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Crop Succession Planning: Planting For Abundance

Photo by Kirsten Bradley
Photo by Kirsten Bradley
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Clockwise from above right: Sprouting seeds early in the warmth of a green house; Successively planted lettuce, as one lot are ready, the next lot are coming on; Carrots at Milkwood farm, no more shop bought carrots; Michael Hewins obtaining a yield.

Photo by Kirsten Bradley

There comes a moment in every season when you realise you just can’t eat any more radishes … or cucumbers … or pumpkins … When your friends just won’t accept any more boxes of zucchinis, silently left on their doorstep. We’ve all been there – it’s the inevitable glut of seasonal gardening, and what a glorious and overwhelming moment of abundance it is.

Then, finally, the flood of vegetables ends and you’re left with the remains of broken-down mulch and plants running to seed, and not a vegie in sight. In this moment you might ask yourself: ‘Hey! What happened?’

This situation is common for many gardens, and is generally the result of a lack of planning. Unless environmental conditions have been catastrophically unfavourable, the sudden absence of vegies is a human problem, and something that can be easily avoided.

The turn of a season – perhaps spring – may prompt a surge of enthusiasm to get into the garden. We prepare our soil all at once, filling beds to the borders with loads of plants, usually whatever seedlings we can get at short notice. This creates an awesome sight and feels great, but all too often we fail to allow enough time or space for follow-up: a succession of plantings, to ensure a consistent supply throughout the coming season.

The Solution: Planning

Crop planning allows us to transcend the glut problem, and to balance out the highs and lows of produce from our garden. It is possibly the least understood, and most often neglected, practice of vegetable gardening. Many gardeners, new and seasoned, don’t understand the full process of creating a structured crop plan, and fair enough! It can be overwhelming to consider the many variables that are involved. However, it’s only through the act of planning that we become accountable for our food supply: putting the vegetables we want to grow into a workable schedule of sowing, planting and harvesting that meets the needs of our week-to-week eating habits.

Crop planning brings structure to the relationship we have with our gardens. It allows us to plan what will happen, and when, so that we get the results that we’re looking for, and learn how to cultivate our space better to get more from each season.

When we start crop planning and, more specifically, planning for yield, our gardening practice changes. We begin to understand plant cycles in a deeper and more defined way. It also allows us to plan seasonal harvest events, such as bottling tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, fermenting cabbages, drying and curing the garlic and onions.

Crop planning also influences the health and productivity of our soil. When we plan the crop cycle we also work towards keeping soil healthy and active – soil devoid of plants and active root systems at different stages of growth is a recipe for an unbalanced soil profile, both chemically and biologically.

Towards A Crop Plan

A well-structured, annual crop plan for the backyard garden is prepared in three stages.

The first – a crop succession plan – defines what you are going to plant, and each crop’s relative timings and successions. It will include information such as: when to sow your crop; how long the crop will grow for; when the crop will yield; how long you can expect a yield for; and when the yield is likely to finish. Most importantly, the crop succession plan will show clearly the transition between successions of plantings, with the aim to create a seamless supply of harvest.

The second – a bed plan – puts the crop succession plan into a physical space. This defines where the vegetables will go in the garden, and how much of each crop you are going to plant.

The third – a crop rotation plan – defines where your crops will rotate to in their successions, through the garden over subsequent seasons.

We’ll begin by dissecting and understanding the needs of a well-designed crop succession plan. In the next issue of Pip we’ll look at the bed plan and the crop rotation plan.

The Crop Succession Plan

The succession plan is not difficult, and should only take you a few hours to complete. It’s good to plan for six to twelve months. Some of the tools we would use to build our succession plan include:

  • a ’sowing when’ or seasonality calendar – this should indicate optimum sowing times for your growing bioregion
  • a garden diary that includes information from last season – to track major events, successes and failures
  • a computer, whiteboard or chalkboard that is easy to use to record information on
  • a good vegetable encyclopedia, to provide lots of juicy information about how to grow each crop.

As with any design process, the most important starting point is your context. Start by being clear about what it is you want to grow. It may help to do a simple audit of your weekly eating needs, and to make a list of what vegetables you would like to eat in the season you’re planning for.

You will need to understand or find out what plants grow in what seasons, for your area. Over the seasons you will build your own sowing guide for your garden, to refine your plan.

When To Sow

With the list of plants you intend to grow in front of you, the next step is to define when the first and last sowing of each crop will be for the season. For example, for growing tomatoes in Sydney many growers will start their plants (often indoors and on heat pads) in late July to early August, for transplanting into warming soil in September. The final sowing of the season is generally in mid- to late February – you aren’t dealing with frost pressure. The sowing timeframe there would be from August to February.

The First Harvest

You will also want to know the crop’s ‘weeks to maturity’, how long the plant needs to grow before it becomes mature and produces its first harvest. This information is often overlooked but really is critical for planning your yield. Also known as ‘time to yield’, this is generally variety-specific, and can fluctuate with variable weather conditions, but it’s important to have this information on hand for planning your expected time of yield. A good seed supplier should provide you with this information.

Length Of Harvest

The final piece of information you need to know is, roughly, what the length of harvest will be. Is it a one-time picking, or is it multiple pickings? How long will the plant hold its maturity before the yield diminishes, or it jumps to seed?

For example, cos lettuce is often treated as a one-time harvest crop, generally the full head of lettuce is harvested in one go. Most varieties of cos will hold their maturity between two to four weeks before running to seed, depending on whether the lettuce is growing into a cooling or warming period. Therefore, the harvest period for this crop would be two to four weeks. You can plant a batch of cos lettuce and harvest them slowly over their maturity period; for example, one succession of so many plants to be harvested over a four week period.

Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Photo by Kirsten Bradley

Clockwise from above: Great example of successive plantings of tomatoes at Soul Patch market garden; Moruya. Milkwood Organic Market Garden; Seedlings raised in the warmth of a hot house, preparing to go in the garden.

Photo by Kirsten Bradley

Put It In The Calendar

With your crop’s lifecycle defined, put the information into a garden calendar. For each crop you intend to grow, log its first sowing event and when that sowing will be ready for harvest. Also log when you will expect your first sowing to finish its harvest. Set the information out so that it’s represented clearly in days or weeks, depending on how detailed you want your plan to be. Some gardeners like to reverse engineer this process, by working backwards from your preferred harvest time, which is essentially the above process in reverse. You might do this is if you were planning for a ‘hungry gap’, or need to produce for a specific event in the season.

With the first sowing of your crop clearly defined, you now need to include on your calendar when the next succession will begin, to ensure a seamless supply – this is where it can get a little tricky.

A succession sowing period is the time, in weeks, between each sowing, to ensure that when the first sowing finishes its peak yield – and is either no longer setting flowers to produce fruit or producing leaf and is about to run to seed – the next succession is just coming into its first stages of yield. As an example, the diagram opposite illustrates planning for a cherry tomato crop.

A general pattern you will notice, and a good rule of thumb, is that the time between sowings is often fifty to seventy per cent of the total yield time. For example, if a variety of tomato yields for eight weeks, the time between sowings will be four to six weeks. Note that your sowing period will be affected by environmental conditions, particularly temperature; you will need to adjust the time between sowings in season to account for this in your local area.

To put this all together, slowly work through your list of crops, and put the information into your calendar. It is a good idea to use a calendar medium that is flexible, so that you can move and jiggle the timings and successions around to account for yielding times, and times when you anticipate warming or cooling weather. At the end of the planning process you should have in front of you an easy-to-read plan that shows each crop, and its relative timings and successions for the season you’re planning.

Keep this plan available so that you can refer to it throughout the season; it will become invaluable for making sure you are keeping up, and are ready for major steps such as sowing crops in the nursery, or preparing ground for transplanting. If you want more detail, you can add in other activities or events such as pruning, ground preparation, fertilising, or even that annual beetroot borsch bonanza festival for that time of year when you have more beetroots than you can handle.

Give It A Go

I know what you’re thinking–‘This seems like a lot of work’. Like most good things, this planning will take extra time and energy the first time you do it, but after you’ve put together your first plan it becomes much easier and quicker the next time. If you are having difficulties, I suggest you start by choosing just four or five of the most important staple crops, those that are going to give you the most return in the season: keep it simple, and build up from there.

By understanding this process, and the information required to account for crop yields, you can take away the guesswork from gardening. It’s true that the general rule of thumb ‘plant something every two weeks’ can result in a good stream of produce coming out of our gardens. However, a bit of time spent defining and noting crop lifecycles can help to build a clearer plan, to help us get more consistent and predictable results from our garden spaces.

Make sure that you keep good records of how your successions unfold throughout the season, so that you can look back on them to inform better decisions for the future.

Have fun and happy gardening!

Michael Hewins teaches organic market gardening classes through Milkwood.


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