Succession planting is a useful technique for maximizing the vegetable yield from a permaculture plot. Used in vegetable plantings it can mean that you can harvest a number of crops across the whole growing season – and avoid having a glut as when everything ripens simultaneously. A bit of planning before planting can ensure that you have access to fresh vegetables for as long as possible through the year, and that you are not overwhelmed with any one crop. Furthermore, succession planting also reduces the risk of crop failure, as you don’t have all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. If you have single crop with all specimens planted at the same time, a period of adverse weather or a pest insect population bloom could leave you with nothing for the whole season. Succession planting, therefore, is not only efficient; it is a safeguard for providing you and your family with a consistent supply of vegetables from the permaculture garden.
With any of these methods, there are several variable factors that you need to consider before you decide what and when to plant. The first, and arguably most important, factor is the length of the growing season. Analyze the climatic conditions in your geographical location, as well as the microclimate effects in the planting areas. If you live in an area that has short summers and long, cold winters, you choices of succession crops will differ from a permaculture gardener whose plot experiences long summers and mild winters. The choice of plants is the second important consideration for a successful harvest. If, for instance, your growing season is short you may choose quicker growing vegetables such as radishes, salad greens and spinach, or species that can handle a light frost, such as arugula, so you can still harvest edible produce even when the temperature drops. Consider also, that some vegetables, such as carrots, beets, peas and beans can be harvested before they are fully mature. These ‘baby vegetables’ are ideal for succession planting, and have a deliciously different taste from their mature contemporaries. As a general rule, whatever your local conditions, you are looking for varieties that grow reasonably quickly and mature to a harvestable crop fast. It can pay to research varieties of vegetable that you may not typically think of for a conventionally grown bed, as more exotic species, such as bok choi can make excellent succession plats.
Different Crops in Succession
The first method involves planting an area with one crop then following it with a crop of a different species that will be suited to the changed conditions later in the growing season. For instance, a planting of a crop that matures in the cooler temperatures of spring, such as cabbage or peas, might be followed by a crop that will benefit from the higher temperatures and increased sun exposure of summer in order to mature, such as eggplant.
Same Crop in Succession
This takes the same timing principle and applies it to a single crop. It is a good method if you have a lot of seed of one type of vegetable, or you need access to fresh produce of a certain species over a longer period of time, perhaps if you run a food business.
Staggered plantings of the crop are made at regular intervals so that they mature at different dates giving you a continuous crop. Salad greens are commonly used in this method. Plant rows of lettuce two weeks apart. By the time you get to your fourth or fifth row, the first will be ready to harvest, with the subsequent rows maturing in order.
Different Crops Simultaneously
This method only requires a single session of planting, albeit of different varieties of vegetable. The succession aspect comes from the different maturation dates of the crops, meaning that harvesting is staggered rather than planting. This method is sometimes called ‘intercropping’ and involves planting two or more crops on the same garden bed that will mature at different rates while not causing a detrimental effect to the other species. An example would be planting kale and lettuce together. The lettuce matures faster than the kale, and it is ready to harvest before the kale gets too big to shade the lettuce out and inhibit growth. Then, once the lettuce has been harvested, the kale has extra room in which to grow into fully mature specimens.
Same Crop, Different Varieties
Similar to intercropping, this method, instead of planting different species of vegetable together in the same bed, uses different varieties of the same vegetable with different rates of maturation. This is beneficial if you have specific soil or microclimate conditions that are particularly suited to a certain type of crop. An example would be tomatoes. You can plant a garden bed with a range of tomato varieties, from small cherry tomatoes that ripen early in the season and continue producing fruit until early fall to large oxheart tomatoes that, being larger, take longer to mature and offer harvestable fruit from late summer to lat fall.
It can be a good idea to keep a spreadsheet of your succession planting so you know which species were planted at which time and when they should be viable for harvesting. You can also note down when the next planting should take place, as well as important information such as the date of the first frost. Add in when you harvested each crop and the condition of the produce. That way you can make adjustments as necessary for the next year. With several years of succession planting under you be you should be better able to predict harvest dates and weather events.
It is also advisable to rotate crops through your permaculture plot over several years. By avoiding planting the same vegetables in the same location in successive years, you prevent soil diseases and populations of pest insects building up. Ideally, you don’t want to plant the same species in the same location more often than every three years.