5 Things to Know About Succession Planting
Make the most of your garden space and produce more vegetables—no matter how long your growing season—with this handy gardening method.
If you’d love a steady supply of fresh vegetables, the tried-and-true farming practice of succession planting could fill the bill—and your healthy plate. The technique involves planting multiple crops “end to end” through the growing season. When the first crop is finished, a second crop takes its place, followed by a third, and so on. Using this strategy, you can increase production and crop diversity of your backyard vegetable garden.
Traditionally, on farms, succession planting relies on several staggered plantings of the same crop through the season. Because the average person’s vegetable garden has lots of variety, the process is a bit more complicated. So read on for five secrets to successful succession planting and you’ll soon be reaping what you sow like never before.
1. Find out your frost dates.
To practice succession planting, you must first understand gardening in your climate. Consult your local garden store or cooperative extension service to learn the average last spring frost and first fall frost dates in your area. The time between the last frost and first frost is your growing season. Note the dates and how long, in days, your growing season lasts to help you plan your succession planting time table.
2. Understand growing times.
When making a list of the crops you would like to plant, keep in mind that every veggie takes a different amount of time to grow from seed to harvest, as indicated on the back of seed packets. You will see that different varieties of the same crop also differ in growing times, or “days to maturity.” Don’t worry, you won’t need to keep these dates in your head, because you’ll create a crop spreadsheet (explained fully below).
Some crops, like beans, tomatoes, and squash, aren’t harvested all at once—and the days to maturity reflect the first harvest date. Add another two to three weeks or more of additional harvest time for the full lifespan of the crop. Now compare the number of days in your growing season to the number of days that your crops have to grow. You will notice that some crops fill a significant portion of the growing season, while others take up a fraction of the time.
Note: When planting young seedling plants instead of seeds, a portion of the time to maturity has already happened, which in effect extends your growing season. With the length of the growing season and individual crop growing times in mind, you begin to see opportunities to fill time gaps. Use this information to begin building a succession planting plan that tells you what, when, and where to plant in your garden plot.
3. Decide on a crop rotation.
Each plant family has certain nutrient requirements and shares common pest problems. You can maximize nutrient efficiency and significantly reduce pest problems by planting different families in succession, in a given part of the garden. This is called crop rotation. For example, a good crop rotation that promotes plant and soil health is: cabbage family > bean family > nightshade family > onion family > carrot family > squash family > spinach family > miscellaneous greens, herbs, and/or small fruits.
Another important factor as you create your succession planting plan is space. Seed and plant labels tell you the proper plant spacing for each crop. Large plants like watermelons, sweet corn, and sweet potatoes are not simply interchangeable with small plants like onions, lettuce, and carrots.
Also be sure to adjust the amount of planting space to the way you will use the crop. If you want fresh cucumbers for salads, one or two plants will supply enough for most families. If you want to put up pickles too, you’ll need several plants.
4. Use graph paper and spreadsheets for planning.
Sketch your garden plot on graph paper. Divide the plot into equal sections that represent the minimum amount of space you will need for your smallest crop. Later on, your plan may include one or more sections for a single crop, depending on its space needs. Assign each section a number.
Create a garden map key spreadsheet. In column “A,” label each plot section number. Columns “B” and so on represent growing season weeks. Beginning with the first day of the growing season, each week gets its own column, labeled according to date (3/15-3/21, 3/22-3/28, etc.)
Use your garden map key, suggested crop rotation, and crop list with growing times to create a succession planting plan. Choose a garden section for each crop. Beside the section number, enter crop names under the dates they will be planted.
Tip: Use a highlighter to color-code each crop according to your crop rotation plan, blocking out each week from planting through harvest.
5. Plant every two to three weeks.
With succession planting you only need to plant enough of a crop to use within two to three weeks, then after harvesting the first crop you plant something new. Because you plant and cultivate fewer plants at one time, you save garden space and labor.
By planting every two to three weeks, instead of once for the entire season, you enjoy fruits and vegetables in their prime. Planting one big crop means you will likely harvest some of it too soon, some at peak, and the rest either too late or never. Short interval succession plantings let you harvest everything at peak ripeness.