How Grow Enough Vegetables for a Whole Year

"How do I know how many vegetables to plant so I can feed my family for a whole year?" It's a hugely common question - but one that has no easy, pat answer. In fact, if anyone gives you a pat answer, you should be skeptical. Very skeptical.

That's because there are a ton of variables. What gives one family veggies for a year is not the same as what gives another family enough veg for a year. One obvious example is that a family whose meals are centered around meat, with vegetables as a side, is not going to eat the same amount of veggies as a family who eats very little (or no) meat.

There are also less obvious things to consider, like:

* Variety. (Certain varieties of green beans are going to produce more food than others. The same can be said of nearly any vegetable. Speaking very generally, hybrid varieties produce more food than heirlooms, but among every type of vegetable, the amount of food produced by certain varieties can vary widely. Want more food from every plant? Seek out varieties described as "abundant," "large cropping," "large harvesting," etc.)

* Nutrition concerns. (Some people prefer to grow heirlooms because some evidence suggests hybrids may offer less nutrition.Those focused on getting the most nutrition from their veggies will also choose veg that are higher in vitamins, such as leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and beets, or veggies higher in protein - though plant protein is incomplete - such as green peas, beans, Brussels sprouts, kale, and potatoes.)

* Garden conditions. (Your soil, your region, your micro-climate, and the weather that particular year, all have a huge affect on how much food your plants produce. Have a more productive garden by understanding what grows well in your area and by choosing varieties suited to it. Looking for quick-growing varieties that can be replanted several times in the growing season also increase productivity.)

* Growing methods. (For example, those who intensive garden without fertilizing heavily will probably grow less food than those who garden less intensively in rich organic soil. On the other hand, you can grow more food in a smaller space if your pathways are narrow and you avoid narrow rows of vegetables.)

* Storage. (Whether or not you store your harvest makes a huge difference in how much you should grow. If you don't can, freeze, dehydrate, freeze dry, or root cellar food, you'll need to grow much less...and, except in very mild regions, should expect to have to buy vegetables during the winter.)

Artichokes take up a lot of space and are therefore best avoided in small gardens.

* Personal tastes. (For example, you might cook with tomatoes several times a week, but another family only cooks with them once a week. Your family may love eating summer squash, while another family detests squash and prefers to focus on other vegetables.)

A General Guideline from the Past

A Victory Garden plan from The New Garden Encyclopedia.

One of my favorite gardening books is The New Garden Encyclopedia, published in 1945; it includes an entire section on planting Victory Gardens - vegetable gardens designed to feed civilians during World War II, when a lot of commercially-grown food bypassed civilians and went straight to our troops.

The Encyclopedia offers some interesting information on how much space a Victory Garden should consume: "The usual size is 1,000 sq. ft. of garden area for each person in the family. Thus a family of five would have a garden 50 by 100 or 5,000 sq. ft. - which would keep one person rather busy during spare time." In England, where food was much more scarce, but space perhaps more limited, the author writes that a garden 2,500 sq. ft. was typical, and required three or four hours of work per week. (That seems a rather low estimate of time spent, in my opinion, especially if the garden is new.)

The New Garden Encyclopedia also recommends:

* growing enough leafy greens so that each person in the family can eat 13 lbs.per week. This may seem like a lot of poundage, but remember that leafy greens like collards, kale, cabbage, and spinach shrink considerably once they are cooked. The author claims 3,330 sq. ft. of earth is needed for this endeavor.

* growing 11 lbs. of "other vegetables" per week, which would require 1,600 sq. ft. of soil. (This is very general, since some vegetables, like tomatoes and corn, take up much more room than others.)

* growing just 4 lbs. of tomatoes per person per week, which the author claims needs 500 sq. ft. of space.

* growing 14 lbs. of potatoes per person per week, which requires 2,500 sq. ft. of soil.

Following these guidelines, a garden for one person would need to be 4,600  sq. ft. per person!

Below is another chart the Encyclopedia offered, detailing how much space each crop should take up in a Victory Garden.

Bear in mind the focus here was on a basic garden, using conventional rows (so a fair amount of wasted space), and older varieties.

Now fast forward to my very first canning book, The Ball Blue Book from 1984. Perhaps surprisingly, this reference includes a "Garden Planning Guide" chart, suggesting how much of each fruit or vegetable should be planted in order to obtain a certain number of canned goods. I cannot reproduce this handy chart without violating copyright laws, but I've done the next best thing: I've created my own chart, using Ball's figures. You can download the .PDF here.

More Tips

Now, these are helpful (I think) guidelines, but keep in mind a few things:

*New gardeners may quickly become overwhelmed by a large garden. If you've never grown food before, I highly recommend that you start small. As a newbie, you are going to make mistakes. In a smaller garden, it's easier to limit those mistakes and losses. Instead, plan on expanding your garden a bit every year.

New gardeners should start with small gardens.

* A large garden can take quite a bit of time to maintain, depending upon the gardening methods you choose.

* To get a good idea of how many vegetables your family actually eats, jot down what you consume in one month's time. Now multiply that by 12.

* You can maximize your garden by choosing more productive and more space-saving plants. For instance, artichoke plants are rather large, are perennials (meaning you plant them once and don't pull them out of the garden), and only give a harvest once a year. In the amount of space an artichoke takes, you could plant a lot of leafy greens or several pole beans, which will keep providing food throughout the growing season.

* You can intercrop for more productivity. For instance, lets say you're growing lettuce, which is shallow rooted. Try intercropping it with carrots or parsnips, which have deep roots, but not a lot of leaves above ground. Or, if you have the space to grow corn, remember that it grows rather slowly, so you can intercrop a faster-growing vegetable, like turnips, in the corn bed. (A very fast-growing veg that is excellent for intercropping almost anywhere is radish. Don't like fresh radishes? Try cooking them; this takes the "bite" out and makes a low carb substitute for potatoes.)

Carrots interplanted with cabbage.

* Succession planting is helpful, especially if you don't preserve food. For example, plant a few beet seeds one week, then a few more a week later, then more a week after that. In this way, you can have fresh beets over a longer period of time. 

* Especially the first year, and especially if space is limited, focus on calorie dense vegetables that your family will eat a lot of, in place of veggies you like to eat, but don't eat much of. 

Turnips grow quickly and can be stored in the fridge for months. Their leaves make a tasty green, too.

* Not everything has to grow in one large vegetable garden. When I lived in the suburbs, I had one rather traditional backyard vegetable garden, but then also planted food in the brick flower planter in front of my house, the mow strip, and the side yard.

Cabbages planted in a brick flower bed on our old homestead in the suburbs.

* Remember to consider that not all vegetables that you like to eat may grow well in your area. 

A version of this post originally appeared in December of 2011.


  1. Hello Kristina...

    I came across your web site today. Can't recall how I got here, but it was due to a gardening thread.
    My question for you is in what state do you live? I'm from Ohio and while I was (on first read) skimming through your seed starting book, there was mention of winter planting. That's what raised my curiosity. It seemed that you might live in the southern or western part of our country.
    Just may or may not want to share such personal information, but thought I would ask anyway.
    Excellent site! And, I just remembered what brought me to your pages...miniature vegetables.
    Thank you.

  2. Hi Anonymous and thanks for taking the time to comment. I would rather not say where we live. However, I can tell you that folks around here can't grow edibles in the winter without a greenhouse or something similar. I do, however, overwinter (leave in the ground) some things, including parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes).

  3. Thanks for responding, Kristina! Sorry about the "Anonymous" header. I couldn't figure out the profile thingamajig so I used that one. I'm Joanne from Ohio.

    Have a great Thanksgiving!