Maximize Your Harvest With Succession Planting
To extend the growing season, grow your own seedlings and keep a close eye on the calendar
If you’re the typical gardener, you plant your vegetable garden in late spring, harvest from it in summer, and then clean it up in the fall. But you can get two, three, possibly four crops a year from your garden, without protective devices like cold frames and greenhouses.
I practice a couple of techniques known together as “succession planting” to get the most from my garden space. I interplant small crops among large ones and quick-growing crops with slower ones, and I replace harvested plants with fresh, vigorous seedlings. Succession planting requires that you work in close association with your calendar, and that you use transplants whenever you can.
I could not garden this way without soil that is fertile and in prime condition. So I use lots of compost, and I add rock dust for trace minerals, oyster shell for calcium (which I find helps control many pests as well), and kelp for a balance of minerals and nitrogen.
Two planting techniques are key
Not only are interplanting and replacing valuable techniques on their own, but they can also really boost the output from your garden when they’re practiced together.
Interplanting is essentially mixing different crops in the same bed. I interplant fast-growing crops amid slower ones, and smaller crops among larger ones. For example, I’ll surround cabbages and broccoli, which grow slowly to a large size, with onions and spring greens, which are smaller and grow quickly. As the onions and greens mature and are harvested, there’s more room left for the brassicas. Or I’ll grow lettuces close to tomatoes. By the time the tomatoes are getting large, I’ll have cut the lettuces.
When planning to interplant, it’s important to think about the growing habits of the different crops. Do they grow upright, or bushy, or trailing? How large will they get? How long will they take to mature? When will you need the bed space for the next rotation?
Replacing harvested plants with transplants is succession gardening in its purest form. Sometimes I fill a hole with the same type of plant. Lettuce is a typical example. I always keep a supply of lettuce seedlings on hand to fill in spaces left when I cut out mature heads. Other times, though, I fill the hole with something else. I’ll replace winter chard or beets with tomatoes and spring greens, or put summer squash where I’ve just harvested a cabbage. To get the best yield in my garden, I sometimes remove a crop before it’s finished. For example, chard can produce well in any mild climate for up to two years, but I usually yank it sooner to make room for other crops.
Transplants make it all possible
I use transplants for almost everything, so there’s no time lost waiting for germination, and I have more control over plant spacing. The crops I direct-seed are those which cannot be transplanted, like carrots, turnips, and beets. I also direct-seed the summer bean crops right in among the pea vines.
Transplants make it all possible
Having healthy transplants on hand at the proper time is critical for succession planting, and that means starting them yourself. The first year, I relied on plants from nurseries only to discover that I couldn’t find the seedlings I wanted when I needed them. I began growing my own in self-defense.
Some seedlings hold better than others in trays or pots. Lettuce plants (below) especially need to be transplanted soon or else they’ll get leggy, so I try to get them into the garden within a month of sowing. Tomatoes, peas, and beans get transplanted from the seed trays at four to six weeks (above). Cabbage and broccoli hold well in the seed trays as long as they get frequent watering and regular feedings.
Having healthy transplants on hand at the proper time is critical, and that means starting them yourself. The first year I relied on plants from nurseries only to discover I couldn’t find the seedlings I wanted when I needed them. In self-defense I began growing my own.
I use Speedling trays with 2-inch cells for all my seed starting. Speedling trays have unique, inverted pyramid-shaped cells, which eject the root ball easily and leave it intact. This greatly lessens transplant shock, so seedlings recover and start growing almost immediately. My seed-starting mix is based on perlite and volcanic rock, and contains enough nutrients to last a month. If I need to hold plants in the trays for longer than 28 days, I fertilize weekly with a mild solution of a seaweed extract.
Some seedlings hold better than others in trays or pots. Lettuces especially need to be transplanted soon, or else they’ll get leggy, so I try to get them into the garden within a month of sowing. Tomatoes, peas, and beans get transplanted from the Speedling trays into 4-inch pots at four to six weeks. Brassicas hold well in the Speedling trays as long as they get frequent watering and regular feedings.
Know your seasons
To practice succession gardening, become familiar with your gardening year. When will your last spring frost and first fall frost likely occur? When in spring will your soil be workable, and when will it be thoroughly warm? Mark these dates on a calendar, and then use that calendar to schedule times for sowing seeds and setting out transplants.
Timing is critical, particularly for the fall garden. As soon as I get my summer crops in, I start thinking about starting seedlings for fall crops. Here in Northern California, I need to sow seeds in July and get the seedlings established in the garden by early September if I want fresh broccoli for Thanksgiving. In colder winter areas, you’d need to start four to six weeks earlier.
Pay attention to how long it takes the varieties you’re growing to mature. This will help you plan ahead. For fall growing, choose varieties that mature quickly. Count back from your fall frost date the number of days or weeks to maturity—that’s the date you need to have the plant settled in the garden. Now count back another six weeks. That’s the date you should sow the seed in flats.
Start small, then expand
If you’re new to succession planting, start with one bed of manageable size, say 3 feet to 5 feet wide and 10 feet to 14 feet long. This will give you room to experiment with a variety of plants. Once you’re familiar with the techniques, you can expand into additional beds. It also helps to start with easy crops, like lettuces, tomatoes, peas, and beans. These are all fast growing and rewarding. Leave the more difficult crops like brassicas until you’ve gained some experience. In time, you’ll develop a rhythm of sowing, transplanting, and harvesting that will become second nature to you.
You can devote one area of the bed to lettuces, replacing the harvested heads each week or two with new seedlings. Each month start as many plants as you’ll use in that amount of time (say 40 lettuces for a family of four). In another area, set up a trellis where you can grow early spring peas. Just when the leaves start to yellow, poke bean seeds between the pea vines. When the beans are about 3 inches or 4 inches tall, cut the peas at ground level and compost the vines.
—Pamela Bird used to sell jet engine parts. Now she gardens in Fairfax, California, where she grows produce for 10 families on ¼ acre.
Big changes occur from late spring to summer
Upon first glance, these two images might look the same, but there are significant changes from one to the other.
- The pea trellis in the top right corner has given way to a tepee of beans below.
- Spring carrots at the rear of the second bed have made room for squash by late summer.
- The young tomato plants have grown quite a bit over the course of several weeks and shaded out most of the early crops at their feet.
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