Farming by the Square Inch
by H.D. Jones, reprinted from Farm and Forest 1911
This is the story of a remarkable solution; of the secret of success in farming on a small scale, chiefly for the benefit of those who cannot afford to buy large tracts of land and would not be able to work them if they could. To pique the curiosity of the reader, let it be first explained, in all seriousness, that if a farm cultivated in this way is leased it should be understood that when the tenant moves he is at liberty to take the soil with him.
The soil used in this method of farming must be of unusual richness. The story begins with the efforts of two women to gain a livelihood from Mother Nature. They leased five acres of land in Berkshire, England. Later they found that five acres was too much land, and that they could find full work for themselves and for students who flocked to them to learn how it was done, with profit for all, on a piece of ground less than half the size of that first taken.
The teachers of the women were a French gardener and his family, who, with an acre of land in France, sold twenty-five hundred dollars’ worth of produce in a year. The scene at the farm is thus described by one who visited it:
In a bare plowed field stands a square palisade of zinc plates enclosing about three-quarters of an acre. Behind it the French gardener and the women who lease the land have wrought what looks like a sheer miracle to any one unacquainted with the system.
The ground is all covered with inverted bell glasses of the kind known in Europe as clochers. Under each bell at the time this writer visited the farm were five lettuces. Lettuces were growing around the bells and other vegetables sown broadcast were coming up everywhere. In each of a number of frames four feet square were thirty lettuces, together with a mass of carrots and cauliflower.
The whole secret of the growth of these products before the regular season is in the cropping and the soil. Every inch of soil bears at least three crops a year, each of them anticipating the season and therefore producing fancy prices. The soil is regarded by the gardeners as of so much value that, as explained, there is a special clause in the lease that they are at liberty to cart it away to a depth of eighteen inches if they give up the farm at the termination of the agreement. The ground is so precious that no space is allowed for a wheelbarrow path. The loads are all carried in baskets and not a square inch is allowed to go to waste in this rich garden.
Imitators of the women farmers are springing up everywhere in England. It is beginning to be realized that the large farm is not essential to success. A small plot of ground on which out-of-season vegetables can be grown is infinitely less trouble and more profitable, for almost any price can be asked for products grown in anticipation of the regular time for their appearance.
All the work of the little market garden is done by the girls. The frames of glass were made by the women, the glass being gathered for the most part from photographic firms who sell their old negatives cheap. These, when cleansed off, made fine frames. Mats are used in very cold weather to protect the plants from frost. There is no halt in the profit making. Let the weather be what it may, the work of forcing Dame Nature to do her best in the interest of the little colony goes merrily on.
The soil, which is all made soil, is the richest that can be procured. It is almost entirely manure. With this for the young plants to take root in, and with the big inverted bells and the glass frames to protect the plants from the cold in the winter and make the heat of the summer considerably hotter, the plants simply have to grow. They have absolutely no excuse for doing anything else.
Stable manure is used exclusively. The girls had not sufficient money at the start to invest in any of the expensive chemical compounds recommended by scientific farmers. They say also that they had no particular desire to use them. They pinned their faith on stable manure, and this they bought from neighboring farmers cheap and carted to the ground themselves. All the manure was spread by the girls themselves and every foot of ground thoroughly prepared by hand. The smallness of the farm made it possible to give the closest attention to every square inch of soil. This was the idea that had been drilled into the girls by their teacher from the start. The object was to have a tiny farm, made up of soil so rich in quality as to be worth removing at the end of the tenancy.
The limited capital of the women was sufficient to purchase the manure and the bells: the frames, as explained, they made themselves. Plants are cheap, and the project was begun in this way with very little expense. Labor cost nothing, for the women did the work. Here was one of the chief recommendations for the plan. The women could not have worked a large farm without help and they had no money to hire help. But it was comparatively easy to do all the work ona farm of less than an acre. Add to this as many of the homilies you can think of concerning work done oneself being work well done, and you have additional reasons why the women won out.
In this country of splendid distances and unlimited waste spaces it may be said that the forcing of vegetables out of season in the manner done by these Englishwomen would be unnecessary and useless. But such is by no means the case. The demand for products of the farm at times when they are not to be had from the regular sources is always greater than the supply. The example furnished by these women of the outcome of rich intensive culture can be followed in America with the most satisfactory results. It is a simple matter of combing stable manure, glass, and good American industry with a small section of ground, and success can easily be attained.
There is some detail in the making of lights and frames, in the use of the mats to keep out the frost, in the gathering of the manure for the soil, in the transference of the plants from frame to frame, but the plain facts stand out: that with a very small piece of ground a few industrious persons with average intelligence can win the same measure of success that these women have in England.