By mid-June the fields are filling up:
Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are firmly rooted in the greenhouse, while outside potatoes root into the soil, green beans stretch under row cover, kale and chard fan out, and countless heads of lettuce grow in their beds.
And finally, after the flurry of May planting, we fall into the rhythm of succession planting.
Early summer bears the satisfaction of filling up our market garden, but as every farmer and seasoned gardener knows, you can’t stop here. If you want a summer of consistent harvests, you need to consistently plant. And that’s where successions come in.
Put simply, succession planting is when you harvest one crop and then plant another one in its place.
Not only does this keep you rolling in fresh harvests all summer, it also keeps the soil covered, which cuts down on the need to weed, and gives you the chance to try new varieties.
Compared to planting once and letting your garden grow as it may, succession planting gives you way more food from the same amount of space, potentially tripling or quadrupling the yield from each garden bed.
How To Plan Succession Plantings
Choose what crops to succession plant.
Here in the Northeast (I’m in zone 4b) there are long-season crops that are only planted once, and then there are mid and short-season crops that can be planted many times within one season.
Long season crops that are planted once include:
- Solanacea: Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant
- Alliums: Onions, Leeks
- Roots: Parsnips, Rutabaga, Storage Turnips
- Winter Squash
- Potatoes & Sweet Potatoes
Winter squash, parsnips, and sweet potatoes are typically harvested once, while potatoes and onions can be harvested multiple times at different sizes, and tomatoes, peppers and eggplants continually produce fruit throughout the season.
Mid & Short-season crops that can be succession planted include:
- Greens: lettuce, asian and mustard greens, kale, chard
- Cucurbits: Summer Squash, Zucchini, Cucumbers
- Annual herbs: basil, cilantro, dill, etc.
- Roots: radishes, salad turnips, carrots, beets
Then there are crops like broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach, which prefer the cooler seasons of spring and fall, but get stressed and tend to bolt in the heat of summer. With these crops, we plan spring and fall successions.
When choosing what to plant and when to plant it, consider seasonal preferences for cool or hot weather, what you want to eat and how often you want it, and if you’re growing for market, what your customers want.
Before we get into the details, I want you to know it’s totally okay to wing this. Really. If you’re more of an at-a-whim kind of person and planning ahead isn’t your style, you can still direct-seed a new crop after harvesting the previous one.
I admit that mapping out a garden is actually something that challenges me—I’m an intuitive person, given more to imagining than laying it all out in an organized, comprehensive way.
If you’re like me, you draw out a map like a piece of art, and then have to go back and figure out if the spacing will actually work. This is completely fine if you’re growing for yourself, but if you’re working to make a living at market gardening, more precision and planning is important.
Luckily my husband Edge went to college for Environmental Geography, and he does have a mind for mapmaking. With all that said, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Make a simple map of your garden.
We grow on 1 acre and have that acre divided into 3 main sections: A, B, and C.
Let’s take a look at section A:
Each row represents one bed, and each column represents one succession. Start by filling out the first column with your first round of planting.
You can make a note of your estimated harvest date in the first column, and in the second column note your estimated transplanting or direct-seeding date.
To find your harvest date, look at the days to maturity (DTM) listed on the seed packet. Count ahead from the date of seeding to find your DTM. For example:
Radishes are 25 DTM, so if they’re seeded on May 1, they’ll be ready for harvest on May 26. Since radishes and turnips can be harvested at varying sizes, we plan for 2 weeks of harvest with these crops.
If your next crop will be direct seeded, aim to seed the same day you harvest. Flipping a bed from one crop to another quickly increases your potential yield and keeps the soil covered longer.
If you’re transplanting the second crop, you’ll need to take one more step.
In order to flip the bed within the same day, the second crop will need to be ready for planting. A general rule of thumb is to seed crops 4 weeks before their transplant date. You can easily figure out the right seeding date by counting backwards from the first succession harvest date. For example:
Let’s say you plant lettuce, and it will be followed by a succession of kale.
If the lettuce will be harvested on June 29, count back 4 weeks to June 8 to get your kale seeding date.
Seed the kale in trays on June 8 in order to have seedlings ready for transplanting after the lettuce harvest.
Follow Heavy Feeders with Light Feeders, and vice-versa
In the vegetable world there are crops known as “heavy-feeders” and “light-feeders,” and crops that feed the soil.
Heavy feeders include crops in the brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale), along with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, squash and pumpkins. These crops take a lot of nutrients out of the soil in order to grow.
Light feeders include mustard greens, herbs, and root crops like carrots, parsnips, turnips and rutabaga, along with onions and leeks.
And then there are legumes, like peas and beans that actually put nitrogen back into the soil. You can grow legumes for harvest, or grow them as cover crops with the intention to build soil.
Because heavy-feeders take nutrients from the soil, it’s best to follow them with a legume or a light-feeder. Following them with another heavy-feeder may not leave enough nutrients for the second crop to grow well.
If there’s simply no other place to put a heavy-feeder, amend the soil with compost to ensure the second succession gets adequate nutrients, and then follow up with a cover crop. If you’re not sure what the soil needs, do a soil test.
Sow, Harvest, Repeat
Repeat the succession process as often as you can! We typically plan for 2-3 successions per bed when we’re rotating through different crop families.
Have you tried succession planting in your garden? What’s your favorite crop to grow all season long? Let me know in a comment below.