With wages stagnating, the cost of living skyrocketing and ever increasing instability across the globe – It’s no wonder that self-sufficient living is enjoying a surge in popularity these last few years.
Regardless of your end goals, living a little more self-sufficiently can only mean good things. Greater independence, saving a little money, knowing where your food is coming from – Not a bad return from a little knowledge and hard-work.
In this – the first part of an ultimate guide to all things self-sufficiency – we’ll be taking a look at some ways in which you can build a self-sufficient food production system, regardless of how much land, money or time you have to spare.
Interested in alternative methods to grow larger, healthier crops with half the back-ache?
Take a look at our guide to Alternative Gardening Methods and free yourself from the horticultural grind.
So, if we’re talking self-sufficient living, where better to start than food production.
The average daily required calorie intake – and of course, this is highly subjective – is 2250 calories.
To give a little context to this abstract notion of numbers equalling survival, that’s around 3kg of potatoes, 22 Bananas, or 44 plain slices of toast (what kind of maniac ..), per person, per day.
So as we can see, it’s surprising just how much food we each need on a daily basis in order to remain healthy. This is further complicated by the introduction of macro & micro nutrient requirements alongside the sheer quantities needed.
Afterall, there’s only so long a man can survive on plain toast until his teeth begin to fall out.
Best not to disappear too far down that rabbit hole though, and rather focus on simply introducing as much diversity to your food production as is feasible.
This not only makes for a healthier, more satisfying diet, but perhaps more importantly reduces the chance of total disaster were one of your sources to fail.
So, how exactly do we go about achieving this? Let’s take a look.
Fruit & Nut
Maximising Health & Yield
If you have more than two or three acres to work with, you’ve got enough room to make fruit & nut production a huge part of your road toward self-sufficiency.
Heck If done correctly, there’s no reason you can’t build any range of small businesses on even an acre or two with a little careful planning and foresight.
Our preferred method of fruit & nut growing is the permaculture approach – planting various species together in a monoculture set-up.
Taking an apple orchard as our example, in this set-up rather than having rows of apple trees lined up with nothing but grass in between, we would swap out ⅔ of those trees for a nitrogen fixing tree and another, non-apple productive tree respectively.
If in the mood for some further reading, we recommend this as a wonderful resource.
This inherent diversity reduces the need to fertilise while greatly increasing disease & pest resistance, improving yields in turn.
Using this as our ‘Canopy’ layer, we would then interplant between trees with perennial herbs, vegetables, shrubs – Whatever we fancy, with some utilised for additional crops and others utilised for their pest-repellent properties.
Take a look at our post on ideal fruit & nut tree companion plants.
It’s clear to see that following this method you can produce a huge amount of food, medicine and utility crops in a very small space.
If interested in learning more, there’s really no better place to look than Miracle Farms, a pioneer of this kind of approach to orchard design.
What To Grow
A tough one to call as it’s such a subjective choice. We’ve found the most reliable canopy layer fruits here in Wales to be Apple / Plum, with huge yields of very healthy fruits remaining reliable despite our often erratic weather.
Sweet-chestnut has also worked well in our experience as a stand-alone nut-canopy, interplanted with Honey Locust. Underneath this canopy, we focus on hazelnuts, lavender and a whole range of both annual and perennial herbs & vegetables.
But of course, that’s us. What you need and want will naturally differ, and your land use should be shaped around that, not what works best for others.
Whatever it is you decide to do, we suggest adhering to the permaculture approach, and focusing strongly on using local, heritage varieties.
These two principles will reduce the disease & pest problems you have enormously, freeing you up to focus on other aspects of building your dream self-sufficient lifestyle.
Having said all of this, some of our recommended crops for the British climate would be as follows:
Canopy – Apple, Pear, Plum, Sweet-Chestnut.
2nd Layer – Hazelnut (Filbert), Gooseberry, Goumi (Autumn Olive)
Understory – Rhubarb, Lovage, Garlic, Shallots, Garlic-Chives
Groundcover – Wild-Strawberries
Nitrogen Fixers – Honey Locust, Autumn Olive, Sea Buckthorn
Propagation & Storage
A quick point to finish up this section. Trees, shrubs, perennials – they don’t come cheap. Being able to propagate is a hugely useful money saving skill to have in your back-pocket.
Over the last two or three years alone it has saved me thousands, and has the potential to make thousands going forward. It’s also a doddle to pick up. Learn to raise seeds, learn to root cuttings, and learn to graft and you’ll be well on your way.
Also, focusing on fruit & nut varieties which preserve & store well is crucially important in working towards greater self-sufficiency. With any more than a handful of trees, even the biggest family will have no chance of eating everything fresh. Jamming, freezing or cold-storing are some popular options to think about here.
Either way, research your chosen varieties carefully to decipher what storage solutions will work best for you, and whether they offer the best bang-for-your-acreage-buck when all things are considered.
- Plant using the ‘Permaculture’ ethos.
- Use local heritage varieties whenever possible.
- Think carefully about your layout beforehand (They’re harder to move once in!)
- Plant densely in layers, with Canopy as your top and Ground-Cover as your bottom.
- Learn to propagate using a range of different methods.
- Research how best to store your chosen fruit and put plans for usage / preserval in place beforehand.
- The Fruit Tree Handbook – Ben Pike
- Trees for Gardens, Orchards & Permaculture – Martin Crawford
- Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops – Martin Crawford
- The Fruit Gardener’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts in the Home Garden – Lewis Hill
Maximising Health & Yield.
So we’ve established a reliable fruit & nut production, terrific. Unfortunately, unless we’re willing to wait a few years, rely solely on a select few crops, and survive the year on Chestnut & Apple crumble alone – We’re going to need to diversify.
Vegetables to the rescue. Looks like self-sufficiency is back on the menu boys..
Unlike fruit & nut production, vegetables can be intensively farmed using only a small area and in a relatively short amount of time, making them the perfect foil to their branch-bearing-brethren.
While there are numerous approaches to vegetable gardening out there which you may prefer, we personally recommend the ‘No-Dig Approach’ due to its inherent simplicity and high yield potential.
If you’re interested in this approach to veg growing, we’d advise you check out some books by the kingpin of no-dig himself, Charles Dowding.
In essence this method is very simple. You begin by laying a mulchable material such as cardboard down over your intended growing area. Next, lay some composted or compostable material on top in a thicker layer, building it up to at least 3-4 inches.
Lastly, plant as you usually would in any raised bed or traditional plot system, building up the compost as your plants go if necessary (Potatoes generally need to be topped up through the growing season).
It’s as easy as that. What we love about the no dig system is the massive reduction in labour requirements, as well as how it allows us to utilise waste products such as manure and leaves as a primary growing medium, making it very low-maintenance and easy sustainable.
Alternatively, there’s nothing wrong with growing in raised beds or traditional beds, whatever works best for you.
Maximising your space is something to consider when moving towards self-sufficiency, meaning windowsills, patioed areas and vertical walls could be utilised in different ways to up your potential yields.
Take a look at our post detailing ways to maximise your growing space for higher yield and healthier plants here, and take your self-sufficient plans to the next level.
What To Grow
Well, the easy answer here is – Whatever you like best! After all, there’s little point in being self-sufficient in growing food you exclusively hate eating. Masochistic much?
A more in depth answer however would vary greatly depending on the space available to the individual.
Have little outdoor space and plenty of walls? Grow yourself some climbers such as sugar snap peas or broad beans. Looking to maximise your survival through a long and lonely winter? Potatoes, potatoes and, more potatoes.
Ideally we want to be building our garden around easily grown, generally pest-resistant crops with big yields of easily stored produce. Easy as that, I hear you say.
Well in this case many of our favourite root vegetables would make the list, such as carrots, potatoes and beetroot. Salad crops also for their speedy growth and packed nutrient profiles. And perhaps some climbers, to utilise your available vertical space, as well as the horizontal.
Rhubarb and Asparagus are two favourite perennials of ours. Although they take a little while to settle in, once established you’ll be reaping consistent crops for years to come.
They’re also very easy to propagate from – We filled two 5m square boxes in around three years through dividing our first established plants.
Lastly, whichever direction you choose to go on your path toward veggie self-sufficiency, choosing heirloom varieties is generally your best bet. Yes, the resulting produce may not be winning any awards for its size, shape or colour, however more importantly – You will be able to harvest their seeds, an important step in reaching true self-sufficiency.
- Potatoes (White & Sweet)
- Corn / Wheat
- Beans / Peas
- Perpetual Spinach
Propagation & Storage
Propagation is generally achieved by allowing your plant to go to seed, then collecting and storing them ready for next season’s planting. Some vegetables however are propagated through division – such as rhubarb and asparagus.
Getting a hang of how and when to propagate is again, a great skill to have up your sleeve when moving towards a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
Much like our fruit & nut production, suitable storage solutions are going to differ depending on the vegetables you grow. Chest freezers are always a godsend when storing large amounts of any food, with many vegetables freezing very well for long periods.
Outside of that, cold storage works well as a low-tech solution, with a basement or shaded, perennially cool room being well-suited. Drying, pickling or preserving in honey are also options.
- Focus on what you like if you have that luxury. If not, focus on reliable, nutritious maincrops (such as potatoes).
- Learn how to collect and propagate from seed reliably.
- Use heirloom varieties wherever possible.
- Maximise your space – Vertical gardening is your friend!
- Veg in One Bed: How to Grow an Abundance of Food in One Raised Bed, Month by Month – Huw Richards
- No Dig Organic Home & Garden – Charles Dowding
- Allotment Month By Month: Grow your Own Fruit and Vegetables, Know What to do When – Alan Buckingham
Livestock & Beekeeping
Livestock. For many, the word brings to mind roaming herds of cattle, lazily devouring their way through a sea of grass. We think of upkeep, broken fences and troughs full of food. Expense and endless amounts of hard work.
That may be the truth for many hard working farmers out there. But fortunately, for the everyday person who simply dreams of a more self-sufficient lifestyle, keeping a little livestock doesn’t have to be a grind.
A few chickens. A couple of beehives. Maybe one or two little jersey cows, wandering around keeping your grass trimmed. Sounds like a dream to me.
What’s more, when coupled with a little fruit & nut setup and an intensive vegetable garden, a little livestock makes for a wonderfully diverse food production system. Self-sufficiency here we come.
Probably the most popular egg-laying companion – The humble chicken. They’re cheap, breed readily and are easy to keep fed, happy and healthy. The size, amount and frequency of egg-laying varies greatly from breed to breed.
However, it’s fair to assume most laying chickens will lay at least every other day. So, from a small flock of say a dozen birds, you could easily be looking at six or more eggs per day. Not a bad caloric return from a daily feed cost of only 15p per chicken, per day.
And speaking of keeping them fed – Chickens are terrific food recyclers. They’ll make short work of your food scraps (we remove potato, meat, fish and eggs from this), and if allowed to free roam will source much of their daily nutritional requirements themselves, further reducing that 15p daily feed cost.
They love leftover fruit in particular. Enclose them within a fruit & nut orchard to reap the benefits of pest-removal while keeping your chickens fed and exercised the natural way.
Cheap to feed. Reliable egg layers. Can be used for meat as and when needed. Oh, and they’re great fun too with lots of individual character – What’s not to love?
All in all, a highly recommended addition to anyone striving for greater self-sufficiency.
A little more expensive to keep than chickens, with less eggs laid on average per day – Ducks may be less productive, but they’re just as valuable an addition to any self-sufficient household.
First, their eggs. Their rich taste can be a bit of a love / hate thing for some. We’re firmly in the love camp here at EcoGeeks. They’re larger, tastier and more nutritious than a chicken egg, while their increased size means each egg carries more protein with it to boot.
Ducks also make fantastic pest-control for any fruit & nut growing area, without causing the same damage chickens do through their constant scratching. For us here in drizzly South Wales, slugs and snails can be an issue – if this describes your situation, ducks are a must have addition.
In terms of maintenance, ducks don’t take an awful lot more work than chickens. Access to a small pool of water is necessary of course, but it doesn’t need to be anything drastic.
A submerged bathtub or kids-pool is more than sufficient for a small flock of ducks. More is always better, but they only need to submerge themselves really to live a happy, healthy life, not swim.
So, ducks then – a fantastic addition to any self-sufficient lifestyle. Because you can’t spell self-sufficiency without, quack? I’ll work on that one.
I know, it’s an odd feeling to even write it. I, like many of you, had a pet bunny growing up. His name was Munch, and he was the best.
Setting that aside however, Rabbits and poultry are quite easily the most efficient sources of meat in a self-sufficient food-production set up. They breed quickly, are cheap to feed and easy to house (they live quite happily together in small areas).
So, if you’re looking for substantial meat production without access to large amounts of land, rabbits are an option to consider.
I suppose it’s just a cultural thing which makes this one feel a little strange. Looking at the situation objectively – you’d be hard pressed to think of a more efficient, easily farmed source of meat.
Me, I’d stick to the potatoes.
One for the larger-scale landowner. Sheep are extremely low-maintenance and basically free to feed (given access to a large enough area of grazing).
They breed readily, allowing you to grow a flock without much effort or oversights on your part, and also double up as wool producers. Perfect multiple-utility for the self-sufficient household.
As a utility addition to this list, I can’t think of many animals which cover the same bases as the sheep with such low input required from yourself.
So, if you have access to enough grazing land and are looking for a self-sufficient, hands-off producer of meat and wool, take a look at the humble sheep.
Meat, milk and hide (if we’re talking truly off the grid!). Cows can fill a number of important roles in the strive towards self-sufficient living.
If using your herd for milk production, you will be tied into a daily milking schedule which for many would feel a little restrictive. We personally don’t keep cows (as tempting as a couple of Jersey’s are), but then we aren’t completely off the grid here.
If that is your goal then, as mentioned previously – diversity is the name of the game. And afterall, who wants to live in their dream cabin in the woods at the expense of a good cup of milky tea? Lunatics, that’s who.
Regardless of size you are going to need access to a pretty large swathe of grazing to keep anymore than a couple of cows. Outside of keeping up with your milking schedule however they are reasonably low-maintenance, happily weathering anything the Uk climate could throw their way.
Last but not least in our menagerie of productive livestock – Goats.
Milk, meat and lawnmowers, there’s not much a goat can’t do around the homestead. They require less land than all those mentioned thus far outside of poultry and rabbits, and are happy eating pretty much any vegetation.
This unfussy nature makes them terrific utility additions to the self-sufficient household, saving you the hassle of manually clearing any unwanted brush or, in our case, bramble.
Without going into endless detail – we have a full rundown of the many incredible benefits to beekeeping in the pipeline – bees are an incredibly useful addition to any self-sustainable household.
A brief outline of some of the key benefits:
- Honey – High caloric value, delicious and easily stored. Also doubles up as a preservative and has some medicinal value.
- Beeswax – Candles, medicinal uses, skincare, beeswax is an incredibly versatile product with so much utility.
- Pollination – Increased yield throughout your fruit & nut production spaces when coupled with this hardworking little insect.
- Diversify your food production for a healthy and secure diet.
- Tailor your livestock choices to available land / grazing quality.
- If in doubt – Bees & Chickens are great beginner choices which take up minimal room and can be expanded upon as you become proficient in their keeping.
- Smallholding Manual: The Complete Step-by-step Guide – Liz Shankland
- Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre – Brett L Markham
- Collins Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, honey, recipes and other home uses – Phillip Et Al
So there we have it, a brief overview of self-sufficient food production systems with scalable options for all budgets.
I hope that’s been of use to you, and as always thanks for checking us out. Please feel free to subscribe below to be kept in the loop of whatever comes next from us here at the EcoGeeks.