Vegetable garden planning: Double the harvest in the same space

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OK, I admit it. I already have some cool crops planted in containers and a few in the ground. The tough ones — spinach, carrots, beets and some salad greens. The spinach is up already, almost harvestable. But when I look at that emerging, delicious crop, I am thinking tomatoes, right there in the same space.
Double cropping is like the old ad for Doublemint gum — double your pleasure, double your fun! Except I am talking about the bounty of the vegetable garden instead of gum. Don’t waste an inch and plan for two crops in the same space.
This practice of planning for more than one crop for a spot goes by a few names: intercropping, double cropping and French intensive. The basic concept is fairly simple — mixing and matching crops that can be swapped out. Pair a cool-season crop with a warm one. For example, lettuces start very early, tomatoes late.
If you plant your tomatoes next to (or within) a lettuce bed, there are two benefits. The lettuce will appreciate the shade of the of the tomatoes as they grow as it starts to warm up. And the lettuce acts like a living mulch to keep weeds at bay and helps to shade the soil.
Some gardeners will plant cucumbers on a moveable frame that is anchored to the ground, but kept at a 45-degree angle, somewhat like a lean to, under which lettuce is planted. Again, as the cukes grow, their foliage can provide shade to spinach and other salad greens so we can get a couple more weeks out of their harvest before they start to bolt (set seed stalks), and the greens start to turn bitter.
All peas — English, sugar snap and snow — are cool season crops and usually finish by late June. Why not start some beans or squash to take over that space and use whatever trellising system the peas were sprawling up?
Another way to double up crops are to pair a quick-to-harvest crop with a slower to mature. My grandpa taught me this trick. Radishes are the jackrabbit of the gardening world — seed to harvest in 18 to 21 days. Lettuce takes about 40 days (although you can start harvesting leaves as soon as they are 4 inches tall). Carrots 58 to 70 days.
Grandpa taught me to mix all three of those seeds together before sowing. Now I doubt he was thinking about French intensive or double cropping. It was just common sense. Something we used to have way more of than we do today. Why? The radishes would come up first and be ready to harvest as the lettuce was just getting going. So, when you harvest the radishes, it helps to better space the lettuce and carrots—both of which have very tiny seed that is often sown too thick.
Then as the lettuces are getting cut, the carrots are now finally up. Carrots are slow pokes when it comes to germinating; they don’t germinate evenly and can take from one to three weeks to pop up. But since we mixed all three seeds together, it helps to spread out the tiny seeds. Using this intercropping technique helps give you well-spaced carrots in the end. And I have been planting these crops this way since I was 10.
There is also the technique of succession planting. This is as it sounds, you plant and then replant in succession. There are two ways to use this technique: Some crops have great first flushes of growth, but then later harvests are less robust. Take beans, for example, specifically bush beans. They all tend to come in at the same time, but subsequent harvests are less. So, if you stagger the planting of beans. Plant every two weeks until mid-July. You will have a steady, constant supply of beans all summer.
This repeat seed planning is also a great way to outsmart the problems with squash, zucchini and other vining crops like cucumbers — the dreaded bacterial wilt transmitted by cucumber beetles and squash bugs.
I think all of us have had this sad problem happen. Just when you get the first cukes or zucchs picked, your entire vine (full of baby fruits) starts to wither and die due to bacterial wilt. But, if you divide the number of plants you want into 4 plantings, you can outgrow the bugs. When the first crops are planted, there are a huge number to feast on for these bugs, so their populations soar, and at the same time, wipe out those crops.
But, say instead, you want a total of eight plants, so you plant two seeds every two weeks. So, you have fewer initial plants, less food for the insects, and so their populations don’t grow as quickly. As you start the second, third and fourth sowing, there aren’t as many pests available.
The other way to succession plant is to plant a spring crop twice. This is a little tricker as our fall temps don’t seem to start until November in Will County these days. But the idea is to use the summer crops now large and providing shade to areas, that could let you start the cool-season crops in late summer.
Whatever way you slice it, a little extra planning now can almost double your harvest later if you put some of these strategies to use!

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