Succession planting refers to strategically planning out a sequence (or succession) of crops that will be planted one after another in a designated area throughout your growing season. On a small-scale bio-intensive market farm, the goal is to maximize the yield of a limited growing space. This makes strategic succession planting of utmost performance. The more rotations of high-value crops you can plant per bed, per season, the more profitable your mini-farm will be.
Main Factors of Succession Planting
When first familiarizing yourself with the concept of succession planting, you’ll begin by figuring out the number of days in your growing season. This is the approximate number of days between the last expected frost in spring, and the first expected frost in fall.
From there, it’s easiest to break it down to one bed at a time. For example, let’s say your first early spring planting in a specific bed is spinach. If transplanting your crop, you would first:
- Plan out the number of days from the time of seeding in your nursery to the optimal time that crop is ready for transplanting into the field .
- Factor the number of days in the field from the time of transplanting until the crop was ready for the first harvest.
- Determine how many days the harvest window would be.
- Figure out the time required to remove the old crop residue and prepare the bed for the next planting.
At this point, that bed would be ready to receive the next crop. Many market gardeners will also practice tarping a bed (or section of beds) prior to the next planting in order to induce any weed seed in the surface to germinate and die. The length of time for tarping (longer in the colder months, and shorter in the warmer months) would also be factored into your succession planting calendar. Silage tarps are also used to warm up the soil in the early spring before planting.
Once that bed is prepped for the next planting, your goal is to have the next transplants rready and waiting. Ideally they will have been already started in the nursery and ready to go in the ground at the exact time that bed is cleared and ready. This can take some time and experience to get this level of accuracy.
As you can imagine, many of the durations will be contextual to the specific crop you are growing, your growing zone, the microclimate of your specific location, your soil quality, and whether or not you will be growing your crop to a “baby” stage, or full maturity (i.e. baby spinach or full-size bunching spinach).
Transplanting vs. Direct Sowing
Determining if you will be transplanting or direct sowing a crop into the field will be another major factor when planning out your succession planting calendar. In general, starting your seeds in flats in the controlled environment of a nursery space will not only ensure more consistent germination and healthier plants, but will also allow you to fit more successions into your season by getting an earlier start in the spring, and extending further into the fall. These early plantings and later plantings are referred to as the “shoulder seasons.”
When it comes to starting your seeds indoors instead of in the field, you are saving valuable days of the growing season, using what would otherwise be germination time in the field (subject to the whims of the variable weather conditions) for growing other crops, or eliminating weed pressure via tarps or flame weeding.
It’s not to say that direct seeding doesn’t have a role in the profitable small-scale market garden. With that said, it stands to reason that direct seeding is best reserved for the time of the season when weather risks are low, and the conditions for germination are optimal, making it easier to predict with greater accuracy for the sake of your succession planting calendar.
Another way to increase the number of plantings in your succession calendar is to maximize your shoulder seasons by incorporating protected culture into your farm design. This would include any strategies for protecting your crops from extreme temperatures, including floating row cover, cold frames, low tunnels, caterpillar tunnels, and high tunnels. From low-tech to high-tech, these are all ways of protecting crops, and manipulating microclimates to encourage plant growth in spite of the extreme weather conditions inherent to early spring, midsummer, and late fall.
They can also protect your crops from the many variables of mother nature when it comes to unexpected extreme weather events. Incorporating protected culture onto your farm is yet another way to make your succession planting calendar more reliable, and insulated from the many weather variables. Direct seeding can also be reliable and profitable when growing in protected culture, where conditions are under a greater degree of control.
Succession Planting Principles For Your Context
When it comes to planning out your succession planting crop plan, there is no one size fits all playbook. There is no “follow these steps, and you will be successful” silver bullet. However, you have to start somewhere. There are many general rules of thumb and resources available online to help you get started.
Paperpot Co. has free Growers Notes for most crops available on the website for transplanted crops, which includes valuable data such as:
- Days to Transplant (time from seeding to transplant in the field)
- Days to Maturity (time from seeding to being ready for harvest)
- Harvest Window (time crop is at the ideal stage for harvesting after reaching maturity)
- Total Days in Field (DTM + harvest window – days to transplant)
We also have Growers Notes specific to direct sown crops, including valuable data on how to set up your Jang Seeder for the listed cultivars. All of this information can be a great starting point when trying to figure out your crop plan.
There are a variety of approaches to succession crop planning. Some people are detail-oriented and very specific, while others keep it very loose. When creating your succession crop plan, a good starting point is to break it down to how much of each crop you’ll need per week. For example, if you need 50 pounds of lettuce every week, you’ll have to figure out how to have that amount ready to harvest consistently. This takes a lot of time, practice, and record-keeping experience. Be easy on yourself as you’re starting. It will take a couple of seasons to figure out how long it takes different crops to grow and the yields in your specific context.
Crop rotation refers to the strategy of mixing up what kind of crop gets planted where in order to confuse pests, reduce weed pressure, and ensure the soil does not get depleted of certain nutrients over the course of the season. Many small-scale growers will not pay very close attention to this, adding compost and soil amendments to beds in between each planting to ensure the soil stays well fed–regardless of what was planted there previously in the succession plan.
However, learning the basic principles behind crop rotation and knowing which plant families are heavy feeders, heavy givers, and light feeders can serve you well to make better infomed decisions when creating your succession planting calendar. Look for a more in depth discussion on crop rotation in a future post.
Sales Outlets Determining Your Succession Crop Plan
The most important aspect of crop planning when selling to restaurants is consistency. Not only consistency in the amount of product but also in the quality. Restaurants will generally be buying the same amount from you every week. Whether it’s 10 pounds or 15 pounds of lettuce, chefs will be relying on that as their primary source. If you can’t deliver, they will have to find other ways to get that product. Once a chef learns that you are reliable for consistent delivery, this will strengthen your business relationship.
The CSA (community-supported agriculture) model is a more challenging sales outlet. In general, it’s best to plan on having at least 6-10 items per week in your CSA box. This means having 6-10 items ready to harvest every week. This requires meticulous crop planning and knowledge about a variety of different crops.
Successful CSA farmers must be proficient at succession crop planning. It requires specific knowledge about each crop, how long they take to reach maturity at different times of the year, and when they will be ready for harvest. The contents of every box will need to be outlined in advance. It also requires flexibility to roll with the inevitable variables that will always arise: crops growing quicker or slower than anticipated or crop failures.
The farmers market is a great place to start selling your vegetables in a low-pressure environment. The goal is to have consistency with a few staple crops and rotate in some seasonal crops for interest. If you sell at a farmers’ market, there will likely be a few products that customers expect every week. Aspiring to supply those consistently will build your clientele. If you can get a reputation for being the “salad mix farmer” or the “carrot farmer,” (having a consistent specialty crop) customers will start coming to you for that every week. Once they are there they will likely add on other purchases once they see what else you have available.
Seasonality also plays a huge role in succession crop planning. This means learning to plant certain crops during certain times of the year when they grow well. For example, you’re not going to grow tomatoes in the wintertime, and there are certain crops that you probably wouldn’t want to grow in the summertime, such as spinach.
You’ll also need to learn how long each crop takes until it’s ready to be harvested. This is what’s known as the “days to maturity.” Most catalogs and seed packages will provide the days to maturity for each crop. However, those numbers are based on the middle of the season and will vary depending on what time of the year you’re planting.
Spring & Fall
For example, in the spring and fall (known as the shoulder seasons), things will grow more slowly, and even more slowly in the wintertime. This is due to less light and less heat. When planning out your succession planting calendar you’ll need to consider the time of year when determining the days to maturity.
If you plant two beds in the spring that are three weeks apart, the bed planted second will start catching up to the one planted three weeks earlier as the days grow longer and the temperatures start rising. This will exponentiate even more as the season progresses. Even though you planted the same crop three weeks apart, the plantings might be ready for harvest only one week apart due to the seasons changing. The opposite is true in the fall: if you plant the same crop one week apart, it might be ready for harvest three weeks apart as you begin moving towards winter with less light and less heart.
The best thing you can do is to take notes and keep good records. For example, if you plant a bed of lettuce in mid-September, and harvest it in late November, you’ll then know how long it takes in your climate, which can then inform the next season’s succession crop plan.
Winter growing is unique. In most scenarios, growers will plan to plant their winter crops in the fall while day length and temperature allow crops to germinate and reach maturity. As the season progresses into winter, growth slows down dramatically as days shorten and temperatures drop. Winter crops will be protected from the elements, and largely “stalled out” in terms of growth. Harvesting can take place throughout the winter from these crops that were sown in the fall.
If you can keep track of when you plant, when you harvest, and the yield per bed, then you can use that data for the next seasons to determine your succession crop plan. Tracking this information is crucial for growing your farm business.
When you are first starting out, try to keep experimentation with lots of different crops minimal. It’s always good to experiment a little, but don’t risk too much. You always want to be tweaking things along the way, but smaller tweaks mean smaller potential crop failures. Start with a small number of crops and learn how to grow them well.
Strive to stay organized, but allow for some flexibility in your crop plan. Plan to have extra transplants as insurance in case of failed crops. Keep your beds full to ensure you have a maximum yield, and accurate harvest numbers.
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