Sustenance Gardening

sustenance garden

I am often approached by families who want to take their gardening a step further than the usual summer garden that produces a limited amount of vegetables for the growing season.  The question is usually something like, “How do we grow enough to feed ourselves year-round?”

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.  Sustenance gardening is in a whole different category than seasonal hobby gardening and requires not just a different planning process but a new lifestyle process as well.


The first consideration is space.  Do you have enough space to accomplish such a plan?  Many experts in the field of sustenance gardening agree that it takes approximately 4,000 square feet per person to grow enough food for that person for a year.  For the average family of four that is 16,000 square feet of space, just for a garden.  That is a little over one-third of an acre or a space about 125 feet on each side.  Go out and measure your backyard.

If you have the kind of space, you must think about the time and labor it takes to maintain such a large garden area.  Balance that against your available time.  Maintaining a garden of that size can easily involve several hours a day.  Planting time and harvesting time require more labor.  Remember that the reason we have come to depend on supermarkets is that we have traded the need to spend all those hours growing, harvesting, and preserving our food for the convenience of having someone else do the job.


sustenance garden

That brings us to the last consideration, preservation.  Most of us live in areas where gardening year-round is not an option.  That means that we have to produce enough during the growing season to last the balance of the year.  Keeping those vegetables over the winter requires preservation.  There are any number of methods that can be employed for this, but by far, the most popular is pressure canning, which involves specialized equipment, knowledge and, again, time.  You must also plan on storing your production.  A winter’s worth of quart canning jars can take up an enormous amount of space.  Look around your kitchen and pantry.  Can you arrange things to handle that kind of space requirement?

If you have space and can devote the time and effort into sustenance gardening planning your garden is the next major hurdle.

How much to Plant

Just how much do you need to plant to feed a family of four for a year?  There are any number of guides to help you plan your garden.  My suggestion is to work backward.  Think about all the foods your family likes to eat regularly.  This list tells you what vegetables you need to plant.  You certainly don’t want to devote the space and spend the time growing and canning a host of vegetables that no one will eat.  With the list of what vegetables you want to preserve for year-round consumption, think about breaking that down into meals.

Plan for What You Eat

sustenance gardening

Begin with your evening meal.  This usually consists of a protein portion, two vegetables, bread, and a dessert.  One meal in your plan might be grilled chicken breasts, green beans, corn, and fruit for dessert. You can usually count on a quart jar providing four portions or servings.  So, in this instance, you would need to have in your pantry one quart of corn, green beans, and your fruit choice.

If you plan on having this meal twice a month, you would need 72-quart jars.  Yeah.  72!  It breaks down like this.  Three jars times two meals per month times 12 months.  Yes, you must plan on the full 12 months.   Next year’s garden will not be ready, for the most part, until the time you are beginning canning next year.

That takes care of 24 meals.  That only leaves 341 meals to plan.   I think you begin to get the idea.

The Storage Issue

Now.  I have taken this to the extreme.  Some of the vegetables that you will want to keep may not need to be canned.  Some root vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, and beets can be stored in their natural state if you have space and the place.  Before 1940, most homes had root cellars where they could store these types of vegetables for long periods.  I checked.  My house doesn’t have a root cellar.

You can also freeze many vegetables for intermediate-term storage if you have space.  Some vegetables do very well being kept up to a year if properly prepared and frozen. 

From Eating to Growing

The next step is to take this plan and work back from the number of quarts of each vegetable you want to preserve to the number of fresh vegetables you need to grow.  The easiest way to make this conversion is to look at a good canning guide with recipes that will give you the amount of each vegetable required to fill quart jars after the vegetables a prepared.  It takes about two pounds of fresh cucumbers to make one quart of canned dill pickles.  So, to produce 36 quarts I would need 72 pounds of pickling cucumbers.  That is equal to about 1 ½ bushels of pickling cucumbers.   

Now you go to your seed catalog and look at the information they usually provide.  Looking at mine, I see that, on average, a healthy cucumber plant will produce about 5 pounds of cucumbers per plant during a growing season.   Doing math again, that tells me that I need to plant at least 15 cucumber plants.  I also pad these numbers out to cover the loss of plants to disease or insects, weather, or just getting a plant that doesn’t do well.  So let’s say you plan on planting 20 cucumber plants. 

Do the Math

sustenance gardening

That is the method I use.  You will need to do this for each vegetable you want to produce.  Once you have this information, you can use the planting information for each variety to plan and layout your garden space.  The beauty of this is you only need to do all these calculations once.  Each year you can adjust the amounts based on what you have learned from the previous year.  Eventually, you will find that you have a garden plan for your family that works well from year to year.

More information

There are hundreds of websites with gardening guides that will give you starting points for planning a sustenance garden.  They all vary a little but provide the same information.  The initial planning and work that goes into bringing a sustenance garden into production can be overwhelming, especially if you are beginning with virgin ground that has never been gardened before.  Preparing the space is an article in itself. 

Planning  Sustenance Vegetable Garden, Jessie Keith,

A Plan for Food Self-sufficiency, Mother Earth News,

National Center for Home Food Preservation,

Links and Resources

For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.

If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.

Organic Growing Myths

Toss Your Tiller


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