This story was originally published in April 2020.
Self-sufficiency is on the mind of many folks here in Maine. And among the most self-sufficient things a person can do is to grow their own food. But how does a gardening novice decide how much to plant or how much space to use?
It comes down to how much food you want to grow — and how much effort you are willing to put in.
Once you know those two things, planting an efficient and manageable vegetable garden means calculating how much space is needed to produce the desired amount of food. Luckily, there are resources available to help with those calculations.
What size do you really need?
The biggest mistake a gardener can make is taking on more than they can handle in terms of garden preparation, management and harvesting. That’s why it’s key to plan ahead and grow your garden with your skillset.
“For new gardeners, it’s easy to get in over your head,” said Vina Lindley, horticulturist with the Waldo County office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “I always recommend to start small and learn as you grow [because] you can always add on but when you become totally inundated with weeds and crops it becomes unmanageable and turns people off from gardening.”
That’s where Cooperative Extension and online resources come in.
Lindley’s favorite online site is the vegetable garden size-calculator at Morning Chores, a resource for homesteaders and gardners, which can be used to figure out how much of a specific vegetable is needed and how much overall garden space to use based on the amount of people you want to feed. But she also urges people to be realistic with how much time and effort they are willing to invest in the long run to grow a garden.
For a family of four, the Morning Chores calculator recommends a garden 40-feet-by-20-feet.
“That would allow you to grow an adequate amount of vegetables to feed that family of four,” Lindley said. “But it would also be like having a part-time job and will take up a pretty significant amount of your time.”
Weeding, watering, monitoring for pests, cultivating rows and other garden chores can take up to 20 hours a week, depending on the garden’s size and layout.
Luckily, the Morning Chores calculator lets you look at individual vegetables and determine exactly how many plants or rows are needed to produce a specific amount. This lets you fine-tune your garden size in even greater detail and use your space and time more efficiently.
Choose crops wisely
When it comes to planning a garden, it can be easy to get caught up in the excitement over the variety and types of vegetable seeds that are available. Here in Maine, businesses that sell seeds are facing a spike in sales and attribute much of that to a sudden interest in self-sufficiency in the wake of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and retail purchase limits on certain food items.
But just because you can access all those seeds doesn’t mean you should.
Lindley urges people to think about what they want to do with what they grow. Do you just want to eat fresh vegetables all summer and fall? Or do you want to have enough to eat and preserve to eat this winter?
“I would encourage people to really look at what storage options they have,” she said. “Do this before you grow this big garden and then think ‘What am I going to do with all this?’” By looking around the house, it’s possible to take stock of what kind of storage is available and plan your garden accordingly.
If a beginner has extra freezer space available, Lindley suggested planting vegetables from the nightshade family like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers which require minimal effort to freeze. Simply harvest, chop them up, put them in a freezer bag and toss them in the freezer — no blanching or further processing needed.
An unused room in the house that can be kept between 50 and 60 degrees works well to store winter squash. By investing in an inexpensive thermometer that also gives a humidity reading, you can determine if a basement or crawlspace is the required 60 to 70 percent humidity to store garlic and onions. Root crops like carrots or potatoes can also be stored in basements in purchased food bins.
If you end up with more produce than you know what to do with, excess can be donated to University of Maine’s Harvest for Hunger Program, which distributes the food to those who experience food insecurity in the state.
For seeds to have the best chance Lindley recommends taking advantage of stay-at-home orders to spend time observing where sun and shade track over your garden site, so you will have the best idea where to plant when the time comes.
“Ideally you want an area that gets between six and eight hours of [direct sun] light during the day,” she said. “Now is a great time to monitor that.”
The direction and duration of Maine’s sun will change between now and the growing months in June and July, but current observations will show where the sunlight is tracking and from that you can predict just what spots will get the most light in two or three months.
She also suggests having your soil tested and said the cooperative extension is still accepting soil samples for testing during this period of the emergency order.
University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s analytic lab and soil testing services encourage people to mail or ship their samples rather than dropping them off in person to maintain social distancing. Samples can be mailed to the lab at 5722 Deering Hall, Orono, Maine 04469.
In terms of where to get seeds or seedlings, the cooperative extension maintains an online list of places around Maine from which seeds may be purchased. Local farmers markets and nurseries can also be a good source for seedlings.
Worried about space? Think beyond the yard
Planning for the optimum garden and space in which to plant it can mean a bit of thinking outside the box, Lindley said, adding there is no reason your yard or porch can’t be used to grow food.
Using just a bit of garden math, it’s a fairly simple matter to look at the square-feet needed to plant enough for you and your family in a traditional flat, in-ground garden and extrapolate those numbers to what you would need if using raised beds or a container garden.
Using the square-foot method is about looking at space and then planting in blocks rather than in rows,” Lindley said. “You would be surprised how much you can get from a raised bed or container garden.”