Thursday, January 6, 2011

One Magic Square

One Magic Square

Late last year, I found myself thinking about horta; and in thinking about horta, I remembered an interview on Gardening Australia. An organic gardener was asked what happens when insects attack the leafy greens. 'Then you get holes,' replied the gardener, smiling, 'and you can eat holes.'

I was so charmed that I looked up the interview. The gardener was Lolo Houbein, author of One Magic Square. My husband bought me the book for Christmas and, now I've read it from cover to cover, I am more enchanted than ever. In her book, Lolo talks about vegetable gardening in a way that is generous and sustainable, pitched to the imperfect Australian backyard gardener ie me. Her tone is lovely throughout: thoughtful, encouraging, and full of good humour.

Lolo suggests that most veggie gardens fail because we start too big. Instead, she says, start with a single square, one metre by one metre. This is an achievable size to weed, water and maintain – and it is also as much space as many of us have in these days of tiny backyards.

To make the most of this square, Lolo recommends dense plantings of mixed crops. Early crops shade successive crops, and the gardener gains much satisfaction from the little garden. The book includes schemes for planting the square, with names such as the Aztec plot, the Salad Plot, and the Soup Plot; each scheme is followed by a few casual recipes. The schemes are not overly grand, and projects are listed in steps so that you can do a small job each day. When the job is finished, Lolo suggests, come inside, have a cup of tea and feel good about yourself. Any food you grow is a bonus. Don't try to do everything at once, she says. Don't get discouraged. Instead, relish what you can manage and celebrate it.

Her friendly approach extends to garden nuisances. Lolo lets weeds grow to shade the soil until other plants take over, pulling them out only when they are about to flower. Rather than trying to eradicate all pests, she recommends planting pest attractors a distance from the veggies. Let the snails munch on agapanthus, and they won't bother with the lettuces. If one plant is being attacked by bugs, leave it. It's a runt, and it's preferable that the pests attack it rather than move on to the second-worst plant. This is non-confrontational gardening, with a companionable approach to other forms of life.

Her practical advice reflects my experience of gardening in Australia. For example, Lolo uses broken umbrellas to shade seedlings; and I can vouch that after a recent 40 degree day, all our veggies thus shaded still looked fresh at sundown. She recommends growing some plants in basins, to keep them cool; and crowding many different plants together so that pests become confused and move on.

The photos in the book are of normal gardens, edged by water bottles and shaded by last year's parasols. Seedlings are grown in toilet rolls, which stand in old margarine containers. It may not be glamorous, but the gardens are bursting with life. This is real gardening, for real people: the sort of thing I can manage.

Lolo points out that gardening is not onerous and should not be regarded as such. Instead, take a few minutes each morning or evening in the garden, watering and doing one small job. This activity becomes a regular meditation, a time to oneself to reflect on the day. It can also be one's exercise, in the gentle bending and stretching and lifting that gardening entails.

I've felt so encouraged that, since Christmas, I've built a new compost heap; sown a bike basket sized square of horta and another of salad; started work on a new garden bed; and moved seedling eggplant and peppers much closer together. They have taken off, perhaps because together they form a moist microclimate – but I prefer Lolo's explanation, that plants are companionable and like to be near one another.

Already I can see some changes in the garden, and, perhaps more important, some small changes in me. I am the sort of person who expects too much from herself; and I am perpetually disappointed in what I cannot do. But Lolo reminds us to treat ourselves with gentleness: to accept what we can manage, and to recognise it as enough. I find myself walking the garden feeling less frustrated at myself, and more grateful for what is growing well. With her words whispering in my ear, I'm celebrating what I have: a healthy tree of white peaches, a regular supply of zucchini and basil.

Gardens are lively creative places, ripe for experimentation and bursting with life. Our approach should be commensurate with this: playful, intelligent, kind. With a gentle soul like Lolo at our side, such an approach becomes easy.


  1. I love this book too. My garden is certainly a place of experimentation! Today when I was feeling a bit disappointed about all the blossoms dropping off the tomatoes, I remembered all the successes and how much I have learned over the past few years - that's what I like about gardening, there is so much to learn and try that it is always interesting. THanks for stopping by my blog; I'm glad that I've found yours.

  2. Thanks, Alison for your insightful review of a wonderful book! I've linked this page to my blog at . Hope your garden is flourishing! Regards, WIU.

  3. Thank you for your lovely words. I have recently bought this book and have planted some of my veg garden accordingly. Lolo makes things approachable, and your words have made me feel I'm not the only person who needs to be a bit more focused on what has gone well, instead of all the things I haven't done.