Saturday, 24 November 2012

Volume vs Diversity

As many of you will know, my garden is small. The majority of it is devoted to six raised beds, each 1 x 2.4 metres, along with my new Woodblocx raised bed, which is a little bigger. I also have a border about 8 metres long and 1 metre wide, which is used for growing fruit.

With a limited amount of space available, I therefore have to think very carefully about what to grow. I generally don't have a big quantity of any crop, because I like to have lots of different things. Just recently I have begun to reconsider this stance. This is the dilemma: is it best for me to have a tiny quantity of many different crops (Diversity), or would it be better to have a plentiful supply of a smaller number of crops (Volume)?

Points in favour of Diversity
  • More variety of harvests for the kitchen
  • Can concentrate on small volume but high value plants - such as herbs
  • Smaller amounts are easier to fit into odd corners when space becomes available
  • Less impact if one crop is attacked by pests (which may not attack the other plants)
  • Weather conditions often suit one type of plant and not another

 Points in favour of Volume:
  • Viable amounts of each crop - enough to make "proper" meals with
  • Possibly less work - fewer sowing, plantings and harvestings
  • Probably easier (more uniform) when providing protection from pests and weather
  • Easier to plan for crop rotation
  • Best approach if you want to freeze produce for later use

As you can see, there are plenty of points in favour of either approach, so this is a tough choice!
In 2012 I had a some crops that did really well and provided me with a big yield over a long period - such as Tomatoes, Runner Beans and Beetroot.

The Broad Beans also did very well, though they cropped over only a short period.the Cucumbers got off to a slow start, but came good in the end., and the potatoes were as good as ever. But to be fair, I also had a few failures. The Squashes were a total washout, and the Sweet Corn was pathetic. I planted four Red Cabbages, but only one produced a decent heart (and the foxes ate another one!). Radishes were also very poor this year.

On the other hand, I did have small quantities of some really nice things that I had seldom, if ever, grown before. For instance Strawberries: I had only four plants which produced a minuscule harvest, but the fruits were just SO GOOD that I am already planning to have more next year.

Likewise, I put a few (was it six?) "Golden Ball" Turnips in a plastic container, just because I had a packet of seeds that came free with something, and a spare container. I wish I had sowed some more, because the one we ate the other day was perfect. Hopefully the others will be too.

My harvest of "Mechelse Tros" climbing beans (aka "Mushy Pea Bean") provided one solitary meal for us, but it was really nice, and it gave me a chance to try this unusual vegetable. I might even be persuaded to grow it in quantity on some future occasion.

In truth it would be hard for me to give up the pleasure of having such a variety of nice things to eat. I fear that my decision may well turn out to be a compromise. I think I will drop some of the things that didn't do well, and concentrate on producing a bit more of a smaller number of crops - but not too small a number. I think I'll perhaps forget the Peas (which have never done brilliantly), and the Celeriac (which was very hard work for a very small return), and have 3 varieties of Broad Bean instead of two, more climbing beans and no Sweet Corn; fewer varieties of Tomatoes, but still the same numer of pots; leave out the Cabbages (which are cheap to buy), and have more Cavolo Nero (which goes on cropping for ages), etc, etc...

Here's another thought: some plants crop once; others crop in succession. For instance Runner Beans continue producing new pods over a period of about three months, and Kale lasts all Winter if you pick a few leaves at a time, whereas Sweet Corn and Cabbages are "once only" crops. More of the former and fewer of the latter would be a good plan therefore. So, maybe we're back to the principles of VSR? [If you are not familiar with the concept of Value for Space Rating, have a look at this: VSR ]

Having said all this, what do you think will happen when some time over the Christmas holiday I sit down with a nice cup of tea to have a good long look at all those seed catalogues???


  1. We're ;ucky in that we don't have to make this decision but I think if I did it would be variety but maybe as your compromise suggests drop some things.

  2. I grow what I think I'll eat, but then I do have enough space at this point. My last garden had just a bit more space than you have, but not a lot. So I had to make the hard decisions. Usually I'd grow what would produce in that spot. I did grow carrots and onions, but they didn't grow well in the soil there. So I never gave them much space. Beans, peas, and tomatoes grew very well, so I grew a lot of them.

  3. And I have to manage with my litle pvc greenhouse and conservatory window cills! Got LOADS of chillies this summer 'though. A.

  4. First off grow the things you like, especially if they are expensive in the stores. There is of course nothing that tastes as good as a homegrown strawberry or even blueberries. Some things freeze better than others so they are a good choice, and things that crop for a long time. To increase space I'm sure you can fit some pots along one side of the pathway, they can be easily moved when neccessary. Even growing things upwards, how about a vertical garden along that back fence? You can plant salads and herbs in that as well as those mini tomato plants.

  5. From my limited experience I agree with growing a smaller number of crops. I am not going to grow peas next year, just keep to Mangetout and again plant more broad beans which were delicious. More spring onions and shallots and less tomato varieties- gardener's delight, sungold and marmande. No courgettes just marrows but will have another go at squash and some crown prince pumpkins. More beetroot but no celery or celeriac and loads more garlic. I also promise to pick my runner beans more regularly to extend their cropping season. But..... I have also bought some of James Wong's homegrown revolution seeds (and the book) and will plant three gooseberry bushes soon too. So..... same dilemma for me too! Love your blog, April

  6. variety is the spice of life! im always trying new veg types. but if one works really well i stick with it. i've done away with podding type peas and opted for mange tout styles. there's way more yield in the end and much less work (podding).

  7. My kitchen garden is a mix of the two. Diversity - I try out lots of new veg to see what I like or what grows well in my plot. But volume when it comes to some staples that can be expensive - I love being self-sufficient in garlic all year round and having a big bag of chillies in the freezer. We just finished the 2011 harvest this week, but sadly the 2012 harvest is unlikely to last us as long :(

  8. Good question, and compelling reasons for both approaches. I look forward to your decision!

  9. Your post is really food for thought. I usually do alot of planning; then when I go to plant, most of the planning goes out the door! But I still like to plan what veg I will grow... even if it does change and evolve in practice.

  10. I reckon the VSR approach works really well, and you're right on that basis cabbage and celeraic probably wouldn't make the 'To grow' list. For me I like variety, as long as i'm not growing so little of something that its no longer of much use.


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