Technically, it’s possible on 1/30th of an acre.
“One thirtieth of an acre?”
That’s right. Here’s some evidence:
The Dervaes family, in 2015, were able to grow 6,000 lbs of food on a 1/10th acre.
By 2017, they were able to push that to 7,000 lbs of food per year in the same space. All of this by using as many permaculture methods as possible.
Since they are able to make over $20,000 per year selling the excess, and since they’re a family of four (sadly, a family of three since 2016) that gets over 90% of their food from their food forest, it’s safe to say that it’s possible to live off 1/30th of an acre.
The Math is Simple
It’s 1/10th of an acre for four people and a whole lot of surplus. However, the Dervaes family use the money they get from selling their excess vegetables to buy staples like rice, wheat and so on.
The average American eats around 2,000 lbs of food per year. If the Dervaes family can produce 7,000 lbs of food on 1/10th of an acre, then for one person it’ll be a minimum of 1/30th of an acre to be entirely self sufficient when it comes to food.
Giving it a bit of leeway while you work things out and develop your knowledge, it’s possible for you to live off of 1/30th of an acre of land within a couple of years, providing you get really generous amount of sun and a long growing season.
1/30th of an acre is about 1450 square feet. That’s equivalent to an area of land that measures around 38 feet by 38 feet.
For less sunny places than California you’ll more likely need that something closer to 1/20th of an acre, but on the upside, you’ll not have problems with water. 1/20th of an acre would be equivalent to a square plot of land that measures around 47 feet by 47 feet.
This permaculture design is pretty much as far as you can get from a low-maintenance, self-seeding automatic food forest.
You see, instead of using wood chips containing a heavy amount of green organic matter as a ground cover, the Dervaes family take advantage of companion planting to plant non-competing crops together as closely as possible. The plants are so close together that they actually are the ground cover.
The reason why this is difficult is that fast growing weeds will easily choke out your crops before they get strong enough to suppress them. Being able to tell weeds apart from your seedlings is a must, and constant weeding must be done until you have complete ground cover.
You’re basically working with bare soil until your crops have grown big enough to become the ground cover, and you can’t just transplant full size plants close together because they’ll suffer from really bad transplant shock. Plants that haven’t grown from seed in such a confined space will really struggle to get enough nutrients until their root structure fully redevelops.
To counteract this, you’d need to be using a lot of irrigation to combat the evaporation of water from bare soil, as well as a whole lot of compost. Your soil would still improve over time, but you’d have to do all this work each time you plant another batch of crops no matter how good your soil gets.
Filling as much of your space as possible with raised beds is a must. This isn’t a food forest that you can walk around in, it’s one that you walk around. With a design like this, I can’t help but think I’d miss walking around on the forest floor among the plants. At least for me, that’s one of the greatest parts of having a food forest. It’s an experience like no other.
The Minimum Space to Live Off a True Food Forest
For a self-seeding, low-maintenance, mature food forest that feeds you each year, you’d a 1/10th of an acre of land.
Of course, for it to reach that stage, it’ll take around five years. Less, if you transplant plenty of mature trees and shrubs in, rather than growing them from seed.
1/10th of an acre to automatically feed one person is ridiculously good. It means that anyone with a decent sized backyard can do this.
Also, consider using your front yard too. Use any space you can. I mean, food forests look so nice that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t to convert your front yard into one as well.
If you have more than 1/10th of an acre spare, then by all means use it all. The wonderful thing about this is that nothing is wasted. Uneaten fruit that lands on the ground reseeds your food forest automatically, and the decomposing organic matter of the fruit itself puts nutrients back into the soil. Truly, nothing is wasted.
As a rule of thumb, the larger your food forest the better. When it really gets going, you can basically just leave it to do its own thing, and the bountiful produce it gives you each year – without any human intervention – will genuinely surprise you.