Now that March has gone out like a lamb, these warmer days are really motivating me to get out into the garden and set things in motion for the 2019 growing season.
Right now is a perfect time to direct seed many of our cool-season vegetable crops, but don't go too wild with planting or you may wind up with more to harvest than your family and some lucky friends can consume.
One great way I have found to spread out the harvest, creating a continual supply for at least part of the growing season, is through succession planting.
Succession planting is a strategy many gardeners use to direct seed or plant vegetable crops in planned intervals. Since planting is spread out over time, the crops mature in sequence with the planting times, which creates a continual harvest.
Seeds are typically planted about seven to 14 days apart, allowing harvest over many weeks depending on how many plantings are set out.
Another strategy is to plant early, midseason and late varieties of the same crop at the same time. Harvest times will differ based on variety, spreading out your bounty. This a great way to try new varieties that are late or early while still planting some of our old favorites.
Efficiency in the garden is improved since everything is seeded at one time, as opposed to multiple seedings spread out over a few weeks.
If you are really looking to maximize efficiency, some crops can be direct seeded at the same time as transplants are set out.
Beets are a good example of a crop that works well in this strategy. At the same time beet seedlings are planted, you can intersperse a row of direct-seeded beets at fairly close spacing, which maximizes the use of valuable garden space.
Since the time to maturity on beets is relatively short (around 60 days) and the direct seeding window is quite large (ranging from 30 days prior to our frost-free date well into August), a gardener can truly create a continuous supply of beets all season.
Consider this approach for other crops with a short time to the maturity, such as lettuce and greens.
Since I am the biggest beet fan in my family, it has really been essential to efficiently plant this crop for a calculated harvest or we wind up with far more beets than I can coerce my kids into eating.
My family has most often planted lettuce in spring succession plantings, but many other common vegetable crops work quite well with this strategy in spring, such as spinach, cabbage, mustard, radishes, beets, onions, peas, carrots and broccoli.
For summer plantings, consider beans, peppers, cucumber and squash for succession planting. Many of our favorites from spring work equally well in fall successive planting, along with others such as turnips, collards, beans and cucumbers.
Lettuce and other greens are by far my favorite crop to plant in succession early in the season. After some prep work last weekend, I hope to be ready to start with direct seeding of leaf lettuce this coming weekend, which feels a bit late since it's already April.
Leaf lettuce can be seeded about anytime the soil is workable in March, although frost protection can be an issue during the lion-like part of the month.
My succession planting of lettuce will be seeded about every 10 to 14 days, as time permits, over the next month or so. Leaf lettuce is just a wonderful crop in this setting because it can be harvested very early, as soon as it is large enough to use, and has far better quality at a smaller size than when it gets larger and becomes more coarse and bitter.
By about 50 days from planting, a row of lettuce has passed the optimal harvest point in my opinion but is certainly still usable.
This flexibility in harvesting size allows you to really maximize your lettuce patch by harvesting a variety of sizes each time you pick lettuce.
Since lettuce is more of a cool-season crop, my lettuce bed will be finishing up production by early or mid-June. This allows for a second crop in that location this growing season, again maximizing the use of space in the garden.
Applying the principles of succession planting can certainly take your home garden to the next level. It allows gardeners to maximize valuable space, diversify crops, maintain a continuous supply of vegetables and can work to extend the harvest window late into the season if timed appropriately.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.