One of the first things you need to do when planning a food garden is to decide the size of your vegetable patch. This page helps gardeners work out the best size for their needs.
A common mistake inexperienced food gardeners make is to drastically overestimate the amount of land that is needed to grow vegetables. In the 1970s John Jeavons wrote a seminal vegetable growing book, the title of which sums it up perfectly: “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine.” There is no need to move to the country to produce a lot of vegetables, if there is enough sunlight a small suburban backyard can produce a huge amount.
Most of us need to work to make ends meet, and this will greatly limit the amount of time you can spend working a vegetable patch. However, it’s not only the time you spend at work but the time you spend commuting to and from work that you must consider. For example, a person working a forty-hour week who spends two hours a day commuting to that job will in fact be away from their house and garden for fifty or more hours a week. The time spent working and commuting will limit the size of vegetable patch that can be worked comfortably.
Another important thing to consider is how much time in a week you can potentially access your garden. I don’t mean the actual time you spend in the garden but the time you are at home and can get into the garden at short notice. Some garden activities, like watering newly planted seedlings, don’t take much actual time but do require you to be available to do such activities at regular intervals. The amount of GAP time you have available will have a significant influence on the size of vegetable patch you can manage.
The skills level of the gardener makes a significant difference to the amount of time required to maintain a vegetable patch. Experienced gardeners can run a much larger garden than a novice gardener.
The age and fitness of a gardener is a critical factor determining how big a vegetable garden can be comfortably managed. Though the manageable size of a garden worked by an elderly or infirm person can be expanded by installing high raised beds (less stooping required to manage them) or using ergonomically designed gardening tools.
The time taken to carry out other food garden activities such as maintaining fruit and nut trees, keeping bees and looking after chickens should also be considered.
For example, a single fruit tree will need to be pruned three or four times a year, sprayed for pests, covered with bird netting before harvesting the fruit and taken off again after harvesting. The harvested fruit may also need to be preserved if the tree produces more fruit than can be eaten fresh.
The time people have available for managing a vegetable patch will vary depending on their stage in life. For example, people with young children or those working long hours will have much less time for a vegetable garden than a retired couple. If you have been running a vegetable patch but, because of changing circumstances, find yourself with less time for gardening do not be afraid to reduce the size of your veggie patch. For that reason I recommend that vegetable beds be made from more temporary material, such as wood or corrugated iron, so they can be easily dismantled.
When the above points are factored in it is my experience that most people can maintain a vegetable patch no larger than a couple of community garden plots, (a typical plot being 2 x 3 metres (6 1/2 x 10 feet). Even if you think you can maintain a patch larger than this, it is preferable to start off with a small patch and expand when you have the time and experience to do so.
It makes more sense to run a small vegetable patch well than a large one poorly.
My vegetable patch is larger than average. I am only able to maintain it because I work part time and mainly from home, which gives me enough spare time to properly tend it.
Fruit trees take a lot of work to maintain them properly. The time spent managing your fruit trees needs to be factored in when working out the size of the vegetable patch that you can maintain properly.