One major hang-up people have about growing their own food is not having the time. They look from their backyards to magazine pictures of gardens covered from fence to fence with productive beds and throw up their hands.
Do not do this to yourself! Small is truly beautiful. No matter how overgrown your garden is, you can weed one 3-foot square, plant it, and keep it tidy. It may lead on to two squares or even a block of four—that is up to you. But be kind to yourself. Start with one Magic Square for the plot of your choosing.
At present, your problem is that you don’t have time. You are overworked and a little stressed. You don’t get much opportunity to relax, and when you do, you’d rather . . . whatever. You worry weekly about the bills or the amount of fast food consumed. You may be depressed and unable to appreciate the good things in life. You are always busy— yet bored, not stimulated—and you don’t get enough exercise but hate jogging, the gym, hitting a ball—all those purposeless remedial activities.
If any one of these conditions depicts your life, change it instantly by digging up one 3-foot square. It won’t take much time or work, as it is only 36 × 36 inches, one stride by one stride. But it will relax and
delight you, make you feel a long-forgotten feeling, and put you in touch with your wild side without leaving home! In a short time, it will provide you with fresh food. Your depressive moods will evaporate when you tend your Magic Square, and you’ll discover other micro worlds than the world you thought you lived in. Boredom will subside and you will do a daily three-minutes bending-and-stretching routine without being aware of it. Hand watering the square will become your meditation.
Where to find these minutes? Time is a gift from nature’s own lovely chaos. So many books on growing vegetables show photographs of neat, weed-free rows of carrots and beans with not a shriveled leaf in sight, bed after bed in similar order. These are ready-made free dinners for hordes of insects that can identify whole rows of their favorite food from the sky. Control your urban yearning for straight rows! Grow vegetable varieties in minute little plots within your square, interspersed with companion plants, self-seeding herbs, and marigolds—the hordes will fly over and the weeds will find no space.
You will argue this won’t be enough to feed a family, and you’ll be forced to dig up more squares once your loved ones are hooked on garden produce. But in Part Four, you’ll find tips to grow vegetables other than shop produce, so that you get by with a few broccoli, kale, come-again lettuces, and Asian greens for months of picking. Grow carrots closely and pull as needed, making space for the remainder to grow. Plant chard in a dense drift and pick it tender for several seasons. One square of sweet corn can yield fifty cobs, or twenty fresh fava bean portions and another twenty for the freezer compartment. Potatoes, beets, rutabagas, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and antioxidant greens are all high yielders in small spaces.
Less time spent on shopping for vegetables provides time to tie up the beans and plug in a few seeds. Bend, reach, turn, stretch, and take deep breaths of fresh air, so you don’t need to go to the gym, saving time and money and escaping conversations that go nowhere. Move beyond one square and you won’t need to go jogging, either. Forego boring club meetings with the excuse that you have to get stuck into the food garden (don’t say “veggie patch” lest someone tosses corny” jokes). A food garden will soon acquire status. Be subversive in controlled green silence. Food gardening is the most intelligent adult endeavor on earth and ought to be understood by anyone who eats.
More time can be found by working according to methods that suit you. Let method be your mentor. “Small is beautiful” also means not saying, “Oh, it’s a mess, I must clean up the plot and weed that path.” Instead pick over a quarter, plant seedlings, sow seeds, water them, and call it a day, satisfied. Another day, remove spent plants from a productive corner and manure and water that, ready for replanting.
Work in time increments. Ten minutes of mulching. Time yourself. Don’t cry: “Oh Mother of Cabbages, I have no time for all that today!” Look at one aspect, like staking three tomato plants before dinner. On your weekend afternoon in the yard, the very worst you can do is cast eyes over a four-square food garden and wonder how in heaven you can do all you want to do by evening. The whole vision can be depressing. Deny the greater picture—go for the detail. Most plants and plots can wait another week, but there may be one thing that is urgent. Do that!
List small tasks, decide priorities, and do one of these only:
- weed and mulch one corner and feel good.
- string up flopping beans.
- prune broccoli and pumpkin vines to increase productivity.
- free up two tiny plots for sowing next week and manure now.
- spray the whole plot with liquid seaweed and feel virtuous.
These jobs take from five to fifty minutes, depending on how long you linger, so there’s also time for a break with a drink in the shade to admire your work. Enjoy your garden. Don’t despair of an overgrown plot after being away, big rains, or plain neglect. Think of how the wildlife enjoys it. Don’t abandon it, but do a corner, a bit, or a border. In no time, things will be back on track. You will experience abundant satisfaction.
Just like abandoning straight rows for sweet chaos, so, too, can composting be simple. Some plants lend themselves to self-mulching. Decaying leaves of artichokes, chard, cabbages, squashes, and pumpkins can be cut and folded at the base of plants to return their nutrients to the soil. The leaves soon decay or can be covered with straw.
Try achieving closed cycles in what you do in the garden to save time and money.
Consider livestock to help you in the garden. In urban areas, roosters may not be welcome, but hens may be allowed. Maintaining a feathered flock creates an almost closed cycle—you need to buy or construct a coop and run, buy straw for bedding, and distribute a handful of grain before sunset. The fowl mix their manure with soil, straw, and vegetable remains into ready-made compost. Pure chicken manure needs composting with other ingredients before going on garden beds, but I spade out composted black earth from the run several times a year to use straight on vegetable plots. Bedding straw goes as mulch on unused plots to break down further before I make ditches to fill with compost. Outer leaves of vegetables, fallen fruit, and other plant debris provide food for the flock to turn into eggs.
More from One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening
Excerpted from One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening: The Easy, Organic Way to Grow Your Own Food on a 3-Foot Square—Expanded Second Edition, © Lolo Houbein, 2008, 2010, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com