Welcome to the third lesson of Kitchen Garden School at Cornell Farm. Our cold and beautiful February inspired many of you to visit Cornell Farm with notebooks in hand, looking to see what cool-weather vegetables, fruit trees, and fruiting shrubs and vines are available at this time of year. But what you may not realize is that, in doing so, you have already begun to think about and implement practices related to the topic of this month's lesson: succession planting! As you follow along with us, our lead kitchen gardener, Cynthia DuVal, will be delving into the practices and principles of this time-honored approach to gardening to help us create productive, healthy gardens. So, without further ado, let's learn about succession planting!
As Cynthia explains in the video below, at its heart, succession planting is about making good use of the space in our gardens — and the window of time in which plants will grow — to maximize our harvest. It is an efficiency-minded approach to agriculture that is particularly useful to kitchen gardeners because we tend to operate on a smaller scale. If all you have to work with is a single raised bed, you can still plant it strategically to grow a greater variety of crops that come into harvest over a longer period of time, bringing a steady stream of fresh produce to your table. And the good news is, the principles and practices of succession planting can be implemented no matter what kind of gardener you are!
In succession planting, the garden is never "fully planted." Unlike a traditional summer garden, which can be planted in a single weekend and harvested at the end of the season, succession gardening is much more fluid. Cynthia likens succession planting to conducting an orchestra, with various crops coming into and out of play throughout the growing season like instruments popping into and out of a piece of music as the composition ebbs and flows over time. And in this metaphor, we the gardeners are the conductors, following a score. Keep in mind, though, that succession planting isn't an all-or-nothing approach: Your plan can be as simple or as complex as you like. The following are a few succession practices to consider in order to maximize your harvest, which can be used in various combinations.
- Staggered Planting: Planting the same crop at multiple intervals a few weeks apart is a classic succession technique. In the video above, Cynthia demonstrates this by sowing a succession of 'Golden Sweet' peas alongside starts of the same variety that are already in the ground. The few weeks' difference between planting times should translate to a longer sustained harvest of peas for us this year.
- Planting Variety: If planting one crop at various intervals seems daunting, you can take advantage of the genetic variation between different varieties of the same crop to extend your period of harvest, even when they're planted all at once. Tomatoes and peppers are great examples of crops with a wide range of "days to maturity." (As a rule of thumb, smaller-fruited varieties tend to mature earlier than larger-fruited ones. And indeterminate tomatoes produce for a longer period than determinate varieties.) Similarly, many fruits like apples are categorized into early-, mid-, and late-season varieties. (You could plant one of each and pair them with a crabapple that can act as a pollinator to them all.) There are June-bearing and ever-bearing strawberries that, when grown together, will provide a bumper crop of strawberries in early summer that gives way to a more moderate harvest that continues through September.
- Interplanting: As we seek to make efficient use of space in our gardens, don't feel like you have to grow only one crop in a certain area at a time! Interplanting encompasses the practice many gardeners would recognize as "companion planting," and this is a great place to start, but feel free to experiment and try things out in your own garden! In our case, we've chosen to plant garlic in and among our strawberry patch, allowing the strawberries to act as a weed-suppressing groundcover among the garlic, making use of the space above- and below-ground.
- 3-D Thinking: Consider every dimension of your garden as usable space! For instance, you might plant a low-growing (and shade-tolerant) crop like lettuce among tall tomatoes. Or, use trellises to encourage cucumbers, squash, and melons to grow upwards rather than outwards along the ground, freeing up space to plant other crops.
- Blocking: Although interplanting is an excellent succession strategy, sometimes, it just makes sense to focus on one crop at a time in a given area. But after we harvest one crop, we can come back in and plant a succession of a different crop behind it. For instance, in our gardens, we plan to swap out a bed of cool-season crops like peas and beets for warm-season tomatoes and peppers.
- Season Extension: Time is precious, and although we enjoy a relatively long growing season here in USDA Zone 8, it's still a constraint for kitchen gardeners! To maximize the time of year you can grow plants, consider starting crops from seed indoors and using cloches, hoop tunnels, and more to start plants earlier with a bit of protection — or keep them growing further into the fall!
We encourage you to try out some – or all — of these practices in your kitchen gardens. Succession planting is about making a plan, and also trying things out. March is the perfect time to outline a succession gardening plan in your garden journal! And with a little love and care, your garden can yield enough produce for you, your family, and even your community!
Other Activities & Resources
Check out a few of the tasks you can undertake in the kitchen garden right now, along with "recommended reading."
- Read the third chapter of The Maritime Pacific Northwest Gardening Guide from Tilth Alliance (pages 32-37 in the second edition). In this chapter we continue to learn about what tasks to perform in the garden now, what to harvest and how important soil health is to the health of our gardens... and ourselves!
- This month, we encourage you to read the section on "Edible Perennials in the Food Garden" (pp. 55-83) from Plant, Grow, Harvest, Repeat by Meg McAndrews Cowden. This is a fascinating presentation of facts, best practices and life stories about the succession of fruits growing edible perennial plants in our gardens.
- It's not too late to start small-seeded crops indoors. Check out our in-depth blog post on starting seeds to make sure you have all the supplies, and be sure to shop for seeds now for the greatest selection.
- Because growing a kitchen garden can be nutrient-intensive, it's important for us to be good stewards of the soil by adding good inputs and implementing earth-friendly practices. Consider composting and cover-cropping between seasons to help add nutrients to the soil and feed the soil microorganisms that make these nutrients available for plants to "take up." We invite you to read more about regenerative agricultural practices to take care of our soil so that it takes care of us.
Part of a well-rounded garden plan to feed your family can include perennial edibles that will return year-after-year — many of which can go into the ground in March.
- Look for bare-root perennial edibles like asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries this time of year at the Farm.
- A fantastic selection of fruit trees, shrubs, and vines have started to arrive, as well, and these can go in the ground now. Look for apples, pears, persimmons, figs, blueberries, currants, raspberries, kiwis, pomegranates, and more.
As soon as the ground is workable, we can also plant vegetable starts of potatoes, peas, onions, garlic, and artichokes, as well as many leafy greens like lettuce, mustard, arugula, spinach, and kale. Frost-tolerant peas are a favorite of ours for early planting. Ours survived the late-February snow we experienced this year, so we promise they're tough plants! With that said, they would likely benefit from protection if we experience another unseasonable dip in temperatures, so keep an eye to the forecast!
Meet With Us in Person
Mark your calendars, because our next Kitchen Garden School Q&A Discussion is scheduled for Sunday, March 12, 2023 from 3:30 pm - 4:30 pm. Our lead kitchen gardener, Cynthia, will be leading the discussion related to this month's lesson in the Cafe Pavilion just behind the yellow Farmhouse. Feel free to drop in to meet fellow kitchen gardeners and get your questions answered.
Plus, be sure to get future updates on in-person meetings through our Facebook Event. We can't wait to see you!
Have Other Questions?
You can reach out to Cynthia and our Kitchen Garden team directly at email@example.com.