Not everyone who wants to begin living sustainably can move out to a homestead and work their own land. Sometimes this effort must start in an apartment, in a city, in a suburb. So how do you live frugally in such a compact space? Lolo Houbein has the answer in her book, One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening (The Experiment). Here, Houbein outlines simple ideas for food preservation, original recipes, and various sustainable techniques, from composting to water conservation. And at the core of all of this are the dozens of different plans for plotting a garden in three square feet of “magic” space, as well as the explanation behind why these designs can successfully produce an abundance of fresh produce for your home throughout the year. With these tips, you can hone your green thumb no matter where you live.
Seeds and Seedlings
The giving garden has to be a sustainable garden, because above all, it is the seed base for the future. The seeds nature drops, the ones the birds drop in, and the seeds we gather, dry, and store, ensure that plant-friendly micro-climates continue as long as we are here to gather, maintain, and sow, and to refrain from interfering too much.
The inventors of the commercial seed packet were the American Shaker gardeners, adding value to their products. Growing vegetables from seed is extremely economical, especially with open-pollinated seed, as the resulting plants produce seed true to type to save and plant again. These well-tried heirloom and heritage varieties, kept going by farmers and gardeners since the beginning of time, produce seed reliably.
Why is this so desirable? Just as you appreciate the taste and quality of homegrown vegetables, so you will appreciate the taste and quality of heirloom vegetables. Some may not produce as prolifically as hybrids whereas others may outperform those. Grow a variety of vegetables, rather than overproducing a few.
An heirloom is something precious passed down through the generations. In my understanding, an heirloom vegetable is from before the time of widespread commercial genetic engineering, like seed my grandfather grew because his grandfather told him it was dependable.
The word “heritage” could imply that something has inherited qualities or characteristics. That may apply to my great-great-grandfather’s cabbage seeds, but with a bit of word wrenching it could also be claimed for a modern seed emerging from a GE laboratory, as ultimately its ancestor is also ancient seed. After all, everything has qualities and characteristics that come from somewhere, no matter what they have been turned into.
There was a time when large seed companies feared small seed companies offering open-pollinated, organically grown seed of common as well as unusual heirloom and heritage vegetables, herbs, flowers, and trees. There are several such small seed companies now, as well as the Seed Savers Exchange, that offer this type of seed. If you like buying from catalogs, take the time to ponder hundreds of varieties and send away for a few.
Commercial seeds in shops are increasingly based on fewer varieties, may be genetically modified, and are often impregnated with toxic substances to ensure shelf life. Most are hybrids, bred by companies for improved size, production, and pest resistance. Hybrids may grow fast but do not usually produce viable seed, or if they do, it may not breed true to type (i.e., the hybrid type it grew from), or its offspring may deteriorate after a few seasons. Lack of quality control can occur under the biggest labels. A representative of a large seed company once tried to convince me that their packet of undersized and broken fava bean seeds would still grow good beans! Not for my money. Some commercial seeds don’t germinate at all, which could be the fault of retail outlets. Never buy seed from a counter in the sun, for it will be cooked.
Seed Savers Exchange (SSE)
The Seed Savers Exchange is an amazing non-profit volunteer foundation that, since 1975, has collected in a seed bank as many varieties of open-pollinated vegetable, herb, and fruit seeds as its members can find, including heirlooms from immigrant gardeners. Its newsletter offers seeds of unheard of vegetables. Annually, SSE prints a catalog of seeds offered by members from which sub-scribers can buy old heirloom varieties. Members grow these seeds on and some donate supplies back to the seed bank. The SSE label “Give Peas A Chance” claims that whereas people once planted sixty-five varieties of peas, now they choose from less than ten. Their “Let Lettuce Be” sticker encourages gardeners to let lettuce go to seed, let seed fall, rake it in, and watch new lettuces come up. The Seed Savers Exchange founders have also published Seed to Seed, the essential seed saver’s handbook.
In America, the Seed Savers Exchange has collected 18,000 vegetable varieties grown across the country. Such networks are of crucial importance in preserving global food resources. A tragic story of seed-saving dedication comes from St. Petersburg in Russia. During the Second World War, German forces besieged the city (then Leningrad), and the population was starving. The Soviet Union’s seed bank was located in the city, protecting a store of containers preserving the seed of many varieties of grains, oats, peas, beans, and other food plants. These could have provided food for many people. But the seed bank personnel were so dedicated to their task that not a grain or bean was missing by the end of the war, even though some of the guardians died of starvation themselves. They believed the seed bank was so important to the future of all Russians that they laid down their lives to protect it. Director Nikola Ivanovich Vavilov, who founded that seed bank to eliminate hunger from the world, died of starvation in one of Stalin’s prisons, suspected of espionage. He probably corresponded with seed savers abroad. The Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg still maintains a seed bank despite dire economic conditions.
Shopping for Roots and Seeds
While out shopping for other supplies, keep an eye peeled for roots in Asian groceries. Unless your knowledge of Asian horticulture is academic, buy good-looking roots, cook half to see whether you like them, then plant the rest. Some rot, some die, but some may grow.
Potato onions can still be found in farmers’ markets. Pounce on them, propagate, and share them with friends to grow on, as they are quite rare. Look for slim bunching onions, Egyptian onions that produce tiny pickling bulbs at the top instead of underground, and other old onion varieties. Make space for these hardy varieties so you’ll always have onion material for the pot, be it tops or bottoms.
Buy lemongrass with a bit of root left and plant in a warm spot. Look for other vegetables to grow on. Just as potato pieces with an “eye” will grow a plant producing potatoes, so will sweet potato if grown in a warm place. Experiment.
Spices are bought more economically in Asian and Middle Eastern groceries. Lay in a store of “whole” spices, which keep their aromas better: aniseed, cardamom, coriander, caraway, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard. Keep the jars in a dark cupboard to keep seeds viable for growing. You can enhance all you bake or cook with spices. You are now ready to sow some spice companions such as dill, cumin, and cilantro. Pick the green leaves of spice plants to create a gourmet feast.
Asian Vegetable Seeds
Asian vegetable seeds can be found in most Asian supermarkets. Some packets have English text, but for others, you’d better brush up your Mandarin and Japanese. Plant some seeds in spring and again in autumn to find out which season they prefer. Experiment using the pictures on the packets. Gourds, squash, and beans are mostly summer vegetables, but many leafy greens like cooler seasons.
Asian vegetables still have good resistance against many North American pests and diseases, with the exception of the greenish-white Chinese cabbage, which gets attacked by snails, slugs, cabbage moth, and aphids to the point where you don’t want to deal with it in the kitchen. Most Asian vegetables presently available are the products of forty centuries of companion-growing horticulture, mostly in China, and the Chinese were too hungry and too practical to waste time on vegetables that could not survive prevailing conditions.
Planting Good Seeds at the Right Depth and Time
The right depth is generally held to be the thickness of the seed, but sow beans two to three times their own thickness. Rake very fine seed through the top of the soil. A very loose straw cover pro-vides protection. Use a fine nozzle or mist to water seeds.
There are systems to guide gardeners to plant seeds on beneficial days.
Planting by the Moon is an ancient method based on the notion that when the moon is waxing, it draws new seedlings toward its light, and when it’s waning, root growth takes place. Fruiting and leafy plants are sown in the last quarter, beans and peas three days before full moon, and root crops in the middle of the first quarter. That’s a rough guide, but you can buy moon-planting charts, and some magazines print monthly directions.
Biodynamic Planting Calendar: If you like order in your life, then the biodynamic planting calendar is for you. Biodynamics was Rudolf Steiner’s answer to feng shui. This is where every possible function of plants and trees guided by the moon and stars is worked out annually by a very knowledgeable person, so the calendar tells you every morning just what you can and can’t do in the garden. This presumes you are available for horticultural work at any time, so it works best for full-time farmers.
If through necessity you are a weekend gardener, you can probably manage to keep to the rough moon-planting scheme. If your gardening has to be done whenever life allows you a few moments, plant and harvest to your heart’s content when you can. Nature always strives for the light, always prefers growth, and ever renews itself, so you will have marvelous successes just the same, even if a little slower. You can blame the few fiascos on the weather. Even biodynamic and moon gardeners find excuses.
Soak hard-coated seeds such as beans in water with a few drops of LS before sowing. As seeds germinate, apply LS every few days. Seedlings can go into the ground when the first root tip comes out of the bottom of a toilet paper tube, or a seedling is about 3 inches high with at least four leaves.
Where to Raise Seeds
Seeds raised outdoors, protected from wind and sun and raised up from the ground, will be hardy. But as a lot of summer crops need five to six months of warm weather to mature, an earlier start may necessitate starting seedlings indoors. This avoids rodent damage, too. Seeds do not need much light to germinate, so you can start containers off in shed or cellar, moving them to windows when two leaves have appeared.
Bottom Heat: Containers set on a small electrically warmed bottom-heat mat will have improved germination rates. For a one-square plot, it may not be worth the outlay.
A Cold Frame warmed by the sun gives seedlings an early start.
An Old-fashioned Hot Frame is fun to make. Start late winter and find a glass window or door to place on top. In a sunny, sheltered place, mark out a frame with four bales of straw, or make a frame with planks or bricks to fit under the glass cover. Dig out the floor area to a depth of 10 to 12 inches and fill with animal manure, straw, and grass clippings. Water in well and spread the soil on top.
Place the glass across the frame. Give it a week to heat up, keeping it moist. Then half submerge pots with seedlings or seeds into the soil. Ventilate as you do for the cold frame.
Weaning: When seedlings have at least four leaves, wean them from the protected environment through “hardening off.” Place seedlings outside on nice days and back in the frame at night until they appear robust enough to go into the ground when the weather is fine.
A number of things can upset your plans. “Damping off,” causing seedlings to rot, occurs in containers when the soil is too wet or air doesn’t circulate. After a particularly hard winter, the wildlife may be so hungry that whatever you sow they dig up and devour! Resort to timing and hardware until it becomes routine. Once you master seed raising, you will only buy shop containers as an exception. Water seedlings with weak LS solution twice a week.
Preventing Transplant Shock: The roots of many seedlings get transplant shock when taken out of a container and put in a hole in the ground. This may set them back weeks. No growth occurs; sometimes death follows. The way to avoid this is to grow seedlings in biodegradable toilet paper tubes so that most of the roots remain protected when the tube is planted in open ground. Transplant shock also occurs when directly sown seedlings are thinned out. Pulling them up by the roots exposes neighboring seedlings and these may die. Better to let them grow to toddler size before pulling the bigger ones.
Row Covers: By covering a row of early seedlings while the soil is still cold, you help them get into gear in their cozy tunnel. Make your own covers by bending reinforcing or chicken wire in a V- or U-shape and covering with transparent plastic punched with breathing holes, shade cloth, or hospital gowns.
Hardy Vegetables can be raised in the open. You can’t raise pumpkins in winter, as they expire on cold nights, as do tomatoes, beans, melons, and cucumbers. But the cabbage cousins are hardy customers. Cabbage, cauliflower, Brassica juncea and other mustards, broccoli, brussels sprouts, bok choy, kale, tatsoi, and Chinese cabbage can all be sown in open ground in autumn and mild winters, growing on into spring. If your winter is not mild, sow Asian greens in open ground in late winter and start broccoli, cabbages, and cauliflowers off in the cold frame at the same time. A small Percy’s portable plastic roof also helps germination.
A Seed-Raising Table is useful when temperatures rise and the cold frame starts toasting seedlings. I found a waist-high small workshop bench measuring 1x2 feet. Around the edges, I placed water-filled plastic bottles in a metal filing system frame I just happened to have. Seed containers sit inside this instant mini-hothouse open to the air, but an old fridge grid with shade cloth attached to it lies across the top to keep birds out. This table holds six containers containing thirty-six seedlings. By always keeping the space occupied, it provides plenty of well-formed seedlings grown to the stage where they can hold their own in the big world. These need no “hardening off.”
Continuous Sowings: Raise single containers of six beans from October to January for a continuous supply. Also raise back-up pumpkin and squash seedlings, as in some years the weather destroys early ones in the ground. In late summer, start raising autumn vegetables.
Toilet Paper Tubes: Raise seedlings in toilet paper tubes to avoid root disturbance when planting out. This is not necessary for vegetables that are best sown directly into the ground, like root vegetables and sprawling greens such as chard, spinach, Asian greens, mustard, arugula, and the like. But toilet paper tubes can prevent mishaps with beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, melons, peas, pumpkins, and tomatoes. If wildlife digs up your directly planted sweet corn seeds, re-seed in toilet paper tubes and place in seed-raising mini-hothouse as in A Seed-Raising Table (above).
Collect toilet paper tubes in a cloth bag hung in the bathroom. Start saving today. Six rolls fit into a margarine container and four in a seedling container, so you need forty to sixty rolls to sow ten varieties of four to six plants each. Punch drainage holes in margarine containers. Fill rolls with potting soil and tamp the container a few times to compact soil, then fill tubes to the top. Push in one seed per roll, add a nametag, and put in the cold frame, hot frame, or on the seed-raising table, depending on the time of year.
The advantage of tubes is that they double or triple the height of a container, allowing strong root growth. Often the roots hang out of the tube when seedlings are big enough to go into the ground. At this stage, the plants don’t seem to suffer the brief exposure of root ends during transplanting. Dig a deep, narrow hole and half-fill it with water. Plant the tube, push it down a little, and tuck in firmly with soil. These plants grow much better than seedlings that have to be torn apart from a container or have bunched roots from lack of space. The cardboard tube disintegrates to become part of the soil.
For more from this book, see:
Excerpt from One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening: The Easy, Organic Way to Grow Your Own Food on a 3-Foot Square © Lolo Houbein, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.