This time of year, it’s easy to get carried away. Temperatures are increasing, daylight hours are stretching out, and seeds germinate at the least provocation.
The temptation is to sow thickly, sow lots, and do it all in one fell swoop to make sure there are dozens or even hundreds of seedlings all growing up, making the greenhouse and the garden look lush and productive. Don’t do it! It’s a sure path to feast-or-famine: an overwhelming glut followed by a long, anxious wait while more seeds are sown and coaxed to maturity.
A little-and-often approach is best for fast-growing vegetables such as lettuce, radishes and beetroot. How much to sow of any one crop depends on how many people in your family like it, and how often you expect to eat it. If you know you’ll easily get through two heads of lettuces per week, sow three, just in case. And then plan do the same a week later. And a week after that, and so on.
This is relay planting, when each generation passes the baton seamlessly on to the next without a gap and without a surfeit of vegetables that end up past their prime. It also helps mitigate the problem of bolting (going to seed), which can often happen with cool-season vegetables as summer hots up.
Using Varieties to Extend Your Harvests
Variety is not just the spice of life – it’s also an essential ingredient in a productive vegetable garden. As well as all the sexy differences between varieties of the same vegetable like eye-catching colours or unusual leaf shapes, take note of the more practical details such as how quickly it is expected to reach harvest time and how frost tolerant it is.
By choosing a range of early, mid season and late varieties, you can spread the harvests over a longer period. If your seed packet suggests the expected days to maturity, even better – but remember that it’s just a guide, and your soil, microclimate and weather conditions will all impact on growth rates.
Growing a spread of varieties that mature at different times means you can achieve staggered harvests from seeds sown all at the same time. Having said that, it’s wise to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket – germination issues, pests and other reasons for crop failure can sometimes be avoided by having crops of different ages growing.
In early spring and late autumn, cold-hardy varieties paired with cold frames or cloches to protect plants from the elements will extend your growing season even further.
Grow a Catch Crop
Sometimes there is an unavoidable gap between two long-lived crops. For instance, overwintering brassicas are usually harvested by mid-spring, a month or two before summer staples such as tomatoes are ready to go in. This is the perfect opportunity to grow a ‘catch crop’ – a short-lived vegetable that will grow to harvesting size at breakneck speed, and be pulled and enjoyed in the nick of time before other crops need the soil space.
Plants that are good for relay planting and which can be harvested early as ‘baby vegetables’ are perfect for growing as a catch crop – think speedy summer radishes, carrots and beetroot. You can even use intercropping principles to sow into gaps in rows of crops that are currently growing to gain a head start. For instance, sow fast-growing vegetables a few weeks before an overwintered crop is harvested in spring, and the catch crop will be ready to grow into the vacated space just at the right time.
Sometimes you can replant without replenishing the nutrients in the soil, but before and after planting hungry crops like tomatoes and cabbages it’s worth adding an inch or two of compost to the soil surface.
Succeed With Succession Planting
All of the above are forms of succession planting, which keeps the same piece of ground productive for as much of the year as possible. Steely determination and a watchful eye is needed for successful succession planting, because you must always be ready to pull out plants that are just past their best to make way for fresh new seeds and seedlings. There’s no room for sentimentality in succession planting!
Sow and plant until you can sow and plant no more. Late spring and early summer can be a lean time in the garden, so it’s important to plan carefully to fill this ‘hungry gap’ with overwintered veg (grown indoors or out) such as spring cabbage, kale, hardy salad leaves, Swiss chard, mange tout and broad beans. In many areas onions, garlic and shallots can also be planted in autumn to overwinter for next summer’s harvest.
Exact timing of your plantings will vary depending on where you live. Our Garden Planner can recommend sowing, planting and harvesting times based on your garden’s location, and you can use the Custom Filter button to the left of the plant selection bar to discover which plants can be sown, planted or harvested during a particular month in your area.
There is one extra trick to becoming a master of succession planting, and that’s using a nursery bed, pots or module trays to start seeds in advance. That means you will have sturdy, well-grown seedlings ready to slot in as soon as there is space, whether due to harvesting or a crop failure, without wasting time starting anew from seed. Not everything will grow well this way – carrots and peas, for instance, do not transplant well – but for most crops, forward planning like this is a real time-saver.
Make it a garden rule: any time you lift a plant, plant a plant! Planning for succession and taking advantage of any available garden space will multiply the rewards of growing your own vegetables.