Your tables and counters become covered with trays of seed starting mixes, seed packets, permanent markers, blank plant labels and all the other necessary items to create your own little seed planting factory. You spend a day or two carefully planting every last seed, then fuss over and nurture all these seed trays for weeks until Jack Frost takes leave and you can safely plant all your beloved seedlings in the garden. But, what if I told you that you just wasted a lot of time, money, and garden space by starting your garden this way?
Succession planting is a method of carefully planning the garden so plants can be harvested at different times throughout the growing season, allowing for two or more crops to grow in the same spot or for one crop to be harvested for longer periods.
In a perfect world, we would all have unlimited garden space, unlimited time to garden and an unlimited budget for new plants. In reality, though, most of us have small garden beds, small budgets and never seem to have enough time to tackle all the garden chores. Besides the joy and satisfaction of growing something from seed through harvest, many gardeners actually grow their own fruits, veggies and herbs to save money. However, the common approach of putting the whole garden in during spring, then harvesting vegetables as they mature can result in a surplus of fresh veggies from the garden one week, then back to the grocery store a week later. In the long run, this method can be a waste of time, money, garden space and probably even result in wasted produce. However, with a little planning we can time our plantings to provide us with a full season of fresh produce.
When gardens are planted in succession even a small garden bed can keep the fridge stocked. Succession planting is done is several different ways. Different crops can be planted in the same spot, in succession based on their growing habits, days to maturity and seasonal preference. For example cool weather loving spinach can grow in a garden spot in spring and will mature in less than 50 days. Spinach struggles in the heat of summer and can bolt quickly and become bitter tasting when grown during summer. So, when the crop of spinach is harvested, a summer loving vegetable that will mature in late summer or fall, such as zucchini, is planted in it's place. Depending on your climate, when the zucchini is harvested, you may be able to put in another cool season crop, such as more spinach, kale or turnips. Gardeners in warmer climates may be able to grow more succession crops in on spot each growing season, than gardeners in the north.
Succession planting is also implemented by planting plants of the same crop at different time intervals to make them mature at different rates. For example, a new row of broccoli plants could be planted every week or two, so you are able to harvest and eat fresh broccoli for a longer period of time. This is often done with plants that have small yields and short to medium maturity rates, such as lettuce, radishes, carrots and onions. Also called relay planting, this kind of succession planting gives us a steady supply of fresh produce, not an overwhelming surplus all at once. Gardeners can also select vegetable varieties of the same species that mature at different rates to ensure a longer harvest. For example, growing varieties of tomatoes and peppers that mature at different rates can extend the fresh salsa season.
Companion planting is oftentimes considered another method of succession planting. In the vegetable garden, space can be maximized by planting certain plants close together based on their benefits to each other and maturity rates. For example leafy vegetables are often planted at the base of vining vegetables. Lettuce may be planted around the base of pole beans, so that the pole beans can shade the lettuce from the afternoon sun and the lettuce helps cool and retain moisture around the roots of the beans. Two crops can be harvested from the same spot. Herbs are used as companion plants to improve the flavor of vegetables and/or to deter pests. For example, basil planted at the base of tomatoes is said to improve the flavor of the tomatoes and it's pungent aroma confuses common pests of tomatoes. Both plants can be harvested throughout the growing season.
Succession planting requires some careful planning, but that's a project we can tackle in the cold winter months, when we're itching to get back into our gardens. Start by listing the plants you'd like to grow in the garden. Take some time researching these plant's climate preference, growing habits, as well as days to germination and days to maturity. Days to germination and maturity for specific plant varieties can usually be found on their seed packets. It helps then to sketch the garden plot. You can either create three garden sketches, for the spring, summer, and fall garden, or you can use different colored markers or pencils for these seasons. Write down the plants in the proper sketch or season color in which they will be planted in the garden. In the spring this sketch and information will help you know when to start specific seeds indoors and how many to start, also when and where to plant seeds or seedlings in the garden.
With any one, or a combination, of these succession planting techniques you can maximize your garden space and growing season. You also won't waste time and money starting plants that are not needed. Like crop rotation, there are certain plants that benefit from sharing spaces and there are certain plants that shouldn't be planted in succession, so researching good companion plants and shared diseases between plants will also help you plan a successful succession planting.