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356-Mastering Succession Planting, with Meg Cowden-Encore Presentation

| Plant, Podcast

Mastering succession planting takes knowledge and practice, but it’s not that tall of a task. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll enjoy the benefits of an extended growing season and a greater harvest. To help you make the most of your garden space, this week I am reprising my conversation with Meg Cowden, the founder of Seed to Fork, an expert in succession planting.

Meg is an organic gardener in Minnesota’s Minneapolis-Saint Paul area, where the growing season is relatively short. She overcomes this challenge through season extension and succession planting practices, yielding an abundance of fruit and vegetables. She shares her strategies on her Seed to Fork blog and in her new book, “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat: Grow a Bounty of Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers by Mastering the Art of Succession Planting.” Meg is a gifted writer, and her book is beautiful and full of information. 

 

Meg Cowden in her garden

Meg Cowden continually plants seedlings into her garden to keep every square foot productive and enjoys staged harvest times. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

“I really want people to embrace all of the layers that we can add to our lives, and by our lives, I do mean our landscapes, but it’s also our life,” Meg says. “I mean, this is the fabric of our lives — the land that we inhabit, that we live close to day in and day out. And so bringing as much life to it for as long as possible and supporting as much life that we can individually has a really powerful collective result.” 

Before continuing, I want to pause to let you know about my Organic Vegetable Gardening Summit from March 26 to 29. This free series includes four information-packed days of comprehensive workshops and live Q&As. You can sign up now to receive all the details and links to all sessions.

Read on for a condensed review of my conversation with Meg on mastering succession planting. For a more comprehensive recap, you can check out the show notes from the original airing.

You Are Already Succession Planting

Anyone who grows more than one crop is already succession planting, Meg points out. That’s because different crops mature at different times. She says gardeners can strengthen that by buying diverse seed varieties of the food they already enjoy growing. Different varieties of the same vegetables will have different numbers of days to maturity.

“The beauty of knowing that I can eat from April to December out of my garden in a place where I’m staring at a couple feet of snow right now in February is really joyful,” Meg says.

Tomatoes in particular offer a lot of potential for succession planting: cherry tomatoes ripen early, paste tomatoes follow, and beefsteak tomatoes, the largest, come last. Meg follows the same strategy when planting broccoli, starting with a variety that matures early in spring and ending with a heat-tolerant variety that will mature in summer. 

Seed packets will have the growing and harvesting information you need to make a plan.

Tomato harvest

The different types of tomatoes — cherry, paste, beefsteak, etc. — mature at different times of the year. If you grow various tomatoes, you are already succession planting. (Photo Courtesy of Meg Cowden)

Understanding Succession Planting

In the simplest terms, succession planting means “one following another.” It’s a constant parade of arrival and departure, life and death, Meg explains.

Succession planting spreads out the work of gardening. Instead of squeezing all the labor and activity in between the last frost date of spring and the first frost date of fall, gardeners do a little bit of work at a time, year-round.   

Succession planting has taught Meg that no matter how much space you have to garden in, there is always room to grow more food. 

Mastering Succession Planting

The different types of succession planting fall into these buckets:

Continuous Seed-Starting and Planting – Meg starts seeds indoors from February through early July, even when it is warm enough to direct sow seeds. She has a continuous supply of seedlings to plant out in her garden whenever space becomes available. She thinks four to six weeks ahead about what could be maturing in her garden, and she starts seeds specifically to replace those plants. Staggering planting time leads to staggered harvests and more weeks to enjoy a crop fresh from the garden. 

Block Planting – Everything planted in a block is homogenous and will mature at the same time. That makes it really easy to turn over that space and plant a new crop once the old crop is spent. Meg plants onions and garlic in blocks in fall, and the following August, she pulls up all of the onions and all of the garlic all at once —and she has Brassica seedlings ready to take their place. 

Season Extension and Zone Bending – Through various season extension practices like using cold frames and low tunnels, Meg pushes back her last frost date. Her home is in USDA hardiness zone 4b, but her garden behaves more like a zone 5 or 6 garden in spring. 

 

Lettuce in the garden

You don’t need a big garden to practice succession planting. You just need to think about how the space you have can be used to its greatest potential. (Photo Courtesy of Meg Cowden)

 

Interplanting for Succession Planting

Interplanting, or intercropping, “is really the pinnacle of succession planting,” Meg says.

Interplanting mixes and matches various crops and flowers in the same space. Low-growing flowers and vegetables along the edges of garden beds use space that would otherwise be wasted and reduce weed pressure. Meg grows taller and vining crops up stakes and trellises to maximize the use of space.

 “Part of the art of interplanting is really understanding your crops, and someone’s going to dominate the space,” Meg says. There will be an overstory, even if it’s only 2 feet tall. 

“Interplant, don’t overplant,” Meg advises. It’s only by trying and gaining experience that gardeners will learn how densely to plant their gardens.

 

Vegetables in the garden

Interplanting is one way to ensure no garden space is wasted. (Photo Courtesy of Meg Cowden)

 

Sacrificing Plants

To make space for incoming plants, it may mean sacrificing plants that are still productive. 

Meg is in the habit of yanking out plants in summer in favor of a fall garden. She thinks of this as “garden renewal,” another way she extends the growing season. For example, even if her cucumber plants are still producing, when she has canned enough pickles, she removes the cucumber plants and plants  cool-season crops in their place.

Plants that are struggling with pests and diseases or failing to thrive for any reason can be pulled in favor of a new crop. There is no sense leaving poor-performing crops in the ground when there are healthy seedlings ready to be planted.

 

Harvest basket with cucumbers

When you have had your fill of a certain crop, you can pull a still-healthy plant to make way for a new crop.

 

Perennial Edibles to Add to Your Garden

Perennials are planted once and come back every year, unlike annuals, which need replanting every growing season. Perennials require more investment upfront than annuals, and you are permanently dedicating that space in your garden to them, but they are very rewarding.

Meg grows cold-hardy perennial vegetables that are some of the first foods her family can harvest each year. “That’s very motivating if you plant it once and get to harvest it for 20 years,” she says. For example, her asparagus patch is like a forest, and it’s ready to harvest by the end of April.

Some perennials will be productive in a season or two, such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, and others, such as apples, pears, may take many years before they bear fruit. So a perennial food garden should be a mix.

 

Bowl of strawberries

Strawberries are perennials that become productive within a season or two of planting. (photo: Amy Prentice)

 

Succession Planting with Flowers

Meg’s garden includes many flowers mixed in among her food crops. It looks great, but that’s not Meg’s main reason for interplanting her vegetables with flowers.

“Selfishly, I want to be surrounded by insects all summer long,” Meg says. She knows that she is serving the ecosystem, while at the same time, the ecosystem is serving her garden. Flowers bring in beneficial insects such as native bees and parasitoid wasps. Meg believes the abundance of insects makes her food garden more productive. For example, mason bees, which pollinate apple trees, emerge early in spring and rely on early-flowering native plants. “It behooves us gardeners to be planting natives, especially if we have early flowering fruit trees and shrubs,” she says.

When selecting annual flowers, Meg looks for varieties that won’t aggressively self-seed. This way, the flowers won’t get out of control.

 

Flowers

Adding flowers to your food garden will attract beneficial insects that will pollinate your crops and control pests. (Photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

No Substitute for Experience

“Part of a gardening career is having the experiences of each passing season,” Meg says. “I don’t think it’s of service to other people to shortcut the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over 20 some years.”

She thinks of her book as an inspiration and as a platform for gardeners to experiment on their property, and she believes there is no substitute for your own experience.

In her book, she writes: “Failure is the most expeditious instructor, and the garden is no exception. When we succeed, it’s not as urgent to reflect on why something worked well, but when we fail, it’s a commanding invitation to ponder the variables that led to the mishap. Being perpetual students of the garden in this way is our deepest joy.”

 

Fall crops

Meg derives joy from being a perpetual student of the garden. (Photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Meg Cowden on mastering succession planting. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

What are your tips for mastering succession planting? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 022: The Year-round Vegetable Gardener with Niki Jabbour

Episode 045: Succession Planting: Practical Tips For Growing More Food, with Meg Cowden

Episode 174: Season Extension Practices for Getting More from Your Garden, with Niki Jabbour

Episode 176: Always Learning: 10 Lessons the Garden Has Taught Us in 2020, with Meg Cowden

Episode 179: Plant Partners: The Science-Based Benefits of Companion Planting, with Jessica Walliser

Episode 194: Easy No-Dig Gardening, with Charlie Nardozzi

Episode 220: Fall Succession Planning and Planting Tips, with Meg Cowden

Episode 238: Peat Moss: Examining the Challenges of its Ongoing Use in the Face of Climate Change

Episode 250: Mastering the Art of Succession Planting, with Meg Cowden

Episode 277: Joe Lamp’l and Meg Cowden Discuss His New Book: ‘The Vegetable Gardening Book’

Episode 315: Succession Planting with Flowers

Organic Vegetable Gardening Summit – A free four-day summit with workshops and live Q&As, March 26 to 29.

joegardenerTV YouTube: No-Till Gardening: If You Love Your Soil, Ditch the Tiller

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Build a Simple Cold Frame

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

joegardenerTV YouTube

Growing a Greener World®     

GGW Episode 1012: From Seed to Fork: Growing an Abundant and Beautiful Cold-Climate Garden 

Seed to Fork blog

Seed to Fork Instagram

Seed to Fork Facebook

Seed to Fork YouTube

Plant Grow Harvest Repeat: Grow a Bounty of Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers by Mastering the Art of Succession Planting” by Meg Cowden

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Soil3Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JOEGARDENER for 5% off your order

Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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