How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land that you can imagine)

Agriculture & Food

Notes from the book, taken 10-12 Feb 2010.

Bed Preparation

  • Good structure and balanced / plentiful nutrients allow for uninterrupted growth
  • First year you do it, allow 1 hour per 1m2
  • Second year onwards, allow 30 mins per 1m2
  • Ongoing maintenance is about 1.5 mins per 1m2

Initial Preparation

Perform a soil test

  1. Soak with sprinkler for 2 days
  2. Allow to dry for 2 days
  3. Loosen to 12″ deep with a fork and remove weeds
  4. Loosen by hand for 5 mins and leave to rest for 1 day. (If there are lots of large clods of soil, leave longer.)
  5. Add sand to clay, or clay to sand, to improve the texture. Do not use more than 1″ per foot.
  6. Add 1-2″ compost, depending on soil quality
  7. Water for 5 mins. Rest 1 day.
  8. Double dig (see fig 1.) Note this is only on the first year you prepare your bed. (Contradicts the Dowding No Dig rules!) More information at On a Limb.

Fig 1. Double digging. Dig a 12″ hole, remove soil. Dig a 24″ hole next to it, moving that soil onto your 12″ hole.

Average maximum root depth is 4ft.
A carrot or beetroot is max of about 8-10ft.

  • If soil is nutrient deficient, replenish it from external sources, since compost from local plants will also be deficient as the nutrients aren’t in the cycle to start with.
  • Aim for
    • 70% ‘compost’ crops: carbon + calories: potatoes, garlic, parsnips, turnips.
    • 30% ‘diet’ crops: calories + carbon: beans, peas, wheat, oats.


  • Compost has two purposes:
    1. Improve soil structure
    2. Add nutrients
  • Healthy soil -> healthy plants -> more resistance to disease & attacks
  • You should only need to buy in in the first year, if you have weak soil, otherwise your own compost and some crop rotation should do it for you.
  • Humus fixes nitrogen in the soil (negatively charged, it attracts and retains positively charged trace elements)
  • Roots are surrounded by hydrogen ions, which trade ions with the humus
  • Plants pull in nutrients only as required

Making a good compost

It normally takes 3-6 months to make a good compost.

  • Normal soil which gives the starter micro-organisms
  • Green vegetation including kitchen waste (just no meat or cooked)
  • Browns such as cardboard, leaves, twigs / chipped wood

Do NOT use: anything diseased, acidic (eg eucalyptus), very tough, ivy, pernicious weeds, or cat or dog poo.
Speed up by increasing nitrogen levels, amount of air, or surface area. Turn it once during its lifetime to mix it up a little.

Green manures

Cover crops live clover, alfalfa, beans, peas, and other legumes can be grown and dug back into the soil just before maturity. This fixes nitrogen, and breaks down the soil with its roots. They decompose rapidly so you can plant 1 month after digging in.


  1. Build up and balance out the nutrients
  2. Keep nutrients in-the-lop by composting
  3. Use enough nutrients, water, and compost.
  • Buy and use a soil test kit. Professional testing is better than a home kit and worth it on land you’d like to keep working on.
  • “Sow thistle” and “red clover” can stimulate poor soil.
  • It is worth growing some organic produce solely for compost (eg nettles), since plants need:
Lots Some
Nitrogen Zine
Phosphorus Boron
Potassium (ash) Copper
Sulphur Iron

Seed Fertilisation

  • Plant seeds as deep as they are high (ie not very)
  • If there’s an eye on the bean, point it downwards
  • Diagonally offset to get the maximum use of the space. This also minimising watering.
  • Growing mix: 50% compost, 50% soil. Maybe some sand to break it up.
  • Transplanting: be gentle, and protect from strong sun. Water it a little.
  • When you plant out, bury the seedling so that its first set of ‘starter’ leaves lie beneath the soil.
  • Save some seedlines to back-fill ones which don’t make it.


  • Gently
  • A few hours before sunset
  • Think what the plant needs, eg tomatos and pumpkins will need a lot of water. Beans, less so.

Planning your garden

Ask advice and opinions from neighbours, local agricultural agents, and local nurseries.

  • Which veg grow well?
  • When is the main planting season?
  • When are the first and last hard frosts?
  • Are there any special requirements for my soil?
  • Special climatic conditions? (eg hailstorms in May)? And any tips on planning for this?

Garden plan, year by year:

  1. Basic. Small, easy crops.
  2. Double the area, and try some harder crops.
  3. Add trees, herbs, strawberries, asparagus into worked soil
    Add another area.
  4. Use your acquired skills to compact your garden area (not yoiur output)
    Grow protein and fibre crops, or special interest, eg bamboo.

Ed’s note: This is different from forest / permaculture gardening, which suggests planting a little faster, since some things are going to take time to develop. First plant your fruit trees at normal intervals, then interplanting with dwarf fruits, then shrubs, then herbaceous, then roots, then ground cover, then vertical.

  • Plant twice as many seedlings as required. Plant out the strongest.
  • Plant both late and early varieties
  • Site your beds to have 11+ hours of sun
  • Draw and maintain your plans

Companion Planting

  • The best way to companion plant is just to have a lot of biodiversity.
  • Think about physical companions:
    • Sun / shade
    • Shallow / deep rooting
    • Fast / slow maturing
    • Vertical location of the edible portion

There are big long lists of companion plants and I’m not going to type them all out here! If you have a specific pest, look it up and you’ll find something which deals with it.


General good ones are:

  • Lemon balm: attracts bees, smells great
  • Marjoram
  • Oregano
  • Nettle: tea, soup, used in oils, and good compost.
  • Valerian: good for you, increasing phosphorous activity
  • Chamomile: concentrates nutrients in the soil
  • Dandelion: increases aromatic quality of local herbs
  • Oak: concentrates calcium in its bark

Crop rotation

Rotate crops (over the years, obviously) to replenish nitrogen levels

  • Heavy givers (N++)
    • Legumes
    • Peas
    • Clover
    • Alfalfa
    • Fava beans
  • Light Feeders (N-)
    • Turnips
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Green peppers
  • Heavy feeders (N–)
    • Corn
    • Tomatoes
    • Pumpkin
    • Lettuce
    • Cabbage

Balanced ecosystem

  • For every problem, there is a reason, and a cure

Ed note: Permaculture mantra: the problem is the solution

Strong, healthy plants are the beset defence against insects. It is the soil which is likely to be at the root (ha ha!) of the problem:

  • aerated?
  • enough nutrients?
  • enough / too much compost?
  • pH correct?
  • proper transplanting?
  • right amount of water?
  • effective weeding?
  • enough sun?
  • right season?
  1. Use seeds from / for the local soil and climate
  2. Use hardy straings
  3. Companion plant
  4. Crop rotate

Use predators

  • Birds like moving water, bushes and trees, and plants with tasty seeds
  • Frogs like ponds
  • Ladybirds love aphids
  • A 10% crop loss / damage is a) fair enough, really, and b) good for the crops since it keeps them keen (like pruning)
  • Use barriers: copper, white tree paint
  • Hand pick and don’t use pesticides
  • Spraying natural sprays works. Go with aromatic for the chewers and with soapy for the suckers

Source: How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land that you can imagine)

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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