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Getting Your Timing Perfect For Succession Planting

Succession planting helps you efficiently use limited garden space, prolong your harvest, and spread out the workload. It’s an ideal harvest-extending method for crops, whether flowers or vegetables, that mature in short timeframes or produce one big flush and quit. 

What is Succession Planting?

Succession planting can mean different ideas to gardeners. Usually, it refers to the practice of planting the same crop multiple times, separated by a couple of weeks. Succession planting lettuce could look like planting a new short row every ten days, so there are always some new plants ready for harvest. The desired result is that a new cohort of the crop will be coming into maturity and be ready for harvest every week or two throughout the growing season.

While succession planting commonly references several plantings separated by time, it can also refer to planting several varieties of the same crop with different maturity dates, for example, planting early, mid-, and late-season sweet corn crops. By the time you've finished eating one, the next is ready.

Gardeners also consider planting early-season cool-weather crops like beets and peas, followed by hot-weather summer crops like tomatoes, and then a third planting of cool-weather crops again in the fall as succession planting. All these crops occupy the same space in the garden but take advantage of their different growth needs to maximize the time a plant is growing in that particular space. 

Succession planting isn't limited to vegetables, either. Herbs like basil are perfect for succession planting, keeping you supplied with fresh, tender leaves. Many annual flowers also lend themselves to succession planting. 

Zinnias will keep blooming until frost, but after a couple of big waves of blooms, the plants produce smaller flowers and begin to suffer pest and disease damage (especially powdery mildew). Repeated plantings of zinnias ensure a continued supply of peak flowers, and the older plants can be removed to make room for a fall crop or sowing a cover crop.

For those whose gardening ideas revolve heavily around fresh salads, succession planting is the answer. Instead of a flush of lettuce and then bittering leaves and bolting plants, repeated sowings provide a long harvest window, perhaps even the entire growing season. Add an early and late cucumber variety and some successions of radishes, and you're well on your way. 

Succession planting to extend your harvest spreads out the time you can enjoy fresh flowers or foodstuffs, breaks harvest and preservation down into more manageable bites, or even extends the time a market gardener has to sell fresh produce or bouquets.

Planning Your Succession Planting Strategy 

We alluded to the change in weather as the growing season progresses earlier, but it's worth mentioning again. When laying out the plan for succession planting, you'll need to know your frost dates, first and last, as well as a rough division of when your "hot" and "cool" season periods are. 

If you live in Iowa, you might consider your cool seasons as April and May and another in September and October, with June-July-August as hot. It'll be different in Georgia. Cool-season crops would not be sown in the hot period, and vice versa. A spring and fall crop like lettuce may perform poorly in a midsummer succession planting. Shifting varieties to a heat-resistant cultivar as the season progresses can help to overcome this.

We're familiar with planning our planting dates around the last frost in spring, but many gardeners aren't as confident about when to plant in late summer and early autumn. For late plantings, you'll need to count backward from your first frost date in the fall to determine when the last succession planting can go in the ground. 

As an example, if you are planting succession crops of sunflowers with a sixty-day maturity time frame, you'll want to get the last batch in the ground at least 60 days before your estimated first frost date, plus a fudge factor to allow for the slower growing that occurs in autumn. You might decide that no later than 70 days before the first frost is the time to sow your last succession planting of sunnies. 

Succession Planting by Time

Staggering plantings of the same crop by time is an easy and effective way to extend your harvest. For example, you might begin sowing head lettuces 2-4 weeks before your last frost in spring and sow a new short row every ten days until about eight weeks before your first frost in autumn. 

To help with hotter weather in summer, shift to a bolt-resistant and heat-tolerant variety in late spring and return to a good cold-weather performer as fall approaches. 

Succession Planting by Maturity

Sweet corn is a prime candidate for succession planting crops by maturity. Early varieties like Northern Xtra-Sweet mature in about 63 days. American Dream Hybrid matures in around 77 days, and Illini Xtra-Sweet is ready in 85 days. Planting them all at the same time will yield a harvest time of about 30 days instead of only a week or two.

While tomatoes aren't commonly considered candidates for succession planting, it works well for gardeners who freeze or can them. I plant three varieties with different maturities for the types of tomatoes that I process and preserve. It breaks up the harvest and kitchen work into a more manageable process. 

Examples of succession planting

Here are a few examples of what succession planting can look like in the garden. 

  • Sweet corn: plant different maturities or space plantings out by ten days.
  • Lettuce: replant every 7-10 days
  • Radishes: replant every 7-10 days
  • Bush beans: replant every ten days
  • Beets: replant every two weeks or plant different maturities.
  • Sunflowers: replant every 7-10 days, and choose different maturities.
  • Snapdragons: replant every two weeks.

Tips and Tricks for Succession Planting

  • Plan for slower seed germination in the early and late seasons. While cool weather crops will germinate in colder soil temperatures, they still take their time. Seeds that sprout in five days during the summer may take ten days to pop up in early spring or autumn. 
  • Leave extra time in autumn before the frosts. Shorter days, less intense sunshine, and cooler temperatures will slow down plant growth. Add a week to 10 days to the advertised plant maturity time to ensure harvest before a killing frost.
  • Switch up varieties of the same crop as the season progresses. Many vegetable varieties have been developed specifically for cooler or hotter weather. Examples are lettuces that are bolt-resistant or corn that is tolerant of cooler conditions. By changing varieties, you can enjoy a longer window of growth.
  • Schedule planting on the calendar and set a reminder alarm. It's easy to let life get in the way and forget to sow the extra row of beets. But, missing a planting will create a gap in your harvest.
  • Take advantage of existing long-season crops to interplant. Summer heat isn't ideal for peas, but you may be able to underplant your corn crop with peas, giving them some shade from the heat of the day and something to climb. It also works well with lettuce and spinach.
  • Keep a journal of when you planted and whether it worked or didn't. After a few seasons, you'll have a custom recipe for what to plant and when to maximize your garden's production.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment with different varieties and move on from those that didn't work. Last year, one variety of tomatoes produced a heavy crop three weeks before my frosts (no problem), and another had mostly green fruit when the freezing temperatures arrived. While both tasted great, one will have a place in this year's garden, and the other won't. 
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