Monday, 9 March 2009

Planning for Intercropping and Succession Planting

by Marc @ GardenDesk

Winter is slowly giving up its grip here, which means the vegetable garden is right around the corner. I have some seedlings growing under lights inside like in one of my previous posts, but except for garlic, potato onions and horseradish, the outdoor garden is pretty empty. Now is the best time to plan what vegetables will go where and to decide how many more raised beds will be added this year.

You may remember from one of my other posts that we grow all of our vegetables in wood framed raised beds. Each year, we build a few more beds. I have the space and extra wood to make many more this year, but I am limited in the amount of good soil to fill them with. Our garden is powered mainly by compost so we don't want to over-build. If you don't have a compost pile, I have to pause here to tell you that you need one! Not only is it a great way to responsibly recycle plant and yard waste, but it is key to growing organically. If you want to know more about composting, see the composting post written here on the co-op by Compostwoman. It is possibly the best post ever written anywhere about composting and how to compost.

I make as much compost as possible, but I don't have quite as many bins as CompostWoman. So to maximize the effects of my limited compost, I always want to get maximum harvest out of each raised bed. A great way to to get more vegetables out of a small garden is by intercropping and succession planting, and by planning this in advance.

Intercropping, or Interplanting is the practice of growing different kinds of vegetables together. Typically they have different growth patterns and therefore don't compete with one another. One example of this in my garden is that I plant lettuce and tomatoes together in the same bed. Tomatoes are planted 2 feet or more apart because they need two feet of space when they are mature. At time of transplant however, they only need about six inches of space. If I only planted tomatoes in that bed, there would be a lot of unused space for at least six weeks. By planting salad crops in that space I get maximum harvest from that space. The lettuce is harvested before the tomato plants require the space. I do the same thing with tomatoes and onions.

Succession planting is similar in that when you harvest something, you immediately plant something else in that spot. It can be the same thing or a different vegetable. In one bed, I plant Spring broccoli followed by Summer green beans followed again by Fall Brassicas. I also use beans in succession planting with lettuce and spinach. In my lettuce/tomato Intercropping example you don't succession plant after the lettuce because the tomatoes will be ready to use that space by then. This is the fundamental difference between Interplanting and Succession planting.

Sometimes I use a combination of both techniques as I do in my pea beds. In early spring I plant peas on a trellis and lettuce in the front. In one bed, I harvest some of the lettuce and plant bush cucumbers in their place. Later I harvest the rest of the lettuce allowing more room for the cucumbers (intercropping). I also plant vining cukes by the trellis after the peas are harvested (succession planting).

In the other pea bed, I also plant lettuce in front. I harvest the leaves over and over for my salads and they keep growing back. Eventually when the hot weather decides to stick around and the lettuce gets bitter, I remove all of the plants to the compost pile and plant bush bean seeds there. The peas remain on the trellis for several more weeks. The only caution here is that you have to chart where you put everything if you succession plant with seeds. You also have to remember to warn your kids friends not to step on the new bean seedlings while picking peas!

Perhaps the best example of using both techniques simultaneously is when the peas are still producing on the trellis and the pole beans are up but not yet using the trellis.

See the small bean plants tucked in amongst the peas? This way, I am able to harvest peas and beans in from the same trellis.


...followed by beans.

Intercropping and succession planting is fun but takes a bit of pre-planning. Sometimes it takes some experimenting too, if you are not sure exactly how long it takes each crop to grow. A very important tip for succession planting is to be sure to add a generous supply of compost or organic fertilizer between plantings to re-energize the soil. Growing many plants in the same space uses up a lot of nutrients. That is okay if you concentrate on feeding the soil instead of the plants. This isn't a problem because while the first crop is growing, I'm making more compost. The bottom line is that I'm always looking for ways to maximize the use of my compost as well as maximizing the amount of food that reaches the table. I can hardly wait to get started!

Keep Growing!



Kimberly said...

What are you using for the trellis? We're debating on what to get for our new garden area this year. I'm looking for suggestions, please!

littlem said...

Your beans are looking very healthy!

Chiot's Run said...

I'm hoping to do lots more of this during this gardening season. I tried it last year, but my broccoli grew too fast and shaded out my beets & carrots.

livinginalocalzone said...

I hope I can do this and keep the schedule straight this year. Your post was really informative. I plant in raised beds too, and thinking about how to rotate the plants is another thing I am trying to factor in. One question: are there some veg that shouldn't be inter/succession planted? That is, are there some that the soil shouldn't be "reused" for right away either for pH reasons, nutrients, etc?

Billie said...

This is a great idea I never thought of. All I have for planting is a balcony. Intercropping and succession planting seems like it would make the most use of the EXTREMELY limited space that I have. How high do raised beds need to be. I am thinking about making a raised bed next year for the balcony rather than using container pots. Next year is also the year I intend on trying worm composting so I could amend the soil at some point.

Chookie said...

I'm a permaculturist in the vegie patch, or lazy intercropper -- I always mix things up! I was wondering if you ever make up the bed frame and compost straight into it, ie, sheet-compost?

My big bugbear is failing to record what I do when and where, and blogging hasn't helped as much as I thought it might!

Comments to other commenters: Kimberley, don't get plastic netting for vine crops. It bends. Either reuse something or buy cheap wire netting.

Livinginalocalzone: corn is a gross feeder and you need to add lots of manure after it. I avoid planting families in the same spot, as they tend to share diseases and use the same nutrients.

Anonymous said...

this was perfect timing for me! Thanks for the helpful post, I have now found a friend for all that exposed soil around my tomatoes.

MinnesotaNice said...

Good question, lvinginalocalzone. While some plants are rather whorish and share their bed readily (lettuce, spinach and radishes, for example), others are a bit more particular. Potatoes are poor bedfellows for squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, melons and tomatoes (a blighty incestuous combination!). Beans and peas are put off by onions and beets. Brassicas detest strawberries, runner beans and dill. And nearly everything shuns fennel.

I include herbs here because they’re oftentimes good companions, enhancing performance and flavour or deterring unwanted pests in the bed. For example, basil brings out the best in tomatoes; asparagus is mated perfectly with parsley; and chives keep carrot flies confused. If you’re not keen on giving up bed space to plant herb partners, consider growing them in pots and plopping them in any plant gaps. This works particularly well with perennial or invasive herbs like sage and mint (both deter cabbage moth, by the way). When the herbs are finished helping your veg, you can simply bring the pots indoors for culinary purposes.

You can also include bedside bouquets: for example, potatoes cousin-up nicely with petunias and black fly prefer nasturtium to broad beans. And don’t forget marigolds, the workhorse of pest deterrents (although if you’re using nematodes to wrestle slugs, be sure to keep them as potted marigolds).

(For more information about companion planting, have a butcher’s at