Succession Planning 101

Gardeners get the most from their effort when they keep the plot in steady production through the growing season.

Gardeners get the most from their effort when they keep the plot in steady production through the growing season. The same is true for in-ground beds, outdoor containers, and AeroGardens. Succession planting ensures that something is always growing, and there's always something ready to harvest. To make this work, you need a plan.

There are two distinct ideas of succession crops, and they happen to be compatible with one another. The first is when an earlier crop, once harvested, is followed up by a later crop on the same ground. The second is when a garden plot is divided into segments for successive small plantings of the same thing. In the first instance one replaces another. In the second, the later plantings often grow simultaneously, but at different stages of development.

Succession planning helps you think through what and how much you will grow, where in the garden it will grow, how long it will grow, and what comes next. It takes a little time to set up, but a well thought out succession planting plan makes the garden more productive and ensures a steady supply of fresh produce. Here's how it's done.

Planning for Garden Succession

Photo CreditL: USDA

Before putting pencil to paper, you’ll need the information to work with, starting with your local climate. Look up the average last spring frost date and first fall frost date for your zip code and record them. Then count the number of days between the average last and first frosts, and write that down. You now know the earliest date for planting, when you should harvest the last of your produce, and the length of your growing season. Now, what can you grow?

Know Your Crops

Create a list of all the veggies and herbs you’d like to grow. Each grows best within a certain temperature range. Some prefer the cool weather in early spring or fall. Others need hot summer weather. These temperature preferences affect the outdoor planting dates, as shown on seed packets, catalog descriptions, and plant labels.

Find out how long it takes each crop to grow from seed to harvest. The fastest growers mature in as little as a month, while some take up to four months or more. Also, note whether the crop yields a single harvest, like carrots, or a repeat harvest, like tomatoes or basil. The listed “days to harvest” for the repeat veggies is when the first fruits are ready to pick, not when the plants are finished.

Finally, note the amount of physical space each crop occupies. On the seed packet or plant label, look for spacing recommendations within the row, and how far the rows should be spaced from one another. For example, carrots spaced 4 inches (0.33 feet) apart within rows spaced 12 inches (1 foot) apart require 48 square inches (.33 square foot) per plant. You will discover useful context, like one corn plant uses the same amount of growing space as 12 carrots, nine onions, or six heads of lettuce.

Understand your Garden Goals

As veggies grow beyond their ideal age in the garden, flavor, and texture are the first things to decline. No one wants to eat coarse, woody carrots or bitter lettuce. Avoid planting so much that you can’t eat it up within a week or so after it reaches peak quality. One goal of succession planting is to have enough, but not too much, by sowing seeds in small batches every two or three weeks throughout the growing season.

If you’re really into storing up the harvest, concentrated high yields of individual crops make sense because they allow you to can, freeze, or dehydrate in large batches. Even so, if everything ripens at once, it’s chaotic. Making large quantities of jam, pickles, tomato sauce, and canned beans within the same week is nearly impossible. Use what you know about each crop’s days to harvest to plant with convenient harvest dates in mind.