Succession planting makes sense for Maine gardens

By Tom Seymour | Jun 13, 2013
In succession planting, radishes get  pulled in early June to make way for a crop of lettuce.

With very few exceptions (purposely allowing ground to lie fallow for one year to enhance future productivity rates as one), it does gardeners little good to allow blocks of garden space to remain vacant during the growing season.

Given the relatively short growing season here in our northern climes, planting a succession of crops requires some forethought and lots of careful planning. And for those who plant mostly long-season crops (corn, potatoes, tomatoes and other warm-weather favorites), succession planting never becomes a topic of interest. But for those who plant such things as peas, radishes or lettuce, all early-spring crops, succession planting becomes a real possibility.

The concept

So just what is succession planting? Simply put, it’s the practice of using the same space for more than one crop during the course of one growing season. Obviously two crops can’t occupy the same ground at the same time. But by planting fast-maturing crops in early spring, removing these as soon as they are done bearing and planting something entirely different in the same space, we make the best use of our garden space. That’s succession planting in a nutshell.

Understanding a concept is one thing. Putting it to work and making it a reality requires careful planning. In the case of succession planning, much hinges upon, of all things, the weather. An early spring, with above-average temperatures prompts us to sow early crops. Getting these in one or perhaps two weeks ahead of schedule gives us considerable leeway.

But what about a cold, wet spring? Then, much depends upon the state of the soil. Raised beds, for instance, dry sooner and warm quicker than in-ground beds. So even during a spring such as what Maine experienced in 2013, we may get lettuce and similar crops in the ground in time enough for them to mature before it’s too late to plant another crop.

The choices

In some cases, the second crop may be similar to the first crop. For instance, lettuce makes a good first, second and perhaps a third, crop. Plant the first crop as soon as the ground can be worked. One blend of looseleaf lettuce that I enjoy suggests successive plantings every two weeks until mid-July. The July date is presumably based upon the last frost date. Since this blend becomes mature anywhere from 35 to 45 days, planting in July would take us into early September. And often, the first killing frost occurs in early September.

Here’s another suggestion. If the first crop matures by early July, try planting Bok Choi or Pak Choi. These have a maturity date similar to many of the lettuces. As long as the seeds go in the ground two months before the first frost, the plants will have plenty of time to grow and mature.

For another trusted-and-true second crop, try planting Swiss chard. Chard tolerates and even thrives in hot weather. Just make sure to plant it in a space with plenty of sun. And frost? I have had fresh chard for Thanksgiving.

Location, location

The final decision, of course, comes down to a personal decision. Just remember when planting a second crop, to figure out as close as possible the average first frost date for your location. This date varies wildly and it depends upon individual locations. Valleys and inland and northern sites usually see earlier frosts than coastal or island locations. Even places a scant mile apart can have dramatically different first frost dates because of elevation or other geographical differences.

Of course the best way to determine frost dates is to keep records. I use a notebook to jot down all sorts of records, things such as frost dates, maturity dates for various plants and even insect emergence dates. After enough time passes, it’s an easy task to compile dates and then take an average.

After settling upon an expected first frost date, choose a second crop that will work within the projected time frame.

Upcoming topics

Three of my upcoming topics are ones that I have thought about for some time. The first will concern edible weeds in the vegetable garden and/or flower bed. Some of these “weeds” are not only nutritionally superior to our cultivated vegetables, they also taste better. I’ll offer a list of common garden weeds that we can pick and eat, along with photos of key species. My own garden incorporates weeds into the seasonal scheme, allowing me to reap the benefits of not only vegetables that I plant and care for, but also those wild edibles that come up on their own.

A second topic will concentrate upon heavy-duty, push-type trimmers. My purchase of a DR Trimmer last year opened my eyes to this family of yard and garden tools and I’m anxious to share my findings with readers.

The third topic involves specialty planting boxes. These come in various forms, but all share this in common; they have refillable reservoirs of water, with a layer of potting soil held above it. Fertilizer sits on top and slowly dissolves into the moist planting soil, becoming available as the plant requires it. I’ll share my experiences with these devices. Are they worthwhile, or just another gimmick aimed at getting people to part with their money? We’ll find out.

Reader speaks

I recently had an interesting chat with a reader. While shopping in a local supermarket, a lady recognized me as the author of this column. She wanted to know why I hadn’t included cucumbers in my list of suggested vegetables for a first-time garden. I reiterated my reasons, which included cucumber’s sprawling habit and also, their occasional failure to bear a decent crop.

“But everyone should have cucumbers for pickles,” she said. Well, for pickle lovers, that’s true. This line of thought raised an interesting point. This lady loves pickles and plants cucumbers specifically for that use. Other people may have similar preferences. This could translate into a beginner’s specialty garden.

More to the point, those who relish fresh garden salads might do well to make that their first garden. This would include three main ingredients, and perhaps a fourth if space permits. The big three would be tomatoes, lettuce and bush-style cucumbers. The fourth could include the addition of some pepper plants.

And this salad garden could even incorporate succession planting, at least for the lettuce. To do this, only plant about half of the space allotted for lettuce. Then, two weeks later, plant the rest. When the first planting ripens, the other one might just be coming on line. When the first planting plays out, it would be time to re-plant, and so on throughout the season.

So thanks to that reader who so loves her cucumbers, for giving me this idea to share with you.

Helpful tip

This issue’s helpful tip is aimed at those who haven’t gotten their gardens in yet and worry that it’s now too late. It isn’t. A higher and stronger June sun will work wonders for crops planted a little bit late. In fact, late-planted crops often catch up with and even surpass those that were planted early. So don’t give up. Get out there and get that garden in. You’ll be glad you did.

Tom Seymour of Waldo is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

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