Succession planting or succession gardening is basically one crop following another crop in the same space to maximize the amount of food produced in that space. This approach should be looked at as a tool and used in planning what varieties to plant when in your garden so that you’ve got fresh veggies and herbs ready throughout a much longer season.
Succession planting is an approach or tool that is used alongside other techniques or approaches, such as intercropping or companion planting. Once you get the theory and technique dialed in for your garden, then overlapping succession planting with other techniques will further boost your garden’s productivity, as well as the health, taste and nutrition of the vegetables for your dinner table.
At its heart, succession planting means to plant a little bit often. While it is tempting to plant a 10 foot garden bed full of carrots, when they all ripen within a week, you’ll have way too many carrots (or zucchini, cabbage, etc.) to eat at once, causing veggie burnout and all too often wasted food.
Sure, you can give it away, can, ferment, pickle and do all sorts of things with an overabundance of a particular veggie, but the downside is that when it is all gone, you’ve got nothing left in that bed and have to start over. This is especially true with shorter season, quicker producing vegetables like greens and root crops.
Starting the Planning
First – start with planning for succession planting is to make a list of what veggies you actually like to eat. This sounds simplistic, but do you want to devote time, energy and water in your limited garden space to something that you will wind up not eating? Doesn’t make sense, does it?
A great place to start learning with succession planting is in the early spring and fall garden, as a lot of the fast growing greens are the perfect tool to learn with. If you make a mistake and plant too much or too little, you’ve not tied up precious garden space and soil for the next couple of months.
Our website descriptions always include how many days to maturity for that variety, so you can plan on about how long it will take to grow. For instance, Bloomsdale Spinach is 39 days, so in about 5 weeks from planting the seed you should be harvesting the first of your fresh spinach.
Second – think about how much you will reasonably eat in a week or two. This helps determine how much to plant. If you love salads with lots of spinach and use it several times a week, then one or two plants will not be enough.
Third – consider how long does each plant produces. Spinach, kale, Swiss chard and many lettuces are “cut and come again”, meaning that you can harvest some of the leaves and the plant will continue growing, producing more leaves for next time. Head lettuce, cabbage and root crops on the other hand are single harvest vegetables. Once you’ve cut the cabbage head, it is finished. The root needs to be pulled out and something else replanted there.
Mapping the Garden
Putting all of the pieces together is much like assembling a jig-saw puzzle with your garden in the center. You can make it easier by drawing a simplified map of your garden with a spring, summer and fall diagram for each bed you will use in succession planting. For instance, if you choose to practice succession gardening for spring, summer and fall, you would have three beds drawn for each real bed in your garden – one for each season.
This is why we strongly recommend starting small and simple in learning succession planting. It is much easier and less overwhelming to start with one bed and practice for a year, learning what works well and what doesn’t than to convert all of the garden and lose track of what should be planted when and where.
The two photos above are from our small Grow Boxes that we have outside our back door. We have half of one box planted with Swiss chard and the other with kale, with the succession planting seeds just starting to peek out in the other half. This goes to show that you can do this with the smallest box or container!
A side benefit of starting small and learning is many people, even experienced gardeners, are taken by surprise at how much more food is being produced out of a garden bed than they have ever seen before.
Once you’ve determined how many beds you want to use in succession gardening and have the diagram for the seasons, you will want to map out what veggies get planted where and on what schedule. This is where using the days to maturity info comes in.
We’ve put together this chart to help you visualize and understand scheduling better. Shorter season, faster growing crops will be planted more often; those needing a longer season will not be planted as often.
Examples of 7 day planting intervals –
- Greens and lettuce planted for baby leaf use
- Spinach for baby use
Examples of 14 day planting intervals –
- Full size lettuces – both heading and leafing types
- Asian greens – Pak Choi and Asian mustard greens
- Full size spinach
- Chicory, Escarole and Endive
Examples of 21 day planting intervals –
- Swiss chard
Now that you have an idea of planting intervals, start plugging your favorite vegetables and greens into the garden bed diagram. It makes sense to mix some larger, longer season crops like cabbage with early and fast-growing ones like lettuce or spinach. By the time the spinach and lettuce has been harvested a few times and is ready for pulling, the cabbage will be getting larger and need more space, but it won’t interfere with the other vegetables early on.
This technique is known as intercropping, and is complementary and beneficial to succession planting.
Another good technique is to mix tall and short crops together that have similar maturity rates, such as spinach or arugula and a taller kale like Lacinato. Mixing deep and shallow rooted crops is another way to maximize yield – like a deep tap rooted lettuce among shallow rooted green onions.
As you make your diagram, list what is to be planted in the bed with the date to be sown or transplanted, along with the expected harvest date or date range. For example- that Bloomsdale spinach might be planted on September 1st and have a first expected harvest date of October 7th – or about 5 weeks later – with a harvest range of October 7th through October 15th for baby spinach or October 31st for full size spinach. Your conditions may allow for an even longer harvest, or you might notice it getting slightly bitter and needing to be pulled and the next crop planted.
Mixing direct sowing of seeds intermixed with 2 week old transplants of the same variety is another way of staggering the harvest and growth rates in a smaller area while greatly improving the amount of harvest. An example is to sparsely sow lettuce seed after transplanting 2 week old lettuce seedlings of the same variety. By the time the seeds have sprouted and start to get some size on them, you’ll already be eating from the seedlings. The mature seedlings will be pulled first, making room for the younger lettuce grown from seed.
Eliot Coleman talks about how French market gardeners would sow a mix of radish and carrot seeds in the early spring, then immediately transplant 3 – 4 inch tall lettuce seedlings. The radishes are harvested first, making room for the carrots growing between the lettuces. The carrot tops grow above the young lettuce, giving them light to finish growing. The lettuce crop was harvested next and young cauliflower seedlings were transplanted in the spaces between the carrots. After the carrots were harvested the cauliflower had plenty of room to finish growing. This is how small-scale growers in and around Paris fed the city’s population for over 350 years!