Succession Planting Part II: Winning the Mental Mindset Game
At Seed to Fork, we are perpetual students of the garden. Our annual gardening traditions include trying at least one new vegetable or flower variety, pushing our growing season to the limit with at least one of our crops, and doing our best to take note and document the results. Our curiosity for what is possible runs too deep for complacency, and our growing season too short to laze around and simply enjoy tomatoes in late July. Every year, every turning season is an invitation for us to improve upon and reinvent what is possible here in our brisk and chilly northern climate.
Picture it. You’re sitting on your deck about to consume your delicately arranged caprese salad, the epitome of a summer harvest. It’s middle or late July, and the height of the summer garden: the zucchinis and cucumbers are producing; the basil and tomatoes are starting to gracing your plate at least a few times a week; your leafy greens have bolted what feels like a lifetime ago, and some remain, flowering, in your raised beds. You’ve succeeded at another successful gardening season and now you simply reap what you sowed.
But if you’re me, you’ve already started all your fall brassicas in pots or soil blocks (your third brassica planting of the year), you’ve sowed one of several fall carrot and beet successions, and are currently considering when to sow your fall peas, first radish planting, spinach, rutabaga, and turnips, eyeing the longterm forecast, weighing the odds of a cool vs. hot August.
This post speaks to gardeners who love to grow a wide variety of produce and have a curiosity for how to extend their harvests and maximize the potential of their microclimates.
The Mental Game
The key to successional planting is to maintain a planting mindset all season long. Instead of the self-congratulatory “I’ve put in my garden”, as the saying goes here in Minnesota, once the corn, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, green beans, and potatoes are planted, look around every few weeks at your space, think about what is in season currently and how much longer it will produce. In other words, find spaces that will open up well before cold weather returns.
Along that same vein, you have to embrace the mindset of truly never being done. This is irrefutably the biggest challenge for most home gardeners and is paramount to succession planting success. I do enjoy and require a sense of pride and accomplishment, and thankfully that comes with sowings and plantings completed and harvests reaped. With succession planting, you are rewarded with waves of satisfaction across a longer span of time; you will marvel at and celebrate your successes - and study your failures - while feeding yourself for longer periods than formerly possible.
Curiosity is an understated key ingredient to success. How early is too early to transplant your kale or pok choy? Can you overwinter bunching onions with heavy mulch and row cover? Could you get one more row of storage carrots sowed and will they mature before the soil freezes solid? How long does your kale remain harvestable into autumn if you put row cover on it starting in October? What is the latest you could sow onions for a late summer/early fall harvest? You will never know the answers to these and your own garden curiosities unless you experiment with your own microclimate.
I know first-hand how real garden fatigue is, even for the most seasoned gardeners. Yet, the precise moment when succession planting wins is when you think you’re done, when you tell yourself everything is planted, when the harvest begins. This is when you renew your investment in your food production and successfully extend your harvests well into fall.
Use whatever resource works best to succeed -- set a calendar reminder, put sticky notes on your fridge, use what's most effective at motivating you to dig out the packet of carrots or lettuce or radishes in the mid- to late-summer when you'd rather be sipping your favorite summer beverage. Your autumnal self will be eternally grateful.
Interplanting is your friend in small spaces and an important aspect to successional planting. Interplanted crops are suitable because they mature faster or are somewhat shade tolerant and can handle being in the understory of your garden. I find interplanting most effective with very early and later season successions and less valuable during the main season. Here are some interplanting strategies we implement annually:
- Plant lettuce and kale or other shade tolerant veggies inside your green bean teepee or on the north side of the trellis.
- Between your early spring pea rows, interplant quick crops like radishes and spinach.
- In your broccoli or other brassica planting, sow rows of leaf lettuce and radishes which will handily mature before your broccoli starts heading.
This is a great way to maximize your growing space. There is a limit to this method, however, as all vegetables prefer high light conditions. So don't plant your broccoli plants 12" apart and expect heads of lettuce to flourish between that space. Space your broccoli, cabbage, or cauliflower 18-24” apart and then interplant the crops mentioned above between them. The interplanted crops will mature before getting shaded out by the slow-to-mature broccoli forest.
Remember your harvests will only be a good as your spacing strategy, so interplant, don't overplant.
Tried and True
My favorite and simplest way to plant for successional harvests is to buy seeds and grow our favorites that mature over the course of a longer period of time. For example, we grow two types of brussels sprouts — one matures early and one later, so we harvest sprouts for over a month straight in the fall. We do the same for cabbages — we grow two types of red and five types of green. We plant them at the same time in spring and the harvest will run for 6 weeks instead of 2. We also repeat this process multiple times between spring and fall as noted in previous posts, resulting in a steady stream of food production during our short frost-free months.
I bet almost all of you already succession plant. Do you grow tomatoes? How many varieties? Tomatoes are the pillar of almost all summer gardens, and we all tend to grow a handful (or more!) of different varieties, all with varying maturities. This is possible for innumerable other crops as well. So extend that concept to all of your favorite veggies and you will very easily have a longer, more abundant harvest season.
Forging a New Path
Jumpstart your own successional plans by pondering these questions:
- What is your climate?
- How long is your growing season? (Frost free days can be found here
- Do you plant a spring garden? How about a fall garden?
- How much diversity does your garden have throughout the seasons? List the types of veggies you grow.
- How could you increase that diversity?
- What foods do you love to grow and what are your non-negotiable crops?
- How many varieties of your favorite crops do you grow and what are their days to maturity?
- Can you extend your harvest by trying new varieties with longer or shorter maturity times?
- Whose expertise are you following for your planting schedule and how does their climate compare to yours?
So when it’s the middle of summer and the backyard harvests overflow as they inevitably do, showering you with more tomatoes and zucchini than you can actually consume, I invite you to keep a watchful eye on your garden space. Even just setting the goal to observe your garden with more intention this year is a great place to begin. What feels feasible to you is the only path to follow.
My final piece of encouragement is to push your hardiness zone to its limits. I guarantee you will be surprised and delighted by what grows well at the extremes of your seasons, and you will find sweet spots during the year for your go-to veggies, expanding your food production beyond what you thought was possible. I will dive into this topic in more detail in my next post, inspiring you to defy your zone limitations as we have managed to do here in zone 4b.