will briefly touch on it here but you can check this comprehensive guide to learn more about making and using your own compost
Don’t rush into sowing seed immediately after tilling. While some soils might be ready to support a wide variety of crops, it would be wiser to spread some compost over the tilled land. The Cooperative Extension department from the University of California recommends spreading 2 inches of compost on clay, sandy or other poor soils to improve drainage and aeration.
If you can get more well matured compost the better. It will introduce nutrients to your soil hence guaranteeing you a bumper harvest.
Since this is your first time setting up a garden, chances are you will be buying all the manure and compost that goes into your garden. You can be a bit choosy and only prepare small lots of land instead of spreading your resources thin over your entire garden.
Ensure that you use well-rotten compost especially if you want to plant immediately. Still composting soil can and will damage some plants.
Improve the Soil in Other Sections Using Green Manure
If you didn’t have access to enough manure for your entire garden, you can still get things going by growing cover crops for green manure.
Green manure is any leafy crop grown on a garden after or before food crops only that it is tilled back into the soil while still green.
- You can grow cover crops on any section of your future garden that you are not ready to use right away
- Cover crops prevent soil erosion and put back some nutrients into the soil
- They are a good way to regenerate open farmland just before or over winter.
- Go for plants like winter rye, non-dormant wheat or even corn
Think About Irrigation and Shelter
The last two pieces of the puzzle, though optional, are crucial to ensuring you keep your garden going for as long as possible.
Giving Your Crops Shelter
Selective sheltering could either involve erecting a greenhouse or planting shelter crops. Greenhouses or other sheltered grow houses are a good idea if you want to protect your plants from long hot summers or severe winter.
- Get a greenhouse if you live in arid or semi-arid places
- You need a greenhouse, a growing shed or even a earthship like structure if you want to grow through winter
If you are in a temperate region or in the tropics, some shelter crops or shade trees will make your garden bearable during very hot parts of the year. You can skip the greenhouses and opt to grow as much as you can before winter sets in.
Figuring Out the Water Situation
Very few places will let you grow enough food in a year using rain. You have to stretch your growing periods by irrigating when the rain doesn’t fall but the temperatures are still ideal for growing. Ensuring that you get your water in the most sustainable way possible will get your farm off the grid even better.
You could opt to collect rainwater for irrigation or just use water from a nearby stream, lake or pond. Supplementing your rainwater with a well will ensure that you don’t lack water when you need it most.
Remember that your irrigation water doesn’t have to go through rigorous purification process like the water you use for laundry, cooking, washing or drinking. You don’t even have to collect all the rainwater from the roof. You can set up surface runoff collection ponds and use the water for irrigation and fish farming just fine.
Getting the Actual Garden Going
By now, you should have figured out the crops you want to grow, what animals you want to keep, how much land you will be tilling, and how to prepare it for your first seeds.
The next step in your gardening escapade will be prioritizing your crops and doing some actual growing.
Start With Easy Storing Easy High Calorie Staples
High calorie staples will provide you with a solid foundation for your energy and nutritional needs. A good starting crop for beginners would be potatoes. They are hardy and easy to grow. You should tailor your staple growing based on your past experience farming.
Since I started out with 0.6 of an acre and a background in growing corn, I mixed my potatoes with corn to form the backbone of my food supply.
Between the potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn, I have enough calories to keep two adults and one kid well fed for a full year.
Put All you’ve Got Into Your Staple Foods – Your Life Depends on it!
Additional must haves include:
The corn can store for up to a year if you dry it well. Butternut and pumpkins will keep for between half a year and a full year when pushed while potatoes go bad easily hence are best consumed within a month after harvesting.
Throw in Some Vegetables
With your basic calories intake covered, you can move on to other crops that balance out your diet and make life more bearable. I am talking vegetables. The good thing about leafy vegetables is they can even grow in containers and planters.
Leafy vegetables might not give you tons of calories but they have a decent supply of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Aim for vegetables that you can harvest for a while before they age instead of one time harvest versions like cabbage and lettuce.
Go for things like:
- Alternative salad greens
- Kales and spinach
- Swiss chard
- Edible herbs
Establish Some Continuous Harvest Crops
The next step would be setting up an ample supply of continuous harvest crops. Grow staggered patches of carrots, beets, turnips and radishes. Staggering is all about waiting for a week or two before planting the next patch.
With good planning and careful harvesting, you can have a constant supply of easy to use foodstuffs all year round if you have a heated greenhouse or grow house. If you don’t expect them to keep you going around six weeks after frost to the first day of the next frost.
Of course you have to irrigate, mulch and protect them from livestock to keep them going.
Make Use of Every Space But Don’t Block Access Paths
Tight corners, planters and otherwise unusable space would be a great place to grow extras like bulb onions, spring onions, capsicum, chilies and other seasoning herbs.
If you are working with a tiny garden, you can even decide to set up planters or hanging gardens on your balcony or just behind the kitchen to create a dedicated ‘kitchen garden.’
You can still set aside space for these on an open garden or dedicated greenhouse if space isn’t an issue to you.
Work on the Field Crops
Working field crops adds a sense of purpose to people with larger pieces of land. Even though these crops don’t require close attention like the vegetables in your garden so far, they still take time to plant and harvest.
Since your purpose is sustainability and not commercial growing, don’t choose too big of a field for cultivation.
Start small, say with a 0.1 of an acre under corn. After harvesting, you will see how far the produce takes you before adjusting your next season’s efforts accordingly.
I have set up corn as one of my staples and would readily grow it on 0.3 of an acre. You can check out some green corn and dry corn recipes here to see some of the amazing meals you can build from this carb rich crop.
Disease and Pest Control
A self sustaining garden needs a proactive approach to pest control since you shouldn’t use pesticides in ideal conditions. Start by preventing infection in the first place rather than waiting for them to set in first.
Some invaluable beginner tips include:
- Go for plants whose natural habitat is similar to your area’s weather unless you want to grow them in a greenhouse. They will be best suited to your climate and easier to manage
- Don’t overcrowd the crops hopping for higher yields
- Watch the moisture levels. Don’t keep things too dry or too damp
- Do crop rotation
- Inspect your plants and get rid of suspected infection before it spreads
- Stay clean. Disinfecting tools and cloths frequently makes it harder to transmit diseases from one lot to another. Use 1 part bleach in nine parts of water for the disinfection
- Encourage diversity by growing in patches. For instance, instead of growing all your potatoes in one patch, grow them on several beds separated by other crops. It will be harder for plant specific disease or pests to infect your entire crop this way
- Throw in plants like marigolds and nasturtiums that repel insects naturally. Mint, fennel and dill attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests
- Clean the garden annually. Many pests live on old plant debris over winter. Moving this to a compost pit will kill them while giving you most value from your waste. Don’t burn it
Taking care of pests and diseases is an ongoing process. The healthier and more biodiverse your garden gets the better it is at naturally repelling these. I have done a comprehensive guide to natural disease and pest control. Be sure to go through it to learn the basics.
Get the Livestock Going
While it is possible to get all the nourishment you need from growing plants, livestock adds a decent twist to your meal plan while giving you access to easy to store produce that will supplement your diet throughout the year. The main reasons why you need livestock in your off grid farm are:
- You can process them for meat protein
- You can consume their eggs of milk if you don’t fancy killing them
- Some like poultry feed on pests that could harm your crops
- Bees are great pollinators ensuring that you get viable seeds from your crops
- Their droppings will help you make compost manure even faster
The catch with keeping livestock is you have to figure out where they will sleep, their feed and the necessary accompanying structures.
Be sure to go through my animal husbandry section because there is so much to learn about animal keeping.
However, I would advise beginners to start off with rearing chickens as they are the easiest to setup, feed and collect returns from. Gathering eggs and their droppings for manure should be a breeze. I have a complete guide to sizing & building a coop, choosing chicken breeds, choosing the ideal food and taking good care of your flock.
Crucial things to remember
- Ease into it. Don’t take on more that you can handle. You’ll end up frustrated
- Start With Simple Crops
- Don’t fear to experiment
- Stay Organic
- Use Space Wisely
- Set Up a Growing Calendar that helps you choose what to grow, when to grow it and expected harvest dates
Running a self sufficient garden is fun if you want to minimize your ecological foot print as much as possible. However, it takes some time to go fully sufficient and stop visiting stores for supplies. Yes, you might stop going to the grocer’s sooner but it will take more time, dedication and learning before you can get all the food produced in-house.
Always keep some money as a backup or liaise with neighbors to set up a batter trade scheme that will help you make it through tough times.
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