How to Figure Out Succession Planting for Vegetables

Succession planting is the fancy term for the technique of keeping the edible garden filled with plants perpetually. When it’s time to pull out a plant past its prime, be ready to rotate in some new crops. It can be that easy, but there are a few tips to make your succession plan more successful.

Pea vines waning

The yellowing vines of these peas tell me they’re nearly done. I’ll pull them out soon and refresh the bed for a round of root crops. The hoop-house behind the peas holds Brussels sprouts starts, being shaded from the sun and protected from the cabbage moth.

In my friend Susan Casey’s garden at the Interbay P-Patch, succession is set by convenience.

“I try to keep things simple,” she says. “My fava beans and Sugar Pod peas have finished up by the end of June,” so the bed gets mulched with their chopped-up plants and sits for five or six weeks.

“I try to plant my winter greens before the full moon in late July or early August,” she says, “and I swear to God, four days later they are sprouting.”

Her diverse winter garden includes more than a dozen winter vegetables, including a few kinds of kale, collards, mustard greens, turnips, bok choi, pac choi, tatsoi, mizuna and overwintering broccoli. When they’re mostly spent by late May, she has a place for her summer vegetables. Then, when the corn or squash of summer have died back, around the end of October, she clears them out, plants fava beans, and the cycle starts again.

Counting the days to maturity

To create a simple rotation plan, look at the “time to maturity” for your favorite crops and use a calendar to see what plants will work in succession.

For instance, if you pull the spring lettuce on July 1 and plant a 60-day beet variety, you will be eating beets by September 1. With a harvest period of 10-15 days, the bed can again be free by September 15. Still enough growing season to put in some fall kale or broccoli raab which, at 50-70 days, you could be harvesting for Thanksgiving.

Add a bit of extra time for the “fall factor,” which takes into account a slower rate of growth due to days getting shorter and the occasional cold snap we might get.

Another way to tackle the planting calendar is to work backward from the last date that you can expect to get vegetables to ripen.

For a tender crop like lettuce, consider your “first frost date” in the fall and count back from that. For instance:

  • You’re likely to get frost by November 17 (find out the date for your area on the Dave’s Garden or Old Farmer’s Almanac websites), so start with that date.
  • You’ll be able to snip and graze from the lettuce for 10 days once it’s ready to harvest, so count back to November 7 for the maturity date, which begins the harvest period.
  • The lettuce will slow down its growth a bit in the fall, so tick off another seven days for the fall factor, to October 31.
  • The seed packet says 50 days to maturity, so count back to September 12 to get your sowing date.

Some vegetables are typically transplanted, so the days-to-maturity listing will be from transplant. For those crops, such as broccoli, add another 20-30 days to grow the plants in pots. Or go to the nursery and buy transplant-ready starts on your calculated planting date.

Vary your crop choices so that you will have some crops coming ripe in the fall, such as salad greens, and others for early winter, like root crops. A third category, “overwintering” plants, will be planted in summer

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and fall, and will go into winter as small, hardy plants that can withstand the cold. But they will not grow robustly until winter wanes, so plan to eat those in the spring.

Vegetables commonly overwintered in the maritime Northwest climate include Brassicas (kale, broccoli, cabbage) but also onions and favas. Garlic and shallots are planted in late fall to be harvested at the beginning of the following summer, so that bed would be a prime location next year for overwintering cabbage.

There’s much more to succession planting (and I go into more depth on the topic in an article in this month’s Edible Seattle magazine, which also includes an 18-month succession planting chart), but simply consulting the calendar and closely watching where you have open garden space will get your succession efforts off to

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a great start.

ps: If you want to try Susan’s technique of planting by the moon phase (an ancient practice), the Old Farmer’s Almanac site can give you those phases and tell you more about that as well.

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