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.

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, we 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

For the purposes of this post, we’re going to assume that you all ready have a gardening space.  Or maybe you are planning to build a garden space and have a decent idea of what you want it to look like.  Either way, this post should help you.

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.”

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.

How many cans of kale are you really going to eat before you start throwing them out the window?

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.

Is it possible?  Sure.

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. You’ll probably need significantly more than that to account for potential losses.

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.  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 much time are you willing to put into growing and preservation?
  • How large of a garden is practical in your space?

Serious home food production probably starts at about 1,000 square feet.  That’s 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.  We probably put about 200 (perhaps more) hours 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What might provide you a little insight, though, is to know roughly where we are at for major types of plants in most years.  We’ve figured out how much of each thing we generally want and what works for us.

  • 30 broccoli / brussels sprouts (slightly too many)
  • 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 beans and peas (this could be increased)
  • 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 website for all of our garden planning needs.

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.

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 have is absolutely vital.  When we put this organizer together, we found so many duplicates of seeds, it wasn’t even funny!

Another technique we use is we write the purchase year on every single seed packet.  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 it might cause some issues.

While we “give in” a few times, we try to keep to our basic needs as much as possible.  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
  • 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.


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