Want to Grow More Food? First, Make a Plan!

There are so many reasons to grow more of your own food. It’s healthy, it can improve your food security, and it it can be highly rewarding. If you’re hoping to ramp up your production to make a bona fide contribution to your diet, first make a plan.

Containers of Raspberries, strawberries, saskatoons, currants and rhubarb harvested in late summer.

I created a completely customizable Google Sheet to help you do this. Based on the size of your family and preferences for various vegetables and berries, the sheet will help you calculate how much row and square footage you’ll need to grow enough food to reach your desired goals. You’ll have to download it to enter your numbers and you will need a google account.

Farm rows with peppers (grown with plastic mulch), beans and potatoes grow in rows.

From left, peppers (grown with plastic mulch), beans and potatoes grow in rows.

In the Sheet, yields per square foot are very roughly based on variety trials at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm  as well as other sources. Yields vary significantly depending on variety so you should peruse past variety trial reports to select top performers. I also added 25% more square feet to hedge against less productive gardens, unexpected weather and, well, all kinds of other things like moose.

A few crops listed in the Sheet, including tomatoes and cucumbers, should be grown in a greenhouse to maximize production. Other crops like winter squash, basil, zucchini and corn need some type of soil warming and/or air warming contraption, such as plastic mulch to warm the soil or a hoop house to warm the air and soil.

There are lots of ways to extend the season–I’m planning on copying the simple hoop house Emily shows in this video. She estimates that it only cost her about $200 or $300 to make. Although some crops all but require some type of warming boost, many other cool-season crops will certainly benefit from the warmth as well. I wouldn’t plant things like spinach, Swiss chard, or cilantro, to name a few, that tend to bolt in a hoop house or greenhouse, though.

Another important aspect of scaling up is planting seeds. While not an absolute must, if you’re expanding your production and have the time at home like most of us do right now, it can offer a huge cost savings. It’s already too late to start some things, but prime time to start many others. If demand for seeds and seed potatoes is indicative of demand for plants, there is a real chance that greenhouses will sell out this spring. This is a nice calculator for figuring out when you should start what seeds. It’s not perfect for Alaska, but it’s a starting point. For example, some crops listed in the calculator like melons, watermelon and pumpkins, simply won’t mature in our short Alaska growing season unless you start them much earlier and/or plant them in a greenhouse or a hoop house.

For more information on gardening, be sure to check out UAF Extension’s publications on the topic. If you’re a beginner, start with 16 Easy Steps to Gardening. If you’re new to seed starting, check out Seed Starting and Transplanting. And of course, where you live and your garden climate zone plays a big role in how productive your garden will be and in what you can grow outside compared with a greenhouse or season extender.

Terry Reichardt and her family have shown it is entirely possible to grow, hunt, fish and gather nearly all of your food in Fairbanks, Alaska and might something to aspire to for the rest of us.

Garden plot of perennial strawberries and raspberries

Published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer  April 26, 2020.

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