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 (in Excel format) and modify it for your garden as appropriate.
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).
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?
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
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.
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.
What are your best tips for succession planting and year-round growing? How do you maximize both space and time in your garden?