Square roots


An example of a salad plot you could create using square metre gardening

Short on growing space? London-based gardener and freelance journalist Lucy Purdy explores the art of growing food on a single square metre with Lolo Houbein.

Lolo Houbein was delighted with her gift of a cabbage from the German soldier. Starving during the famine in occupied Holland in World War II, she was too weak to carry it, but managed to drag it home to her family. Ever since, she has been preoccupied with food security and self-sufficiency. Her book, ‘One Magic Square’, explains how to create productive food gardens in a single square metre.

From hardy vegetables to tender and exotic produce, it is possible to grow a staggering amount in just a small plot. Ideal for balconies, terraces, courtyards, small gardens or allotments, square metre gardening is perfectly suited to urban growers. It is about maximum gain from minimum work – and the joy of seeing what can flourish in such a small space.

“It’s a myth that you need to spend ages gardening to grow your own food,” says Houbein.

“Some foods you plant once and forget until harvest time. People sometimes see gardens laden with produce and then take on a huge allotment, never having gardened before and fail abjectly. No matter how unkempt your patch, you can weed one square metre, plant it and keep it tidy and productive. Gradually increase the area if you want, as you get used to the peaceful routine of gardening and the rhythm of the seasons.”

Her book contains an abundance of ways to make use of the square-metre space with projects ranging from five seasonal plans for salads, to pasta and pizza plots and even an Aztec plot, featuring sweet corn, squash, marigolds and climbing beans.

So where did the idea spring from?

Houbein, who now lives in Australia, says: “After hearing numerous excuses why people could not grow a few vegetables behind the house (no space, no time, bad back, insects, dogs and cats, etc) I wondered whether the smallest possible area requiring the least maintenance would entice some people to have a try.”

“With two friends from a garden club, I wrote a course in growing food in one square metre, which we offered, charging $1 per session per person, to buy lots of seeds, soil and punnets. After eight weeks, participants had knowledge of soil, compost, organic growing and plant care. They had sown many varieties which were split up on the last day, giving enough for as many densely planted square metres as there were participants. The course was repeated the next year and a few years later, I began to write the book.”

The book – the end result – is resolutely practical in focus, passing on technical tips, such as germinating seedlings in toilet rolls to create well-developed roots. It transports the reader, like the voice of an experienced and supportive growing neighbour, along a complete vegetable-growing journey, from how to make and use compost to how best to cook the harvested produce.

When writing, Houbein kept in mind her grandson, who is an avid food gardener and trained chef, as well as the need to maintain enthusiasm among novice gardeners, or those easily discouraged by a failed harvest or bout of decimation by slugs.

“In other words,” she says, “I wanted to get past glamorous photographs to the nitty-gritty of plant survival. My aim was to be as clear as possible about what to do when and why. This prevents failure, which for many people spells the end of the adventure.”

And, given her experience of growing up in famine, Houbein is well aware of the fragile nature of food security.

“As I was writing it also became clear that climate change was already affecting food crops and prices. By growing open-pollinated vegetables from which seed can be saved, even novice gardeners can save a lot of money by growing their own, as well as being self-reliant in case of future shortages.”

“Thinking about food supplies, we realise that every meal that comes from our own small effort reduces our carbon footprint. People who don’t have garden space can grow lots of food in pots or vegetable boxes. Start with salad greens – one tomato, a pot of chillies.”

The book is particularly useful because it allows gardeners to begin with one plot, slowly building up to more when they feel comfortable.

“Some readers follow the seasonal food plots in the book and find their limit, be it two square metres, or ten,” says Houbein. “Children love a small plot of their own and food gardening then becomes a life skill for them.”

And the message is not only about saving money or clawing back control from the global food production giants, Houbein is evangelical about the many and diverse personal benefits of food growing.

“The satisfaction I’ve experienced from growing a good deal of our own food is multifaceted. For health reasons I wanted to eat unsprayed food. I also needed gentle exercise outdoor to recover from a long illness. But as the first seeds germinated, the joy of seeing life springing up so eagerly, kicked in. The life of plants is vigorous provided the soil has been organically enriched.”

“Breathing in the air around plants, tending them and listening to any sound of activity – bees, birds, the wind in the treetops – calms the busy person’s mind. The harvest of tasty food benefits the body. Even a tiny food plot allows one to share the bounty in the form of excess seedlings, seeds, or an invitation to lunch from the plot.”

The concept could help us maximise the use of space around our homes, particularly in cities such as London, where pockets of unused land surround houses, flats and offices. Think how many square metres near where you live could be sectioned off and grown in – swathes next to railway tracks, underused corners of parks, office roofs, car parks even.

And home-grown produce is an antidote to homogenised, ‘perfect’ supermarket food, Houbein says, noting with a smile that “no matter what it looks like we will eat what we have grown ourselves.”

“The taste of home-grown organic food is full-on vegetable flavour,” she enthuses.

“We find we can eat the stems, the flowers, the seedpods in some cases. Salads become carnivals of different leaves, flowers and pods. Seeing one bush bean produce one handful after another of fresh green beans, or watching spinach bounce back after being cut to the core, or root vegetables doing the right thing by bulbing up nicely – seeing these things, gratitude grows in the gardener’s heart.”

One Magic Square: grow your own food on one square metre, a hardcover book by Lolo Houbein, is available on February 5, 2015. It costs £19.99 from Green Books.

Leave a Reply