Part of Laurie Fourniaudou’s vegetable garden.
I recently received two articles on a fascinating subject—food self-sufficiency in the vegetable garden—and the two complement each other perfectly! Each author has their own point of view, has gone through different experiences and found different aspects of large-scale home vegetable gardening that work for them. In addition, one is from France and describes her experiences in the Pyrenees Mountains. The other is from Canada and gardens in Quebec, not far from Ottawa. And both are having great success with their self-sufficiency projects!
Here is the first article: the experience of Laurie Fourniaudou.
By Laurie Fourniaudou
Achieving self-sufficiency in vegetables is not easy. Embarking on such a project requires preparation, reflection, and some prior knowledge. Cultivating a nourishing and self-sufficient vegetable garden requires a lot of effort. But it’s also something that more and more people are trying. And I’m one of them! A simpler and more authentic life, greater independence, eating more healthily… these were among the many reasons for my choice. So, why embark on this struggle for autonomy? And how to succeed? Discover in this article my advice on starting a subsistence vegetable gardening project.
1. Aiming for Self-Sufficiency in Vegetable Gardening: The Reasons Why
It was when I moved to the French Pyrenees that I decided to aim for self-sufficiency in vegetables. The choice was obvious to me. Here are some of the reasons that led me to make this decision:
Eating Truly Tasty, Healthy Food
The first reason that pushed me to launch this project is the most obvious: to eat better. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever grown a vegetable if I tell you that the vegetables grown in your own vegetable garden taste much better than those from the supermarket. It’s so terribly obvious!
By growing your own edible plants, you know their “life course” from A to Z. You enriched the earth with manure, ash, coffee grounds or vegetable matter. Then, you sowed, planted, weeded, watered. Then you harvested your beautiful vegetables. There were no pesticides. No chemical fertilizers. Everything was natural.
If you grow your own vegetables, you won’t have to worry about their quality. That of any vegetable is always much better when it comes straight from a carefully nurtured vegetable garden. Aiming for autonomy in vegetable gardening is therefore a way to eat healthier. To stay healthier. And to savor dishes with an unbeatable flavor…
So, vegetable self-sufficiency brings you tastier, healthier, better quality food. Great! But on top of that, it’s locally grown! Taking a few steps between your kitchen and the vegetable garden burns no gasoline or diesel, just a few calories… and that’s probably good for you!
Give the Environment a Helping Hand
When you grow your own vegetables, you won’t have to worry about the effects of toxic chemicals that might have been applied to them during commercial growing, harvesting, preparing and shipping.
Consuming your own vegetables naturally without using any chemical fertilizer is a step towards protecting the environment. On your own limited scale, of course.
Today, the world functions largely thanks to a vast import/export system. Freight travel pollutes the planet. And waste is a big problem. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year, one third of all food produced for human consumption.
We’re impoverishing the soil and destroying nature to meet growing consumer demand, yet we throw away much of this very precious food! It’s an infinitely sad situation.
This is why aiming for self-sufficiency in vegetable-growing helps to protect the environment. And to promote and preserve biodiversity. This is all the more true if you apply permaculture methods. That way you can remain in tune with nature. And draw inspiration from nature for your own cultural model. You can learn more about permaculture here.
Gain independence and Help Those Near to You
I’m not going to hide it from you: aiming for self-sufficiency in vegetable production allows you to become independent. Certainly, not in your overall diet (it would take a lot of extra work to get there). But you’re no longer dependent on anyone for your vegetables at least. You’re only dependent on yourself and the time you devote to gardening!
You’ll find it gives you a great feeling of freedom. And there’s a certain personal pride too. Becoming self-sufficient in vegetable growing means being your own food supplier.
This fulfilling independence is all the more satisfying when you can share it with your loved ones. This is one of the principles of permaculture: exchanging and sharing. When you have too much of a crop, you give part of it to those around you. Family, friends, neighbors… You feed them with good, fresh, locally grown products.
2. How Can You Create a Self-Sufficient Vegetable Garden?
Now that we have seen the reasons for aiming for self-sufficiency in vegetables, it’s time to consider how. Developing a self-sufficient vegetable garden is certainly not easy, but it’s not impossible either. Just get organized and think over some important points.
How to Calculate the Right Quantity of Vegetables
It was during the previous winter that I started to think about my autonomy project. I had to work out quite a few things before starting the sowing my vegetables in March. I’m also a very organized person, so it would have been impossible for me to jump into this project blindly at any rate!
I therefore suggest that you first to write down some information on the subject. Estimate your needs, the amount of food you consume annually, the number of people you’ll be feeding, etc.
It is, I grant you, rather hard to do the first time on your own. What did I do? I got help from several books, but also and especially from my boyfriend. He’s a farmer and was able to advise me on the ideal amount of vegetables to grow for 2 to 4 people. For example, for broad beans, which we consume abundantly in my part of the world, I transplanted more than 90 plants in March.
But those numbers remain only estimates. Although this is an important step, in practice, the situation will obviously vary. There may be crop failures, animal predation, mistakes, etc. It’s for this reason that achieving self-sufficiency in vegetable production can take several years. Consider the first year to be a “ test year”: compare how well you succeeded in relation to your estimates, what things you need to rethink, where you made mistakes and in which cases there was a lack of vegetables or, on the contrary, an overabundance…
Here are examples of estimations of a few common vegetables to get you started. The numbers suggested are for 2 to 4 people. That might help you.
- Cauliflowers: 15 plants.
- Green beans: about fifty plants.
- Pumpkins: 2 plants.
- Tomatoes: 10 plants.
- White onions: 100 plants.
- Zucchinis: 4 to 5 plants.
Of course, these are my own calculations, ones that worked for me. You can use them as a base number and adapt them according to your situation.
Organize Your Vegetable Garden
With that in mind, try making a diagram of your future vegetable garden. This plan can be really useful as a “gardening guide.” It can help you to associate the right companion plantings, to obtain the best spacing in order to use the entire growing surface and to choose appropriate cultivation methods.
Consider optimizing your vegetable garden to save a lot of space. Favor vertical and climbing crops. Surround slow-to-grow vegetables with fast-growing ones. Space your seedlings and transplants as tightly as logically possible. Reduce the width of access rows.
There is more than one way to plant vegetables, and each has its own advantages. Here are a few:
- Classical vegetable bed (flat or raised);
- Hügelkultur (mound culture);
- Square foot garden;
- Container culture (very practical if you have little space for an in-ground garden).
For my own use, I prepared a simple plan of my various beds that showed the following:
- The places where I will grow this or that vegetable (according to logical companion planting, the size of each, the space required, the need for sunshine, etc.).
- The cultivation methods I intended to use.
- Crop rotation according to the seasons (spring; summer; autumn).
Practice led me to modify certain ideas, because things don’t always work out exactly as you had planned. But still, this plan is essential, and I try to stick to it as closely as possible.
Grow Perennials and Produce Your Own Seeds
To tend towards autonomy, there’s nothing better than to cultivate perennial vegetables. These are vegetables that remain in the ground for several years, producing harvestable vegetables each year. Thanks to this, you develop a nurturing, fertile and sustainable vegetable garden over time.
It requires work in the beginning, like everything else: you have to sow or plant, then maintain and finally harvest. But once they’ve rooted in and growing well, you won’t need to spend as much time dealing with them. They grow back every year, making you efforts so much easier!
Here is a short list of perennial vegetables you may want to try growing. Whether a vegetable hardy somewhere else will be “perennial” or not in your garden depends on its degree of cold hardiness, so the hardiness zone of each one is given here.
- Artichoke, hardiness zones 6–8*;
- Basil, hardiness zones 9–12;
- Cardoon, hardiness zones 3–8;
- Crosne or Chinese artichoke, hardiness zones 4–8;
- Daubenton perennial cabbage, hardiness zones 6–9;
- Jerusalem artichoke, hardiness zones 3–9;
- Lovage, hardiness zones 3–8;
- Perennial leek, hardiness zones 3–8;
- Ramsons, hardiness zones 3–8;
- Rhubarb, hardiness zones 3–7;
- Sand leek or rocambole, hardiness zones 3–9;
- Sorrel, hardiness zones 3–7;
- Wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia), hardiness zones 5b-9.
*For example, the artichoke would be a perennial in hardiness zones 6 to 8, but you would have to treat it as an annual in a colder zone, like 3 or 4 and also a hotter one, like 9 or 10.
Most common vegetables, though, are either annuals or biennials, so you can’t keep the same plant growing year after year. However, there is a solution to make them permanent too: produce your own seeds.
This is an extra step, but one that is well worthwhile taking if you don’t want to have to depend on outside seed sources.
Start with easy ones, like pumpkin and tomato seeds, where there is an already mature seed in the fruit you harvest for the kitchen. Then learn how to treat others so that they produce seed you can harvest.
Install a Greenhouse
If you have enough space, installing a greenhouse can help you become self-sufficient in vegetables even in winter. There is a surprisingly large number of vegetables you can continue to grow year-round in a well lit, temperate space that also protects your plants from the cold and predators.
My boyfriend and I haven’t installed our first greenhouse yet. But we are counting on it for next winter.
Since we live in the mountains, we experience cold, harsh winters and also early and late frosts. A greenhouse will allow us to grow vegetables year-round in a warmer space. In addition, we’ll be able to sow heat-loving vegetables. For example, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. We had tried to grow some last year, without much success.
3. Food on the Table All Year Around: The Importance of Food Preservation
Self-sufficiency in vegetables is a wonderful concept. And it may seem simple enough to achieve during the summer. This is the season when you harvest the most, often daily: there’s plenty to put on the table. But what about in winter? Do you have to do without your delicious homegrown veggies during that long season? No, not if you set up things in consequence!
To achieve winter self-sufficiency, there is one watchword: preservation. This technique makes it possible to keep food edible for a long time. It prevents vegetables from rotting and bacteria from proliferating.
The first time I preserved vegetables was during the summer of 2021. With my boyfriend, we cooked tomato sauces and froze green beans and prepared dishes (tian, lasagna, cauliflower in bechamel sauce, etc.).
So here are some preservation methods you can try:
1. Fresh Storage
This simply means conserving vegetables naturally, making them last as long as possible without adding or subtracting anything. It’s most easily done by putting them in a refrigerator, a root cellar, a cool basement or maybe a garage. If you simply keep many vegetables, like potatoes, onions, carrots, beets and squash, cool and dry and protected from light, they’ll store a long time.
2. Sugar as a Preservative
Although this article deals with self-sufficiency in vegetables, I wanted to at least mention this technique with you even though it usually concerns fruit. You can use it to make syrups, jams, jellies, etc. It’s the mixture of sugar and water that stops the development of microorganisms.
3. Preservation in Oil
Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are often used for this type of preservation. By isolating them from the air (in an airtight jar), the oil prevents the bacteria from proliferating in these vegetables.
This method of preservation is well known. It is possible to freeze vegetables in different ways:
- Raw or lightly blanched: pepper, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.
- Cooked: beets, beans, eggplant, etc.
- Prepared: soup, stew, au gratin potatoes, vegetarian lasagna, etc.
My boyfriend and I had a very bountiful bean crop in the summer of 2021. We took the opportunity to freeze a fair proportion of it. The result? We have had homegrown beans available all winter!
Yes, canning! The good ol’ Mason jar method. Food is stored in a closed glass jar with water. Simply heat the container, which destroys the bacteria and sterilizes the water. You can store beans, broad beans, carrots, peas and many more vegetables this way.
This method involves removing water from food. As with all the other storage methods, it prevents the proliferation of microorganisms. You can opt for dehydration in the sun or in an oven. Or use a commercial dehydrator. You can dehydrate pretty much anything. In the spring, for example, my boyfriend and I like to go out and pick morels. We then dehydrate some of them to have in the fall or winter!
Take advantage of the knowledge you have gained in this article to try to reach self-sufficiency yourself!
Now that you know more about self-sufficiency in vegetable production, you may be ready to start your project! But if you have other methods, tips or advice to share, don’t hesitate to leave a note in the comments.
The second article on self-sufficiency in vegetable gardening, by Canadian gardener, Laurent Dubois, will appear in tomorrow’s post.
About the Author
After moving to the French Pyrenees, Laurie Fourniaudou is working with her boyfriend to develop a farm producing organic vegetables.. It is for this project that she created the French-language blog Le Potager d’Aillou which deals with self-sufficiency and growing fruits and vegetables, but also their simple and natural life in the mountains.
Translation and adaptation from French by Larry Hodgson
Photos by Laurie Fouriaudou