Succession Planting for a Longer Season

Here we are in August – after a few months of explosive growth fueled by long, sunny days, the garden is looking quite different. The spinach and radishes that flourished in the cooler temperatures of early summer have bolted. Most of my head lettuce has been harvested for salads, and one row of carrots has been pulled – mostly for crunchy, impromptu garden snack breaks. Suddenly there’s a surprising amount of free space – and while it’s admittedly difficult to find the time for planting in the height of summer, the savvy folks who make the time in August will benefit from a harvest that extends well into autumn.

The key to maximizing garden potential – especially in small spaces – is a crop succession plan. Succession planting is the act of planting a crop in regular intervals to produce a constant supply of fresh veggies throughout the growing season. It’s a way to space out your plantings so that you end up with several manageable harvests (a few heads of lettuce per week, rather than fifteen that all need to be eaten at once). It’s also the act of planting a new crop in the space that becomes available when the old crop is finished. For example, whenI pulled out the spinach plants after they bolted in early July, I used the space to seed a new row of carrots – they’ll have just enough time to size up, and I’ll pick them after the first few frosts of autumn make them nice and sweet.

I’ve had the most success with succession planting when I focus on quick-growing crops. Anything that grows to maturity in two months or less is the best bet if you’re direct seeding and you want to fit two plantings in. The alternative, which requires a bit more planning, is to start a second crop in pots earlier in the season (sometime in May or June, depending on the plant), then transplant outdoors in July or August once you have the space.

My favourite crops for a last minute, late summer seeding are spinach, mustard greens, and salad turnips; they all grow to maturity in around 30 days and they thrive in cool fall temperatures. If I’m organized enough to have some transplants on hand in August, my choice would be chard and kale – with the addition of a hoop cover they’ll survive into late fall, and kale in particular just keeps getting sweeter as the temperatures drop.

Planting in mid to late summer can be tricky: the top layer of soil needs to stay moist to allow seeds to germinate, which means frequent watering, and the often-intense heat can be hard on transplants. After direct seeding, it’s helpful to lay a layer of floating row cover over the bed to retain moisture; lift it every couple of days to check the soil moisture and remove it once the seeds have germinated. For transplants, plant on an overcast day if possible, or in the morning or evening, and water thoroughly. A layer of mulch can help retain moisture and reduce transplant stress.

Another thing to consider is plant food: depending on your soil, your first crop may have used up a lot of the available nutrients. It’s worth adding some well finished compost and working it into the top layer of the soil before planting.

That first spicy fall salad or sweet, crisp November carrot will make any late-summer efforts feel instantly worthwhile.