If you’ve ever wanted to grow your own food, but thought you needed acres of space, turns out you were wrong. According to Lolo Houben, author of One Magic Square, you only need access to a single square metre of land to grow a wide bounty of vegetables.
Lolo wrote the book years after teaching a course of the same name in her native Australia. “In the late 1990s I had asked two garden club members to help me teach a course entitled: Grow Your Own Food on One Square Metre. That caused a bit of laughter as we lived in a tiny town surrounded by thousands of hectares of agricultural land, although much of it was only rain-fed and drought was a frequent event.”
She wrote the course of eight weekly workshops to be held in the community centre, ably assisted by two helpers with their own specialties and vast input. They taught food growing from soil level up, organic principles, no chemicals.
She says: “We discussed how deep-rooted and shallow-rooted vegetables can cosily grow side by side and that a radish needs no more space than the size it is going to become. Participants learned hands-on to grow from seed. After individual punnets had been divided up, the first class of over 20 people ‘graduated’ with a treasure of mixed seedlings to plant in their well-prepared square metres at home.
“They were also taught to make compost with all refuse from kitchen and garden. The following year we repeated the course, including demonstrations by a professional cook and a couple who preserved colourful home produce in jars.”
The book suggests a number of plot designs, which are graded, starting with the easiest and most robust combinations, and getting more difficult.
Lolo claims: “People get intimidated by the garden. It may be big, full of weeds or kids and dogs. Growing plants seems hard work, but in reality, with a little protection to keep animals out, nature does the growing.
“You don’t even need any expensive equipment – a kitchen fork or sharp stick can do the digging. Loosen hard soil, then cover with organic manure and compost. Plant roots will do the rest, if regularly watered. The book provides ideas on how to improve soils and what kind of recyclables can be used as plant protectors. Some sticks and string comes in handy to stake tall plants, or rope off the entire square.”
Different vegetables can be planted at different times of year. October is a good month for broad beans, asparagus, peas and pea shoots, garlic, onions, and various types of lettuce among others.
Lolo says: I encourage novice gardeners to start with one square to grow salad greens, then add a new square the next season and the next. This will reveal how much you can maintain without great effort.
“Potatoes grow in any heap of soil covered thickly with straw or grass cuttings, but make sure to plant in a new heap every year to prevent blight. One reader who had never grown anything, told an audience how he had followed the book’s sowing patterns from square one and after four years had become self-sufficient in vegetables from nine easily maintained square metres.
“To people without gardens I say ‘grow a salad box’ on back step or balcony. Half a dozen 20-25cm pots can grow parsley, coriander, endive, spring onions, one tomato and one cucumber plant, which enrich simple meals. Even hanging baskets can grow herbs and strawberries. Grow as much as you can manage, then supplement from a farmers’ market or organic greengrocer.”
Despite the small scale of the plot, when people experiment with dense sowing and planting they are often amazed how many plants can grow in one square metre, providing bowls of fresh food, especially salads and beans.
For example, one square metre can grow 25 broadbean seeds into strapping stalks. Each stalk has at least 10 pods, so you can yield 250 pods, with at least five beans each. That’s a generous harvest of 1,250 beans.
Lol says: “These beans can be eaten fresh, or as young pods, frozen, or dried on the stalk. Their roots sequester nitrogen from the air into the soil. So I love to tell people to plant half a square with beans, the other half with salad vegetables and reverse next year. This is as good as fool proof.”
According to the writer, this system has helped thousands of people, who had never grown anything, to find a renewed interest in food, and discover the many joys of gardening. She says: “Busy professionals are proud to pick their own salad on coming home. The temporarily unemployed can in these unbalanced times build up their self-esteem as they put home grown food on the table.
“Some even found work in school gardens and nurseries to become horticulturists, growing fruit trees as well as vegetables.
“Without getting anxious about it, promise yourself to grow more vegetables and fruit every year because climate change is affecting global agricultural and horticultural yields. There may be shortages in future.
“Self-reliance is a vegetable patch and a pantry with pickles and dried beans, so that you can always whip up a meal without leaving home. Never overdo food gardening – grow into it to find your personal comfort zone.
“Happiness is a food plot.”