Walter Haugen from F.A. Farm recently said that he was on a farmer's panel and the current trend is to encourage everybody to grow 5, 10 or 15% of their own food. That's a goal which is totally doable, although if a lot of people get serious about it, a whole bunch of little scraps of lawn all over town will disappear under potato patches and square foot gardens. Even a modest number of people producing 5-15% of their own food will change the visual character of neighborhoods.
I'm all for it. The U.S. has 57 million acres in wheat and 40 million acres in lawn grass. In terms of energy inputs, chemical fertilizer and herbicide, the country's number one agricultural product is grass clippings. European cities have commons, greens for soccer games, frisbee, picnics, music, fairs, or just strolling about looking cool. There are far fewer private residences with what we would consider the conventional lawn and landscaping. That many of them are behind gates and around large houses is a clue to the embedded class symbolism of the expansive lawn. It is a stupendous, ostentatious waste of resources, and being born democrats and naturally allergic to aristocracy, we love it and want our ten feet of struggling grass.
Lawns were maintained by sheep prior to the industrial age and riding lawn tractors. The big lawn has a brutal and sometimes bloody history. Prior to the sheep, there were tenant farmers growing field crops, orchards and large gardens. In 19th century England, the Enclosure Laws capped a long trend of kicking the tenant farmers off the land in favor of raising sheep for the wool trade. The farmers flooded into the cities, providing cheap labor for the Industrial Revolution and a few actual revolutions in mid-century.
Contemplating our own scraps of green, what would growing 10% of our food look like? Is that 10% by value, or 10% by calories? If it is 10% by value, that's not hard to do. The highest value thing to grow by space used is herbs, followed by the crunchy green stuff. The most valuable gardening that you can do is to grow the cool season garden. See Celt's Garden - Winter Gardening and other prior posts on how to plan and grow your cool season garden. Hint: start now, putting in your fall and winter greens and roots.
You need 30 square feet per eater for the spring garden and another 20 square feet per eater for the winter garden, to grow all the green stuff you can put in your face. A couple of summer squash plants will keep a small family in zucs. Two tomato plants (a cherry and a slicer) plus one more per eater will provide a bounty of fresh tomatoes. For canning, you will need more tomato plants. Or, you could arrange to buy a case of tomatoes when they are dead ripe and abundant. Best to have that conversation with your farmer early. Now is a good time. When I was gardening in a patio, I used to buy a case of canning tomatoes, a sack of green beans for freezing, two or three ginormous juicy cabbages to make 8 quarts of sauerkraut, and a box of pickling cukes in August.
A 4' by 8' bed with a trellis will grow the picklers and a couple of slicing cucumber plants. The deer eat my green beans down to nubbins unless grown within a protective cover of repurposed fencing, but in principle a bed of green beans is easy to grow.
Another high value plant is garlic. Garlic is planted from September through November. A 4' by 4' square will grow 32 garlic plants, which is nowhere near enough for my household for a year. I grow some garlic and I buy some. The one that I try to grow every year is China Pink (Territorial.) China Pink is early and a great keeper. It's ready in May, when last year's harvest has run out or gone off.
The best onions to grow are the ones that you are too cheap to buy. I like shallots, scallions, Italian Red Torpedo and cippolinni onions, over wintering Dutch Yellow shallots (the bunching onion) and perennial onions. Walla-wallas are a beloved Washington tradition, although they take some fussing to get nice bulbs.
Hot pepper plants can grow in pots. They need warmth and fussing to produce, but a couple of robust pepper plants will produce a year's worth of chilis. Ginger and lemon grass are houseplants. Just plant the ginger root in potting soil. The shoots are amazing. Look for juicy lemon grass plants with some roots attached, pop it in a pot and keep it out of direct sunlight until it starts growing again.
All that fits in raised beds and some pots and you just saved over a thousand dollars a year on groceries. Suppose you wanted to go for 10% by calories? Visualize the lawn replaced by raised beds. A 4' by 16' raised bed can grow:
A whole pile of potatoes, 40 - 50 pounds.
A gallon jar of small seeded fava beans.
About 12 pounds of dent corn, enough for 12 generous batches of tortillas.
About four pounds of malting barley, enough for a 5 gallon batch of beer.
About 6.5 pounds of dry soup beans.
Four monster winter squash plants or six small squashes such as delicata or acorn.
A nice stand of small grains for your chickens or ducks.
Resources for growing your own calorie crops:
Krista Rome's blog, http://www.backyardbeansandgrains.com/ and her downloadable grower's guides. Krista (AKA the Bean Woman of Everson) has been doing variety trials on beans, corn, grains and oil seeds for four years and has a lot to say about what works in Whatcom County.
The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. Deppe has packed her book densely with information and opinions. The information is great stuff. I reserve judgement on the opinions.
Seed companies are starting to offer more calorie crops.