Tucking into 50 heads of lettuce and a couple of kilos of radish could be daunting for even the greatest of vegetable-loving families so a little planning and some successional sowing is exactly what is needed to ensure your plot provides a continuous supply of fresh garden delights throughout the season.
Successional sowing simply refers to sowing crops ‘little and often’ and requires a little knowledge of the plants you are growing, some planning to ensure there is space for them to grow, and lots of patience and discipline to ensure small batches are sown regularly as opposed to seeding everything at the same time for handiness sake.
Of course, other commonsense gardening techniques, such as crop rotation and inter-planting should also prevail.
The key to successional sowing is in understanding what vegetables should be planted in succession. Fast growing, quick-maturing, highly perishable crops such as salads, radish, cress and spring onions are the obvious ones and small batches of sowings should be done about once every 2-3 weeks.
For example, instead of sowing one long row of radish or a full tray of lettuce, direct sow a short 2-foot row of radish and sow a quarter tray of lettuce.
Two weeks later, sow another 2-foot-long row of radish and another quarter tray of lettuce, and so on for the whole season. As a rule of thumb, sow a successional batch when the seedlings of the previous sowing have just emerged. This method of sowing not only manages harvests but also helps maximise use of space in a small garden as when the first batch of lettuce you planted is ready for harvest, you can reuse that area for transplanting more lettuce.
Quick growing crops can also be inter cropped, for example, when brussel sprouts or cabbage are first transplanted, you can stick in a few lettuce or rows of radish underneath.
Successional sowing also works well for plants that are prone to bolting, such as coriander, rocket and spinach. It’s good to note that perpetual spinach and swiss chard are excellent alternatives to annual spinach as they crop for months rather than just a few days.
Successional sowings should also be used for those crops that go over quickly once they mature, such as calabrese, peas, beans and white turnips.
Crops that do not need to be continuously sown include those which produce fruits over a long period such as tomatoes, those which store well, such as onions and pumpkins and winter vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and leeks. The latter need a long season to mature and can then be left in the ground to be picked in stages. Keen gardeners may choose to grow some longer-fruiting crops such as courgettes in two batches to ensure they have plants in peak production for a longer season.
Carrots, beetroot, and some other vegetables are said to have an intermediate maturation time and even though these crops do not have to be picked the moment they are ready, it is worth sowing them more than once. We are often encouraged to grow early crops, completely forgetting that autumn can often be a more productive growing season. Carrots, for example, can be sown in March/April for an early crop, but late May to early June is one of the best times to sow them for autumn harvests and winter storage, and also to ensure they avoid the first generation of the carrot root fly.
For continuous cropping, it is advised to choose a range of cultivars with carrot ‘early nantes’ being ideal for early sowings, but later-maturing, maincrop cultivar ‘autumn king’ being better for later sowings as once mature, carrots remain in good condition for longer. Beetroot is also worth sowing several times, using ‘bolt resistant’ varieties early in the season, with final sowings being made in early July.
To be honest, it isn’t always easy to get the timing right and sometimes crops may catch up with each other as the season progresses. However since many crop varieties can be picked at a young stage, you should harvest early when crops are tender to keep staggering on track.
With fruiting plants such as courgettes, peas and beans, the trick is to keep picking them regularly, ideally daily as otherwise the plant will stop producing new flowers and fruits and concentrate its energies into fully ripening those on the plant. In fact, one of the big mistakes often made by gardeners is of waiting too long before starting to pick a crop, causing a glut.
That said, gluts can have their uses, especially if you enjoy pickling and preserving.
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