Feature

One square metre garden

Green Lifestyle magazine

If you’re a novice green thumb, space-challenged apartment dweller or time-poor professional, this innovative gardening method will help you grow an abundance of produce in a teeny-tiny space.

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Square metre gardening is tailor made for companion planting, such as the pollinators shown here.

Credit: Mel Bartholomew

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One box will yield a large garden salad for one person each day.

Credit: Mel Bartholomew

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Extract from Square Metre Gardening, Exisle Publishing, $29.99.

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Credit: Mel Bartholomew

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Making a square metre garden.

Credit: Mel Bartholomew

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When US-based civil engineer Mel Bartholomew retired and took up gardening as a hobby, he thought it would be easy. “I thought it would be fun but it wasn’t fun – it was a lot of work,” he says. “I needed a lot of space and had to do a lot of weeding and digging.”

Soon Bartholomew began to question the efficiency of the conventional gardening practices he’d been taught. Why do we grow vegetables in single rows? Why do we plant a whole packet of seeds in one row? Why do we have a space of one metre between rows? Why is fertiliser and water spread so liberally over huge patches of soil when the plants are cultivated in slim rows?

“I asked lots of experts and they all gave me the same answer: because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he says. “So I decided to invent a new way because their way was too much work.”

If you’re a space-challenged apartment dweller keen to grow more than just a few herbs, or a home-owner struggling to grow a healthy crop of vegies in poor quality soil, Bartholomew may have coined the solution to your gardening woes: square metre gardening.

Getting started

After conducting a series of sowing and planting experiments, Bartholomew found that growing vegies in rows was nothing more than a technique passed on from large-field farmers. Growing in small squares proved to be a simpler and more economical solution better suited to the home gardener.

The result is square metre gardening – growing vegetables in one-metre box frames, edged with timber boards to create raised beds. These are, in turn, divided with a lattice of wooden laths that form a planting grid of nine squares. Bartholomew went on to pen a new book about the technique; Square Metre Gardening ($29.99, www.exislepublishing.com).

“Big plants are one per square, smaller plants like lettuce are four per square, even smaller plants are nine per square and really small plants like radishes or carrots are 16 per square,” he says.

To boost your harvest, simply add more boxes. Bartholomew says one box will yield a large garden salad for one person each day. He says four boxes per person – or one 4 x 1 m box – is the most you’d ever need.

To create the perfect growing conditions, Bartholomew recommends mixing good quality soil from scratch rather than digging up your existing ground. “It’s too much work and the soil isn’t usually very good. It’s often too sandy or too alkaline.”

He says the perfect soil comprises one third each of coco peat, vermiculite and blended compost. The mix is moisture-retentive and contains all the nutrients plants need without having to apply additional fertiliser.

Local flavour

Gardener Lolo Houbein is an Australian advocate of the square metre gardening philosophy because she says it encourages us to take responsibility for a portion of our food supply.

“The rationale is that food is getting scarcer and dearer all the time, due to finite resources like oil, phosphate, water and land,” she explains. “Plus, there are the small matters of carbon footprint, freshness, real flavour and avoiding chemical sprays.

And let me mention the health crisis as well – people just have to make a start on growing their own to obtain real, fresh, healthy food.”

Houbein says square metre gardens are particularly useful for beginners looking to share in this collective responsibility without succumbing to the temptation of a large, unmanageable garden – in terms of weeds, planting and volume of food.

Bruce Molloy at Edible Landscapes agrees: “The grid system gives the gardener a simple visual framework in which to plan where and when they plant. One square, for instance, may hold four lettuces, while the neighbouring square holds one cabbage. Marigolds can be planted into another square and a fourth is planted with two spinach plants.”

Mapping each box into nine squares and taking note of what is planted where will help you plan for when each square is ready to be harvested, left for seed saving or planted with green manure. Molloy suggests sticking a map on the fridge to plan for planting, harvesting and – the best bit – cooking.

What to plant

So, you’ve built or purchased your box frames, mixed your soil and drawn your map. The next and most important element of square metre gardening is deciding what fruits and vegetables to plant.

Bartholomew says growing hardy vegetables that you like to eat is the key to a successful square metre garden, especially for beginners. “Pick out the things you like and that are easy to grow, then start experimenting. Don’t plant too much and don’t fill up your backyard with boxes. Start slow. For example, radishes are easy to handle, they come out of the ground quickly and they grow below ground. In less than a
month you can eat them.”

Houbein suggests grouping together salad vegetables in one box, soup ingredients in another and pizza and pasta favourites in a third box. Or you can be a little more imaginative: “My favourites are the antioxidant plots, curry plots and stir-fry plots, all packed with a variety of green leafy vegetables you can pick for months.

“There are simple plots, like the Aztec plot in summer: sweet corn, pumpkins and beans – an ancient combination. Some cooks decide to grow a square metre of gourmet food: in summer, eggplants, chillies, spring onions and a herb or two; in winter, cauliflowers, celery, garlic and cavolo nero.”

Molloy suggests setting up trellises to grow beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and other climbing vegies to double the growing space of your garden. He recommends a combination of large and small vegies. “If you have enough room, grow broccoli or cabbages which take up almost an entire square. Otherwise stick to smaller vegies like lettuce, spinach, celery, kale, leeks, capsicum, carrots and silverbeet.” 

How to plant

Unsurprisingly, one of the main principles of square metre gardening is crop rotation – never replant an identical crop in the same square. Your map will help you rotate crops.

“A general crop rotation system is legumes (beans, peas); then plant fruiting crops (capsicum, tomatoes); then plant leafy greens (lettuce, spinach); then plant brassicas (cabbage, broccoli); then plant root crops (carrots, radish, beetroot); then start with legumes again,” says Molloy.

If you fancy continual harvest of a year-round favourite, Bartholomew suggests planting seeds at regular intervals in each of the nine squares.

Plus, square metre gardening is tailor-made for companion planting. “Because you have nine squares with nine different plants, you have every companion plant you could imagine,” says Bartholomew.

And the best bit? Bartholomew says because of plant density there are few pesky weeds in a square metre garden.

Top tips for success with square metre gardening

Create a thriving square metre garden with these tips from Bruce Molloy at Edible Landscapes.
– Take time to divide the garden into squares.
– Create a map of the garden and stick it on the fridge so you know what is planted where at cooking time.
– Mulch the garden to prevent evaporation and save on watering.
– Plan your garden according to seasons and crop rotation.
– Enjoy the rewards of harvesting and eating fresh and yummy vegies right from your backyard.
– Dealing with nature is always a little hit and miss, so if you don’t first succeed, don’t be put off – try again.