How To Make Succession Planting and Year-Round Gardening Really Work

The problem with year-round garden planning is that you are being asked to work in 4D, when most of us are accustomed to only planning things in 2D.

When planning your upcoming crops, you have to think about the spacing of the plants (width and depth, the simple 2D dimensions of a paper world) and you have to consider the third dimension, height, so you don’t shade things out. A little thoughtfulness as to expected mature height of plants and the basic instruction: “taller stuff to the north” usually clarifies that third dimension.

On top of all this you have to think forward in time (the fourth dimension) in order to get a picture of how your garden will evolve.

It’s this fourth dimension that is so complicated and so likely to trip us up. Often referred to as succession planting, gardening in 4D requires a decent sense of the rhythm of many crops, something that usually only comes with some experience. True year-round garden planning requires thinking at least 8 to 9 months ahead, and often many more. And on top of that, just when you think you have “the plan” figured out, variables like oh, weather, can screw with your vision of succession planting perfection.

But that doesn’t mean newer gardeners can’t or shouldn’t have a go at year-round planning. It’s basically a project management exercise that requires asking pretty basic questions: how long will it take a crop to mature? When one crop comes out, what follows it? From a soil quality stand point, is this succession ok?

If you are new to succession planting and year-round gardening, you might want some specific examples of successful techniques. So, this post is about how 4D garden planning works in my garden. I grow all year-round, use season extension techniques including plastic cloching, and try to maximize harvestable crop and minimize the time soil is unintentionally fallow.

These timing and succession patterns have worked for me, in my garden in Zone 7B/8 in the Seattle area. (So no one in Grant Falls, Minnesota comment telling me how useless this is for them in Zone 3, ok?) As with everything in gardening, you will need to find the optimal time for planting and whatnot for your own yard.

Occupy This Ground!

Rather than thinking crop by crop, think in terms of “Crop Windows.” There are four basic windows of time in year-round garden planning. These are the time periods, from seed to harvest, in which a certain crop will “own” a certain plot of land. They are:

  • Spring Crop: Planted in Early Spring, occupies ground from Feb/March/April to July.
  • Summer Crop: Planted in Late Spring, occupies ground from April/May/early-June to October.
  • Fall Crop: Planted in Mid-to-Late Summer, occupies ground from June/July/Aug to October/November or later
  • Very Late Crop: Planted in Early Fall, occupies ground September – whenever (highly variable by crop), most are overwintering.

To grow year-round, you have to figure out what occupies ground during which time window. I’ve done this for my garden here. Feel free to download this Succession Planning Spreadsheet from the Downloadables page and modify it for your garden as appropriate.

Garden Succession Planting

You can see how crops clump into the different planting windows, and those windows follow a stair-step pattern, with overlaps – sometimes significant ones – across planting windows.

As you can see, the Spring Crops are only a month or two old – and things grow slow that early in the year – and are really just starting to get growing when it’s time to put the Summer Crops in. Spring Crops and Summer Crops compete in the fourth dimension, time.

The Summer Crops, meanwhile, haven’t even started paying off when the earliest Fall Crops need to get seeded. They too compete in 4D.

There is even some overlap between the Spring and Fall garden! But this overlap is smaller – instead of four or five months of 4D overlap, we’re looking at maybe 6-8 weeks. The Summer Garden and the Very Late Garden are the same way – some overlap, but not so much that we can’t start finessing things.

When we bring the Spring and Fall Gardens and the Summer and Very Late Gardens together, it’s easy to see the 4D overlap. This chart shows the Spring to Fall 4D overlap and the Summer to Very Late 4D overlap. (This chart is also part of the free Succession Planning Download available on the Downloadables page.) Don’t try to read these left to right, I’m not suggesting any particular combos yet. Just look at which Fall Crops are the possible 4D inheritors of the Spring Crops’ soil (3D space).

Garden Succession Planting

How To Minimize the Overlap

Okay, you’ve got a 4D overlap. Time to think finesse. How can you get two crops to occupy the same ground at the same time?

Work With Transplants

Sowing from seed into a pot instead of directly can make up for 6 weeks of “overlap” on some crops. Check out June. Unlike many Seattle area gardeners, I advise starting your very longest-season cole crops (brussels, cabbage, etc.) in mid-June. Standard advice seems to be mid-July to August, which inevitably results in cabbage and broccoli that never gets large enough to head properly if you live in the mid/upper Puget Sound region like I do….the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon can probably can do a Last Call for Brassicas in August, but we North Pac NW gardeners can’t, in my experience.

If you have garden bed space available in mid-June, by all means direct seed. I never do. So, I start all those things in decent size pots, which gives my Spring Crops another 6 weeks to produce while the Fall Crop transplants are growing in their little isolations pods.

By the end of July, the Spring Crops are getting tired anyway, and the swap from spring peas to fall cabbage is now not only 4D possible,it’s pretty much ideal.

Pair Fast with Slow Crops and Slow with Fast

Another thing to look at is timing within the Window. Within the Spring and Fall , some crops will naturally take longer and some will produce faster. Greens are fast producers, so I’d follow them with earlier Fall plantings of the crops that take the longest, like leeks and parsnips.

Roots take longer, so I’d follow root crops like carrots or beets with faster maturing fall crops. Ideally, after root crops, that part of the garden would get planted in a legumeous cover crop like clover or field peas to refresh the soil, but if that’s not happening I go for a fast maturing green like spinach or arugula and plan on side dressing or fertigating with a high nitrogen, fast acting fertilizer like blood meal or fish emulsion to keep the greens happy.

Later on in the year, around late-September/October when the Summer Crops have done their thing and are succumbing to all kinds of weakening fungi and powdery leaf junk with the onset of cool, rainy weather, I look for openings again. Because I have far more beds in Summer Crops than I can plant in Very Late Crops, not many holes get plugged. But one succession is a classic: tomatoes go out and garlic goes in to take its place. Happens nearly every year.

Undercropping and Intercropping

I will also seed very late greens directly under the summer crops they will be succeeding. Things like summer squash have ropey, spread-out roots that rot quickly back into the soil, so I’ll just trim up the squash leaves a bit and underplant them with some spinach or mache.

A few weeks later, when the squash is done, I’ll cut away the rest of the squash and a bunch of little greens will be finding their way in the world. As long as I remember to cut the summer crop out of the ground instead of pulling it out, the Very Late Crops stay fairly undisturbed. This works best for shade tolerant cut-and-come-again type baby greens.

Any plant that is tall and skinny is a candidate for intercropping. I always throw a little leafy something around leeks and parsnips once they are established. The shallow rooted, low growing greens don’t compete too much for light or nutrients. Radishes can get sown anywhere you have a few square inches that isn’t needed for a month. In fact, casually like this is the only way I grow radishes, because who really needs a bed of them at once?

Overwintering

I like to play around with overwintering crops at the Summer to Very Late transition point. You can sow carrots or lettuce or even cabbage in late September, and if the winter weather gods play nice, you might end up with a lovely crop in March or April, long before any Spring sown crops would have produced.

One year I did this with carrots, but totally forgot that I’d sown them until I was preparing a bed for spring planting the next year. I noticed a sad little 4” tall carrot top and thought, “Oh, man, I guess that didn’t work!” until I pulled the carrot up to find a full size, sweet and crunchy root attached! This is actually the easiest way for me to get maggot free carrots because an overwintered crop just sidesteps the hatch-out patterns of the carrot rust fly completely.

Season Extension and Solarization

A plastic or spun-fabric cloche, or, if you are lucky, a greenhouse, can add a month or more to your natural growing season on each end – you can start earlier and push further into winter. Many crops that are cold tolerant thrive more when given the protection of cover and many heat lovers in this area will downright sulk until you raise the air and soil temperature around them by 5 or 10 degrees.

I’ve found season extension does not actually allow me to fit more planting in, however. It just gives the plants from these same plantings more time to mature. For example, tomatoes can be planted out fairly reliably in the Puget Sound region sometime in May, but with cloching I can push that back to April. This means another month to 6 weeks of fruit maturation time before October weather gets too damp and cold for the tomatoes. That can be a huge difference.

With the heat-lovers, another technique I like to allow for earlier seeding or transplanting is called solarization. By covering the soil snuggly with clear plastic sheeting (you can also use black plastic, which has the advantage of weed control but does not warm the soil as well) several weeks to a month before you plan on seeding, you can warm the top several inches of soil considerably, by 10 or even 20 degrees, if we get a spate of clear days in Spring. This technique is used to give a longer maturation period for the Summer Crops. It shouldn’t be used for cool season crops, which get pissed off if their roots get too hot.

Putting it All Together

Step One

Decide which Garden Window is your is your primary focus (Spring, Summer or Fall) in terms of square feet allocated. For most gardeners, this will be the Summer Garden, but I prefer to focus on the Fall Garden, as those crops are the backbone of what we eat fresh for over half the year.

Decide how much space your primary garden focus is going to get. I tend to plan in terms of beds and half beds, but you can plan in square feet, square meters, or whatever 2D metric makes sense to you. Let’s say I want to dedicate 11 of my 17 raised beds to Fall Crops – that’s about 65% of my growing area. Because my Spring Crops will occupy those same beds, that allocation of time is now spoken for, too. That leaves me 6 raised beds for all my Summer Crops – tomatoes, squash, etc. – and my Very Late Crops.

People who are dedicated preservers or who aren’t as interested in fall and winter gardening might allocate 80% of their garden to Summer Crops. That’s fine, too. The point is, know at the beginning of the year how much 2D Space each 4D Planting Window will occupy. That way you aren’t caught out with no place to put your kohlrabi in July.

Step Two

Think about how much you can really grow in the space you’ve allocated. Plan away, mentally fill your dedicated space up, have fun! But if you have allocated 80% of your bed space to Summer Crops, do not also plan to plant 50% of your garden in Spring Crops and think you can squeeze it in somehow. Or it you do, don’t blame me when you start wondering if you could roll your washing machine outside for a few months and - temporarily  of course – convert it into a planter for tomatoes.

Work with the Overlap Zones to find natural successions that make sense for your garden and crop preferences. I don’t go too crazy trying to find the “perfect” crop rotation, but if I can I follow the simple guideline: Legume -> Leaf -> Fruit -> Root, and I do try (occationally unsuccessfully) to avoid a brassica upon brassica or allium on allium situation.

If you live in the Pacific NW too, you might want to start by just printing out the Planting Overlap Spreadsheet and drawing lines between things that seem like they’d play well in the fourth gardening dimension.

Common successions in my yard include:

Spring to Fall

  • Peas to Cabbage or other fall Brassicas
  • Lettuce or Early Greens to Parsnips
  • Spinach to Leeks
  • Early Potatoes to Fall Sown Peas or Favas

Summer to Very Late

  • Tomatoes to Garlic
  • Summer Squash to Mache (just fun to say) or other low-temperature, low-light Greens
  • Eggplant or Pepper to Radishes
  • Beans to overwintering carrots.

Step Three: Stay Flexible

No matter how excellent your planning is, there will be something that doesn’t go the way you’d choose. Crops will take longer to mature or late frosts will kill things off. This happens. Try not to let it derail you too much.

Something that can really help mitigate the feeling of “wasted garden space” when your plan can’t be followed as closely as you might like is to keep a few extra transplants in the wings during peak planting seasons. Then, any extra open space can be converted within minutes to a growing space.

If you don’t start your own transplants, keep a packet of mesclun mix, mustard greens, Asian greens or radishes on hand just to fill in the gaps. These crops generally germinate and mature super fast and can be squeezed in around the other crops.  I’m always sprinkling seeds here and there. Half the time they might not come to a full harvest, but if I spend a few cents worth of seeds and get a good salad from it, that’s worth it.

Shameless Plug

I sell a comprehensive, downloadable Garden Planner and Journal designed to help gardeners keep high-quality records of their garden and maximize production. I think it’s a pretty great tool. If you want, you can find more info about the Journal here.

If you love, love, love gardening spreadsheets and related geekery, make sure you download my free, ginormo Year Round Planting Guide from the Downloadables Page. It has a ton of info about garden timing and planting, all crammed into one Excel spreadsheet.

What are your best tips for succession planting and year-round growing? How do you maximize both space and time in your garden?

Comments

  1. Erica – this is an incredible post! And so helpful! I think it deserves a few more exclamation points!!!!

    Thank you so much for putting this together. I can only imagine the effort going into this article and you are just putting it out there for the rest of us to learn and prosper from. I have been gardening for 6 years now and I currently have about 1,000SF of garden space and the thing I struggle with the MOST is succession planting. It never matches up to what I planned and I just feel frustrated and annoyed. I will keep trying, and learning, and using your wonderful tips and tools this year as well.

    Thanks again!
    Morgan

    • Thank you so much, Morgan. It was quite involved to put this all together on paper. I’m glad you find it helpful – I hope it helps you find the right succession planning rhythms for your garden. Thanks for your comment. :) I’m a bit afraid the comprehensiveness of this post (i.e., length!) scared some readers off. :) Happy Gardening!

  2. Personally, I don’t do succession planting….don’t want to get my hopes up and be disappointed, I guess. What I do however is to plant up as much as possible. Any vining plants I grow I tend to have them use my fence or sunflowers or corn for support and because my sunnies are so huge they can withstand the weight of squash or my sugar pumpkins. I love the way you write and break things down, by the way! It’s a fun and interesting read. Btw, I live in Minnesota and already have itching fingers to start my seedlings! It’s something else to look forward to since it’s -14° these past few days.

  3. Great post! I always think to myself (in January!) I will do succession planting this year, and each year I seem to neglect the planning part of this. This post and your how to’s will be the motivation I need to be “successful” this year!! ;)

  4. Oh my goodness! It’s like you’ve been reading my mind the past month or so. I live in the Bay Area and am still getting tomatoes when I need to be planting fall or winter crops. I wish I just had more space than I do it would be easier (though I might then just plant even more tomatoes). This post is perfect and so helpful!! Thank you.

  5. I love how you combine spreadsheets and gardening! This has given me lots to think about. My biggest problem this year was waiting for the winter crops to finish so I could start planting spring crops, so I can see that some forward planning would definitely help!

  6. This is awesome. I had to take a minute to suck it all in. I’ll be setting this page aside for reference later. Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is a GREAT graduate-level overview of succession planting! Thank you! I’ll need to tweak a little for my growing zone, but this is nice. Like most gardeners, I am irked by empty soil. :)

    I just wrote a similar post, but it’s the crazy-simple version. If anyone’s looking for the “intro” version of succession planting, you might like http://eatclosetohome.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/very-simple-succession-planting-for-zone-5b-6/

  8. Thanks so much for this. I always have good intentions with my plantings but I seem to get the timing off and then I loose interest in starting seeds part way through the year. I especially like the simple breakdown of what to plant first and then what to put in next. That will definitely help with me seed starting. Hopefully this post combined with your Garden Planner will keep me a bit more organized this year.

  9. Case Hanley says:

    Hi Erica, love your blog! Question about sowing: I am on a very, very strict budget for my garden and I can’t afford to buy growing lights and all that to start seedlings indoors. I am in the Bay Area and it won’t freeze overnight (Feb highs around 60, March mid 60′s, and April low 70′s). Can I start everything in my beds (including peppers, tomatoes, etc). I really want to do this on my own and not buy starters. That said, I don’t want my seedlings to never “start.” What do you think?! Thanks in advance for any advice!

    • OK, a late response so I don’t know if this will be seen, but my suggestion for the heat lovers would be to start them in containers and germinate them in some warm location, like near a heat vent or on top of a fridge. When they break the surface of the soil, start leaving them outside only during the day, in a sunny spot on the south side of a building ideally for some nice radiant heat. Bring them in at night so they don’t experience temps below about 50. With temps in the 60s during the day tomatoes should be fine, peppers and eggplant might need to wait until these glorious 70-degree Aprils you mention. ;-) You could direct seed a few at the same time for comparison, maybe your night temps are not cold enough to stunt them too much.

      • That’s what I do with some of my sensitive stuff and it’s nice and cheap. Adding plastic to your beds/pots overnight helps too , either sheets of it over the whole bed or clear plastic juice bottles over individual plants.

        I use the plastic that went over our mattresses when we moved, any decent sized sheet works – might not look fantastic but it’s only temporary

  10. I’m with Morgan, Erica, many exclamation points. My biggest problem with succession planting is 3D vs. 4D. That is, I have limited places to put tall crops (peas) so I tend not to have the right space available when I want to plant the next round (beans). Your article has given me some thoughts about that, though, very helpful, not too long at all.

  11. Hi, new reader here, I’ve enjoyed reading many of your old posts.

    My biggest challenge with year round gardening is gardener burnout. Yes, I CAN grow veggies year round here in SoCal, but sometimes I just want a break. The lucky Minnesotans get their nature-mandated hibernation period to pore over glossy seed catalogs, plan, dream and rest. By the time spring actually comes, they are raring to go. Sometimes I have to give myself a seasonal vacation and wait until I am excited about gardening again.

  12. Max Morgan says:

    The majority of my raised beds are 4′ x 4′. I get a 4 – 6 week “jump” on Fall and Winter greens by planting seeds and covering my beds with clear plastic Sterlite under bed storage boxes. They’re an improvement over individual plastic or glass cloches in that I can cover and entire bed with just two under-bed storage boxes (rather than with 16 – 24 individual cloches) which makes for quick watering and weeding. In addition, they’re relatively inexpensive ($15 – $18) and last several seasons. You can Google “under-bed storage units ” to see what I’m talking about. They’re available at KMart, Target, WalMart etc.

  13. Thank you! I’m still wrapping my brain around this, but the last 2 days and severe longing for Spring in Portland has my brain meandering working the garden again and when to plant what. I’m finally getting to my indoor Amaryllis which never blossomed… ever… and trying to force a dormancy so that I dont have floppy 3 foot leaves anymore. I am very proud of my indoor orange tree and limequat tree which I have been babying all winter and are putting on new growth. I found this winter that our local squirrels have planted a walnut tree in my gardenia containers so that has been growing all winter and is 3 feet tall, as well. I would love to be able to get out and get something planted in our small greenhouse in preperation for spring but the cold and rain keep me cooped up inside. I’m pregnant with my 8th kiddo- due in July (my eldest is 13) so I am really wondering how I am going to manage our garden this year. We also, unfortunately, have a blight curse being surrounded by ash trees. My roses suffer, my climatis suffers- everything seemingly suffers except my rosemary and Lavender. Did I mention the Moss is taking over all 2 acres of our property? Yes… I have my work cut out for me.

  14. You’re kind of a rock star.

  15. Here in the Interior I can only use some of these tips, but they are fan-effing-tastic. I could feel mildly embarassed about how much I am learning here after gardening for 40 years. But I am organizationally challenged, and you are gifted that way, so there. I will settle for just being grateful. Get that book out! Do you want your loyal public to lobby with publishers on your behalf?

  16. P.S. This post convinced me I could benefit from your garden planner. I just ordered it.

  17. Thank you so much for this post! Found it by accident, but it’s just what I needed. I’m quite a young gardener, 19 year old girl and living in the city, and I just started renting some land (about 90m²) to start growing some food myself. So thanks a lot for writing this all out, I’m sure it will help me a lot this year!
    Greetings from the Netherlands

  18. Hi- this is a really useful post, thank you! I’m going to let my fellow ‘Mastergardeners’ in the UK know about it and mention it on my blog- if you’re interested I’ve posted an item on kitchen garden planning and rotation on my site http://www.audaxdesign.co.uk. Thanks again!

  19. Steve in Eugene says:

    Thanks to Erica for doing this post! I asked for such a thing and within days she posted this extravaganza. It is a complicated subject. I have created spreadsheets to manage what will occupy which bed and for what times. Did I say complicated? I’m off to start some lettuce.

  20. Thank you for the nice visual! I’ve been succession planning for a few years with varying degrees of commitment and consistency, but when I take the time to plan it out like this, I do get results. Also, I keep a full-size paper calendar hanging in my mudroom-turned-seed starting room. I add all of the dates to the calendar for what to plant/start and when. I like visuals!

  21. Oh, wow, I’m just echoing the other comments to say thank you for such a thorough post on year-round gardening – pinning it for sure! I do admit, though, like another commenter here, that my biggest problem isn’t planning – it’s the gardening burnout I feel every year around October – usually when I’m processing heaps of tomatoes – and I just want a break. :) Appreciate the “just throw some seeds here and there to see” aspect – speaks right to my lazy October gardening mindset!

  22. Putting it onto a spreadsheet is a brilliant idea. I’ve downloaded this plus the year round planting guide – customising it a bit helped me make sense of it, the months were throwing me off and once I’d done that it’s so easy to follow, I love the whole thing.

    I also got the Seed Database so now I have the list in front of me (turns out I have 18 unopened packets of seed, some of which I’ve had for more than 12 months…) and a lot more enthusiasm for getting on with it.

    I love the fact that not only is your blog interesting to read, with lots of good ideas and info, but you back it up with straightforward details and tools that make it easy to actually head outside and do things. I’ve been gardening or involved with growing and propagating plants for about 30 years through my own gardens and my parents nurseries before that (child labour is cheap if slow!) so I know how to do a lot of stuff really well, but the organisation side of things is… not my side. Planning is not my middle name. So I really appreciate it when someone else does the planning and makes it so easy for me to adapt.

  23. Wow… you’re a gardening genius! In Alaska I’ve always felt that we only have one season, but I guess I really could do at least 2 plantings if I planned well! Well, not in my pots on the deck this summer, but hopefully once we move to our 5 acre property. :)

  24. Definite high five! High ten! Awesome blog and gardening resource – thank you so much, Erica. I am the Community Garden coordinator for Master Gardeners in our county (Skagit, a wee bit north of you). It thrills me to see the interest in community gardens growing, but I am ever challenged to answer all of the questions asked of me. Your blog is such a great resource to point people to when they want to know how to plan a succession garden to maximize harvest. Since most of these community gardens grow produce for those in need, I am all for growing as much as a plot will put out in a year! Thank you for your effort – I purchased your Garden Planner and Journal and know it will help me provide the community with some excellent ideas on how to maximize yield for minimal cost. I won’t reprint without permission – but I will certainly point a lot of gardeners at your site. Thank you again for this beautiful effort – know your sharing will feed many hungry families in Skagit County.

  25. Thanks for putting this together. It helps to have a little theory intermixed in the chaos. :) And by that I mean, I typically just keep planting and keep starting seeds as I have time and space and then I often fail to do the most important part, harvesting! Regular harvesting is both weeding (if you eat the weeds like I do) and making way for later succession it seems. Thanks again.

  26. You’ve an excellent point about “Late night, unflattering photographs taken by your friends”! :D HAHAHA

  27. You are cracking me up! Haven’t even read the post yet! Didn’t I hear something about a certain blogger having some down-time from posting this week? You put a smile on my face. Will read the post later tonight after the wrapping is done. :)

  28. Serina leedy says:

    I read this last year, and now again as I’m laying out my garden plan. I get it (mostly ;) but I’m having a hard time also considering proper crop rotation… Do you usually follow the leaf, root, flower, fruit, method or do you have some other miracle going on? Some crops are easy to figure out what category they belong in, some don’t make sense to me. In addition, what if you don’t grow enough of a certain category to always have on your rotation? For example, it seems I have a lot of “fruit” crops. How on earth do I grow enough”flower” crops to go before all of my “fruit” crops, especially if I’m trying to plant more of things I actually use,.. I have a huge garden, but between planning for time, light and the still mysterious to me proper crop rotation, I’m having a hard time planning. My local nursery has a handout on crop rotation that just gave me a bigger headache. Or do I throw “proper” out the window and just try not to plant the same thing in the same place for a few years? Ackkkkkkkkk.

  29. This is brilliant! Unfortunately, I live in Toronto where the last frost is April 9. I wonder if you know of anyone who is writing about gardening and food but for my climate?

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  1. [...] 1% savings accounts. Even though it scares the shit out of me. I’ll continue to struggle with succession planting and having our own food outside of the prime growing season. I might get it right after the last two [...]

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