Planning A Subarctic Garden That Can Feed Your Family - Frosty Garden

Planning A Subarctic Garden That Can Feed Your Family

One of the more challenging things we’ve had to learn was the planning process of our gardens.

We aren’t growing what some might refer to as a “hobby garden.”  We are growing a garden that will produce a significant amount of food for the purposes of fresh eating and longer term preservation.

We garden over 2,000 square feet of space every year, significantly contributing to our total food consumption.

In this post, we talk about some of the techniques and tools we use to plan our garden so it can feed our family.  This also determines how many garden starts we need to raise.

Starting With The Basics Of Garden Planning!

We start our garden planning quite early.  Usually in January, well into the depths of winter.

As a subarctic gardener, we have to remember that “the rest of the world” is well ahead of us in their gardening season.  We’ve found it advantageous to start early, especially with our seed ordering.

A short two months later, we’ll be in the thick of growing.  First, we need to dust off our materials and get started with our initial garden planning.

We have a few initial goals that we are trying to achieve in our garden planning processes:

  • Determine how many of each garden start we need to raise
  • Perform a seed inventory and order any seeds we might need
  • Get a physical garden plan together so we know what goes where
  • Think about things like crop rotation and companion planting
  • Integrate previously learned concepts or solutions into our garden

If you want the best selection of seeds and the most time to think about your future garden, getting started early will benefit you.

We do recommend having a general plan for your garden every year.  This is difficult to know how to do as a beginning gardener, but it is something you can learn.  The overall process of gardening is like most other skills, though.  It takes some preparation and effort to do well.

It’s important to set reasonable expectations and take things at your own pace with gardening.  Don’t feel pressured to get to a certain point.

Can I Grow All My Own Food?

This is a popular question!  Although we are serious about food production, we don’t kid ourselves.  We are not – and will never be – truly “living off the land.”

Is it possible?  Sure.

Most people that seek the proposition of growing all of their own food are also those who have never practiced large scale gardening.  There are both practical and preferential limitations to this concept.

We would argue that such a goal is nearly impossible to achieve in the subarctic.  It might be more plausible if you were in a temperate area where you could produce food all year.  It’s immeasurably more difficult to do that with a three month growing season.

How many cans of kale are you really going to eat before you start throwing them out the window?  Most of us want food variety.  Can you really achieve food independence with nothing more than you can grow, forage, hunt and produce?

Growing your own food is not a production goal, it’s a way of life.  Growing everything you would need is nice fantasy.

But still.  What if?

Studies on the subject tell us you’ll need about 4,000 square feet per person.  A family of four will take a garden that’s at least 80 feet by 180 feet.  That’s over 14,000 square feet of just gardening space.

You’ll probably need significantly more than that to account for potential losses, especially if your life depends upon it.

As a experienced gardeners, we can tell you that is a massive garden.

You will need to be an expert in growing all sorts of plants.  You will need to draw from expertise that only comes from growing at larger scales for many years.

It will take hundreds of hours to care for it through the season.  Much more to preserve it all.  Your harvest work will be several full time jobs!

It’s simply far more reasonable to not worry about this.  It isn’t a competition.  There is only proficiency and lack there of.

Just get started growing and tweak, or expand, your garden as you find you want more.

So, How Much Food Do You Need To Grow, Really?

The reality is, any sized garden is better than no garden at all!

This topic, though, is interesting for people that are trying to transition from a hobby garden into serious home food production.

Unfortunately, this question involves a number of factors that don’t always have simple, straight forward answers.  Considerations include:

  • What amounts of which food can you reasonably store properly?  How big is your freezer?  How much living space can you dedicate to food preservation?  Do you have a cellar or are you willing to accommodate your food storage into your lifestyle?
  • How much time are you willing to put into growing and preservation?  The preservation of food has great benefits, but it all takes time and effort.
  • How large of a garden is practical in your space?  How much time and motivation do you have?  What do you want to grow and how much of it do you want to grow?

Serious home food production probably starts at about 1,000 square feet.  That’s around the point where you can get plant counts high enough to where you have meaningful harvests you can preserve.

Here at Frosty Garden, we are a little bit over 2,000 square feet.  We would estimate that we produce about 15-20% of our annual food needs in that space.

We probably put about 200 hours (and usually more) into our garden and preservation every year.

It’s important to know, especially for the new gardener, that we didn’t start at 2,000 square feet.  We started with about 100 square feet, a little hobby garden.  Then we added a bit more.  When we felt comfortable taking on more, our gardens grew.

Integrate Preservation Techniques Into Your Garden’s Plan

One of the more useful things we’ve learned is to think about our entire garden in terms of how each plant will integrate into our food preservation plans.

We didn’t start as masters of all things preservation.  As we have learned how to garden, we have also pushed our preservation skills to higher levels.  These days, we use most food preservation techniques.  Everything from freezing to drying to pressure canning.

We always try to consider using the simplest possible preservation technique, whenever possible.

For example, some food can be stored at room temperature (or just slightly cooler) for quite some time.  It makes a lot of sense for us to grow certain types of foods because they can be very easily preserved.  Examples of these include winter squash, potatoes, garlic and onions.

We also like to grow foods that can be frozen.  Freezing is a very low tech and fast method of food preservation.  Examples of easily frozen foods include peppers, celery, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and several others.

When it comes to canning, we’ve learned a few tricks to this trade.  We strongly prefer producing “ready to go” meals that combine multiple ingredients.  This really helps us use up year end produce and makes for great garden eating throughout the winter.

This is an example of a ready-to-go meal.  We pressure can this according to food safety guidelines.  They make great soups, stews, curries and rice/noodle dishes throughout the winter.

We use canning techniques for very few “raw ingredient” vegetables.  When we do this, we know we’ll be using a lot of that particular ingredient or will eat it as-is.  Examples of these include white potatoes, tomatoes and carrots.

We also use canning to further preserve “fresh eating” vegetables for much longer periods.  Maybe we can up a “California Mix” of veggies when they are all in season.  We often can our white potatoes in December.

We of course use other techniques such as pickling, fermenting and drying.

The primary point is, we grow around what we can eat and also preserve.  We grow around our preferences of what we want to eat and preserve as well.  We analyze our gardens every year and tweak it to serve us better.

How Much Of Each Plant Do I Need?

This is the most challenging question to figure out.  We talk about the tools we use to figure this out in the next section.

The reality is, you’re not going to figure this out on your first swipe.  This is something you will tweak and change every year.  It will also entirely depend on your preferences and what you like.

What we can offer, though, is what we grow for ourselves every year.  We’ve figured out how much of each thing we generally want and what works for us.

We adjust our plant quantities nearly every year.  For some things, we know we don’t want very much of it.  For others, we’ll take as much as we can reasonably grow.  That is an ever lasting, subjective desire.

  • 30 broccoli / brussels sprouts
  • 12 cauliflower
  • 4 cabbages / kale / collards
  • 8 summer squash
  • 18 winter squash
  • 200-300 carrots
  • 100-200 radishes (succession planted)
  • 100+ garlic and onions
  • 4 to 8 rutabagas / parsnips / beets / turnips
  • 18+ tomatoes (we want to increase this)
  • 18+ peppers (we want to increase this)
  • 35 foot row of potatoes (about 150 pounds)
  • 35 foot row of pole beans
  • 60 bush beans
  • 10 foot row of peas
  • 4+ eggplant & garden huckleberry
  • 5-6 artichokes
  • 4-5 of all herbs we grow
  • 30+ bush beans (we want to increase this)
  • 18 cucumbers
  • 36 celery / celeriac (total)
  • 36 leeks
  • 16+ head lettuce
  • 72+ leaf lettuces (of many different varieties, includes spinach)

Using Online Tools For Basic Garden Planning

One of the most important aspects of planning is conceptualizing your garden.  This is fundamental to determining how much you can grow in a given space.

We’ve tried everything from paper plans to Excel spreadsheets.  What works the best for us is using an online planning tool.  This isn’t an advertisement, but we use the GrowVeg.com website for all of our garden planning needs.

The garden planner from GrowVeg.com is resold through several other websites such as Farmer’s Almanac and several other sites.  GrowVeg.com is the actual source of that same software and they are all the same.

What we love about this tool is that we can plug in the dimensions of our gardens and layout our basic growing spaces quite quickly.

From here, we can easily drop in various plants, including our planting rows and intensive planting techniques we use in our raised beds.  We also model our container garden in the tool.

This was our 2020 garden plan for our community garden.  We grow a lot of food in this plot, mostly larger vegetables that do well growing in the ground.

Above is an example of how we plan out some of our container gardens in our greenhouse.  We don’t need anything complex for design, we’re just trying to get easy plant counts.

This tool automatically figures out basic planting spacing needs and basically acts as the primary plan for our garden.

The tool allows for flexible planting concepts.  It supports row gardening and also intensive gardening techniques.  You can also just plunk down plants wherever you want them.  It helps you visualize the fully grown plant as well, which is super helpful for new gardeners.

The Real Reasons We Use An Online Garden Planner!

Where this online tool pays dividends is you can get an output of exactly how many plants of each type you need to grow, based on whatever you put into the plan.  There are also some bonus features like a planting schedule, but we find it less accurate for the subarctic.

This is an example of the plant outputs you get.  It does include a planting and transplanting schedule, but we have found it less accurate for the subarctic.  We use our planting schedule.

Another major time time saving technique this tool allows is simply copying our previous year’s plan.  When you do this, the tool will visualize crop rotation requirements, making it really easy to avoid conflicts.  This gets our planning effort ahead of the game in mere seconds.

One of our favorite things about the tool is it allows you to very quickly look at “what if” scenarios.  This is especially nice in planning new gardens.

We used this tool to model our raised bed layout, prior to building it.  This allowed us to get a pretty good idea of how much space we’d actually need to grow what we wanted in that space.

This particular tool we recommend does cost money.  (At this time, it’s about $30 per year, or $22.50 per year when you subscribe for two years.)  We have used this tool for many years now and feel it is well worth the cost.  It saves us so much time and makes things so much easier!

So, with that, we basically have our entire garden’s layout, how many plant’s we’re going to need to raise and can start with other planning basics.

How We Manage Our Seed Bank

Let’s briefly talk about how we organize our seeds.  We did the whole shoebox thing for years.

We upgraded to something different and it is totally worth sharing with our readers!  This has been probably one of the more life changing things we’ve purchased for our garden.

We bought a photo organizer to help us manage our seed bank.  This thing is absolutely perfect.  We can keep a ton of seed packets super well organized.

This is our current method of organizing our seed bank.  Photo organizers can be had relatively inexpensively and are great for organizing plant seeds.

You might be asking, “What does this have to do with garden planning?”

Well, knowing what seeds you all ready and what you need have is important!  When we put this organizer together, we found so many duplicates of seeds, it wasn’t even funny!

Where this storage method really helps is when we’re putting together our seed order.  We can easily find the genetics we have and determine if we are missing anything.  Most importantly, it helps us avoid buying seeds we don’t need.

Another helpful technique we use is we write the purchase year on every single seed packet, as soon as we receive them.  While most seeds can last a long time, many seeds have a shelf life that you need to pay attention to.

Getting Your Seed Order Together

Now that you have an idea of what you’re going to plant and the seeds that you may need, you can start putting a seed order together.

Danger!  You’re in the danger zone now!

Seed catalogs and online websites are designed to sell seeds.  There are going to be hundreds of beautiful pictures of amazing and interesting plants.  You are going to want to buy all of them!

We recommend going into your seed order with a plan.

Have an idea of what you need, and how many varieties your garden can realistically support.  Otherwise, you’re going to have to figure out how to grow 16 different kinds of celery (or, whatever!) and that will likely cause some issues.

While we too “give in” a many times, we try to keep to our basic needs as much as possible.  It’s a good idea to minimize seed varieties and balance those desires over multiple years.

Every year is going to be like this!

Take Notes Throughout The Season

One of the most valuable things we can tell you is to keep a bit of a “journal” going through the season.

We use a “master spreadsheet” that has a ton of information we’ve collected over the years.  One of the most important things it includes is various little notes that we write to ourselves for the next year.

The winter months are seemingly long and we often forget the specifics that we were dealing with the prior season.  This journal helps us keep on track and remember those important things.

The biggest things we like to track are:

  • When we run out of a particular kind of seed or need to order something new
  • Major changes we’d like to make to methods, techniques, etc the following year
  • If we learn something new and want to try it the following year
  • When we find a new variety that we want to remember the next year
  • Changes to our seed schedule that might be desired, such as starting things later or earlier

One of the first things we check, before we do any seed orders, are our notes from the prior year.  This helps us build our seed list from the previous season’s needs.

Establishing A Plan Gets Easier Over The Years

We found garden planning a bit intimidating when we first dove into more serious levels of home gardening.  It’s OK, that’s totally normal.

We can tell you that it gets easier over time.

After a few years, you start to get the hang of it.  You understand your gardening space better.  Through experience, you figure out what you want and what you don’t want.  You learn what you use more of and what you use less of.

Just remember, you don’t have to get things perfectly right your very first year.  Or your second, or third year.  In fact, if you’re like us, you will change things every year!

We hope this helps you get a better handle on planning your gardens!

1 comment… add one
  • delia Feb 4, 2021 @ 22:16

    thanks for the garden tool planner idea. I’ll have to check them out. I am planning on trying dahlias this year (in bulk!). they are all so beautiful and I could not resist but it will be good to plan out there placement in the garden plot.

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