The 3 Most Important Ingredients For Most Gardens

I’m a big fan of spraying organic seaweed fertilizer at least once a month in my garden.

I do this primarily to help my plants deal with heat, cold, wind, drought and disease.

But that’s not the most important ingredient my garden needs.

We’re talking about the 80-20 rule this week in order to simplify our gardening chores.

If you haven’t already, you might want to read the first post in the series.

Basically, in the garden (and in many areas of our lives), there’s a possibility we can get close to 80% of the results for just 20% of the work, if we can figure out which are the most impactful tasks that should comprise that 20%.

In the above article, I asked you what the 1 or 2 tasks are you figure make the most difference in the success of your garden.

Your answers were very insightful. It’s interesting to see how for one person, “fencing to keep deer, rabbits and coons out” is a vitally important task, while for someone else, “more perennials, onions, leeks, fruit trees, berries and self-sowing plants” is the focus.

Certainly if deer are eating your garden overnight, a fence very clearly becomes your 80-20 rule, and if you’re trying to delegate as many gardening tasks as possible over to nature to handle for you, then using more perennials and self-sowing plants becomes an excellent 80-20 rule.

I encourage you to read the comments in that post for some other great ideas.

Today, I’d like to share what I think are the most important 80-20 rule ‘ingredients’ for the success of most gardens, and down below I’ll ask you again for your thoughts.

I think the most important ingredient my garden needs is also the most important ingredient I need: air.

I think the next most important ingredient for me and my garden is: water.

I think the next most important ingredient is: food.

Air. I need only the oxygen, but plants need the oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. They need it above and below ground. Above ground is generally not a problem, but below ground may require our help if the soil is compacted. It’s easy enough to achieve that in the short term with some tilling or digging, but a little more complex in the long run – especially if we’re going for 80-20 gardening, and if we care about optimal soil health. Ultimately, air accounts for nearly 50% of a plant’s mass.

Water. This one’s relatively easy if you have enough water in the tap, so to speak, and obviously very hard if you don’t, as billions of people around the world already know (if you’re thinking of writing a gardening book, write one about how to garden with very little water – it will be a very important book). Even those of us who have access to water often do a poor job on watering, but if we can somehow give ourselves a little weekly or twice weekly reminder to survey the garden, we can solve this one easily. Of course, improving the soil so that it holds more water is the other half of the story. Ultimately, water also accounts for nearly 50% of a plant’s mass.

Food. This includes vitamins and minerals and other such substances. I also include soil microorganisms in the food category because they play a crucial role in helping plants get their food. Interestingly, the composition of plants is about 95% carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, all of which are supplied by the air and water above, but that remaining 5% – the food – is vitally important, and fortunately, nature will provide a lot of it for us if we just lend a little help in the beginning.

In two days, we’ll talk about the one ingredient you can bring into your garden that will supply all of the above ingredients – if you use it thoughtfully.

Do you agree with my proposal here of air, water and food being a good basis for our 80-20 focus?

Do you have anything to add or subtract? I’d love to hear what you have to say down below…


  1. Barbara on June 2, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Talk about fish emulsion. It got raccoons into the flower pots and it/they ripped out all the plants and soil in the flower pots. A gigantic infuriating mess on the deck

  2. Kerrin Hester on June 2, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Sunshine is really good too!

    • Phil on June 2, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Yes, excellent addition! If I wasn’t so set on being succinct in this 80-20 series, light would be number four and temperature would be number five. Both are obviously just as important as the others.

  3. Haleena Noland on June 2, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Sunlight – super important ingredient to the garden.

  4. John on June 3, 2015 at 2:18 am

    I can’t help wondering what you and others are using as a medium for small containers. I use a homemade mix that is 3 parts coir and 1 part compost. I also use a prepared mix that is peat and compost based. So far, it looks like the air and water properties of the peat are out performing the coir.

    • Phil on June 4, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      I tend to stay away from peat because peat harvesting is generally considered unsustainable, and from coir because it’s not sustainable to have it shipped up to where I live (but coir is worthwhile using in places where coconuts grow). I use an equal mix of soil and compost, or soil, sand and compost, sometimes with some leaves mixed in.

      • John on June 5, 2015 at 3:10 am

        I agree that peat and coir are not sustainable for the reasons you stated. Will definitely try your recipe for my outdoor containers.Do you use soil in your mix for indoor containers? I would worry about bringing in fungus gnats and other pests. I might try finished compost for seed starting and growing indoors under lights.

        • Phil on June 8, 2015 at 3:44 pm

          100% compost is generally too much. It’s best to mix it with some kind of topsoil. Yes, some people actually bake their soil in the oven to kill all the biology, which may sometimes be necessary, but personally, I don’t mind a few ‘pests’ in there. They won’t cause problems unless the plants are unhealthy.

  5. Shelagh Young on June 3, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Interesting… I’ve been tilling as little as possible, but continuing to pile on organic matter to keep the soil fluffy, keeping the same trampled paths, and not walking on the beds at all. Most of them are about a metre wide, so accessible from both sides… I don’t irrigate, or haven’t yet…. Do a little liquid feeding, but find a heavy mulch keeps the soil moist and the worms happy even in the heat of summer. Also use black plastic, lumber wrapping free from the building centre, to plant in some areas along the edges where really aggressive wild mints and grasses continue to creep in, cut holes in it to plant squashes, or ground cherries, or other started plants, which so far produce abundantly without added water. My 80/20 approach includes time and financial cost too, moving hundreds of feet of hoses around isn’t something I’ve had to consider, and collecting soil amendments from the shore and farm neighbours are so pleasant they aren’t included in the ‘work’ factor. Also I plant nitrogen-fixers like white clover and a few bush beans along path edges to help the greens. Pole beans and tall peas also give a bit of heat relief to keep things from bolting too quickly. Tried using a tall bean planted near each tomato last year to twine around it and hold it to its stake, but it took too much supervision to keep the bean doing its job without strangling or veering off… I really enjoy thinking about it as an integrated system, and reading others’ posts here has helped so much… I’m experimenting with the humic acid and microorganisms now, and look forward to more about that, too…

    • Phil on June 4, 2015 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks for sharing Shelagh. Sounds like you have a lot of interesting experimenting going on.

  6. Max Holbrook on June 3, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    For veggies the sun is a must. In my yard arrangement , which I did not arrange, I search for sun!!

  7. Barbara & Jack Sevy on June 4, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    80/20: So, if we ignore the 80% (that yields just 20% of the benefit) and do the 20% (that produces 80% of the benefits) TWICE, we should get 160% of the benefit with only 40% of the work, right?There are some provisos, but this is the essential principle that I try to follow most of the time. It’s not easy, but this conversation is full of witnesses that it is basically true.

  8. OnPointFighting on June 6, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    Where do you rank sunlight in terms of importance?

    • Phil on June 8, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      Definitely right up there with the others. I chose not to talk about it in this series, but it’s good that a couple of people mentioned it.

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