When direct-seeding in the spring, it’s easy for your “eyes to get bigger than your stomach”. It takes only a few minutes to seed a row of cilantro 50 feet long, or pour all your arugula seed into one furrow. There’s another age-old saying that applies here – “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. Regardless of what proverb you lean toward, there’s a piece of garden wisdom at the heart of it, and that is: sow more than once.
It takes a little more time and definitely requires some reminding, but seeding several plantings, or “successions”, of short season crops is important for several reasons. First off, it reduces waste. For example, if you plant a 30-foot row of salad mix, you’ll probably get more than you can eat at once, and have to give away (or give up on) whatever you can’t eat before it bolts or turns bitter—and then you’ll have no more salad mix for the rest of the summer.
On the other hand, if you planted 5 feet at a time, but did it every few weeks, you’d have a manageable amount of lettuce available continuously. Succession planting spreads the harvest out over a long period, rather than having a large amount of one thing for a short time (which can be great if you’re into canning). Succession planting is also a powerful way to find out which crops perform best at different times of year—you might find that cilantro does beautifully in spring plantings, but immediately bolts in summer, or that the tastiest baby kale is grown in fall successions. One thing is for sure—succession planting will make you a better grower.
Top Crops to Succession Plant
So the next question is, what crops should you succession plant? The truth is that succession planting works for most crops—you can certainly start multiple successions of tomatoes or peppers—but the easiest way to get started is to choose short-season crops that are sown directly in the ground. Since these have a short harvest window, tending to mature and go to seed quickly, they’ll give you the most “bang for your buck”.
1) Greens such as salad mixes, baby lettuces, Asian greens and mustards should be sown every 1-3 weeks for a continuous harvest. Most varieties will “cut and come again”, meaning that you can harvest several times, cutting about 1” above the soil line and allowing the plants to regrow for several weeks after each harvest. Lettuces, however, can only be cut once or twice before they become bitter.
2) Roots such as carrots, beets and turnips should be sown every three weeks for a continuous harvest. Roots planted in spring for summer harvest will last 2-3 weeks in the field, while roots planted in summer for fall harvest can be left in the field much longer and harvested for storage after a light frost.
3) Scallions are a great crop to succession plant—but be aware that they take up to two weeks to germinate, and must be kept weeded while they’re getting established. Once they get going, however, the crop can hold in the ground almost indefinitely, and will easily overwinter even in northern regions. Sow scallions every 2-4 weeks for a continuous harvest, being careful not to sow too thickly as they require plenty of room to reach full size.
4) Radishes are among the most satisfying crops to grow, germinating within just a few days, and producing full sized roots in under a month. They don’t hold very long in the field though, so plant every 10 days for a continuous harvest. You can also combine radish and carrot or beet seed—the radishes will be harvested long before the carrots or beets, and will help clearly mark the row in the meantime.
5) Cilantro, if you’re a fan, is one of the few herbs that must be succession planted every 2-4 weeks for a continuous harvest. For those of us that like it, it’s a wonderfully versatile addition to Mexican and Asian dishes and will find its way into many summer meals. It can also be easily frozen in ice cube trays with a little water, then later tossed into winter bean dishes for some summer flavor. If the cilantro goes to seed, you can collect the seeds, called coriander, for use in a variety of ethnic dishes. If you like cilantro, it’s a must for succession planting—and if you don’t, you might just discover coriander as a new flavor to experiment with.
When to Stop?
If you live in an area that freezes in the winter, you’re probably wondering when you should stop succession planting, since at a certain point it becomes too cold for some crops to reach maturity. Your last succession should be planted outdoors about two months before your first frost (about August 1st here in Vermont, since our first frost is around the end of September). This may seem like a long time—but the shorter days and cooling temperatures of fall mean that your plants won’t reach maturity as quickly as in spring or summer.