food production is one of the cornerstones of homesteading. self-provisioning by growing and storing food is a great practice, but can be tricky if you live in a small space or rent an apartment, as we do. here are some of the solutions i’ve come up with over the years.
Grow what you love. Last year, we planted a little of everything, and grew some weird crops we didn’t love (Aremenian cucumbers, anyone?). Although it was fun to pick out weird varieties, in the end some things ended up in the composter. Since our space is limited, this year I’m planning to stick to 4-5 crops per season that we know we’ll actually eat. It’s easy for me to romanticize a garden filled with every crop under the moon, but until we have a full fledged farm that’s unrealistic.
By specializing in what crops your grow, you can become more efficient. Have your soil tested with your local cooperative extension and specify a single plant or two instead of “vegetables.” You will receive more detailed advice that should help you get a better yield. All plants have different needs for soil quality, fertilization, pest control, pruning, harvesting, and storing. By focusing on a small range instead of 10-15, that’s a lot less information to keep track of! I’m typically a “jack of all trades,” but this year I’m trying to specialize and focus on small, manageable chunks, so I can actually grow my knowledge base and learn through experience.
Find a creative solution. Many books tell you – no yard, no problem! Grow some food in a “sunny” windowsill! I have found that advice completely unreliable and have never grown anything other than dead seedlings in a windowsill. I feel that the fluctuating temps and the unpredictability of light make it difficult for anything to grow into usable food. I’m not saying it doesn’t work – if you have a very sunny, south-facing windowsill, go for it! I just know most of the mediocre apartments I’ve rented don’t have this luxury. Here are some things I’ve tried/ am trying:
- Outdoor container gardening. I had a large container garden, but you don’t have to go that far! Do you cook with herbs? Herbs grow really well in pots. Parsley is super easy to start from seed. Basil, thyme, and oregano can be purchased as babies from any big box store and transplanted into a pot. You definitely don’t need more than one plant of each type – one will produce enough to meet your spicy needs and even harvest some to dry and store if you like. Think about what fruits and veggies you like. Tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, lettuce, arugula, greens, and beans grow well in pots. Just try one single pot with one single plant. A well managed tomato can produce fruit for months! The key is start small. Don’t spend very much money. Five gallon buckets make fine containers for any of the plants listed above and can be found for free or cheap. One bag of quality potting soil will fill a 5 gal bucket. Then all you need is the plant! Under $10, easy 🙂 See The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible by Edward C. Smith for more great ideas (readily available for free at libraries across the US).
- Sprouts! I’ve been growing sprouts since I lived in a 200 square foot studio apartment in Chicago that received no daylight. Sprouts are nutritious, and require about 120 seconds per day of attention. Here’s a great post by Katy Had a Little Farm to get you started. You can grow sprouts year round for pennies.
- Community gardening. You’d be surprised to find out your town may have a community garden. There’s a nearby town, population 1,200, that has a booming community garden. Usually renting a raised bed is dirt cheap (har har). This is a great way to network with other gardeners and learn by watching.
- Indoor Growing. Do you have literally no place for containers that will receive adequate sunlight? Room for a 4 ft wide shelf? Make some room! This is the most expensive solution, BUT if you are planning to scale your operation up could be a worthwhile investment. I’m setting up this system right now, but I started small any only purchased equipment for one shelf of growing. If you can find any kind of shelving that’s 4 ft wide, you could dedicate one shelf to growing food and have enough room to grow salad greens or herbs year round. If you’re interested, check out the tutorial I linked to for ideas! I’ll be sharing my system once it’s set up.
Support Local Agriculture. If you can’t do ANY of the above suggestions, don’t feel discouraged! To me, self-sufficiency is just as much about the attitudes and beliefs as it is about the actual production of goods and self-provisioning. One of my reasons for working towards self-sufficiency is that I hate big business in America. Coupled with that hatred, I strive to support local business and quality made over profit. Another core reason is that I want to consume wholesome, ethically and naturally produced goods. Currently, our household spends more on food than any other good annually.
Right now, I don’t have the means to produce all, or even half, of the food we consume. This bums me out. Inspired by a cookbook we received for Christmas, I started thinking about my alternatives … And realized, why not get a produce box? We already get all our eggs through a farmer’s exchange that provides truly free-range, vegetarian fed, organic eggs. Why not try the same for vegetables? With that, we signed up for our very first CSA box.
CSA stands for “community supported agriculture.” A CSA box is a share-system offering through a local farm or groups of farms. At the beginning of the growing season, one buys a share in the farm upfront – the share pays out over the course of the season in a weekly or biweekly box of produce and other goods. There are many different options for CSA’s now. Our farm offered – full (enough for a family of 4) and mini (enough for 1-2 people) shares with weekly of biweekly options. You could purchase each season (spring, summer, fall) individually, or the entire growing season up front. We chose a mini share, delivered weekly, throughout the entire 40 week growing season for $800. That’s only $20 per week for USDA organic produce. The best part is that this farm does so much business in Athens, they offer free delivery to your front door.
If you can’t grow any food, I urge you to consider this option. Try a single season – you can usually buy a share for around $200 – and see if you like it. It will force you to try new produce that may be outside your comfort zone, which is a big reason for my buying a share. I can be a picky eater, and if I really want to work towards self-sufficiency I need to start eating a wider variety of produce. Purchasing a CSA box is a great way to live more self-sufficiently. Wouldn’t you rather give your money to a local farm than support Monsanto? Wouldn’t you rather eat real produce, grown in the dirt, free of chemicals than the tomatoes in grocery stores that don’t even taste like tomatoes? Self-sufficiency is about shifting your attitudes and the way you interact with the world. Food is a huge part of our lives. Supporting local, ethical agriculture is a great way to become more self-sufficient in how you consume.