The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

I wrote about the aggregation of marginal gains some years ago to make the case that almost every habit we have – good or bad – is the result of many small decisions over time that can be corrected by many small decisions over time. The British cyclist, Dave Brailsford, was my example.

No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, and Brailsford was asked to change that. The goal was to win the title in five years. Brailsford did it in just three using a concept he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains,” whereby he implemented “a 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.”

They optimized everything from the nutrition of the riders and the ergonomics of the bike seat to testing for the most effective massage gel and the best pillow to sleep on. By improving every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, he believed those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement, which they did.

Gardening has taken on the same intensity in my life that training for marathons once did, and I’ve realized an aggregation of marginal gains may be exactly what’s needed to achieve my gardening goals for next year. The challenge became obvious when the first seed catalog arrived in the mail last week.

Salvia Splenden: A salvia (sage) with regal gem tones fit for a queen! Bright, compact and tidy in reds, oranges, pinks and purples! Plants reach 1 to 2 feet tall with gorgeous spikes of color! (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

This heirloom seed catalog is 158 pages and I’ve read every page. Studied every plant. These plants are beautiful and edible, which got me thinking that I could incorporate a victory garden within my garden. If food won’t grow behind the garden shed, then I’ll grow food everywhere else!

The challenge would be to position edible plants among the established ornamental plants in a natural way and in sections of the garden that will provide their preferred growing conditions. This raises the second point from my earlier post: N=1.

Chinese White Celery: A delicate and delicious Chinese variety with snow-white stalks. White celery has been cultivated in the Chinese town of Liyang for over 800 years. Stems are long, slender and hollow, with strong celery flavor, ideal for Asian soups and stews, but equally suitable for mirepoix and other recipes calling for celery. (

Scientifically speaking, N stands for the number of participants, or the sample size. Generally, the more subjects – the bigger the N – the better. Doctors, coaches and professionals use these studies to develop programs that apply to a broad spectrum of the population. Doctors develop treatment or rehabilitation programs, coaches create training plans, etc. Once in awhile, however, a broad spectrum plan doesn’t work and we have to develop our own individual plan.

There’s at least six distinctive areas of the back garden – all with different growing conditions.

In the case of my garden, each area of the garden is its own agricultural study and one-size-fits-all just won’t work. Each section of the back garden is unique with individual characteristics. There’s full shade, full sun, and everything between. Each area has it’s own slope ratio, which means the soil is different between the top and the bottom. Some areas stay moist all the time while others are dry. Each area has received different doses of attention this year, and will certainly require different doses of remediation as well.

Each section will be isolated to determine which edibles can co-habitate there, and then I’ll implement a 1% improvement to everything – the soil, the way the plants are arranged, pruned, and whether hardscaping is necessary. Those slopes will come into consideration for how easily the edibles can be reached for harvesting, and since my husband is a little worried I’ll forget what’s edible and what’s not, maybe I’ll add plant markers all around.

It’s difficult to imagine how many spread sheets may become involved in this undertaking, something that never seemed necessary in marathon training, but it feels good to use old strategies in new ways – although we’ll be in dangerous territory if another seed catalog arrives before spring. 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

  1. I admire your tenacity but you make my head hurt! Although I do love a good spreadsheet! Sounds like a great plan and certainly something worthwhile to put your time and energy into.


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