Garden Planning, Estimating Yields

by Charlotte Walker

I spend a lot of my time thinking about and dealing with food, and for good reason. Our goal is to feed ourselves year round, from our own food production. The garden is the main contributor to our food supply and it seems to expand each year.  We have eight hens to providing plenty of eggs. We also had pigs and quail but we are not so sure we want to do that again.

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I have questions that need to be answered before spring arrives.  This garden expansion is important to get right and I turned to books and on-line resources to help me get started with our plan. I know the value of a good plan. Efficiency, cost savings, organization, budgeting …making a plan has a lot going for it. I soon realized that the information all assumed that you have previous data to base your decisions on. If you can answer how many hundreds of pounds of beets, onions and potatoes you need, you are set.

Resources that offer a suggested number of plants per person also did not work for us.  We eat a mainly vegetarian diet and do crazy things like juicing, smoothies etc. The suggested quantities didn’t seem to consider all of the variables. So if you are like me, you don’t yet think in pounds and 100FT rows, where do you start?

Estimating yields by quantity (also known as the big bad grocery list)

We decided to do our planning for this year from a simple (and not very scientific) basic pantry/inventory perspective. I am aware of what we eat and how much of it per week. For the most part, there are two of us to feed other than holidays and special visits. So we started there. We intend to start weighing our daily harvests and logging it all, but without that data to work from, you need a starting point.  I might not know the weight of a 100FT row of potatoes, but I can tell you how many potatoes we could easily eat in a year.

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My husband and I went through the list, item by item, deciding how much we need per week based on the different ways we like to eat that particular vegetable. Potatoes are a good example. There are so many ways to use a potato, and if like us, you love baby potatoes, you need to plant extra. I come by my obsession with potatoes honestly. My Aunt has made it known that she is to be buried in her potato pot. It’s somewhat of a family joke but we all know that she kind of means it. We love our spuds.

Root vegetables are simple to calculate however plants like beans, cucumbers & tomatoes that produce multiple fruits on a single plant can take a little bit of creative thinking and guess work.

When building this list, you need to be thinking about food storage, food preservation and what you are going to do with your bounty when harvest time rolls around.

Things to consider when fine tuning your plan; 

  • Company/house guests
  • Special holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, gifts)
  • Number of people in household (for us it’s two, and two dogs)
  • Food preservation and storage (space requirements, storage options)
  • Supplies and materials required to store food (canning jars, dehydrator)
  • Costs of putting up food (propane, electricity, etc)
  • Seed saving (if you plan of saving seeds you need to plant a lot more)

Calculating for Preservation (home canning, dehydrating etc)

When drying or canning certain foods, they reduce substantially, so your required yield budgets need to increase accordingly. Tomatoes are the main one in this category for us.

This is how I figure out how many tomato plants we need. Keep in mind that with tomatoes there are exceptions and more exceptions. The varieties of tomatoes are endless. Some have more water content than others, some produce more fruit than others. Climate and soil also impact production. Using the art of guesswork, this is what we think we know. We need anywhere from 3- 7 pounds of tomatoes per 1 quart jar of sauce. One bushel weighs about 53lbs and each plant produces 20-30lbs of tomatoes. For the sake of planning I am going with 3 plants per bushel and 25lbs per plant. Call me a paranoid planner who can handle too many far easier than too few.

We eat canned tomatoes for most of the year, and will be trying to extend our fresh season using the greenhouse. For this exercise we will assume that nine months we eat canned tomatoes and for three months fresh.

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  1. Tomato sauce  – 1 Quart/week = 36 jars (216lb)
  2. Salsa – 1 pint/week = 36  jars (54lb)
  3. Stewed tomatoes – 2 quart/week = 72 jars (288lb)
  4. Roasted cherry tomatoes  – 1 pint/week =36 jars (54lb)
  5. Ketchup/BBQ sauce – 2 – 2OZ jars/week = 72 jars (23lb)

Tomatoes for canning: 635lb total  =25 plants (not including 12 weeks of fresh eating or seed saving calculations)  

Plant extra and  save your seeds!

Saving seeds will save you lot of money in the long run. If you can learn the art of gardening, seed saving is a natural next step. It does mean that you need to plant extras of everything for seed saving.

The number of seeds you get from each plant will vary.  You will also need to know how long it will take for your crop to produce seed, some are annual (tomatoes) and some are biennial (carrots). It will take at least two growing seasons, a well thought out plan and a good measure of luck to become mostly independent.

Quick tip: you want to collect your seed from the finest specimens in your garden. Look for the absolute best and reserve them for their seed.

You can find excellent seed saving resources here. If you want to know why heirloom seeds are the way to go (especially if you want to save seeds) I wrote a little article about that.

Do yourself a favour and maintain a yield log

Time and experience will make it so much easier to complete this planning exercise.  By tracking your garden yields and/or how much you consume of everything you will soon have enough data to help you plan confidently.

We have a full growing season of data now and it was really satisfying to weigh or count and then log all of the food that we grew. You can also compare your costs to those of the grocery stores with the data you are collecting to see what the cost difference is.  Seven dollar cauliflower?  I think not!

Now we need to wait and see what we have too much of (pickles probably) and not enough of (tomato sauce I suspect).

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Once you have your estimated complete and know how many of each plant you need to grow, you can begin planning your garden layout, which will ensure you know exactly how much space you need to accomplish your food production goals.  Good news: the hard part, thinking-wise, is done!  Garden layout planning is relatively easy compared to figuring out your required yields (this is my theory, anyway!)

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