Crunching numbers instead of carrots … or looking at some common assumptions about how much land you need to live on or how much seed you need to store

by M.D. Creekmore on March 22, 2013 · 49 comments

This guest post by Victoria S and entry in our non-fiction writing contest.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve seen the numbers out on the internet – “You only need a quarter of an acre to support a family of four” or “Five acres for a family of four” or “20 acres for a family of four” – but what is the basis for these figures?

I originally started this article to debunk the “seed safety in a can” products. I’m sure everyone’s seen them, and I’ve always had the idea they were a crock of … err, horse-by-product, but I’d never seen anyone actually sit down and crunch numbers on why they aren’t. So I began looking at numbers – figuring out food you could get for a given amount of seed. I knew that the numbers I’d seen in various gardening books for recommended numbers of plants to have were insane – mainly based off my own experience with gardening. Those numbers may be enough to supplement a family during the summer, but they aren’t enough to actually support a family for a whole year.

So, I started by looking for data on how much food a typical family consumes in a year. Weirdly, this was quite difficult to find. Oh, yeah, there’s plenty of

lists out there for how much to store for a family/person, but not much on how much fresh food a family will consume in a year. While I could have tracked my family’s consumption for year, this would have delayed this article a bit! Eventually, I tracked down some data from the USDA (hey, finally some use from my tax dollars!) where they gave stats for various ages of both genders. While the information on meat and such like wasn’t that useful to me, the vegetable and fruit guidelines were quite helpful. Under their “thrifty” plan (and allowing for loss/wastage, and taking the highest possible number for the various age/sex breakdowns), I came up with needing 100 pounds of potatoes, 125 pounds of dark green veggies (broccoli, chard, spinach, etc), 100 pounds of orange veggies (carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins), 120 pounds of legumes, 305 pounds of other veggies (this includes ALL others – tomatoes, radishes, onions, garlic, etc.), 425 pounds of fruit, and 240 pounds of grains. The fruit, I’m leaving out of this (except in as far as melons and watermelons figure in), mainly because you mostly get that from bushes and trees. Because in a SHTF situation (or even in a off-grid homesteading situation) we will likely eat a lot less fruits and more veggies than the current American diet, I did increase the veggies a bit to account for less fruits (especially those from tropical sources – such as bananas or citrus).

I then looked at the various veggies/beans/fruits/grains in the categories and looked for ease of seed saving and ease of growing. I wanted to avoid “finicky” vegetables such as cauliflower or ones that aren’t really that nutritious such as celery (which is also picky on growing). I also wanted to avoid too many biennial vegetables, but that was more difficult – lots of very nutritious veggies are biennials, which makes saving seed a bit more difficult. My assumption was that we were dealing with a family of four, who had never gardened before, and who would make LOTS of mistakes in the process of learning how to garden well. Also, I assumed they’d need to do other things than garden, so we went with plain row cropping for the garden, rather than more intensive (and thus more productive) methods of gardening. Thus, I took the lowest yield assumptions for the various veggies I chose, as well as assuming a lot of wastage in seeds. I then plugged a LOT of data into a spreadsheet.

So, with those assumptions in mind – I looked over the choices and made some picks. Any biennials I figured I needed twice as many seeds, so I could plant the second year as well. (I’m not going to show the row feet or the square feet calculations I made, but they are in the spreadsheet).

In the dark green veggies, it’s very hard to avoid biennials. It’s also very hard to avoid vegetables that could potentially cross with each other, which makes seed saving even more difficult, as you must bag/isolate/etc the various plants you’re saving for seed. I ended up settling on broccoli, collard greens, mustard greens, and spinach. Mustard and spinach are annuals, which makes them easier to deal with, and along with the collards, they can be canned for storage. Broccoli doesn’t can well, but it can be dehydrated and it is also cold hardy, so you can grow it in spring and fall as well as winter if you’re in a mild climate or have cold frames. Kale and chard, although falling in this category, are not only more unfamiliar with most Americans but also biennials. For our mythical family of four I was aiming for 280 pounds of broccoli, 60 pounds of collards, 60 pounds of mustard greens, and 100 pounds of spinach. Including plants raised for seeds, they would need 14,000 (2 ounces) broccoli seeds (remember, it’s a biennial, so we double the seeds to allow for two years before our seed saving bears fruit), 2800 (third of an ounce) collard seeds (also a biennial), 3200 (quarter of an ounce) mustard seeds, 3200 (1.5 ounces) spinach seeds.

Orange veggies only have one biennial, but it’s an important one – carrots. Carrots are tricky to save seed from, because they can so easily cross with Queen Anne’s Lace. So having extra carrot seed is probably a good idea, so you can keep your seeds pure (and make lots of mistakes in the process of learning). The other tricky veggie here is sweet potatoes, which are very nutritious, but do not reproduce from seed. So you can’t store seed for them. Note that squash and pumpkins will cross with each other, but the procedure for saving their seeds is a bit easier than say … carrots. Although my spread sheet plans on using sweet potatoes for my family (because we grow them already), I’ve replaced that for our phantom family with extra pumpkins and winter squash, to go along with the carrots. I’ve assumed that our family would need 160 pounds of carrots (they want good eyesight!), 80 pounds of pumpkins, and 160 pounds of winter squash. Note that the carrots can be canned, but can also be stored long term, so these are good choices. For this family’s need, they’d probably want 26,400 (1.5 ounces) carrot seeds, 150 (1 ounce) pumpkin seeds, and 1200 (4 ounces) squash seeds.

Beans and legumes are basic to nutrition, and can help make up for lack of meat in our diet. Beans aren’t that difficult to save seeds from and the whole family is annuals, so they aren’t tricky for our family. (The main problem is learning when to start harvesting the dry pods!) For our family, I’ve figured on them wanting 280 pounds of dry bush beans, 120 pounds of dry pole beans, and 80 pounds of cowpeas (crowder peas/southern peas/black-eyed peas). For this, they’d need 14,000 (156 ounces or about 9.75 pounds) of bush dry beans, 2800 (43 ounces or 2.75 pounds) pole dry beans, and 5200 (20.8 ounces) of cowpeas. Luckily, you can mostly use storage beans for this, if you increase the amounts somewhat to allow for lower germination rates.

Potatoes are a problem. You need them but you can’t grow them from seeds. And they don’t store past a year. You need about 10 pounds of seed potatoes to plant a 100′ row, which will usually yield about 100 pounds of potatoes. Our mythical family of four will need about 400 pounds of potatoes to eat, and about 40 pounds to seed for next year. What we’re doing here is always trying to keep at least 10 pounds of potatoes in the house, so we can grow them if need be. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the best we can do.

Other veggies includes a LOT of things that American’s really want to eat. For our mythical family, I’ve culled the large list down to pole green beans, beets (good for both roots AND greens but a biennial), cabbage (biennial and will cross with our broccoli and collards!), sweet corn, cucumbers, garlic (doesn’t reproduce from seed – we’ll discuss later), leaf lettuce, onions (biennial), garden peas, peppers (both hot and sweet), radish, summer squash, and tomatoes. Peppers and tomatoes don’t cross pollinate easily, so you can choose a number of different varieties, if needed. They are also easy to save seed from. Cucumbers will cross with themselves, but can be hand-pollinated if more than one variety is desired to be grown. Garlic is a bit more difficult as it is not only best grown in the fall in most of the US, but it also doesn’t seed, so you need to have cloves to start from. Best bet is to keep some garlic cloves around at all times to have some to start.

Ideally, our family would need 100 pounds of pole green beans, 120 pounds of beet roots (and that would give them about 20 pounds of greens to eat fresh), 120 pounds of cabbage, 120 pounds of sweet corn, 60 pounds of cucumbers (although you’ll likely get a LOT more), 80 pounds of garlic, 80 pounds of leaf lettuce, 120 pounds of onions, 80 pounds of garden peas, 60 pounds of peppers, 20 pounds of radish, 80 pounds of summer squash (although since this is zucchini – it’ll likely be more), and 160 pounds of tomatoes (likely more, but …). For this, you’ll need 560 (9 ounces) pole green bean seeds, 4400 (2 ounces) beet seeds, 5200 (three quarters of an ounce or so) cabbage seeds, 2400 (2 pounds) sweet corn seed, 320 (half an ounce or so) cucumber seeds, 4 pounds of garlic, 12,400 (half an ounce) leaf lettuce seeds, 21,200 (3 ounces) onion seeds, 9200 (84 ounces or 5.25 pounds) garden peas, 400 (tenth of an ounce) peppers, 1320 (half an ounce) radish seeds, 120 (half an ounce) summer squash seeds, and 240 (under a tenth of an ounce) tomato seeds.

Fruits mainly concern melons and watermelons – you don’t need much of these because they don’t store well and are hot weather growing plants. I’d be comfortable with 200 seeds of each type for our mythical family, which should give them plenty of fruit.

Grains are the last category. For our mythical family, I’ve chosen flint or dent corn, popcorn (which can do double duty but will have to be hand pollinated to keep it from cross pollinating with each other and with the sweet corn), wheat and oats. The wheat can come from storage – like the beans, just increase what’s used for lower germination. The corn cannot come from storage, as it’s most likely hybrid. And most folks store rolled oats, which won’t work for sprouting. Ideally the family would grow 100 pounds of dent corn, 100 pounds of popcorn, 120 pounds of oats, and 600 pounds of wheat. To get that, they’ll need 2 pounds of dent corn, 2 pounds of popcorn, 32 pounds of oats, and 100 pounds of wheat. The corns would be planted in rows, but the oats and wheats would be broadcast as it’s unlikely they will have the equipment to drill plant the other grains.

Now, what amount of space would be needed for this? Assuming row cropping the garden vegetables, and broadcasting the oats and wheat, and NOT doing any double planting throughout the year, you’re looking at about 1.68 acres for our family of four – assuming normal soil conditions. If you have access to manure/compost, spacing requirements would probably be lower. If you’re in dry conditions or on poor soil, it’d be more. And this doesn’t allow for letting a field lie fallow for a while or something similar.

Looking at those numbers of seeds, it’s easy to see that most “survival seed banks” are not really worth it. They won’t be tailored to your climate, firstly. Also, they will include seeds that will not store well – onions for example. Sweet corn is another seed that doesn’t store long. They also get the numbers way wrong. For example – one seed vault has 65 green bean seeds. This isn’t going to be near enough to allow for any loss in germination or other catastrophes. Another one out there (marketed as working for 1 acre of gardening) has 1700 tomato seeds! That’s about 1000 more than even *I* would store at my most paranoid. And they are all one variety too! But they don’t just get the numbers wrong – they also get the varieties wrong. Many many vaults include onions that don’t keep well – such as Walla Walla. Don’t get me wrong, WW’s are a great onion, but they don’t keep. You want a long keeper such as Stuttgarter or Yellow Flat Dutch. I found one vault that included 700 jalapeno seeds – really? Does anyone need that many jalapenos?? I had 10 plants last summer and that made so many peppers we were drowning in them. (Lesson learned – next year – 4 plants!). They also include vegetables that are very difficult to grow for beginners – such as eggplant or celery. And celery is not exactly high in calories or nutrition, so it’s taking up space better used for other seeds. Even the ones that include grains, don’t include enough. Most include at most half a pound of grain seed – which isn’t going to be near enough.

When I started this project, I’d originally thought that having one of those seed vaults wouldn’t be a complete waste of space. I had hoped I’d find one that could serve as a useful backup to my own seeds. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are pretty much utterly useless. And that’s without having seen the “instructions” that are included! I’ve come to the conclusion that they give a false sense of security to folks, who think that if they have one, they don’t need to bother with gardening or practicing – but they can just “grab the can” and start gardening and grow tons of food. You’re better off getting the supplies to store your own choices and tailor it to your own needs than buy one of the over the counter collections.

This contest will end on April 22 2013  – prizes include:

Well what are you waiting for – email your entries today. But please read the rules that are listed below first…  The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse – the Librarian from Heck or Reference books for TEOTWAWKI

49 comments

AZ Rookie Prepper March 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

Thanks for your diligent efforts. I was very interested and liked what I saw.

AZ Rookie Prepper March 23, 2013 at 9:24 am

I re-read your article and something kind of popped out at me while reading it…manpower hours. Obviously, the more garden to work on, the more man-hours needed to work it. I am sure that somewhere, someplace, there are statistics on hours required to work so many square feet of garden. Sure, different plant types need more work, different soils require different labor…it starts getting a little overwhelming when you consider what it takes, but, if we wish to survive, we’ll do what we must. Keep it up folks.

Mike the Gardener March 22, 2013 at 9:12 am

If land space is limited, choose vegetable and fruit varieties that are abundant producers, grow well vertically as opposed to needing horizontal space and are great candidates for container gardening.

A few abundant producers (some you already mentioned) are pole beans, tomatoes, various squash varieties and peas. These not only produce a lot, but grow up as opposed to out and that helps save on space.

Because they grow up, you can use the space in between the plants to grow root crops such as carrots, beets, onions and so on.

A container can be anything from a large pot, a strawbale to one of those upside down hanging planters. Virtually anything you want to grow will do well in a container so as long as their roots have plenty of room, get plenty of sun and are watered frequently.

Petticoat Prepper March 22, 2013 at 10:06 am

Really like this article! I have been an avid gardener for decades and was (no time for volunteering as required) an OSU Master Gardener. I’ve often thought about how much land would be needed. Growing up on a small but working ranch we always said, “an acre and a half for a cow and a calf.”

I can see from your research I’ve enough with my 5 acres to do well. I hope TSHF doesn’t happen soon as I need a bit more time to line up my ducks. But it is encouraging to see the above numbers. Thanks for all the work that went into this.

Victoria S. March 22, 2013 at 10:32 am

The numbers are very rough – a lot depends on your gardening ability, your land, your climate, what you’re growing, etc, but I think the numbers are reasonably valid. They are also somewhat validated by the fact that medieval English peasants usually had trouble surviving on less than about five acres of land – given their knowledge of agriculture and diet, that’s seems about right to me.

I also wanted to take the most pessimistic assumptions possible to allow for the mistakes everyone makes starting out.

Mystery Guest March 22, 2013 at 10:11 am

I believe that as far as potato’s go all you have to have is the eye of the potato to plant. In other words if you peel the potato kind a deep or dig the eye out you can plant them. I have seen potato’s grow from peelings thrown on the ground. My mother is the one that told me all you need is the eye of the potato (which would have some potato dug out with the eye). Try it now both ways to see if it works then you can eat the potato’s you have but use the eye’s or peeling method.
I have heard it takes 130 lbs of wheat to plant 1 acre. Which should yield 6000 lbs. 65 lbs of wheat should yeald 3000 lbs on 1/2 acre.
43 1/3 lbs of wheat should yeild 2000 lbs on 1/3 acre and 35 lbs of wheat should yield 1500 lbs of wheat on 1/4 acre.
Rain dependant acre will produce 30-50 bushels, irrigated 100 bushels per acre. A bushel of wheat weighs 60 lbs.
I have seen calculations of 150lbs of wheat per person to 300lbs a year. A family of four would then have to have 600-1200 lbs of wheat on at least a 1/4 acre.
So believe even on small acreage you could keep wheat for bread going.
I like the advise of one person gave. For beginning gardners to use hybrid seed to start as you will have easier time of it and little better yeilds, then transition with your heirloom seed from which you will collect seed from.
I also like the sister planting idea and companion planting. To plant your beans around your corn and the corn is the trellis then squash around all of it for shade so you don’t have to water as often is great. And seems companion planting helps to increase yields a bit.
As far as seed saving goes seed is more resiliant than one would think. My uncle kept seed for years in fruit jars in a hot house and he still used it. The only exception was when he said that the seed wasn’t particularly good to begin with and he tossed it.
Survival gardening is mind bending.

Becky March 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Victoria S & Mystrey Guest;
You use the “eye” of the potatoe to start your plants. I know that many use potatoes that they have purchased from the grocery stores. They have been spray with a solution to keep them fresh longer for the market, and do not use these for starting you plants. It can pass a fungus to the soil that you can not get rid of unless you plan on removing the entire area. Go to a feed store or local nursery to purchase seed potatoes. When the plants start to die back is when you can start to harvest your potatoes, if you are careful you can harvest potatoes up to the next planting season. You may leave your plants in place and very gently remove the soil around the potatoes, this way you have small potatoes (first harvest) and the potatoes still attached to the roots will continue grow to large bakers.
You have two growing seasons with potatoes late fall and early spring. Your seed potatoes should be keep in a “cool dark” place. My dad put them in a well insulated shed with straw. Make sure you Do Not put your onions in the same area or near each other, it will cause spoilage.

Mystery Guest March 22, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Becky
If potato’s are sprayed to stay fresh why do they rot so fast?
Well I guess between warehouse, grocery store and home it does take a while.
But they still work. I know they will grow from the peelings as I dug the things up cooked and ate them.
I did not intend to imply that one should rely on them. Seed potato’s would be best for the best crop.
But if it comes to it don’t waste anything, one can’t afford to any more.

Becky March 22, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Mystery Guest;
It has to do with where you keep the potatoes in your home. Most of us without thinking keep them in the kitchen, it gets hot and cold depending on the time of year. You also have a lot of light. Potatoes need a cool dark area to stay firm and crisp, I keep mine in the spare bedroom it stays dark and since we do not go in there except to retrieve the potatoes they last so much longer. Hope that this helps.

Sw't Tater March 23, 2013 at 12:05 am

If July rain falls on them in our area,7a the potatoes will rot. Ours always do best when planted very early.March 1st-15,.plant them as they grow pull dirt up to them, making a mound. About three weeks after they begin blooming there should be some tiny potatoes. plants die back usually between 1st and 10th June. dig before end of month, we always put them under a huge old tree, spread out, protected from the sun for several weeks, then before winter moved them to a keel, lined with wheat straw, covered well to keep from freezing.Remove any bad ones. To grow from potatoes, that are sprouting, or to cut off seed potatoes bought in bulk…cut an area around the seed ,least 1/2 inch deep…and about an inch in circ..Each potato should have from 12-18 eyes,.. The rest of the potatoes can be cooked and eaten/dehydrated.

JP in MT March 22, 2013 at 10:48 am

As we look for out “final” location, articles like yours help us very much. I would rather have the opinion of someone who has “been there – done that” than all the books out there.

I did pick up a book or “Gardening in Montana” that should also help us nail down where we end up.

Thanks for putting your thoughts on “paper”.

Donna March 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm

You sure did your homework on this one, I congratulate you for the diligence to write it up for us.

It got me interested in my wild food collection and now I wonder how much yield it produces if I picked everything. I can’t, of course, the birds have to eat, the bears have to eat, not to mention bugs have to eat too and sometimes they eat me while I am pickin.. I pick what I can use until I am tired of canning jelly, tired of removing pits from wild red cherries, tired of hulling hazelnuts, and my freezer is full.

I was told by the forestry dept. in Pa. if you had 10 acres of mature woods, you can heat your 3,000 sq ft home with that wood all heating season and still have 10 acres of mature woods.

Amaranth March 22, 2013 at 12:14 pm

At long last someone has debunked that one. Start practising now even if in pots.

Brenda March 22, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Thanks for the excellent post. I only have an acre and if there is a true TEOTWAWKI we would be in a world of hurt as we could end up with a total of 8 adults and 9 children at our place. We are trying to buy some additional land nearby. I have ordered some dwarf fruit trees and I already have a fig tree, blueberry bushes and strawberries growing. Wild blackberries and muscadines grow nearby. I use containers for a lot of my herbs. The majority of my preps go toward us learning how to grow, can and preserve what we can grow and harvest from the wild. I want to use our freezer as little as possible because I understand that we might not have power even if my DH does not think it will get that bad. I hope to have a root cellar/storm shelter built soon. I’ve canned tomatoes, made pear preserves, and fig preserves but that has been it. I tried to dry some peppers last year but I was not pleased with the outcome. My DH made many pints of pickled peppers and he eats them every day.
I have cut expenses everywhere I can so that I can have more $ to prep with. I know the economy is not looking good but if we can make it at least 2 more years I believe that we can be in a much better spot.

Sw't Tater March 23, 2013 at 12:09 am

We just started dehydrating a couple of years ago and we love okra and zucchini dehydrated. zucchini can be used like potato chips, okra rehydrated is just like using fresh to fry or put in stews. Neither has to be blanched, just wash slice and put in dehydrator. If you don’t have one, there is a article for a solar one on this site, and one that has a temp control if you buy an electric…don’t fall for the china mart one.

Singer March 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for the article. I think your comment about possibly needing more land, depending on the quality of the soil and climate is often overlooked. Also, people need to look at the lay of the land. Our current property, 10 acres, is very steep and mostly wooded. We’d have a hard time making it here. We’d be hungry, but warm! That’s why we’re moving.
If you add in fruit trees and bushes, nut trees, and room for some protein source such as chickens, goats, rabbits, and dairy products, you’ll need even more land. Remember then, that you will need to grow the food for your animals, too, and wood for your woodstove. We’ve got lots of livestock experience and I’m a pretty good gardener and am getting pretty good at seed saving, too, and I don’t think our family could make it on 5 acres!
Also, don’t forget to subtract the land that your house, outbuildings and driveway are sitting on. They are not usable for growing food.

KR Prepper March 22, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thank you so much. I have a family of five that my father and I have to feed. This data helps so much.

WYO Ryder March 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Victoria, Thank you for this well researched article! I am so grateful that you took the time to write it – its already in my gardening binder – lots to think about.

GregJ March 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm

I like that you went through this exercise. I think everyone that is considering growing what they need to survive should do exactly what you have done. (Any chance of uploading your spreadsheet?)

My main concern with the diet chosen is that it is fairly low on protein (120 lbs of beans) and lacks the fruit. Unless you are a vegetarian already, this diet is really going to hurt.

Like Singer said, if you want a protein source and fruit and nut trees plus berries and grapes, and want to keep warm I’m thinking closer to 10 acres would be needed. The soil is a critical factor when buying new land, I would encourage anyone looking for land to get acquainted with this website. http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/HomePage.htm which will give you an accurate soil analysis and detailed report for free, of any property you are considering. Very worthwhile.

akaGaGa March 22, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Wow, Greg! Thanks for the link. Imagine something useful coming out of the gubmint! :)

Swabbie Robbie March 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Good article. It will be helpful when we downsize to a smaller place next year. I assume we will NEED to garden more intensively in the coming years. I will adjust total acreage a bit as we live in the North. I will also be sure to have apple and cherry trees, plant asparagus and strawberries.

Encourager March 22, 2013 at 3:40 pm

This was a great article, Victoria! Thanks for all the hard work.

We have sandy soil. It does not grow anywhere near what our previous clay soil did. It was easy to improve the clay soil; nearly impossible to improve the sandy soil although I won’t give up. I am doing buckwheat and then hairy vetch for cover crops this year and letting the garden lie fallow this year. We will see if that helps. We have a total of just over 10 acres, about 7 acres we can plant. Most of it is field right now.

We are using a raised bed that we built last year. We got a nice harvest of all we planted in it last year. I am hoping dh will build me another one this spring, but make it 12 inches deep so I can grow root crops in it. It is also easier on the body to use the raised bed. I did find a spot in my back perennial garden where I can put in a couple of winter squash plants, so will also try that.

The thought of having to raise enough food to survive on is terrifying.

george March 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I also played around with the numbers on how much to store once you got your wonderful garden producing at a great rate. The finding I come to was that there was almost no way possible to can in jars enough food for the whole family . The sheer number of jars and lids would be ungodly. and the best way to preserve food was to dehydrate as much as you can. A one quart jar of dehydrated food would take up way less space than the same number of jars of fresh canned. I just took my meal plans and then multiplied how many jars/lids were needed and it was just to much .

Victoria S. March 22, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I think I figured it up to be that my family of six would need 248 dozen jars to can a good amount of garden food. No way in heck I can manage that!

That’s when the dehydrator got purchased and we started fiddling with making a solar-powered one as backup.

Sw't Tater March 23, 2013 at 12:20 am

My grandparents- both sides reared 5 children.
Both of them had canning goals each year…700-800 jars, mostly quarts of jelly/jams.1/2 gallons of juices. and jars they recycled from Johnny fair syrup, which hold 48 ounces…one side of our family called them a” large quart”, the other called them a “short half- gallon”. LOL
They also put up dehydrated apples and peaches, often using the tin on the storm-house to use for a dryer.Salted down hams from the pigs they raised, and raised extra pigs, to trade for money to buy shoes for the winter and a few trinkets for Christmas.

jj March 25, 2013 at 10:51 am

A root cellar can take a huge amount of work out of the ‘preserving’ part of your garden. Carrots, beets, potatoes, cabbage, apples, and turnips store quite well in the root cellar, though we’ve only had cabbage, beets, and potatoes make it through to the next planting season. At the very least, you can set these things aside to deal with at a better time, and allow yourself to focus on the things that absolutely won’t keep. We keep our eggs in our root cellar, too, and they last for months down there. Onions, pumpkins, winter squash, and (I believe, but have not tried, as I can’t grow them here) yams will keep in a cool (but not cold) and dry place for ages (our record is a spaghetti squash that went 14 months, and onions that made it 10 months). If you weighted your garden to these things, you could significantly reduce your canning and dehydrating.

jj March 25, 2013 at 11:33 am

While I agree with your conclusion (that the canned seed vaults are basically useless), I disagree a bit with some of your numbers.

My husband and I are currently living on ten acres in northern Canada (I believe USDA zone 1), and working towards growing the majority of our own food (a lofty goal, which we have not reached yet – we haven’t even considered tackling grains at this point).

From our experience, I would say you would need a lot less winter squash seed. Our biggest harvest ever was about 55 squash / pumpkins in one year, and we fed a significant number of those to the chickens – we just weren’t able to eat them all before they went bad. I’m sure each squash was at least 4-5 pounds, so it was a lot more than your recommendation (about 220 to 275 pounds for the two of us vs. your combined 240 for a family of 4). Granted, it was a good year, but we got all of that from a couple dozen plants, not several hundred.

I would also plant a lot more carrots (we plowed through well over 100 pounds between the two of us) and beets. They store well, and are relatively calorie-dense for the amount of space they take up, both in the garden and in storage.

Also, I would give some serious consideration to weighting the brassicas to cabbage instead of broccoli, as cabbage will store in a root cellar, while broccoli will not. However, both can be very hard to grow (and turnips as well) if there has been canola/rapeseed grown nearby anytime recently, as they suffer from the same pests. For greens, we’ve had great luck with chard, but, as you commented, it’s not familiar to most Americans, so might not be the best pick.

Our potatoes yield much more than your numbers suggest – in 2011 (the last year we weighed our harvest), we got just under 500 pounds of potatoes from 25 pounds of seed, with no irrigation or special attention. Now, I know potatoes do particularly well here, but still.

Also, if I were putting together a survival seed vault, I would add some sunflower seeds. They are easy to grow, and the seeds are high is calories and fat, which would otherwise be difficult to get in your diet.

I realize that yields and most productive/reliable varieties depend hugely on location, and that the ‘best’ veggies to store and grow are the ones your family will eat. In our own case, we lean heavily to the stuff that stores well without additional work (potatoes, root veggies, squash, dry beans), and save the canning and dehydrating for smaller amounts of things that add flavor (tomatoes, peppers, herbs, jellies, pickles). Now, that tactic will only be effective for folks who are northern enough to have a root cellar, but that will still include a lot of people.

I suspect that most people would have to change their diet radically in order to be able to grow their own food – we have had to learn to eat more seasonally (asparagus and peas in the spring/summer, root veggies in the winter), and have also had to re-think a lot of our usual staples (bananas, yams, citrus), as they simply do not grow here. However, each person or family would have to discover these sorts of things for themselves, as (of course) my gardening experiences wouldn’t translate for someone who is living in, say, Florida or the Pacific Northwest.

JS March 22, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Thank you very much for the information you provided. Knowing approximately how much seed to have on hand and how much land is required is VERY helpful.

Do you (or does anyone out there) have any suggestions as to how many plants (or row feet) would be best to put in the ground if you suddenly had to produce a large percentage of your own food? How many, say squash or cabbage plants, would you need? Would you plant them all at once or in sequential “batches”?

“Standard” gardening books don’t seem to have answers for questions like this. I wish there were a “Survival Gardening” book out there. Any answers or references would be appreciated.

Victoria S. March 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm

I think my short answer would be “as much as you can”.

If there is interest, I can get the spreadsheet to MD to put up somewhere…it’d be a few days, I left it a bit unfinished . I had originally planned on figuring three different “plans” for food – one “thrifty”, one “moderate” and one “lavish” which varied on how much was planned for consumption. The numbers I gave here are for thrifty – I did work up the moderate but never got the lavish finished, so I’d need to finish that off.

V

Not Rick March 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Excellent article. Would love to see the spreadsheet.

White.Buffalo - Doug April 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Hi … I wrote to MD … to ask about the spreadsheet and he has indicated to me that he had written to you and has not had a response … please – if you will = post and/or send me the spreadsheet —- your article is very well done and of course detailed to the extent that the spreadsheet really would help …
thanks, in advance … doug

Sw't Tater March 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

I would modify that to say as much as you can care for…that includes plant food and water, and knowing which plants need which nutrients. If you have no nutrients to use you are wasting your time and effort.
Squash/ cukes I would plant early and then 2-3 weeks later..zucchini produce heavily, but all I have found are hybrid, so I will plant as many of these as I can, while I have good seed, and dehydrate them. Stored in moisture free, oxygen free, they will keep for years, if stored in cool dry place. I have the advantage of having an alternate site to produce yellow crookneck which are heirloom.
Tomatoes, if you must start them from seed, start early,.. and plant them 2-3 weeks apart..one a determinate, which comes in all at once, and the other an indeterminate, which will produce til frost, if watered, protected from very high heat. Okra is heat tolerant, when it starts blooming, “side dress” it(don’t get the ammonia on the root) and step back. We had some stalks 8 ft high and 2″ in circ, and it bears til hard frost.
I am keeping a supply of seed books for instructional purpose-most of them have a lot of growers info..of course they want to sell you specialized bone meal, but if you have chicken, you can cook those bones, crush them and use them….Plants which require acidic soil, crush, and chop up pine cones, pine needles, cedar limbs, twigs…and shavings..place them in the soil and around the plants… most manures must be composted before adding to the garden, there are exceptions…If you are near a forest, you might find good thick forest loam.. If wood is too rotted to burn , put it in the compost or under a raised bed to contribute to the soil.If it is infested with termites, burn it.

thatAway March 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Great Article.. Thanks lots of good logic..

I happen to live close to the amish in Ohio.
Many year ago I stated to buy the seedlings from the amish
and saving the seeds. And have been using them for years.
The seed seem to be more resistant to the diseases and weather better
in Ohio, and produce more food. Than heirloom seed I have bought via mail. Heirloom seeds or brands brands that have the same name like Pink Brandywine tomatoes (for example) do not seem to do as well as one bought locally years ago..

I suspect since they have been grown here in Ohio for many years..
They are more resistant to Ohio weather bugs and crud.

I am not a master gardener .. But I think it is best to Buy Local and build your own seed bank from old local stock if you can get it. It take lots of time but it can be done. But with the weird weather conditions whom knows, what will grow.
Seem to make sense to me.. Just my 2 cents..
Bless All
thatAway

Jeanne March 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Great article! I recommend the book “Four Season Harvest” by Elliot Coleman. The 1999 edition has been updated with new material. He lives in Maine and says the US is around the same latitude as Avignon, France – it’s just that we get more arctic air (so we have to protect from wind in winter). The idea is to repetitively plant short rows of the veggies we use often, like lettuce, carrots, and even zucchini and then harvest them thru the winter; that there are varieties which are better choices for growth thru the winter, that we should eat “in season” and that his method is a lot less work. I’m not an expert, but it seems he relies on starting seeds indoors/greenhouse. I’m excited about starting this! Y’all in the South should have a real leg up on us Northerners!

Grumpy Vermonter March 22, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Jeanne,
Years ago, I had a wonderful large unheated greenhouse which we put up on a mountainside here in our state. We are a full zone colder than Elliot Coleman’s place, and I have his book. I put raised beds inside the greenhouse and angled the frames and we put window frames on them and didn’t heat the greenhouse through a whole winter. I was able to seed Japanese greens and kale in the fall and they stayed kind of dormant in the beds for harvesting through the winter. In February, I had volunteer johnny jump-ups growing in a corner! Another thing I’ve seen done is having portable “chicken tractors”, where the coop is on wheels and gets moved with the garden going in where it was. Dr. Mercola’s site had a great interview he did with a farmer who used this method. link here: http://youtu.be/k4XDlT-pzJI
Also, now that I’ve planted some seeds with this winter sowing method, I’ll let you all know how they do. So far, 22 milk jugs of veggies are sitting out there on our porch, covered by 8″ of snow, just waiting for Mom Nature’s signal to “go”.

MARTI March 22, 2013 at 8:56 pm

This was an absolutely wonderfully informative article! Thank you. I have tried running the numbers in the past so yours have helped me see where I have holes. I totally agree about the “canned gardens”. It’s much cheaper for me to buy my own seed and tailor the storage to my family’s needs.

Grumpy Vermonter March 22, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Great post! I too am an avid gardener and know no way the tiny spit of land we currently rent would be enough to feed us, but I plan on experimenting with container gardening big time this year, as last year saw a lot of rabbit devastation, and we can’t shoot in the park. Saving seeds will be a new thing this year as well. Thanks for doing all this research, Victoria S., much appreciated.

Sw't Tater March 23, 2013 at 1:04 am

Trap and eat rabbits, they make good gravy!

midnight1st March 22, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Thank you so much for this information. It will be very helpful for me. I have been growing in raised beds for several years because my land is really not suitable. My beds are about 18″ high because that makes it so easy to just sit and work. They are 4′ wide so working from both sides makes it easy.

Last year I went the whole square foot route, but I didn’t have as good results as I would have liked. I think that it was because of the soil mix that is recommended; so, I found another organic mix that I used for my winter garden, and it worked much better. I also don’t think that we could ever raise enough food for us just in the amount of bed space that was touted to be the case in the books. Your figures really confirm that to me and will be a life saver for us.

We only have about 1.5 acres and the terrain is pretty rough. This week, however, I have learned that the 20 acres behind us, which is flat and cleared for the most part, is owned by an absentee owner who has let my next door neighbor know that we can garden on the land all we want to. The owner does not want to sell for sentimental reasons, she is not able to do anything with the property, and it is land locked, so not many people besides us would be interested in buying it anyway. This sounds like a Godsend to me. My neighbor and I plan to put this land to good use. It will be harder to garden than my raised beds but will give us the opportunity to grow corn and grains. Your info will be really helpful in deciding how much to plant there. I am looking forward to seeing your spreadsheet.

I, too, have questioned the validity of the vaults. Seems to me that you are better off buying seed from your local seed stores because they are not only cheaper, but also carry the heirloom seeds that have been successful in the local area. It is not hard to make up your own vaults by food saving and freezing your local or saved seed.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

DocJ March 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Long time gardener. Good information. Love the number crunching!!!

arlene March 22, 2013 at 11:07 pm

As a long term organic gardener I applaud this well done article. Every season there are different challenges dependent upon the weather, bugs, availability of water etc. For those new to gardening I suggest that you read (books, dvds, etc) and start small and visit other gardeners and their gardens and listen to their experiences.
Put in berry bushes and fruit trees and asparagus and strawberry plants NOW .The most important thing to do first is to get your soil PH
tested and then amend your soil accordingly . This takes time .
Happy Gardening. Arlene

Sw't Tater March 23, 2013 at 1:14 am

Good article,
We had been looking at some of the seed vaults, and almost half of it we were not familiar with-or have problems growing.
I have several things that I usually grow well, and am adding a few things, mostly seasonings. I have already began dehydrating some things we have trouble growing, via buying frozen or fresh and putting up the excess.Sales are good for this. We would have difficulty on our small lot, so my answer is to start early and stay late…extending the harvest times, with row covers and etc.

JS March 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm

I came across an interesting pamphlet published during World War II by the British Ministry of Agriculture. Food shortages during that time were very serious, and people were encouraged to plant food. The pamphlet presents a garden plan for starting and managing a Victory Garden. It was intended to be able to supply most of a family’s vegetable and root-crop needs year-round. It’s a lot of useful information packed into three pages:

http://www.earthlypursuits.com/AllotGuide/DigforVictory1/DigForVictory1_2-3.htm

Michelle March 25, 2013 at 7:31 am

Victoria – I am in AWE of your number-crunching. Thank you – well done! I would offer just a few amendments to your essay. First, broccoli is annual, not biennial, so that makes broccoli that much easier for seed-saving. Second, garlic can grow from seed. When the plant sends up the seed stalk, often called the scape, it will yield little bulblets. These can be eaten or kept as seed stock. The resulting garlic will be small the first year, but if ITS cloves are replanted, then the second year’s harvest will yield larger cloves. Alternatively, the scapes can be removed while tender and eaten, often in stir-fry. Yum…. Potatoes can also be grown from seed – the plants DO flower and set seed – but as with other fertilized flowers, you don’t necessarily get, say, Yukon Gold potatoes from the seeds of last year’s Yukon Gold potatoes (that’s a random example – I don’t know for sure that it hold true for that variety). At any rate, your numbers are sound and your points are valid, and I thank you for the research and your time in preparing the essay!

Encourager March 25, 2013 at 1:58 pm

testing. having trouble posting.

Encourager March 25, 2013 at 1:59 pm

okay, now seems to be working. Anyone else having problems with their posts disappearing into oblivion?

SurvivorDan March 25, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Coincidentally I was just talking to my mother (who lived through WWII in Japan) about food shortages back then. For the last two years there was little food. She talked about finding a big radish and the family made soup and used salt water that my mother and her sister made by carrying seawater 9 miles back to their home and drying it for the salt. I asked her why grandpa didn’t have a garden. She said he did at first but by the third season he had run out of seed and there was none to be had. He wasn’t a farmer and always had bought his seed for the garden.
In the last year they often had seaweed or turnip soup……

Good subject for such a timely article. Thank you.

GeorgiaBoy March 25, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Victoria,
Great post, lets of great info. Thanks.

Linda March 29, 2013 at 5:50 pm

I wouldn’t want to base my survival on my ability to grow and store my own food. I think Mother Nature has far too many ways of ruining crops for me to make my life dependent upon what I could farm, assuming I had fertile, cleared farm land and the ability to work it and irrigate it and harvest crops and properly store crops for the long term. I think it’s a really good idea to supplement your food storage with some home grown stuff whenever you can, but you can’t beat buying buckets of grains and beans that a career farmer managed to grow to have real food security. And if you cold treat some of your grains (freeze minimum of 72 hrs) and then store in food safe plastic buckets without mylar bags inside, the grain can breathe and will stay viable for a long time, Viable grain can be sprouted for the kind of green roughage and vitamins you can’t get from cooked, un-sprouted grain or freshly ground flour. And you can always plant some of the viable grain in the spring if you want to try farming.

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