Gardening in a small space is challenging because there’s little room for error. Unexpected frosts can damage tender plants. The heat of summer can be a problem for seed germination. Pests and disease can quickly decimate a thriving crop.
These potential obstacles can leave some of the soil empty and unoccupied, which is a real waste.
This was my story the first time I started gardening in my 100square meters garden. I quickly learned that if I wanted more than one crop in each bed, I’d have to develop a clear action plan.
Only it’s not as easy as it seems. When you’re a beginner, you’re probably clueless about things like sowing dates, days to maturity, germination temperatures, and a million other things that make gardening so interesting and exciting.
But no worries, you’ll learn them all here. All it takes is one successful season to master all this stuff.
What Is Succession Planting
Succession planting, also known as successive planting, successive sowing, or second planting, is not a new term. Lots of gardeners use this method to squeeze as many vegetables as possible into a small space.
Succession planting is a method of planting two or more crops in the same bed but not at the same time. These plants have very different sowing dates and maturation times, and they usually follow one another. In temperate zones, the climate allows for two to three crops to successively mature.
Succession planting is also a way of imitating nature’s ways. As the seasons unfold, certain plants grow and bloom at certain times, and the soil is never left empty. These are the principles that we are trying to emulate with intensive gardening and succession sowings.
Why You Should Use Succession Planting in Your Garden
Most hobby gardeners and plot owners don’t have the gardening space required to become self-sufficient in vegetables. And even if we did, we probably wouldn’t have the time to become full-time farmers.
This is where succession planting comes in. If used in every bed, it practically doubles our harvest and makes use of a space that would otherwise be sitting empty.
The shade that the plants provide keeps the soil well hydrated and nourished and offers a breeding ground for useful bacteria and soil life.
Weeds or erosion will damage your beds anyway if you leave them empty, so why not do a little planning and dictate what grows in your garden instead?
10 Core Principles of Succession Planting
1. Start seedlings in modules instead of direct sowing.
When using succession planting, we’re on a tight timeline. Any setbacks – like seeds not germinating properly, unexpected frosts, or seedlings getting attacked by all kinds of pests and diseases – will hurt our schedule and sometimes make it impossible to get two harvests from the same bed.
We can’t completely eliminate risk, but we can stack the odds in our favor by starting most seeds in modules – or plug trays. This method of starting seedlings is more reliable than direct sowing because we control most of the parameters – temperature, water, light.
Having spare seedlings always at hand inside a greenhouse or a grow room is a good strategy. If for whatever reason, an empty patch opens up inside your garden, you already have young plants ready to go in.
2. Know your plant’s DTM – Days to Maturity.
Any gardening plan starts with ordering seeds. Fitting your crops in between the tight schedule of a succession planting plan is not an easy task. You’ll notice extreme variations in DTM – days to maturity – even with plants that belong to the same family.
The best thing you can do is do your homework on your chosen seed varieties. Don’t believe the seed packet alone. Look online for other people’s experiences, and record your own. There’s no better way of measuring a plant’s time to maturity than testing it yourself.
To get an idea, leafy greens like spinach, arugula, lettuce, and quick maturing crops like radishes are ready to pull out of the bed as early as May, while root crops like carrots and beets take longer to mature – anytime from June to July.
Choose early maturing varieties whenever possible, and do your best to have most of your spring plantings ready to harvest by June and July. The second crops that go in will have plenty of time to grow and thrive until the first frost arrives.
3. Cool-season crops do better in spring and fall.
Certain cool weather crops like fall weather better than the spring. You’d think it’s the same thing, but with fall, you don’t get the increasingly hot weather that determines a plant to go to seed.
Fall is also a more forgiving time for gardening in terms of pests – like aphids and flea beetle. We’ve had a terrible case of flea beetle all over Europe these past couple of years. They wreak havoc on cabbage seedlings, young and tender kale plants, and arugula leaves, and there’s not much we can do about it.
But if we choose to plant arugula in the fall, it usually does much better. Fall is a fantastic time to grow winter cabbages, endives, chicory hearts, and all kinds of delicious Asian greens.
So don’t think that just because summer is over, you can’t keep sowing and growing other fast-maturing crops all the way to October.
4. Use interplanting when the first crops haven’t matured yet.
You’ve done your homework and planted your beds full of salads, alliums, cabbages, and root crops in spring. The weather is now getting warm, the danger of frost has passed, and heat-loving plants are impatiently waiting for you to plant them out.
Except that your first crops aren’t done yet – most of them still have a month or more to go, and there are no empty beds. So what do you do? Do you keep moving your tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and eggplants to bigger pots, or will they finally find their forever home in the garden?
Succession planting is all about pushing the boundaries a little bit. In this case, use intercropping to your advantage. Harvest young plants: carrots, beets, alliums, just enough that you can make a little room for summer crops. Interplant those summer crops in the spaces you created and watch them grow together.
One month later, come back and harvest all your spring plantings. Your heat-loving plants will keep growing undisturbed. As a bonus, throw in some fast-growing vegetables like head lettuce or basil to avoid your soil from becoming too bare and in need of mulching.
5. Don’t wait for plants to completely finish.
On the same note as intercropping, you want to get your summer crops in the ground as soon as possible, without compromising the plants that are already in the ground.
But with certain spring crops, leaving them to run their course won’t do much for you or your harvest. You can leave broad beans and peas in the ground until late summer, but that doesn’t mean they’ll give you a harvest that’s worth waiting for.
Another principle of succession planting is – don’t allow plants to finish cropping. If your purpose isn’t collecting seeds, it makes no sense to keep a plant in the ground any longer than necessary.
At the first sign of going old, woody, or slowing down production, pull that vegetable out of the soil and replace it with something else.
6. Use intercropping where it makes sense.
Some plants love to grow with buddies. Tomatoes, basil, and marigolds get along great, not to mention basil has a way of making everything taste better.
Sowing onions in between rows of carrots is a clever way of keeping carrot root fly away. Hiding radishes and lettuce in the shade of taller plants is a good way to grow these vegetables in the heat of summer.
As much as possible, imitate nature’s way of doing things by diversifying the content of your garden beds. Leverage the plants known to confuse pests – herbs like mint, cilantro, parsley, dill, fennel, among many others.
This, too, is succession planting, as all these crops will mature at different times, but you can conveniently place them in between your main crops.
7. Use successive sowings of the same plant.
Succession planting can also mean making multiple sowings of the same plant so that you get a staggered harvest.
Most beginner gardeners make the rookie mistake of sowing all their seeds at once. They make one big sowing of everything, and then they get overwhelmed by “fields” of salad greens and pounds of radishes that have an expiration date.
The smarter way would be to create reminders for yourself and succession sow vegetables like leafy greens, radishes, bunching onions, beetroot, kohlrabi, or carrots. This way, you’ll always have a fresh supply of veggies on their way.
8. Squeeze a third planting in late fall for a winter harvest.
Succession planting is all about packing your garden with as many vegetables as possible at all times. And getting two harvests out of the same bed is already an exciting concept. But what if you planned even further than that?
If you’re the lucky owner of a greenhouse or have the DIY abilities to build a cold frame, consider making a third planting to grow in wintertime.
Cold hardy varieties like spinach, Lamb’s lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, onions or leeks, will have no problem handling frosts, especially under protection. Late sowings of carrots, beets, turnips, and winter radishes keep just fine in the ground for you to harvest all winter.
Creating a winter garden may seem like something for a more experienced gardener, but there’s no reason to miss out on this opportunity if you have the means to do it.
9. Amend your soil with extra compost.
Succession planting is quite an intensive way to garden, so it does take a toll on your soil. If you’re amending your soil with a top layer of compost (which I highly recommend), you’ll probably notice how that compost vanishes by mid-summer. It’s like it melts in the ground – and it’s true, plants use this compost as food.
Some gardeners only amend their soil with compost once per year, either in late autumn or early summer, and that should be fine if the compost is spread in a thick layer.
But if by the time you plant your summer crops, you notice your soil is exposed, dry, and compacted, it’s time to amend the surface with a bit more compost and mulch. This will provide organic matter and nutrients for your hungry, heat-loving plants, while the mulch will retain the moisture they need.
10. Use covers and cold frames to extend your season.
You can use succession planting to the fullest if you extend your season – both in early spring and late autumn. This can get you nearly a month of gardening that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
In spring you can extend your season by placing low tunnels on top of the beds you want to plant the soonest so that the soil thaws out and becomes workable.
You can plant seedlings in the ground sooner than the average date and cover them with one or two layers of fleece covers. This will protect the young plants from frosty nights, winds, insects, and birds that might choose to feast on your tender plants.
In fall, extend your season by planting cool hardy crops undercover as your third crop. Don’t underestimate the greenhouse effect on your plants. Even flimsy fleece covers can heat your plants by a few degrees. It may be worth it to invest in permanent structures that will serve as protection from the cold and a great season extender.
Succession planting is something you’ll learn to master over the years. If you keep at it, you’ll find formulas that work for you, plants that go together well, and surprising varieties that thrive in your climate.
Our kitchen gardens are the exact opposite of industrial agriculture, where fields lay empty and depleted before it’s time to plant them again. We are stewards over our own tiny patches of land, and we’d better make the most of that land by tapping into its bountiful potential.