Readers reply: how big a garden would you need to be self-sufficient for a family of four? | Farming

How big a garden would you need to be self-sufficient for a family of four? Andy Crouch, Henllan

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Readers reply

Research in the 1970s by John Jeavons and the Ecology Action Organisation found that 4,000 sq ft (about 370 sq metres) of growing space was enough land to sustain one person on a vegetarian diet for a year. A general guideline for a summer vegetable garden is about 100 sq ft per person. Jonathan Cummings

Jeavons in his book How to Grow More Vegetables suggests 1,302 sq ft for a four-person family food garden with a six-month growing season (including paths). Judith Brook, North Vancouver, Canada

A traditional allotment of about 250 sq metres (16m x 16m) was thought to be sufficient for urban poor families. But this will not grow grain or (enough) potatoes. Nor will all the crops come at convenient times. However, even in the smallest area you can concentrate on the most cost-effective crops. In order you should try: 1) herbs, 2) cut-and-come-again salad leaves: lettuce, rocket, etc; 3) salad “additions”: spring onions, radish, etc; 4) runner beans. After that, I’d put in a mention for soft fruit. Any glut can be preserved in rum, jammed or frozen. DaveLester

Forty poles is a measure of length, not area, and is equal to a furlong, or 220 yards. It was the length of a traditional peasant strip (the length of a furrow). The strip was a chain (22 yards) wide, giving an area of 4,840 sq yards, or one acre. One strip supposedly would support one person. I doubt a modern person would find it sufficient. pharos

As soon as a society moves from hunter-gatherer to agricultural you get specialisation. There are no self-sufficient agriculturalists. The base unit for success is probably about 50 people. The first thing to cultivate is friends. MarnaNightingale

If I remember correctly, John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency says one acre for fruit and vegetables, and five acres for that plus grain. His scheme did include animals though. I think it’s beyond the realm of even the largest UK garden, and even if not you need almost as much space to store your surplus; crops do not come ready at regular intervals around the year, and unless you have massive (cool, dark, dry) space for your harvested potatoes, onions, apples, etc, you will find yourself in trouble and potentially living on some pretty unappetising fare for a good chunk of the year. How many chest freezers do you want? Does your self-sufficiency run to providing the electricity to power these? TurmoilExemplified

In subtropical Australia, it is achievable on 400 sq metres. My grandparents taught me how 100 sq metres of healthy, fertile soil can feed an adult all year round. I live in subtropical Brisbane, and it took five years to create good soil. I have a 300 sq metre garden and it provides for a household of three, producing a surplus of food. I can earn enough from marmalade from the lime tree to pay the mortgage for about six weeks. Jerry Coleby-Williams

Experience has taught me that size, or rather area, isn’t everything. You don’t need acres to supplement your food. A good source of knowledge is Joy Larkcom’s Vegetables for Small Gardens. Warren

Plot sizes are one consideration, but if complete self-sufficiency is the goal, then establishing a co-op of like-minded gardeners is of utter importance. One reason why: cross-pollination. Seeds from a number of vegetable garden plants can’t be saved for the next year if another variety in the family is grown in the vicinity. (Ever eaten a pumpkin crossed with a gourd?) Often the distance needed between plants is surprisingly large. Other reasons are division of labour, spreading out risk, and knowledge-sharing. Judy Carmichael

In the 60s, Mum and Dad bought a smallholding of 2½ acres (about 1 ha). After a year we moved into the new house that Dad built and extended the garden to produce food. Dad worked full-time and my two sisters and I were still at school. We kept about 200 hens, a small flock of geese, pet rabbits that bred and were sold to the local butcher. A large heated greenhouse provided sufficient tomatoes and salad crops to sell. An orchard was expanded for fresh and preserved fruit. The era of home freezers had not arrived, so Mum preserved everything in an ever expanding array of Kilner jars and pickled surplus.

The work was unending, hobbies were abandoned, friends ignored and customers difficult to find. We found that the garden wasn’t big enough to provide all of our needs, but was too much work part-time. Capital was nonexistent and large machinery not viable in a very small field.

The experience has stood me in good stead; I enjoy gardening and growing on an allotment, but would caution against hoping to become self-sufficient unless you can use mechanical equipment on the land and have large polytunnels to provide a year-round growing environment. Roy Hirst

Based on a few decades grubbing about on allotments, I’d say the absolute minimum space needed would be no less than 800 sq metres, to allow for year-round cropping and a reasonable level of rotation to keep soil diseases and pests under control.Linda Kavanagh

You need 2,600 sq metres for complete self-sufficiency, but no one is completely self-sufficient. More importantly, you are going to need 1,000 Kilner jars, a steriliser big enough to hold 12 of them, a root cellar (between 4C and 10C, minimum 80% humidity), plenty of large wooden crates, a solar dryer, juice extractors of various sizes; a threshing machine and grain mill; and as much greenhouse space as you can get hold of. My top advice, though, is in the years you are planning it, accumulate a collection of the best quality gardening tools you can afford. The Pirate Ben

The peak of self-subsistence farming in England was in the later middle ages, when the feudal system of small communities growing food mainly for their own subsistence was able to support a peak of 4 million people – about one person per 15 acres. Most of that was scrub used for grazing, firewood and wild food sources. After the black death, the agricultural revolution and enclosures acts, the system came in of professional farmers growing large volumes of food for sale to industrial city dwellers, enabling more people to be fed. Currently, England grows food equivalent to feeding 60% of its population, so about 35 million people are fed from the same area, about one person fed for every two acres. Randomusername222

There’s an early 20th-century American homesteading book called Five Acres and a Horse, which describes how a family can live off an average plot of land in (I think) New England. It does assume trade with neighbours for specialist services such as veterinarians, farriers and animal husbandry, and access to woodland for firewood and small game, but the basic idea is that five acres is enough to grow grass and hay to support a horse and a cow, for a couple of small plots of grains as staples to feed a family, with enough space left over for chickens and a pig plus enough fruit and vegetables to keep everyone healthy and happy. RichWoods

Along with a large polytunnel, our 12 x 15-metre garden provides the two of us with veggies year-round in north-west Tasmania with a large surplus. Access to local supplies of manure helps considerably. Mike Buky

Completely sustainable? Depends on climate. If you have an empty basement room and power for UV lamps, it’s easy. Put in a 500-gallon water tank, use aquaponics and grow a lot of broccoli. I also get unlimited greens (beets and rocket are really effortless on hydroponic rafts or with a tidal watering setup). The space you need is dictated by the space you have. If you need to make 100 sq ft feed your family, you can do so – even without dirt. RedneckSavant

My strategy has been to grow what I can grow well and to grow a specialised crop that I can trade with others for what they grow better than I can. Thomas Salley

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You won’t, unless you are happy eating almost nothing for several months of the year. I was at my allotment this morning, which I try to keep as productive as I can all year round. The leeks are still great, the purple sprouting broccoli will be ready soon. That’s it. I’ll be self-sufficient in the basics from early summer until the winter, but now, no chance. It is however a great hobby, immensely satisfying, good exercise and a nice way to be part of a community! TimCGH

I live off-grid in the canyon lands of north-central New Mexico, on a cattle ranch that grows fresh specialty produce for the region’s restaurants. This takes up a plot of cultivated land approximately 8,700 sq metres. The produce includes summer squash; squash blossoms (a high-demand item in the Santa Fe area); heirloom French tomatoes as well as other strains of tomato; heirloom green chilies; asparagus; garlic; cucumbers; pinto beans; and other produce that chefs request.

All of this produce requires long, hard labour. It is enough for four people, but only for about two months.

To grow enough food for a year requires more land under cultivation than we currently have, and it means hiring people to help with the labour. The produce we freeze, and sun-dry, provides protein and vitamin C to keep us healthy, but we still need to buy food year-round. Complete self-sufficiency for a family of four people for a year, regarding food, is a massive job. Desertphile2

Depends if you’re vegetarian – as grazing cattle would require considerably more space. Shamboo

An acquaintance of mine was in the siege of Sarajevo. He said they kept two cows in their garage. I asked him where they would have normally grazed … oh no, he said, they always lived in the garage. woodworm20

Twenty-five years ago, in Gracia in central Barcelona, my partner and I were stunned to discover a cow parked inside a garage – next to a cheese store. z56823

In the 1960s and I believe into the 70s there was a decent-sized dairy herd kept in a basement on Potsdamer Strasse in the middle of Berlin. Not to be countenanced IMHO, but there are times when needs must. SolarWind

I live with my extended family (currently nine of us) on our old family smallholding (former sheep farm) in North Yorks. On about ¾ acre we raise poultry and grow all the fruit and veg that we need, and more, which we in part trade for flour and oats. You could do the same on less land, albeit more intensively. It feeds us year-round thanks to a well-stocked pantry and cold store. uncommodified

I’m Canadian. First frost is about mid-Sept, last frost is mid-May. The only edible plant around in winter is pine needles for tea – and it’s absolutely disgusting. So for us, 10 acres would probably be about minimum. CharlotteInAshton

First, what sort of diet is this family of four going to eat? Inevitably it’s going to be largely plant-based, so it isn’t simply a question of area – you have to think soil depth and quality as well as tree height. Since you’re going to be threshing, digging and climbing you need space to store appropriate equipment. And building materials for that space, which really has to be covered.

If you want non-plant in your diet, it’s going to have to be wild game, in which case you need to have ready access to rugged ground such as a forest or moor. Or it’s going to be fish, which means living near water. If you want to run your own farm, the answer is going to get very big, very quickly and your community is going to run out of space. Forests are good for finding wood to burn as well as build, while the sea may bring you driftwood and the odd whale carcass. Since there isn’t space for everyone to live next to forests and the sea, or to run their own farm, you probably need transport and somewhere to store your vehicles, plus means to power them. So think about how to self-sustain that too (the answer is probably horses, camels, yaks or elephants). Perhaps as a treat you could keep bees for honey, but bear in mind what that means about space for cultivating flowers for pollen instead of foodstuffs.

It’s worth noting at this point that you’ll be mostly drinking water, unless you have a smallholding for a few livestock or use some of that honey/orchard fruit to brew alcohol. Hopefully you figure out a way to filter and purify the water and also to then store it safely. If you do keep livestock for milking you have a whole new set of daily challenges so let’s maybe skip those for now.

Next, you need to think about the time you take planting, cultivating and harvesting because that’s time you can’t spend doing something else. Don’t forget about annual crop rotation and finding variegated seeds. As a proportion of your lifetime you’re going to spend longer subsisting and planning for subsistence, so you’re going to be economically much worse off as a family. The children will also have less time to spend in an educational setting, so be aware of what sort of lifestyle you’re signing them up to as well. And because you’re self-sufficient you’re going to lack certain nutritional components – you’re going to be sick more often and live a shorter life overall. You’re going to want to have more than two children, have them at a younger age and encourage your kids to do the same. There’s a balancing act regarding family size, because you have to ride out times of plenty and of famine. You’re likely to experience famine several times throughout your life as well as seeing some of those children die young, so be prepared to build emotional resilience.

There’ll be a lot of wars over access to natural resources now that you’re all self-sufficient, so you might have to get a bit hard-nosed about who goes off to fight and who has to stay home to tend the land and birth (then raise) the children. Because not everyone is going to like how we divide those roles up, you’re going to want to create rules about who can and can’t do what. I’m going to take a punt and say it’ll be the males going off to war (occasionally) and the females staying home (always) so you’ll probably want specific additional rules to make sure the females don’t up sticks and leave in search of a better life. I wouldn’t expect many of the males to complain about this arrangement. It might be practical though if the menfolk could bring home captives after a war is won and make those captives subject to some sort of indentured servitude.

At this point you’ll definitely want a bigger garden. On the plus side, cancer rates will plummet and no one is going to get snarled up in a pensions scandal.

Put another way – and deliberately trying to avoid giving a numerical answer to the question – there are good reasons why we in the modern world outsource daily conveniences to subject matter experts and keep allotments as a hobby. Dorkalicious