Food is changing. Farming methods are changing, consumer demands are changing, and the climate is changing. In response, local farms are popping up all over the country.
Many of these small, local farms are using sustainable growing methods and unique production setups. With an increase in these local growers, more and more people are interested in growing their own food and becoming more self-sufficient.
Part of being a self-sufficient grower is to find cost-effective and simple ways to get started.
Using pallets is an easy way to build garden beds if you want to be more self-sufficient. Pallet wood can be used for garden beds as long as it is sealed with paint and the wood is not treated.
This article is comprehensive and covers a large variety of topics related to self-sufficient gardening. Feel free to just to the section that contains the information you are seeking:
Table of Contents
- What Is Self-Sufficiency?
- Sustainable Growing Practices
- Planning For Self-Sufficiency
- Sustainable Water Practices
- Raised Garden Beds Vs. In-Ground Gardens
- How To Build Simple Pallet Garden Beds
- Plant Selection
What Is Self-Sufficiency?
Self-sufficiency and sustainability go hand in hand; however, they aren’t the same thing.
Self-sufficiency is the ability to support something without relying on a third party. It is the end result of sustainable practices.
An example would be a vegetable garden that completely eliminates your need to purchase vegetables from the store.
Sustainability is the ability to support a process without permanently consuming resources. These are the practices that can lead to self-sustainability.
An example would be a vegetable garden that uses kitchen waste for compost, collected rainwater for irrigation, and recycled materials to create garden beds.
Neither 100% self-sufficiency nor 100% sustainability is possible. There is almost always a need for a third party either directly or indirectly.
You may need to purchase shovels, wheelbarrows, irrigation hoses, cold frame materials, etc. as you begin your journey toward self-sufficiency, but the goal is to reduce your reliance on outside resources as much as possible once your preparations have been made.
A self-sufficient garden offers these benefits:
- The garden itself is self-sufficient by using sustainable growing practices to reduce reliance on pesticides and fertilizers,
- You save seeds from year to year to reduce reliance on other growers,
- You become more self-sufficient by replacing portions of your diet or income with your harvest.
Sustainable Growing Practices
In order to become a truly self-sufficient grower, you will need to use sustainable growing practices that use the resources you have available.
Part of creating sustainable garden beds is keeping the soil alive and healthy.
Use your kitchen scraps and lawn debris to build a compost pile, and then incorporate the compost into your garden beds. This way, you can use organic materials to improve your soil that would otherwise be thrown away.
Compost can also help improve water retention and drainage in your grow beds. This will help you reduce the amount of water you need while making your garden capable of handling short periods of drought.
Save seeds each year so you can have a self-sustaining supply of veggie seeds. The best way to do this is to buy heirloom seeds and research how to collect and save them for reseeding.
Always save seeds from the healthiest plants to make sure future plants remain strong and resilient.
Planning For Self-Sufficiency
Self-sufficiency does not mean you provide every single thing for yourself that is necessary for life.
The first step in planning a garden for self-sufficiency is to start small and start with a core need. Then, build outwards.
There are three basic core needs:
- Reduce spending
- Improve health
- Be a resource
According to the USDA, one-third of all food ends up in a landfill as waste. This is largely due to produce going bad before it is used and then tossed in the trash can (source).
A garden allows you to pick what you need when you need it. When you have an abundance, you can take measures to store and preserve what you have or compost it to support next year’s crops.
A garden will only reduce spending if you’re spending a consistent amount of money on vegetables already. If you don’t eat them, you won’t save any money by growing them.
If reducing spending is your core need, make two lists. On one list, write down the produce you buy on a consistent basis (include herbs).
On the other list, write down the produce you can never seem to use up before it goes bad. These will form the core of your garden.
Common knowledge tells us fruits and vegetables are good for us.
If you want to switch to healthier eating habits, but you don’t have the budget to purchase healthy produce, a garden can help you support your new habits without breaking the bank.
If this is your core need, make a list of the items you want to add to your diet and put a star next to the most important five. These will form the core of your garden.
Be A Resource
Being self-sufficient does not mean providing for all of your needs all of the time. It can also mean specializing in a few key items that allow you to trade with others who specialize in a few key items.
For instance, if you focus your time and energy on herbs, you can trade fresh herbs with a chicken farmer for fresh eggs. You can also sell your produce to others and supplement your income, which is a step toward self-sufficiency.
If this is your core need, make a list of the five most important crops in your area that you are equipped to grow. Herbs are a great selection for resource-oriented growers because they take up less space and they have a long harvest season.
Sustainable Water Practices
Water is perhaps the greatest priority for any person who wants to be self-sufficient. Wells with a solar or manual pump are best for self-sufficient growing (at least as a backup), while natural sources of water are a close second.
Having a source of water is only one-half of the equation. You also have to plan for how you will transport it to your growing area. PVC pipe, hoses, gravity-fed storage barrels, and other methods will help you move water efficiently.
This does not mean using city water or electric water pumps disqualifies you from self-sufficiency. It may cost you more to water, and you will want to have a Plan B in case you lose water or power, but unless there is an emergency, city water will work fine.
Check your local laws about collecting rainwater or using water from ponds and rivers for irrigation before you set up rain barrels or irrigation pipes.
If you live in a dry climate and you want to grow water hogs (melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, fruit) you may want to put extra thought into your water plan.
Raised Garden Beds Vs. In-Ground Gardens
Where you decide to grow your plants will depend on space, sunlight, and plant selection.
Raised beds are good for growers who want to save money on groceries or grow healthy foods. Raised beds allow you to manage pests easier, amend the soil easier, and make sure your growing medium does not become compacted.
You can also grow considerably more in a raised bed than in a traditional, in-ground garden bed.
For growers who want to focus on a few specific plants in larger quantities, they may need to prepare large patches or rows. Certain crops may need trellises or other supports.
One of the most versatile and cost-effective building materials for garden beds are pallets. For extra tall, deep garden beds, pallets can be screwed together at their full height and filled with soil. These beds are good for growers who do not want to bend over in order to harvest their plants, and who are growing plants less than 2’ tall.
The best general-purpose garden bed will use pallets cut in half. These beds will be 2’ deep, which accommodates plants up to 4’ tall. This is the most efficient use of pallets and soil while giving the most versatility.
For herbs, lettuce, radishes, garlic, carrots, onions, peas, and beans, pallets can be cut into thirds or fourths to create long garden beds full of loose soil.
If your soil is already healthy and weed-free, you can till garden beds and build shallow beds on top. This will give you some of the benefits of raised beds without having to fill them with as much soil.
How To Build Simple Pallet Garden Beds
Pallets are a cheap, recyclable material that is easily transformed into garden beds. There are some truly incredible designs for growers who want to disassemble and reassemble wood to make creative boxes and vertical growing spaces.
However, a basic pallet bed is more than sufficient for most growers, and it is the most efficient use of pallet wood.
I just finished building my own pallet bed. The finished dimensions were 12’ long x 2.5’ wide, and 2’ deep with 4’ ends for growing peas and beans. The instructions are as follows:
- 5 Pallets (non-treated wood)
- 2 Gallons of recycled paint (most hardware stores have returns on weird colors; we got lucky)
- 3” Deck screws
- 6” L-brackets (4-8 as needed)
- 4’ Wide woven weed fabric (50’)
- Staple gun and staples
- 2.25 Yards of topsoil/garden soil
- Wood saw (for cutting pallets in half)
Step 1: Use a shovel and dirt rake to level the area for the pallet bed. You will need to level an area that is 12’ x 3’.
Step 2: Cut 3 of the pallets in half leaving the slats intact (see picture).
Step 3: Paint all of the bare wood with two coats of paint.
Step 4: Place one of the full pallets upright on the end of your leveled soil. The slats should be parallel to the ground. Attach a half-pallet to the full pallet at a right angle to begin building the sides. Use the l-brackets to secure the corner.
The slats should be parallel to the ground, and the side with more slats should face the inside of the grow bed (see picture).
It does not matter whether you attach the sides on the outside of the full pallet, making the grow bed wider, or inside the full pallet, making it narrower. The available growing area will be the same.
Step 5: Attach 2 more half-pallets to the first half pallet using deck screws.
Step 6: Attach the three other half-pallets to the other side of the grow bed.
Step 7: Attach the final full pallet to the end of the grow bed using deck screws and l-brackets.
Step 8: Measure, cut, and staple the weed fabric to the inside of the bed. You want to completely line the bed like a bowl so that it contains the grow bed soil and covers the foundation soil.
You will need one long piece to run the length of the bed, and three shorter pieces to reach from side to side. Make sure you leave enough loose fabric so the weight of the soil won’t tear the fabric from the pallets.
Step 9: Fill the bed with topsoil or garden soil. Topsoil will be the cheapest option (I paid $250 to fill 8 beds) as you can have it delivered by truck. However, you will need a wheelbarrow or cart to transport it.
Bags of garden soil will be much more expensive (about $180 per grow bed), but you will get a much higher quality soil with fewer weed seeds. This bed will hold 60 cubic feet of soil or 2.25 yards.
Step 10: Plant your bed! Plants can be spaced closer together in raised beds because the soil is loose and fertile with plenty of room for roots to spread out. A variety of plants will help deter pests and keep the moisture level even. Plant peas, beans, cucumbers, or other vining plants on the end so you can attach them to the full pallets.
Step 11: (Optional) Cover your seeds and seedlings with another layer of weed fabric suspended a few inches off the soil. This will help keep birds and squirrels from eating your new plants, and it can help prevent evaporation while your seeds are germinating.
There are many, many options for plants in your new garden beds, but for the self-sufficiency minded, it’s important to think through when and how you plan to use your harvest before you plant anything.
Continuous harvest/ short shelf life
Leafy greens, like lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, and arugula don’t have a solid set time from planting to harvest. You can pick individual leaves once the plant has established itself, and most varieties will continue to grow new leaves in its place.
Once the weather gets too warm, the plants will bolt, or go to seed, and the leaves will be bitter. You can prevent this by planting leafy greens in part shade and watering often.
Plant leafy greens in succession, meaning adding a few new rows every few weeks. This will ensure a continuous harvest even as previous plants bolt from the heat.
Bulk harvest/short shelf life
Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers produce large amounts of fruits in a short amount of time. However, these fruits don’t’ store long, which is why many gardeners choose to preserve their harvest via canning.
Tomato sauces, pickles, and salsas are great ways to enjoy the fruits of your labor even when the growing season is over.
These plants need lots of sun, water, and space, so don’t plant more than a total of 2-3 per pallet bed. They are also generally only planted once per growing season, meaning there is a small window of harvest each year.
Continuous harvest/long shelf life
Most long-term veggies are roots, like carrots and radishes, or underground stems, like onions and potatoes. Most root crops handle long-term storage very well as long as it is cool and dark with good ventilation.
They can also be planted in succession for a consistent harvest; planting a new row every few weeks to ensure you have harvestable vegetables most of the growing season.
These veggies take up little space in a grow bed (besides potatoes) and can tolerate light shade, so it’s easy to sneak them in around large plants that need lots of sun.
Bulk harvest/long shelf life
Grains, legumes, seeds, melons, and squash all have a long shelf life (dried peas, beans, and grains can be stored for years) but they also have a relatively short harvest period.
Snap peas and green beans can be planted in succession if you want to eat the pods, but for dried seeds, you will want to plant a large amount at one time and allow them all to dry on the vine.
Melons and squash can store for a long time, but they can only be planted once in a growing season, so they have a relatively short harvest period. They are also large, so you will need to plan a cool, dark space big enough to store your harvest.
Grains and seeds, like popcorn or sunflowers, are not suitable for pallet beds.
These plants grow extremely tall and take up large amounts of space. Harvest is also quite time-consuming. However, they are a great option for gardeners who want to build self-sufficiency because they have an extremely long shelf life.
Herbs are perhaps the most important part of a self-sufficient grower’s garden. Many herbs are reported to have medicinal properties, and they can also help deter pests from attacking your other plants.
Most herbs can be dried and stored for a long time, and quite a few can be turned into teas.
Mints, chamomile, echinacea, lemon balm, and lavender are reported to have natural anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, as well as helping to soothe sore throats and help with a number of medical issues.
Of course, Thriving Yard is a source for gardening advice and is in no way qualified to give medical advice or to claim certain plants are capable of treating or healing any illness. However, many herbs have been reported to have impressive health benefits, so a diverse herb bed could come in handy.
Ginger, turmeric, and dandelion are powerful health foods that are also surprisingly easy to grow.
Ginger and turmeric are perennial in zones 8-10, so you can plant them in your grow bed and let them spread. In cooler climates, you will need to save a few rhizomes from each year’s harvest so you can replant the following spring.
Dandelions are one of the world’s top 10 health foods, but most growers consider it an obnoxious weed. The roots can be roasted and used as a type of coffee, while the leaves, stems, and flowers can all be used in salads.
While most gardeners see dandelions as an intrusion, it’s actually one of the best additions to a self-sufficient grower’s plot.
- For growers who want to become completely self-reliant on their own food supply, you will need a healthy variety of each of the different categories of vegetables, along with a plan for storage and preservation.
- For growers who want to become self-sufficient in one area of their diet, like herbs or homegrown salads, you can grow on a much smaller scale. You will probably want to focus on continuous harvest veggies and compost or give away what you can’t use.
- For growers who want to become self-sufficient by producing their own health foods, you will want a few smaller, separate beds. Plants like ginger and turmeric will spread and fill an area and will need to be contained.
Many herbs, like the mints, chives, and dill, can quickly take over areas through runners or seeds, so it is important to keep some plants separate to avoid a mess.
- For growers who want to become self-sufficient by becoming a resource, you may want to build large, shallow grow beds or forget them completely. If you are only planting a few crops, pay attention to when you will harvest them and how long you can store them to sell or trade to others.
Tomatoes, for instance, are not a good choice for resource-oriented growers because they have a short shelf life and take a large amount of space and water. Try growing something that gardeners typically wouldn’t grow in your area, or take steps to preserve your harvest so it is available for longer.
Gardening for self-sufficiency requires a different planning process than a typical backyard veggie garden.
The point of a self-sufficient garden is to have the garden itself be supported by sustainable and efficient growing methods while also helping you to become more self-sufficient by replacing portions of your diet or income with your harvest.
Part of sustainable growing is learning how to improve soil and make compost. Check out our other articles on active composting, vermicomposting, and growing in clay soil to help your self-sufficient garden succeed.