Miraculous Abundance

Simon Hursthouse | Thursday, 13th October 2016
A guide to growing food on small areas of land, especially one quarter of an acre, with enough homegrown produce to feed the world.
Author: Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer
Publisher: Chelsea Green
Publication year: 2016
RRP: £17.00

With the subtitle One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World, how can you resist?

Miraculous Abundance charts one couple’s journey putting down roots in Normandy, following individual careers that let them see the world. Covering the past decade, we read how a patch of unpromising land becomes a fertile market garden in a compelling account of trying to make a living from a smallholding. 

Credit for the eventual success story is due to the impressive team that has congregated at La Ferme du Bec Hellouin. But the tale begins as Charles and Perrine settle down hoping for a simple life of rural subsistence, with no previous experience, on just under an acre and a half. This shared fantasy is soon put paid to by the dynamite combination of two inquiring minds and a rural broadband connec-tion. Disappointing soil test results lead to endless agronomic research, gardening by day before feeding their minds online by night, enthralled by the world on their doorstep.

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Before long the couple discover permaculture, which forms the framework for the values, purpose and direction of their new lives. Along with the gift of permaculture’s joined-up thinking, voracious Googling and dwindling funds leads them to experiment with forest gardening, growing vegetables biointensively (à la Jeavons), dabble with bokashi (among other things), and to start growing year-round (Coleman). The depth and breadth of their research is useful and informative, and punches aren’t pulled when things don’t go to plan – early mulching efforts are declared ‘a paradise for slugs’, for example. 

Today, their artful garden is a micro-farm attracting customers, visitors and volunteers. It is also a training and research centre, which brings us back to that boastful subtitle; after expanding their minds along with the size of their plot, the Hervé-Gruyers were then drawn to the question of just how small a piece of land would be sufficient to keep one market gardener in gainful employment? The answer, following a rigorous three-year study, points a finger to 1,000 cultivated square metres, (roughly a quarter-acre, 42 per cent of which is under a polytunnel), worked full-time using hand tools and with a nod to the Parisian market gardeners of the 19th century. 

Data from this study can be found online, in French and English, at fermedubec.com, while the methods and tools employed will be the subject of a forthcoming book detailing how low-impact market gardening can really milk those square metres, with up to eight rotations per bed. And herein lies the main caveat of the book, which the authors make no bones about: to ensure continued fertility of the soil and sufficient material for their hotbeds, inputs from elsewhere on the farm and manure from a nearby equestrian club were essential. Still, their conclusions lead one to look again at the postage stamp of land most of us call a garden and beg the question, do you really need a vegetable plot the size of a pony paddock? Or could it be that sufficient time, boundless creativity and the nearest pony’s manure will do the trick?

Simon Hursthouse, www.tour-central.com

Further resources

Watch: Once acre permaculture farm

Watch: Charles Dowding's Homeacres after 4 years

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