Using The 80-20 Rule In The Garden

Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was an avid gardener.

He noticed that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained a whopping 80% of the overall peas.

He applied this interesting finding to his economics work and discovered that about 20% of the people in Italy owned about 80% of the land.

Since then, this phenomenon has been documented in many areas, especially in the business world (for example, 80% of a company’s sales come from just 20% of its customers).

It’s been dubbed the Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 rule for short.

It turns out that it’s often the case that 80% of the results you get from any undertaking will come from just 20% of the effort you put into it.

That’s an incredibly useful rule to remember if you’re the type of person who wants to simplify your life or even just be more effective at what you do with your time.

If you can determine what that all-important 20% is, you can save yourself a lot of time.

Over the next week, I’m going to attempt to do that for you in your garden.

The truth is, if you’re trying to grow nutrient-dense food, it’s a challenge to break that down into just a few steps, especially if you’re starting with poor soil.

And yet, there are a couple of important things you can do in the garden that can make a huge difference.

My question for you today is this: How do you think this 80-20 rule may apply to your garden? What’s the 1 or 2 tasks you figure make the most difference in the success of your garden?

Let me know down below. I’m curious to see if we get many similar answers or many different answers…

Update. Here’s:

25 Comments

  1. sewbead on May 30, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Weeding would have to be one, although it’s the job I hate the MOST!

  2. Gigi on May 30, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    My most important rule in gardening is to consistently show up! Weeding is easier after I water and have decided ahead of time what rows or area I’m going to completely weed. Right now, I can weed 1/3 of my garden easily, without getting frustrated or bored. I know in advance that I will be removing the plants that compete for space and water. Thanks for the series, SG!

  3. Jacqui P on May 30, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    I have very poor soil. I created raised beds, but over the years the production is way down. I added fresh compost and soil, however I think it wasn’t really organic like the package stated.

  4. Donna-lee Lala on May 30, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    keeping cats (and pests generally) of the veg patch!

  5. Silly Rabbit on May 30, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Mulch / Composting would be MOST important thing one can do as with good soil and the worlds best gardeners (worms) working for you one can simply plant a seed and step back and have a good chance of harvesting a nice crop and by mulching you eliminate weeds – not that all weeds are bad but most are not welcome ….Trick – good soil builder – put down a couple layers of cardboard BEFORE your mulch – I like heavy clean cardboard such as cardboard associated with large applicnances ….. the cardboard will temporary keep out the weeds and eventually rot and the worms will be happy with the layer of cardboard, which allows moisture thru but not the sun, worms will work away underneath until the cardboard breaks down and it breaks down from both sides, the top mulch and the under side soil ….. Try this for 5-6 years and watch your soil turn into black gold ….Yep 20 percent effort into mulch and good soil management will outgrow the other 80 percent of the work us gardeners put into our love ….And may I comment – save yoursself the trouble – never rotortill unless absolutely necessary – compost / mulch and let the worms do their magic!

    • Shelagh Young on May 30, 2015 at 11:00 pm

      Agreed. Feed the soil. I put the time/effort into soil building in Spring, add seeds and seedlings, mulch heavily, adding what weeds emerge (very few) on top to dry out and break down. Seaweed, straw, wood chips and bokashi composting kitchen waste seems to be working well… Sprayed with EM before planting and can’t believe how healthy and happy the tomatoes planted last week are…( Love the cardboard idea.) After that, it’s nearly all harvesting.

      • Silly Rabbit on May 31, 2015 at 11:33 am

        My number one mulch is leaves along with yard wate then vegetable and fruit scrapes and last year I trucked in some mushroom compost and horse or rabbit poop …. Love the rabbit poop and then there is free coffee grounds from Starbucks ….. Agree feed the soil and most the rest will fall into place!

    • Belinda on June 2, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      I love the cardboard idea! Ive laid it under straw mulch on flower beds but never thought to do it on my garden. I’m a learn as I go semi-new gardner. I mulch heavily with straw, leaves, kitchen waste, coffee grounds, I’ll turn cotton burr compost in in the fall. I never rototill, I don’t want to disturb my worm friends. I use a garden fork to loosen up my soil in spring. Tell me how to do the cardboard on my garden. Just lay between the rows and around the plants? I have seen how it decomposes and like what I see. Thanks!

  6. Patrice on May 30, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    I need help with my yellow crookneck squash and zucchini. Last year I had beautiful plants, but they did not produce. Last year I had also bought seeds from an heirloom seed company that I had used the year before. Two years ago my crop was very slim. Last year nothing. So far this year, nothing. This year, I did change my seed provider. So, I’m thinking it has nothing to do with the seed provider. I make compost and use it in my garden. This year I also used rabbit manure compost. Any ideas that could help? Other things in my garden are doing very well. Just the squash and zucchini are failing me. I work hard in my garden and pull weeds religiously.

    • karen on May 30, 2015 at 5:54 pm

      My Zucchini failed me for 3 years. Little zucchinis were forming and at 4″long would shrivel up. Then I learned that they weren’t getting pollinated! So now I take the male flowers (on skinny stems) strip off the petals and rub it on the center of the female flowers. Good luck to you.

  7. Matt Stern on May 30, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    I’ve been working to apply this in my life, cut out the non essential, focus on what matters. I’d say in the garden the biggest leverage point would be improving soil biology and fertility. Adding lots of organic matter, getting a soil test and amending appropriately These would likely solve 80% of garden “problems”.

  8. Lars Karlsson on May 30, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    The best think I do is to have more perennials, onions, leeks, fruittrees, berries and selfsowing plants. The second one is a polytunnel which gives me the possibility to grow stuff almost all year round.

  9. Antje Cobbett on May 30, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with Vilfredo Pareto! I live in Spain in a very dry mountain valley with completely exhausted soil. Over the years I’ve been able to improve the soil, but I still noticed that 80% of the most nutrient dense food come from microgreens I grow on a big table and simple flower pots on the terrace where I grow a mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, edible flowers and culinary herbs. Terrace and table are shaded simply with old bedsheets.Big vegetables like potatoes and courgettes and even carrots that would never grow her before I plant in big palm pots filled with green manure and animal manure. That way I don’t need a lot of water.My next project is to build a Geodesic Dome to assure that I can grow my veggies and microgreens all year round sheltered from the winter storms and the summer heat both of which simply destroy just about all plants except roses and fruit trees.Happy gardening and sunny greetings from Spain!Antje

  10. Bob V on May 31, 2015 at 1:52 am

    I’ve been spending most my time amending my South Florida sandy soil. I’ve added about 6 inches of wood chips over composted soil. I also have a little compost bin. I’ve had a lot of trouble growing anything in the summer here. Even tomatoes do poorly in the summer Florida sun. I got my soil tested at UF and it is very alkaline. So I think if I get the soil right everything else will fall into place. Knowing when to plant each vegetable is important too

  11. Brad Letch on May 31, 2015 at 3:32 am

    mulch copiously and choose the right species for my area

  12. Barbara & Jack Sevy on May 31, 2015 at 4:34 am

    Water, feed, weed.The watering we mechanize as much as possible with drip/micro spray lines on quick releases and a simple water faucet timer. Very little time per day to get pretty directed, ground level watering.Feeding we are a bit dumb about. Trying to compost, but not too successfully. Using composted manure, some bags of 8-20-20 plus micro nutrient granules, etc. Trying to foliar spray with blue magic mixed with blackstrap mollasses. Trying to understand the truth about epsom salts, etc.Square foot gardening, with the paths dug down and the growing beds piled high, is helping a lot. We pull a lot of weeds early in the season, and just throw them roots up back on the ground to leach their nutrients into our crops and dry up into wonderful mulch to keep the water in and the other weeds down. Pretty soon there are no weeds, because our food is shading the ground and, as we all learn, when it’s light it lives, where it’s dark it dies.Also, over the last few years we have gathered or built trellises of all kinds to verticalize the garden.Now we are working on beauty.

  13. rtj1211 on May 31, 2015 at 9:16 am

    In year 1, the two key issues were applying rock dust and manure to increase the soil’s worm population and starting to build a composting operation to generate enough compost to replenish the soil, which included planting 20 comfrey plants. Potato yields were excellent as a result and over-wintering cabbages, chard and onions have been highly successful.In year 2, not digging the garden, learning what the optimal planting dates are for this part of the world and identifying high quality strains and suppliers is key. We now have great lettuce strains producing by the end of May and resisting slug attack, we have fine carrots and garlics coming along, hugely vigorous pea plants and good summer brassicas. We are still learning with parsnips and leeks and we will see how celery, cucumber and brussels sprouts get on.Next year, in year 3, optimising planting cycles to maximise yields will be allied to effective usage of leaf mulches, over-wintering manure and use of compost and the generation of my own seeds for onion, carrot, pea, bean and others. Sourcing wood chippings will also be key to future sustainability.Thereafter, time will tell – I suspect that the learnings of each year will dictate the key activities for the following one.

    • Shelagh Young on May 31, 2015 at 3:47 pm

      Leaving a few parsnips in the ground to go to seed saves some time, and the flowers, I have read, attract the tiny predator wasp that attack squash beetles. My parsnips seed themselves all over the place, and the ones thinned out while prepping the soil in Spring are a welcome early crop. Don’t know about where you are, but here they trim out trees along the roads to keep the electric lines clear. If you ask, they will dump loads when they are in the area, and about 10 cubic yards a year are dumped for free on the edge of my garden. Year 1 I put them on the paths, then rake them into the beds year 2. Worm population is increasing drastically, and mushrooms are popping up all over the place now after a few years of doing this. … What do you do with the comfrey?

      • rtj1211 on May 31, 2015 at 4:54 pm

        I”m in NW London UK.The comfrey plants I use for a variety of things:1. Accelerating compost decomposition after the first 2 months of heat-based decomposition – I add three rounds of cuttings over the compost maturation phase and we get great compost as a result. I also add yarrow to the mix around this time of year.2. Creating in situ minerals for potatoes by laying leaves (not shoots) to the sides of plants and covering them with a mixture of grass cuttings and horse manure. This usually uses most of the late May cuttings on the 2nd early and maincrop plants (the April cuttings, such as they are, go for the 1st earlies).3. Creating comfrey tea for use on tomatoes which I grow in pots. This is the late June cut which is usually ready for use from late July onwards (and I usually have some over-wintered to use earlier on the fruiting tomatoes).4. Using comfrey tea on garlic and onions in lieu of using sulphate of potash and feeding beans and peas once they are fruiting.I’ve no doubt there are other uses, but that’s what I’ve done so far.

        • Shelagh Young on May 31, 2015 at 8:16 pm

          In a former garden, I innocently let comfrey go to seed; it ate a vast area, so I’ve been nervous about using it other than topically. In the present situation it’s in the chicken yard, and the hens manage its containment. Thank you for this. I’ll try the tea first.

  14. Bob Carpenter on May 31, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Heavy mulching, putting kitchen scraps under the mulch and ON TOP of the soil and not worrying about weeds unless they start to take over and fencing to keep deer, rabbits and coons out have made my garden very little work and lots of good eating. The worms do the hard, time consuming work. I mulch with wood chips from chipped tree limbs that includes the leaves, bark and all. Any old plants that I pull also become mulch on the top.

  15. Africanaussie on June 2, 2015 at 5:17 am

    Like so many others here compost worms and mulch are what I believe make the most difference in my garden. M interesting about the peas – I have a small garden so if a plant is not flourishing I pull it out and try something else in that position. I also sow seeds around small plants so that I have a continuous crop. I suppose you would call it intensive gardening, so my soil needs to be good to support that.

    • Barbara & Jack Sevy on June 2, 2015 at 8:11 pm

      Wow! Great comments. Best collection of organic (pretty much) efficiency ideas I’ve seen anywhere. Copied and pasted this whole thread into a .doc and saved it into the gardening folder.Thanks to all, especially you, Phil.

  16. Haleena Noland on June 2, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    Planting the seeds — at least in my parent’s garden — was a little bit of work, but in our area, planting the seeds in a 20×40 foot area by hand, has really been part of the work. Weeding would definitely be another, if only, job we do in our garden. We haven’t noticed deer or rabbits or any creatures, but we do have a LOT of ants (don’t know if that’s an issue for the garden quality yet). But a lot of things came up and everything, but we’ve also had a month worth of rain. Definitely a plant grow-delayer. As soon as the sun came out, things have just been growing-growing-growing! 🙂 So excited about it. We do have some cayenne on hand in case deer come around – because creatures really, really avoid cayenne, because they don’t have any way to get the spicy-burn out of their mouth of they do try to eat something. They won’t be coming back if they eat it. 😛 Also, still excited for our mango tree – it’s so cool! Living in the middle of the US is so exciting to have a mango tree growing! 🙂

  17. MAX B Holbrook on June 10, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Soil preparation for planting and water

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