Succession planting is a gardening method that extends the growing season and yields a greater harvest, no matter how much or how little space you have to garden in. To discuss how to get the most out of your garden, my returning guest this week is Seed to Fork founder Meg Cowden, a succession planting expert.
Meg practices organic gardening in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area in Minnesota, where air temperatures dip to -25°F in winter and snow in April is common. Despite her relatively short growing season, she grows an abundance of fruit and vegetables through season extension and succession planting strategies. Meg shares her depth of knowledge and experience in her new book, “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat: Grow a Bounty of Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers by Mastering the Art of Succession Planting,” which will be released on March 15 by Timber Press.
“Plant Grow Harvest Repeat” is an incredible book that’s beautiful and full of information. Meg is a gifted writer, and it’s always great when a gifted writer can write about what she loves doing the most. It’s Meg’s zone of genius, and she knocked it out of the park. Readers will want to dog-ear the pages and keep coming back to this book.
What Meg loves to hear from gardeners is that they grew a garden for longer than they ever thought was possible.
“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.”
If you garden at all, Meg says you are already succession planting. Think about it: If you grow more than one crop and they mature at different times, you have a succession garden. The food comes out of the garden at a staggered pace. Meg says you can strengthen that by buying more diverse seeds of the food you enjoy growing. With more variety comes earlier and later maturity dates for your crops.
“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 are an example of a crop with a lot of potential for succession planting: cherry tomatoes ripen early, then paste tomatoes come in with a fury, followed by the big beefsteak tomatoes. Meg follows the same principles when planting broccoli, starting with a variety that matures early in spring and ending with a heat-tolerant variety.
Meg says don’t get caught up in the hype of social media and pretty pictures. Instead, focus on the descriptions given on the seed packets. The seed packets should have all the growing and harvesting information you need to make a plan.
What Is Succession Planting?
In the simplest terms, succession planting means “one following another,” Meg explains. It’s a constant parade of arrival and departure, life and death.
In terms of a forest, the tree population changes over hundreds or thousands of years. In a planted prairie with a hundred-plus species of flowers, it will never look the same from one year to the next. In a food garden, succession happens over the course of months rather than years, decades or millennia, Meg says.
It’s easy to start succession planting in your garden because the work is spread out. Instead of squeezing everything in between your last frost date of spring and the first frost date of fall, gardeners do a little work at a time year-round. Meg invites gardeners to redefine what they think of as their growing season.
What succession planting had taught Meg is that no matter how much space you have to garden in, there is always room to grow more food.
Linking Native Landscapes to Succession Planting
In college, Meg studied forestry and natural resources management, and that helped her learn how to observe patterns in nature. She recognized the differences between old-growth forests and managed forests, and when she moved to Minnesota she appreciated the prairies and came to understand what is so magical about the Midwest. She believes prairies have more to offer the home gardener than the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
The prairie has four seasons, including the not-so-dormant winter season. “There’s something to be gleaned from every season of the garden,” Meg says, adding that the more your garden, the more you become aware of how much life is always present and moving forward.
In the fall of 2019, when Meg was visiting the East Coast, it dawned on her that no one had written a book linking native landscapes to succession planting in the garden. “It’s a natural way that I see the world, and I thought it was a really beautiful way that we can all connect our own local ecosystems to our gardens,” she says.
Mastering Succession Planting
Meg explains the buckets that different types of succession planting fall into:
Continuous Seed-Starting and Planting – Meg has seeds starting indoors from February through early July, even when it is warm enough to direct sow seeds. This gives her a continuous supply of seedlings that she can plant out in her garden whenever a space becomes available. Meg thinks four to six weeks ahead about what could be maturing in her garden, and she starts seeds specifically to replace those plants. Staggered planting time also leads to staggered harvests and more weeks to enjoy a crop fresh from the garden.
Block Planting – One of Meg’s favorite strategies for pushing the succession planting of her Brassicas is block planting. She calls it modern agriculture on a mini-scale. The idea is that 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. For example, Meg plants onions and garlic in blocks in fall. The following August, she pulls up all the onion and all the garlic all at once, and she has Brassica seedlings at the ready to take their place. To her, the changeover from onions to Brassicas is an important ceremony and punctuation of the calendar year, Meg says.
Season Extension and Zone Bending – Though Meg’s home is in USDA hardiness zone 4b, her garden behaves more like a zone 5 or zone 6 garden in spring. Through various season extension practices like using cold frames and low tunnels, she pushes back her last frost date.
The Ultimate Succession Tool: The Art of Interplanting
Interplanting, also known as intercropping, is an art rather than a science, according to Meg. “Interplanting, I think, is really the pinnacle of succession planting,” she says.
Interplanting allows you to mix and match 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. Covering those bare spots at the borders and between larger plants also reduces weed pressure. For taller and vining crops, Meg provides support such as stakes and trellises.
“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. That tallest thing is the redwood of the space.
Meg says, “Interplant, don’t overplant.” Make the most of the space that you have without overdoing it. Overplanting will happen, but it’s only by trying interplanting and gaining experience that you will learn how densely to plant your garden.
Meg does not subscribe to the companion planting philosophy when she interplants. Companion planting is the practice of pairing together crops that complement each other, like a flower that repels nematodes next to a vegetable that is susceptible to nematode damage. Meg’s approach is to just plant what makes you happy.
Also, beware of aggressive plants when interplanting. Meg planted the wrong variety of nasturtiums with her tomatillos, and the nasturtiums took over. Lesson learned.
Sometimes you have to be creative about finding space to achieve all of your gardening goals. A sacrifice on one end can mean a bigger bounty on another end.
In recent years, Meg has gotten in the habit of yanking out plants in summer in favor of a fall garden. Meg thinks of this as “garden renewal.” It’s another way she extends the growing season. For example, even if her cucumber plants are still producing, when she had canned enough pickles, she removes the cucumber plants and plants a fall-harvested crop in their place.
If your plants are failing to thrive for whatever reason — pests, disease, fertility issues — you can “edit” your garden. You don’t need to leave struggling plants in the ground until the frost kills them. Remove those plants in favor of another crop.
Why Practice Succession Planting
When we grow our own food at home, we reduce our carbon footprint. When we increase our food production through succession planting, we can reduce our carbon footprint even further. That’s just one of the reasons that Meg believes succession planting is important.
Though succession planting and continuous seed starting can feel like hard work sometimes, Meg says it is life-giving, and her family eats quite well year-round. “I like passing by the produce section in the winter and not really needing anything that,” she says. “That feels really good to me.”
Always Trying New Things
Though Meg’s approach to succession planting has long relied on planting seedlings into her garden, she plans to experiment over the next few years with direct sowing seeds more often. She wants to know if she will be able to achieve the same success. And by reducing how much seed starting she does indoors, she will also reduce how much peat she uses. Peat is the predominant ingredient in most seed-starting mixes, but peat is not sustainable. Peat is harvested from peat bogs, which are important carbon sinks.
Perennial Edibles to Add to Your Garden
Perennials are planted once and they come back every year, unlike annuals, which need to be replanted every growing season. Perennials require more investment upfront than annuals, and you are permanently dedicating that space in your garden to them. However, perennials are very rewarding.
Meg grows a number of perennial vegetables that are cold hardy. They 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.
Planting diverse perennials will add another layer of succession to your garden. Think strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, pears, etc. Strawberries are quick to produce while pear trees can take years to produce, so you want to plant a mixture, Meg advises.
Living in zone 4, Meg knows she can’t rely on perennials that are only hardy to zone 5. In fact, to prepare for climate change and more polar vortexes that bring cold, she is planting more crops that are hardy to zone 3.
Succession Planting with Flowers
Having walked in Meg’s garden, I can attest that there are many flowers mixed in among her food crops. It looks great, but that’s not Meg’s primary 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 being of service to her ecosystem, while at the same time her ecosystem is being of service to her garden. The flowers bring in beneficial insects such as native bees and parasitoid wasps, she points out. She 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,” Meg says.
Meg went even further and converted the lawn around her garden into prairie. Some of the perennials flowers in the prairie have started to creep into the food garden, which has required some maintenance on Meg’s part, but the work is worth it for her.
In choosing annual flowers for her food garden, Meg picks varieties that are not aggressive self-seeders. That prevents the flowers from getting out of control and cuts down on how much maintenance she has to do.
Soil & Succession Planting
Meg has practiced no-till gardening, also known as no-dig gardening, since 2017, when she first set up her garden and tilled in soil amendments. “There has been no piece of machinery in there since,” she says.
No-till gardening reduces weed germination, protects soil integrity, retains soil nutrients and reduces carbon emissions. In terms of succession gardening, Meg wants gardeners to know that their garden is ready as soon as the soil is warm enough. With tillage, gardeners must wait for the soil to be just dry enough, and that can delay the start of their growing season.
“Consider how it can lengthen your growing season by switching to a no-dig, no-till,” Meg says, “It’s less work. It’s less physical work. It’s more time enjoying the reason we’re in our gardens.”
How the Cowdens Compost
Meg and her husband, John, use a wood chipper in their composting process. Almost everything they add to their bulk composting pile goes through the chipper first. In between layers of wood chips, John adds soybean meal, a source of nitrogen, that works with the carbon in the wood chips to get the compost really going. Their compost pile gets quite hot, which hastens decomposition, kills weed seeds and kills pathogens.
Over their compost pile is a canopy of black walnut trees. Black walnut trees are an issue for gardeners because all parts of the trees contain juglone, a toxic compound that many vegetables can’t tolerate. To be safe, Meg and John don’t bring their compost back into their garden, Rather, they scatter the compost around their black cap raspberries and other native edibles that successfully grow around the black walnut trees anyway.
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.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Meg Cowden. If you haven’t listened to our conversation yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
How do you practice succession planting in your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
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.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
Seed to Fork blog
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