Sustainable Gardening for Compact Spaces

By rotating the crops you grow within your small garden, you can guarantee a longer life for your soil.

Small garden bed

You don’t need a farm or a homestead or even a giant backyard to start a sustainable garden. All you really need is three square feet of space.

Photo by Fotolia/Ivonne Wierink

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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, 2016). 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.

You can purchase this book from the Capper's Farmer store: One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening.

Crop Rotation and Green Crops

Crop rotation restores the nutritional balance in the soil and prevents plant diseases from developing, but it cannot restore all nutrients taken from the soil by previous crops. Therefore, soil needs additional nutrients through green crops, compost, manure, and organic fertilizers.

The word has been out a while now that mono-cropping — the growing of one variety on the same soil year after year — leads to root diseases, fatal for root crops, as well as those on big feet like the large brassicas. Mono-cropping is putting all your eggs in one basket and is frequently practiced with vegetables that increase prolifically, delivering the greatest harvest for the least amount of cost and labor. Mono-cropping is performed by poor people who need to feed many mouths for next to nothing.

Such was the case in Ireland where potatoes were the staple food until, in 1845, the Great Potato Famine struck. Cold wet weather gave rise to a fungal disease, and the potatoes rotted. One million people died of starvation and two million migrated, leaving five million to try to survive off the blighted land. In the hills where I live, the growers of an entire valley were prohibited from cultivating onions for five years because of a disease caused by continuous mono-cropping.

In Bali, the hills have been terraced to grow rice for a thousand years. But with a recent surge in population to 3.5 million, in a climate where rice can grow all year, continuous mono-cropping was reducing soil fertility and causing problems requiring chemical spraying. Now, Balinese farmers practice crop rotation with peanuts, corn, sweet potatoes, tapioca, and vegetables after two rice harvests. Their fields are small, and those surrounded by shelter belts of mixed trees and weeds have the best-looking crops.

From a train window, traveling from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, I watched spellbound as we rolled past thousands of market gardens doomed to become concrete jungles during the 21st century. Chinese farmers in Guangdong Province practice the most intensive vegetable culture I’ve ever seen. They have many mouths to feed, but they can grow food all year in a subtropical climate with an annual rainfall of 76 inches.

Every bit of arable ground between villages is taken up by straight beds, two arm’s-lengths wide, and divided by narrow paths where people hunch to weed, hoe, or harvest, filling huge reed baskets. Every second or third bed has bamboo lattice running through the center with peas, beans, cucumbers, eggplants, and squash vines shading rows of leafy vegetables underneath. Each bed grows at least half a dozen vegetables, including onions, celery, and broccoli.

Later, I learned that apart from lots of manure and compost made from street sweepings, the only other fertilizer used was nitrogen in the form of ammonia or urea. This went on all the beds, whether they would grow brassicas or root crops, mainly to save time. About five combinations of vegetables inhabited the beds in turn, so crop rotation was assured. Only aquatic vegetables like kangkong, lotus, water bamboo, and water spinach were grown as mono-crops in watery regions.

Even rotating half a dozen crops is not always enough to keep blights, root disease, and insect infestations at bay. A mixed farming approach is needed, taking into account mini-climate, indigenous pests, and predators.

The home grower can use mixed farming on a small scale and succeed.

Make each bed a mix of three to four vegetables with companion herbs and flowering plants. Sometimes, you will plant mixed vegetables, other times a mono-crop like onions and garlic. But a mono-crop on a 3-foot square causes no problems if followed by mixed species.

Scenarios for Crop Rotation

Scenario 1
You might first plant your square in early autumn as a Curry Plot with carrots, cauliflower, daikon, rutabagas, red onions, kale, and herbs.

Scenario 2
As you dig up carrots and rutabagas, sprinkle B&B and sow arugula toward a Salad Plot to fit in with onions that sit in the ground till mid-summer. The kale keeps standing a long time. Cultivate around it, sowing red radishes, and when the weather warms up, plant one prolific, staked tomato plant and a rambling cucumber. Rake mixed lettuce seeds in between and there’s your Salad Plot.

Scenario 3
When the Salad Plot comes to an end and the onions are drying in the shed, add manure and compost. Plant cauliflowers, broccoli, tatsoi, and bok choy around the edges and fava beans in the center. There’s your Stir-Fry Plot.

Scenario 4
It’s spring once more. Eat or freeze any green food left growing. Rake in CMC for pumpkins, squash, zucchini, and melons, or bell peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes.

Scenario 5
Add lime in late summer, three weeks before planting onions and garlic. Mulch between rows. Have a quiet winter.

Scenario 6
Since it may be a while before the onions and garlic dry off enough to be pulled, now is the time to expand. Dig up another 3-foot square of lawn and plant spring vegetables.

Scenario 7
The onions and garlic are harvested; it is mid-summer and hot. Plant a quick green crop like mustard and dig it in before it sets seed.

Scenario 8
Time for a nitrogen fix: plant winter peas along the edges of the square with at least four Asian greens taking up the center for a different Stir-Fry Plot.

Scenario 9
Give that square plenty of manure, compost, and B&B for an Antioxidants Plot.

The 1, 2, 3, 4 Method

Should you find that intricate pattern of mixed vegetables over four years too much to keep track of, consider laying out four strips, each of 18x36 inches, or half the size of the square plot. Mark them 1, 2, 3, and 4 with numbers on stakes and keep a notebook. Whether you start in spring/summer or autumn/winter, plant as follows:

Plot 1
Leafy vegetables (chard, bok choy, cabbage).

Plot 2
Any root crop.

Plot 3
Any leguminous crop, beans in spring/summer, peas or fava beans in autumn/winter.

Plot 4
Fruiting crops (cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, zucchinis, and in theory also eggplants, bell peppers, and tomatoes).

Next season, shift these categories up one so that Plot 1 becomes a fruiting crop, Plot 2 a leafy crop, Plot 3 a root crop, and Plot 4 a leguminous crop. Apply manure and other requirements for each crop.

The 1, 2, 3 Method

This simple method still assures reasonable crop rotation on the same plot if you are not trying to grow food for all your needs.

Season 1
In autumn, plant any of the gross feeders from the cabbage family or leafy crops. In spring, plant eggplants, bell peppers, cucurbits, pumpkins, sweet corn, tomatoes.

Season 2
Plant root crops that can live off the residue of the heavy manuring applied for Season 1. Beets, carrots, onions, rutabagas, and turnips are all good.

Season 3
Plant peas or beans, depending on the season, or a green crop to dig in.

As a rule of thumb, remember that rotation starts with gross feeders when you lay it on with CMC, CM, OF, and/or B&B, plus a sprinkling of lime. For root crops (except potatoes), also add a sprinkling of lime and top dress with some CMC if soil is poor. Lime again for peas and beans, but hold back on OF and B&B.

Then manure all other crops, and lime where soil is acidic. Problem is, potatoes like manure but not lime. When digging in green crops, add a few handfuls of dolomite, gypsum, or rock dust.

In a notebook, draw a plan of your plots on a double page, write the year and season in one corner, and note where vegetables were planted. It’s an easy record to help you plan following sea-sons. Rotation for a minimum of three or four seasons, and as many as six seasons, avoids troubles.

Now that your first plot is underway, plan to develop another square each year until you have four square plots. This streamlines crop rotation. Simply shift the Salad Plot from Square 1 to Square 2 and so on, until it returns to Square 1 in the fifth season. The other three squares follow a different sequence, or carry a mono- or green crop.

Let the peas and beans family only touch corners with the onion and garlic plot. In winter, this four-square bed might be one square of cabbages — planted as a border or cross — a diagonal half square of chard, a half square of carrots, another of leeks, and a whole square of mixed cauliflower and broccoli, all intermixed with rutabagas, parsley, arugula, marigolds, and borage, and plastic butterflies hovering across the cabbages.

Going into your second winter, there will be a profusion you had not planned. Self-seeded arugula may have to be pruned. Kale seedlings are likely. Give some away, with the recipe for green soup!

While you eat out a plot as the season advances, start planting suitable vegetables in vacant spaces, so that by mid-spring, you still have some winter crops, interspersed with lettuces, peas, and beets.

Of course, such intensive growing depletes the soil and thus, whenever space becomes available, tip in a bucket of CM before replanting. This almost automatic crop rotation never grows the same crop in the same soil in consecutive years. Together with companion planting, you can see how complex it threatens to become, but that is where green-cropping comes in to give you a break.

By growing food in rotating beds, a section occasionally becomes vacant to plant a cover or green crop. In autumn going into winter, try barley, buckwheat, oats, peas, or wheat. In summer, try buckwheat, millet, or sorghum. Dig in before they set seed. Buckwheat leaves are a fine vegetable, but some swear by wheatgrass.

Green-crop a dense leafy crop for the sole purpose of fertilizing the soil. Not only does the soil get a rest from producing crops that must grow to maturity as green crops are dug in before flowering, but plants returned to the earth at optimum vigor make the best green manure. Allowing a month to let the crop decay, this plot would have a healthy rest for three months before returning to full production. Seeds of common green crops are obtainable in small to medium quantities.


Common Green Crops

Buckwheat: Any season. Available from health shops or groceries.

Fenugreek: Autumn and spring. Enjoy spicy leaves while young, then dig in.

Lupin: Before flowering starts, cover plants entirely with a layer of newspaper and 2 inches of soil or compost.

Millet: Sow in a warm season. From groceries.

Mung beans: Spring and summer. The same beans as used for sprouting. Need warmth to germinate.

Mustard: Any season. Benefits soils harboring nematodes. Available in large bags in Asian and Mediterranean groceries. Sow yellow or black mustard, a handful per square. Grow your own seed.

Oats: Put a handful in a mix of green crops.

Red clover: Widely used by farmers, very nutritious when dug in. Available at farm supply stores.

Soybean: Spring and summer. The world’s most nutritious bean. From health shops and farm supply stores.

Wheat: If organic wheatgrass and wheat juice is so good for people, it must be good for the soil. Mix with other seeds, like mustard and oats.


Nitrogen-Fixing Crops

Peas and fava beans in winter, other beans in summer. These are not dug in, but harvested. Cut plants at soil level, leaving nitrogen-fixing nodules in the ground. Jackie French advises to use wattle foliage (Acacia spp.) and fava bean plants after harvest as a mulch between other crops. Cover the Fava Bean Plot with its own stalks after cutting down the plants, until the leaves become one with the soil. Then carry the stalks to the compost heap.


More from One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening:

Successfully Raise and Transplant Seeds


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 with permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. Buy this book from our store: One Magic Square Vegetable Gardening.