In this podcast, I explore succession planting techniques with my guest, Meg Cowden. Meg and her husband are well-versed in the art of succession planting. Living in southern Minnesota, on the outskirts of Minneapolis, they garden in USDA Hardiness Zone 4B.
While many gardeners in a Zone 4 environment see their season as Memorial Day through Labor Day, Meg’s techniques keep her gardening from April through November – without a greenhouse. Her passion for succession planting is born out of curiosity to experiment and push the horticultural boundaries.
What is Succession Planting?
Succession planting is making the most of your garden space and thinking beyond what would traditionally be considered your region’s garden season. Think of your crops in terms of – not just the summer garden – but the spring and fall garden as well. You can harvest food grown in your soil for more of the year than you ever dreamed possible.
Succession planting doesn’t require that you grow several types of crops. Most edibles are available in many varieties which mature to harvest at different times. If you grow more than one variety of tomato, you are already a successional planter.
There are alternate methods to successional planting, so you can find the approach that best suits you. If you love and want to grow nothing but potatoes, you can:
- Stagger your sowing times: Sow one crop in May which could be ready to harvest in August, and sow the same variety in another area in July to be ready in October.
- Plant for staggered maturation periods: Sow different potato types – at the same time – which have a diverse harvest maturity rate. Yukon Gold potatoes mature in about 90 days, while Canela Russet potatoes won’t be in their prime until around the 130-day mark. Planting both varieties means you can harvest potatoes for weeks longer.
Varietal maturity rates are easy to find online, and they are also listed on seed packs. If you’ve never paid much attention to maturity dates, do a quick internet search and see for yourself just how much range exists within your favorite plant family.
Once you pay attention to crop maturity rates and use those timelines to your advantage, you can really extend that harvest of flavor for your dinner plate.
Interplanting is another method of succession planting. What is interplanting? Sowing more than one type of vegetable to share the same space at the same time.
There are some crops – like cabbage – which can take several months to reach full size and begin to produce. Other crops, like radishes, mature in about 30 days. While your cabbage is young and small, you could plant radishes in the open spaces – the gaps between your young cabbage sprouts. By the time your cabbage reaches full size, the radishes have been harvested out of the area.
Meg likes to think of interplanting in terms of an old-growth forest – what she can plant to come up quickly in the “understory” of slower-growing crops.
Lettuce could be easily interspersed amongst tomatoes. While the tomatoes are young and just beginning to set on lots of foliage, the sun is still reaching the bare ground in between those plants. So, why not take advantage of the open space and available light to get a quick crop of lettuce?
By the time the tomato plants have expanded and are at the dawn of fruit production, the lettuce will be spent.
Maximizing Garden Space
I am fortunate to have 16 large raised beds. Likewise, Meg’s garden space is about an eighth of an acre in size. This plentiful space affords us many gardening options.
For any of you without that luxury of space, successional planting can really open up a new world of gardening. Succession techniques – even if you choose to plant just once rather than throughout the seasons – will help you garden smarter and make better use of your area than ever before. For example, start your own seeds.
Meg is a big proponent of starting seeds indoors, and most of her crops are started in her home – not her garden. Why? A key motivator is her loathing to waste any precious space in her soil. By starting from seed indoors, Meg is better able to control the final plant spacing – as well as the growth stage at which she incorporates them into the garden beds.
When sowing seeds directly into the garden, there are always some seeds which don’t germinate. That leaves open gaps in the surface, where those seeds just failed to come up. Since Meg begins with seedlings grown indoors, she can place each seedling in her beds at the ideal spacing to maximize the rows – no gaps! She also finds plants to be more robust when started indoors rather than direct sown.
Unlike many of us, Meg doesn’t restrict her seed starting process to the pre-frost days of February and March. She continues to start crop seeds all throughout the growing season – both indoors and some direct sowing.
As a lover of carrots, Meg continues to sow carrot seeds throughout early spring and on into late July. She and her husband have tried many methods of jump-starting carrots but maintain that this crop is one that is best direct-sown in the garden. Sowing throughout the season provides them a harvest that extends into October or November. Anyone gardening in Zone 4B will recognize how remarkable that yield span really is.
She admits it can be difficult to be motivated to sow seeds in the throes of a July garden, but experience has taught her that October carrots taste even sweeter than those pulled from the earth in the heat of summer. That remembrance spurs her on.
Feed Your Gardening Curiosity
Keep a planting mindset all season long. Try something new at different times and from year to year. Each season brings different challenges, so enjoy your success as it comes but keep an eye on what else might be possible.
Meg is a perpetual student of the garden. She knows that not everything she tries will generate success, but she enjoys the journey of experimentation.
For her, the garden year begins with a well thought-out plan. As that plan is executed over the course of the growing season, she is observing and learning along the way.
She and her husband stretch a different horticultural limit each year. Sometimes, their curiosity brings great rewards. At other times, their discovery is the realization that what they find they can do isn’t worth the effort or simply doesn’t make sense for their lifestyle.
Recently, they pushed the boundaries of the Brussels sprouts season and found themselves with harvestable Brussels sprouts as early as July. Success! Yet, they realized this early crop didn’t bring them the pleasure they found when harvesting in fall.
Thanks to their curiosity, they now have an even deeper appreciation for the late arrival of the Brussels sprout, and they’ve realized they prefer to dedicate summer garden real estate to those crops less able to withstand the cooler temperatures or sudden frosts of fall.
For Meg, experimentation is a never-ending quest for the next unexpected success. She says her curiosity for what is possible runs too deep for gardening complacency. She’s even growing alpine huckleberry bushes from seeds she harvested on a backpacking trip last year. Stay tuned to see how this experiment turns out.
Meg’s Top Picks for Succession Planting
There are so many options in the world of successional planting. If you want to dip your toe in that world this season, but you still feel unsure of where to start – here are Meg’s top picks to try:
- Tomatoes: Take advantage of those differing maturity rates.
- Interplanting or successional sowing:
- Basically, any 30-day-type crop: There are many crops which will germinate quickly, mature and be ready for harvest within 30 to 45 days.
- Brassicas: Any of the brassica family – such as kale, kohlrabi, cabbage, and bok choy – are more resistant to cool weather and can be a great option to extend your garden in early spring or deeper into fall.
Need a visual to help you get started? Fortunately, you can benefit from Meg’s years of succession experimentation. She created a planting guide to map out where she has found success when pushing the boundaries of the gardening season. Whether you live in a cooler climate or garden in long, hot summers of the south; Meg’s guide will speak your language.
The Only Constant Is Change
As you push the limits in your garden, remember that nature is a fickle lab in which to experiment. Some years will be warm and temperate. Other years will be dry or cooler and unusually wet. It’s that variability of nature which will keep you challenged.
Gardening success is transient – for all of us, regardless of our level of expertise. It’s this constant change which keeps us all on our toes and is a great impetus for sharing our stories together. No matter how much you know, there is always more to learn.
Maybe you aren’t ready to try succession planting this year. No problem. You can start this season simply by being intentional about observing your garden space and lifestyle habits now.
Be mindful throughout this season to begin to plan how you might mix things up next year. Take notes – you are your own best resource. What produce do you most enjoy on your dinner plate? What spaces open up in your garden as the season progresses? Keep an eye on the dynamic nature of your garden.
Some Words of Gardening Advice
Interplant but don’t overplant. Pay attention to the expected maturity size and spacing recommendation of any given crop. If you intersperse plants while waiting for full maturity or experiment with tighter-than-recommended planting, be aware that planting too densely will impact production of some crops.
Broccoli is a great example of this. If your broccoli plants are packed too close together to accommodate their fully-mature size, the head will be stunted. Their spacing is a direct correlation to productivity. So, when you choose to experiment – do a bit of research first and note your results through the season.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Does planting three seasons worth of crops feel overwhelming? Will you want to eat carrots throughout four months? Be realistic with your lifestyle and the time and energy you will be able to spend with your garden.
Gardening can be hard work, but it should still be a pleasure. Make sure you allow yourself to maintain a balance of benefits over effort.
Focus on growing what you love. Don’t feel restricted to growing “the usual suspects” in your garden. Think about what you enjoy having on your plate and start there. Growing from seed can really expand your menu. Local nurseries and home improvement stores typically have a limited variety (and will only be available in spring), but seed catalogs offer a world of diversity!
Starting plants from seed really can be easy. Success comes down to a few basic principles, which were described in my Seed Starting podcast series earlier this year. If you haven’t tried starting from seed or you have tried and failed, this series will give you new hope.
Remember – failure is the best teacher you can have. The only failure from which there is no benefit is the failure to start.
So, get started – embrace those inevitable failures, along with the joy of success, and learn with the rest of us.
If you haven’t already listened to the podcast recording, I recommend that you scroll to the top of this page and give it a listen. There is, even more, to be learned from my fun conversation with Meg, and you will hear what has inspired her passion for gardening, why she sows lettuce indoors, plus – her new favorite root vegetable.
Links & Resources
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