Anyone who plants a vegetable garden wants to benefit by yielding as much from his or her garden as possible. Those who plant large vegetable gardens often find themselves covered with dirt and sweat, questioning whether or not it's really worth the effort. Persons with smaller gardens can feel the same way when they only get a small taste of something mouth-wateringly delicious. But with a little careful planning, succession planting can really boost home garden production.
Sometimes called multiple cropping, succession planting refers to several methods used to increase and/or extend crop harvest during the growing season. These methods, which are often used by small-scale commercial growers, maximize the efficient use of both garden space and effective planting and harvest timing.
There are several approaches to succession gardening. The method you can best use right now is also the one that I see most widely used in the North Country. It involves planting two or more crops in sequence. In other words, as soon as one crop is harvested, that otherwise unused garden space is immediately replanted with a different crop.
For example, in many area gardens, vegetables with intermediate maturing times that were planted early (beets, carrots, turnips, peas, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi) are now being or have already been harvested. Once those harvests are completed, standard gardeners will leave that garden space unplanted. Succession gardeners, on the other hand, will immediately plant a fast growing crop, such as head or leaf lettuce, spinach, carrots, kale, or radishes in that space. Or they may transplant vegetable plants that have been growing in containers up to now, into the garden. The crops most widely chosen for transplanting are cole crops such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage, all crops that will not be damaged and whose quality may actually be improved by exposure to frost toward the end of the growing season.
Knowledgeable gardeners choose early maturing varieties, which helps assure a bountiful late-season harvest. Catalog descriptions and seed packet instructions should provide information such as days to harvest, spacing requirements, and whether or not the variety is frost tolerant.
Cool season crops are often pre-sprouted for late-season planting. To pre-sprout seeds, moisten a white paper towel so it's wet but not dripping. Without crowding the seeds, sprinkle them over half of the towel and cover them with the other half. Be sure the seeds make good contact with the towel. Fold again as needed until the towel fits into a Ziplock sandwich baggie. Keep the seeds cool. Inspect daily to make sure the towel stays moist and to see if the seeds have sprouted. So they won't be damaged, transplant the seeds into the garden bed as soon as they've sprouted, before roots have a chance to get tangled together or grow into the towel. Be sure mold doesn't form inside the baggie. (Note that this method also works well when used to germinate heat-loving plants in the cool of early spring. Optimal germination temperatures should also be on seed packets and in catalogs.)
Another approach commonly used for lettuce and other salad greens is planting at timed intervals (as opposed to planting an entire crop in one day). The result is a continuous harvest extended over a period of weeks or months, rather than the entire crop becoming ready at once.
Companion planting or intercropping is a third approach. This farming practice entails growing two or more crops that will not compete with each other for space, nutrients, water or sunlight in the same space at the same time. Often, a deep-rooted crop is planted with a shallow rooted one or a crop that will grow tall is planted with a shorter, shade tolerant one. By intercropping, you can achieve a much higher yield than if you were to plant just one crop. When properly done, the results will be plants that are thriving in a garden that is very aesthetically pleasing.
A perfect and perhaps prehistoric example of intercropping at its best is the Native American three sisters; corn, pole beans and squash. These three plants, when grown together, form a healthy ecosystem of insects and soil organisms. And they exist in symbiosis. As the plants mature, the beans put nitrogen into the soil, which greatly benefits the corn. The corn, in return, provides a support upon which the beans can grow. The squash provides ground cover, shading the soil and retaining moisture. Together they promote soil conservation, deter predators and help prevent erosion. From a dietary standpoint, the gardener harvests corn, which is a grain abundant in carbohydrates; beans, which provide protein; and squash, which is rich in vitamin A.
Being observant and taking notes will help with making adjustments in the future. Keep in mind, though, that the varieties you choose, your soil quality, and the weather, among other things, will all affect plant growth and maturation.