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Ask the Expert: Huw Richards on How to Grow a Self-Sufficiency Garden

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Ask the Expert: Huw Richards on How to Grow a Self-Sufficiency Garden

May 14, 2024

Huw Richards has vegetables in his bones. Richards grew up on an 11-acre small farm, and he became well-known in the garden world when he started posting how-to videos on YouTube at 19. The author of three previous books on vegetable gardening, Richards’ latest is The Self-Sufficiency Garden: Feed Your Family and Save Money, a uniquely detailed plan for growing vegetables.

“I’ve always been growing my own food, but I’d never actually measured it,” says Richards of his motivation to publish another book on a topic he has explored deeply. “With the cost of living crisis and with more people more concerned about food security, I thought now’s the time to create a project that explores that.”

Richards hatched a plot to see how much food he could grow in the equivalent of a standard half allotment, approximately the size of half a doubles tennis court. (In England, an allotment is a small parcel of land that can be rented to grow food.) To make sure the food would not go to waste and last the whole year, Richards brought on his friend, chef Sam Cooper, to share recipes for preserving the harvest. The Self-Sufficiency Garden is the result: A book-length documentation of the one-year experiment that Richards ran in the 2023 growing season.

 About: Richards in his half allotment.
About: Richards in his half allotment.

Read from start to finish, the book tells exactly how Richards grew a whopping 1,279 lbs. of vegetables in 1,300 square feet in a single year—which, somewhat remarkably, he did not share on social media while he was in the midst of the project, saving it for the book. Richards lays out what he did when. It is an impressive ballet of seed starting and crop rotation, but Richards doesn’t anticipate his readers will follow his plan to the letter. “I’m not telling people to just copy and paste the exact same layouts,” he says. “It’s a case study: This is what we did, and these are the results.”

Here are some ideas for how you can follow Richards’ lead.

Photography by Huw Richards, from The Self-Sufficiency Garden.

Rethink your definition of “self sufficiency.”

“People think that self-sufficiency means you have to have a homestead. I propose that you could just grow one or two herbs and be self-sufficient in those,” says Richards. “If every day during spring and summer you are eating something from your garden that is not the end goal of self-sufficiency but it’s on the starting steps.”

A big harvest from his garden.
Above: A big harvest from his garden.

Start small and build from there.

The Self-Sufficiency Garden can feel overwhelming if you think you need to execute it in full, but instead Richards suggests,  “If you’re just starting out, I recommend to just cherry pick a few things, maybe a couple of raised beds and a polytunnel, or create a herb area and ease into it.”  So instead of aiming to do it all, you might try to be self-sufficient in rosemary, cilantro, salad greens, and cherry tomatoes in Year One, and then add in crops as you gain confidence.

An overhead shot of his test garden, around which Richards built a fence to simulate a backyard or allotment. Richards was able to fit a lot of vegetable growing into this modest-sized parcel.
Above: An overhead shot of his test garden, around which Richards built a fence to simulate a backyard or allotment. Richards was able to fit a lot of vegetable growing into this modest-sized parcel.

Work it into your schedule.

Richards acknowledges that it is a serious commitment of time to aspire to grow all your own produce, but it might be less than you think. Once he’d gotten everything built, Richards says the gardening part of the project averaged about four hours a week (and this with hand-watering!).

Richards uses wood chips on paths because they offer good grip, are light to move around, allow water to drain, and feed the beneficial microbial life in the soil.
Above: Richards uses wood chips on paths because they offer good grip, are light to move around, allow water to drain, and feed the beneficial microbial life in the soil.

Stretch the season.

Don’t be intimidated by the projects like hoop beds, hot beds, and polytunnel that Richards includes in his book. He notes that the majority of polytunnels are purchased in kit form and can be assembled by two people (alternatively, many polytunnel companies offer assembly, or you could contract a local builder).

Richards says a polytunnel is his plot’s most precious growing area and significantly increases the range of crops gardeners in temperate climates can grow.
Above: Richards says a polytunnel is his plot’s most precious growing area and significantly increases the range of crops gardeners in temperate climates can grow.

Preserve at least something.

To make your produce last into the “hungry months,” you’ll need to preserve some of the harvest. Cooper has streamlined the work, writing “unlike cookbooks, this one places the kitchen purely in service to the garden.” Included with the recipes is an extremely handy chart of how to blanch, steam, grill, roast, quick-pickle, and freeze every vegetable in Richards’ garden plan.

Preserving some of your crops will yield less food waste.
Above: Preserving some of your crops will yield less food waste.

It’s an undeniably appealing idea that you could grow all your own veggies in a domestic-sized yard, and anyone interested would benefit from the military-like precision of Richards’ year-long experiment. British gardeners certainly heard the call of Richards’ brand of self-sufficiency: When the book debuted it in the U.K,  hit #1 in its category on the Sunday Times bestseller list.

The Self-Sufficiency Garden is available on May \14 wherever books are sold, including Bookshop.org.
Above: The Self-Sufficiency Garden is available on May 14 wherever books are sold, including Bookshop.org.

For more recently published books to check out, see:

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