If you don’t have a succession plan for your garden, there’s still time to make one. Here’s what it is and why you need it.
You’ve planted the vegetable garden; the beds are increasingly full. But before you check that task off the list, take a closer look. The cilantro and lettuce are trying to tell you something: Once is almost never enough.
There will soon be vacancies, as some crops — those that are quick to mature or don’t tolerate heat well, or both — pass their prime.
Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are generally planted just once. But other crops need sowing again and again to keep producing. Are you ready with more seeds — or better still, a homegrown supply of fresh transplants selected for summer right through fall harvest — to plug into every precious bit of available real estate?
This is succession sowing, an advanced level of vegetable-garden math.
The introductory lesson simply required calculating when it was safe to sow or transplant certain crops outdoors. Once you’ve mastered that, you need to learn which crops lend themselves to resowing, and how often, to insure a steady supply of vegetables over the longest possible season. You’ll also need to estimate how much available space there will be and figure out how to assign various plants to those empty spaces in an ongoing planting plan.
Friends who were working on their crop plan one long-ago winter taught me this. As farmers, their livelihood depends on maximizing every square foot of ground under cultivation. For each portion of a field — the equivalent of a garden bed — they made a simple chart, identifying three or four possible uses and assigning each planting an approximate date. Where the April-sown spring peas came out, the bush bean seeds could go in, followed in late summer by a fall root vegetable like beets or carrots.
If you don’t have a 2020 succession plan for your own vegetable garden, there is still time to retrofit one.
The Goal Is the Same Everywhere
Getting the most out of the space is your goal, no matter where you’re gardening. But dates and plant choices vary in regions with shorter or longer frost-free seasons, or with extreme summer heat, which might be inhospitable for something that works farther north.
Vegetable-garden tuneup: make room for more
IT’S NOT JUST THE BEDS OF FADED SPRING PERENNIALS and gone-by flowering shrubs that need a tuneup around here (and maybe in your yard, too?). The vegetable garden is screaming for attention, as cool-season darlings—the spinach and broccoli raab and various other once-succulent things—stretch up in protest, saying “No more!” How to achieve a continuing harvest with some simple succession-sowing tactics, in words and a captioned slideshow:
My mathematical equation starts on paper around June, like this:
1. Make a list of what you want more of (or a first crop of, if it’s a warm-season thing or if you simply didn’t plant an earlier crop).
2. Make a list of things that have gone by or will soon, to assess real estate that you can utilize. In early to mid-June my lists looked like the one below; yours may be very different. My July and August list–for my latest sowings of all–is at at the bottom of the story.
Trying to make room here for (as of mid-june*):
- Beans (pole and bush)
- Salad greens—repeat sowings
- Arugula—repeat sowings
- Summer and winter squash (I reserved a row for these, where cutting tulips, now faded, grow)
- Maybe one bush cucumber plant?
- Kales and collards
- Tomatoes of not in yet (and peppers and eggplants if you grow them; I don’t)
- (*For last-ditch crops for July and August sowings, see the end of the story)
Space coming available here from:
- Peas (two long trellises full) by mid-July
- Asian greens
- Garlic (about mid-July or so, but I’m keeping it in mind for a fall prospect…maybe the late peas?)
- Pea trellises might be a good place for pole beans (or other vining crops like squash or cukes)…but then I might want to plant fall peas. Hmmmm…which do I want more?
- Sometimes I place my young tomatoes just alongside the peas, knowing I’ll rip the peas out a few weeks after the tomatoes go in, but before they need all the space. Those years, I yank the pea trellis and insert tomato cages.
4. Also look for marginal spaces you can cheat by a few inches—or a foot. You’d be surprised how much produce you can pack into beds if they contain well-loved soil rich in compost. For instance, between your tomatoes and the path, hanging over the edge even, why not put parsley, the next generation of beets and carrots, cilantro, salad greens, or even a row of bush beans? I do.
5. As you start calculating, also study a “succession sowing” chart for your area, perhaps from your cooperative extension’s website or an organic-farming association. Identify how long you can wait to sow what and still get a harvest by frost time. My favorite one appropriate to my general region is from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (a portion of which I reprinted above; to get the whole amazing thing, for every sowing or transplanting chore March through October, click here).
6. Remember the basic “best practices” of vegetable-garden care to maximize yields:
- Plant short rows every other week for a sustained but manageable supply of salads, greens, bush beans, cilantro.
- Keep picking! Continual harvesting delays a plant’s instinct to “bolt” or set seed.
- Weed to reduce competition for moisture, light and nutrients (asparagus, onions and garlic, in particular, really suffer with competition).
- Remember which way the sun travels in summer, and don’t accidentally put someone who’ll be small on the shady side of someone who’ll be tall (unless it’s intentional, such as to shade summer salad).
- Water deeply on a regular basis, drenching the entire root zone. (Note: With a sprinkler, this takes many hours. Soaker hoses or drip emitters are more direct if properly placed in beds.)
- There are more tips in the slideshow below (like hilling your potatoes!).
7. Waste not! Many “gone-by” greens (so long as they’re not positively woody) are tasty cooked. Mustard, for instance, and many other elements in a “spicy mesclun” salad mix you may have let stand a week too long to be salad material any longer could serve up beautifully with a minute in the sauté pan. (Some can also go into a pot of vegetable stock for the freezer, like this.)
Don’t just toss the arugula that’s started to bolt; have you ever wilted it in garlic and olive oil that contains a chopped tomato or a little tomato sauce and a few red pepper flakes, then tossed it all into pasta, with some grated cheese for good measure? (An old friend handed this combination down to me, as his mother had to him; I smiled when I saw it’s also a formal “recipe,” and if you prefer such details, try this link.)
Or make a “pie” (like the fritatta, above) with the last of the spinach and other green, leafy things. Sauté some onion and garlic in olive oil, wilt the greens right in the same pan when the onion’s tender, crumble in feta (or your choice of cheese), and whisk then add some eggs. Bake in a 350-degree oven in an oiled baking dish, with extra oil drizzled on top. (More recipes for handling the harvest are here.)
Dishes like those simple ones make vegetable-garden tuneup time like its own special harvest season, with a delicious reward for the work, and the promise of more to come.
8. A P.S., sort of: Nonstop seedlings! Most experts–both vegetable farmers and pro gardeners like my friend Lee Reich–say that the greatest productivity and efficiency comes from having transplants on hand to plug in all season long, not just in spring. Watch Lee’s video above, or read more about that in the second half of the chat we had one spring about growing from seed in general.
WHEN I GET TO MY latest sowings, in July and August, after the longest day has passed and the days slowly get shorter, I try to adjust for the fact that things grow differently than in spring. A former High Mowing Organic Seeds staffer turned farmer, Katie Spring, told me to think like this:
“What I learned at High Mowing is what we call ‘The Fall Factor,’” she said. “As the days grow shorter, you add time to the days to maturity on the seed packet. If you’re going based on your first frost date, you can basically add two weeks to the time that crop will take to reach maturity.”
With a 60-day something-or-other, you’d basically make it like a 75-day crop, and count back that long from frost. It’s hard to get it exact, says Katie–but we try, and use The Fall Factor as a guideline. Both Katie and I like to err on the side of maybe starting things a little bit earlier, but not so early that things start to bolt in the high-summer heat.
Select varieties that work with that in mind. My latest list of all, for the fall garden, includes direct-sown things and also some I started earlier in flats, in anticipation. And again: don’t forget to leave room for the garlic! The list:
- Arugula, from 21 to 40 days (baby or mature leaf size)
- Bush beans, about 60 days (have insulating fabric ready if early cold threatens)
- Beets, for roots and beet greens
- Braising greens mix (mustard, kale, collards, Asian greens…)
- Broccoli raab, about 40 days
- Broccoli (60 days from transplants started 15 weeks before first frost.) Try ‘Piracicaba,’ from Hudson Valley Seed Library or Turtle Tree Seed, or the leaf broccoli Spigarello from Johnny’s.
- Cabbage (60 days from transplants started about 15 weeks before first frost) or Napa cabbage (about 10 days faster)
- Carrots (a storage kind like ‘Rolanka’ from Turtle Tree, plus some smaller types for fall eating)
- Cauliflower (60 days from transplants started about 14 weeks before frost)
- Chicory, endive, radicchio
- Collards, about 60 days but nice as a baby green
- Daikon (60 days) and other faster radishes
- Kale, about 60 days but nice in half that time as a baby green
- Lettuce, leaf and head type and mesclun mix, about 21-30 days to first cutting
- Mustard greens, about 45 days (faster as baby greens to spice a salad)
- Peas; shelling, sugar snap, and snowpea type; and also a row or block of thickly sown peas for harvest as pea shoots for salad, when they’re 3 or 4 inches tall
- Scallions and other hardy bunching onions, for fall use and to overwinter
- Squash, summer variety, fast bush type (I sowed a 48-day variety July 1)
- Turnips, 40-50 days, faster for greens; rutabaga