From Famine to Magic Food Plots

Text and Images: Elisabeth Anderson

Lolo feeds the chickens at her Uncle Wim’s in Holland

As a young girl Lolo Houbein saw her hometown in western Holland implode under the impact of World War II, until all animals, birds and rodents were eaten, all fish angled, all trees used for firewood and a long winter famine began, in which 24,000 people died of starvation in an area approximately a sixteenth the size of Tasmania. It goes some way towards explaining her passion for self-reliance in food. It has been Lolo’s lifelong preoccupation.

Hence her now completed trilogy of Magic Square books – the latest with co-author Tori Arbon – in which she helps readers become self-reliant by developing their own food gardens to produce nourishing meals.

Lolo and co-author Tori Arbon sign “Magic Little Meals”, third book in the trilogy

Lolo, who has lived in the Adelaide Hills since the early 1970s, was 11 years of age in that Hunger Winter of 1944-45. She was evacuated with many other children from the starving western provinces of The Netherlands and in a small canal village in south-east Drenthe foster parents increased her weight by 50 percent in four months. Growing one’s own food was the rule there and this was one of many life lessons learned during that period.

Lolo remembers the schoolteacher, a young man from Amsterdam, who prepared a long strip of ground in the school yard and divided it into as many plots as there were children and handed out seeds for them to sow. Lolo believes she grew radishes and some flowers.

Back home there was no room for a vegetable garden of any sort but there was at her Uncle Wim’s place in Laren, North Holland, and her uncle taught her a lot about vegetables, fruits and chickens. Not only that, her great-great-grandfather Hendrik Houbein had been a market gardener in North-West Frisia and she feels that he passed on the food gardening gene to the generations that followed.

Lolo first grew her own fruit and vegetables after she settled in South Australia with her young family in 1958 – though only after realising that good land was the key. Her first attempt had come to naught, the ground she had dug up to plant her first vegetables having been poor quality former grazing land on which only tough geraniums and succulent cuttings seemed to thrive. But that was only the beginning.

Lolo with a sample of her produce

In her Magic Square trilogy, where she provides a guide to developing successful and sustainable food growing, Lolo describes how on a plateau in the Adelaide Hills she had worked on plots just one square metre at a time, removing rocks, stones and roots and digging and composting the soil before sowing and planting her herbs and vegetables. She also used planter boxes made with second-hand bricks.

Since One Magic Square appeared, says Lolo, thousands of people have discovered how much fun, food and satisfaction can be had from such small spaces. She has observed Australia’s precarious situation in the world food system and her books look for solutions in the suburbs where the majority of the population lives. Lolo believes that countries should retain a measure of self-reliance in food, as should households and individuals, and that people’s health would be the better for it.

One Magic Square

The time of writing this overview has seen a shortage of many essential food products due the corona virus pandemic of 2019-20 and that includes seeds and seedlings. Particularly significant therefore is Lolo’s advice on saving the seeds of home-grown produce and cultivating one’s own. She ponders whether we will find ourselves living in a different society after this and has a vision of people standing on street corners discussing the progress of their bush beans, turnips and cabbages.


Lolo advocates that growing one’s own helps to draw down greenhouse gases, as it eliminates fossil fuels needed in horticulture, transport, refrigeration and displaying of produce – homegrown food therefore having the smallest possible carbon footprint.


She provides useful information about growing one’s own backyard fruit, regardless of the space available, and writes about her own small espaliered orchard and some old inherited fruit trees that provided fruit three quarters of the year.

Lolo and her partner Burwell Dodd also founded the well-known Trees for Life movement in South Australia in 1981, an initiative in response to their concerns about the speed at which the Australian environment was being logged, mined out and sold off. Seeds and seedlings are provided through this organisation, resulting in millions of trees being planted throughout the State. They worked almost full-time for several years as the movement was run by consensus with a group of committed, skilled people, who joined up to revegetate South Australia.  Over nearly forty years of its existence Trees for Life has continued to attract such people to make the movement a household word in South Australia.

The trilogy:

One Magic Square (2008)

Outside the Magic Square (2012)

Magic Little Meals (2019)

Learn more about Lolo Houbein in our Migration topic here

Do you have stories or memories of Gardening or Gardeners in the Adelaide Hills?

Contact us at or drop into the History Centre at the Coventry Library, 63 Mount Barker Road, Stirling.