succession-sowing strategies, with meg cowden
IN LATE WINTER, we gardeners rev up around sowing those first seeds indoors under lights. But the promise of a bountiful vegetable garden that keeps on giving doesn’t end there. Now is also the moment to make succession-sowing plans for the longer haul, too.
A range of the smartest tactics to accomplish ewas the subject of my conversation with Meg Cowden, author of a new book called “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat.”
Meg Cowden (@seedtofork on Instagram) gardens in the Upper Midwest in Zone 4b Minnesota, but that doesn’t deter her from eking out an extended harvest of a diversity of edibles that anyone, anywhere would envy. How she accomplished that is the subject of the new book.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new cook by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the March 14, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
keep the harvest coming, with meg cowden
Margaret Roach: Hi, Meg. When I think about Zone 4b—I’m 5b, and when I think about zone 4b I’m like, “Whoa, look at what she does there. She’s amazing.”
Meg Cowden: That is the goal Margaret, pretty much, we’re done. That’s it. People should really take inspiration, if I can do it. I’ve been saying this for years, if I can grow more, everyone can grow more.
Margaret: Yeah. And I love the title of the book, “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat” [affiliate link], it’s like, yeah, exactly. And I’ve been enjoying it, and sort of studying your tactics.
I love that you start the book by speaking to nature’s great inspirations on the subject of succession sowing, the forest and the tallgrass prairie. Now, tell us briefly how those inspired you.
Meg: Yeah, those are really my lens through which I’ve always appreciated the natural world. And the more I food-gardened over the last 20-some years, the more I started using those landscapes as kind of a mirror of what I could be doing, and how I could be rethinking my garden.
I think the prairie, to me, is really the most instructive one, and it’s the one I lean on the hardest in the book, because prairies provide different flower types, and they are providing them every week and month of the growing season. And it’s like, yes, we should be doing this with our gardens too. Diversity, right?
Margaret: Right. Like a community, it’s like a successional community.
Meg: Absolutely. And it changes, and it shifts in reflection to what the climate’s like every year. And wetter years, different flowers come forth, and they move, and they negotiate. And our palettes change. It’s dynamic. And we’re walking along with our planted prairies here, just like I’m walking along with my annual vegetable gardens. And no two seasons, or even a season within a season, are alike. And so, that’s really where I drew the inspiration from.
And I think it really helps… I hope it helps all of the readers of the book, and even your listeners, to examine how we see our plants around us, and how they are in community, and negotiating space. And how that can inform how we consider our plantings, our plant spacing, placement of plantings, and so on. I mean, the lessons are infinite as you know, as a lifelong gardener.
Margaret: And I know about both things, the succession in the forest, the succession in the tallgrass prairie, and vegetable successions, and I never put them all together. So I love that, so thank you [laughter].
Meg: Thank you so much, yeah.
Margaret: So I think of succession sowing, or succession planning, in the garden as like the 3D chess of it all. There’s a lot of moving parts and various dimensions. And you write in the book that we have to adopt the view that “the garden is never fully planted.”
And you give us ways to work toward that, the sort of most familiar anchor of which maybe is continuous planting, which you call “the heart of the succession garden.” So what’s continuous planting?
Meg: That is being very close friends with your seeds [laughter]. I consider this the ultimate mindfulness tool of a food gardener. It’s a marathon, it’s a journey. It’s not a sprint; it’s us walking alongside our garden, and really seeing opportunities, and seizing them in any number of ways. And so, for me, that might be using my years of experience to know that in June, I need to be sowing my fall cabbages indoors, to transplant them after the 4th of July.
But it also is really looking at this physical space and maybe something’s not working. So maybe you want to think about what you could put there. So it’s a combination of kind of all sowing types. It’s not just direct-seeding, but it’s also raising plants, and using transplants as well.
Margaret: Right. And so, among your tactics—and you have a lot of sort tactical approaches that you delve into in the book—you talk about one that’s, I think you call it “single crops with staggered maturity.” Like even how tomatoes, if you plant three different kinds of tomatoes—and I think you mentioned you have a cherry tomato and a beefsteak tomato at the other end, and something in the middle.
And even just by having those three tomatoes, you’ve got a staggered harvest, or a succession of tomatoes. So, that’s one tactic, right?
Meg: Yeah. And I think that, hopefully, blows the door wide open for listeners because I think succession planting can feel really ominous to people, and it sounds confusing. But I bet almost all of your listeners are tomato gardeners [laughter]. And so, when we appreciate that we have seasons within a season of summer where different tomatoes are cropping, that is a succession plant, and we all need to celebrate and learn from that.
And so, what does that look like? For me, broccoli: You can scour your seed catalogs, and find so many other things that can crop. Look at days to maturity, look at cold tolerance, and heat tolerance. And so, within that, you can choose a few different types, and you will get a steady stream of food for longer out of any one food type.
Margaret: Right. I mean, I think radishes are sort of the most hilarious and extreme example in a way [laughter], because there are radishes that are what? Like a couple, few weeks, and there are some that go much longer, like the big daikons and stuff. So I mean, radishes, for instance, is one.
Meg: Right. Weeks to months apart, like 28 day to like 60 days or something.
Margaret: So a radish is not a radish is not a radish when we’re seed shopping, right?
Meg: Right. Absolutely, yeah. I mean, well, even think about squash. You say the word squash, you’ve got summer squash that crops in 50 days, but you’ve got a ‘Hubbard’ that crops in 100 days or something. I mean, same thing, right?
Margaret: Right. And even among the summer, or the winter there are probably variation. I mean, there are some that are bush types and you know what I mean. I mean, it’s like read the fine print is really super-important advice, I think.
Meg: Yeah. And, to me, it’s a really beautiful way of, if you are someone who wants to plant your garden once, you should be incorporating a staggered maturity into that, because that will give you the succession garden when planted just once, if that makes sense.
Margaret: Right. So, again, I didn’t really think of that, but it’s so “aha,” of course, obvious. You’re right. So, if you don’t want to be there at the ready throughout the season with set of transplants that you’ve sown indoors, or extra seeds to tuck in, or whatever, if you don’t want to do that, you had better well have planned the days to maturity of the different varieties that you’ve got out there. Oh, very good point. Very good point.
Meg: Yeah, thanks.
Margaret: So blocking is another one. And this one that you recommend as sort of a tactic—blocking—it kind of reminds me of farmers, who have… I’ve seen a lot of crop plans and neighbors who are farmers, where I live, and people I’ve interviewed. And they show me their crop plan, and it shows portions of a field, blocks so to speak, that are going to be this. And then, when that’s pulled, they’re going to do this, and then they’re going to put a cover crop on it—three successions. It’s like blocks. And I think that’s what you mean, but on a different scale.
Meg: It’s absolutely what I mean. I call our home gardens are almost like mini-forests. They’re smaller versions of the larger landscape essentially. And the scale is just different, both the time and the spatial scale. So yes, I exactly mean, my block of onions is akin to someone else’s acre of onions. It’s just at a different scale. And the thing I love about it is I do have a penchant for tidiness in my garden.
Margaret: I have noticed that missy, with some of your pictures, some gorgeous photos. And we should say, you’re @seedtofork, I believe, on Instagram and your pictures and your Stories, Reels, whatever, the garden from the bird’s-eye view, especially that you sometimes show us is just very orderly, and I’m like, “Oh, wow, she really has it together.” [Laughter.]
Meg: It’s a facade, Margaret.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. She does it with mirrors. O.K., good.
Meg: Yeah. There’s lots of them all over the place.
Meg: So some foods, I talk about this in the book, the whole idea with blocking is there are some foods that can commingle, but some foods you don’t want to commingle. And so for blocking, for me, the thing I love about it is when you can reset a space in this predictable interval, it allows you to kind of think ahead a little more.
So onions and garlic are my biggest blockings that I use in succession planting. In addition to, as you just mentioned about farmers, cover cropping, I use that as a blocking approach to basically make sure I don’t plant the whole garden in spring, and that I save an area for my longest fall garden crops. And so, then you can turn that over.
But I take that initial block that was a block and an even0aged, as I call it, kind of like a forest that people are going to clear cut, or a field of corn, and it’s my onion planting. I take it, and then I turn it into more of a staggered-maturity garden for the fall. And I mix in things like head lettuce, and kohlrabi, and bok choy, and Chinese cabbage. And then, it becomes more of a cornucopia, and a slower drip of food.
So, it’s a wonderful way of turning over space. I find it much easier to have a 4-by-4 area, or a 4-by-8 area that opens up, and I can fully reset instead of trying to negotiate. I’m not one to take like one square foot and replant it.
Margaret: You’re not Mel Bartholomew then, you’re not doing the square-foot garden. But I mean, it is the same thinking, though. Is again a strategic thinking of the use of space as modules, as a number of modules.
Margaret: Yeah. Visualizing it that way. And so, to do that part, to do the blocking, and some of these other things as well, record keeping must be very important. Like you must be very organized that way. Because to think about, like those farmers I mentioned and they’re like, “I’m going to have my salads here. And then I’m going to have such and such. And then I’m going to have a cover crop,” whatever. They have charts, and they have lists. And they’re organized that way. Do you keep a lot of records?
Meg: I do. And I’ve gotten better over the years. I mean, this is my sixth season growing at this scale, which is about a quarter of an acre of a food garden. And before that we were in very small urban gardens. I mean, our garden is larger than our former city lots.
Margaret: Oh, yes.
Meg: Yeah, I mean, we really, we did leave the city.
And so, the size necessitated organization in a way. I could get away with it in the city by not really having a plan. But once we moved here, I keep Google spreadsheets, and I save them year over year. I just kind of copy the document every year and re-save it. And then, I start anew, and I try to put lists down. I have a tab for my sowing trays, and then I have another tab for the date, and how many row feet I direct sow things.
The next level of organization would be me actually writing notes about quantities, and if that square footage was enough. And, for example, carrots, I do not like buying carrots in May at the store, but it does come to that at some point in the spring for us. So trying to increase—how many square feet do I need to increase my carrot garden so that I don’t have to buy carrots in May, and then I could have some from last year?
Anyway, but yes, I say this to be humble Margaret, because you know, as a gardener, our work is never done. And that is the joy of the journey, knowing that we could continually improve.
And so, my record keeping is pretty good. It falls off the rails by about August 20th when I am trying to can my tomatoes and transplant my fall stuff, and direct seed, my watermelon radish, and get the kids ready for school, and, and, and. So, at that point, I lose track.
Like just recently, I was like, “I wonder how many row feet I sowed of…” We have so many daikon and watermelon radish, because the garden was larger last year. And I was able to plant a whole bunch of rows. And in October I thought I was crazy, but in March, right now, we are still enjoying daikon-
Margaret: Oh, it’s totally nice to have that, they’re root crops, right?
Meg: Yes. But I didn’t write down how many row feet I had so can I backtrack by my aerial photos? Maybe? I don’t know. I haven’t figured. So anyway…
Margaret: Record keeping, yeah.
Meg: Yes. I highly encourage at any size. And the notes during the season is important. I’ll go back to my spreadsheets and be like, “Oh, I said start this two weeks later. Oh, good job, Meg 2021.”
Margaret: O.K. so, when something hasn’t been quite right and you have an insight on the spot, you try to footnote it. Yeah, good.
Meg: I do. I go back into those spreadsheets, yeah. And I’m not paper. My phone, unfortunately, lives in the palm of my hand. And so that’s where I write things down these days, yeah.
Margaret: So, another tactic then besides the single crop with staggered maturity, and the blocking, is continuous seed starting. And I wondered, do you do this indoors? So, we are all starting seedlings, in depending on where we live, more southerly it could be February, it could be March, or April in more northerly spots.
Anyway, we’re doing that early on. But I think the smartest gardeners I know keep doing that to have transplants available, because guess what? The garden center doesn’t sell transplants, except in peak spring [laughter]. So do you keep doing that? And do you do that indoors, or what do you do?
Meg: Yes, my lights are on, they’ve been on for a month and they will be on until July sometime. I think I sow my flats probably mid-July for August. So like my kohlrabi, and my last bok choy and things like that.
I am trying to explore direct-seeding more. But the challenge with that is, of course, the garden pests in the height of summer.
And keeping up with the watering of seedlings. I mean, I think I say this in my book that like, there is a pretty good chance that I do not have a cabbage moth outbreak inside my home in July. And so, it’s a safer place for them to start their life [laughter].
Margaret: Right. So something like kale, for instance, do you keep doing sowings indoors, and keep putting them out? Some examples of some things that you do that with.
Meg: Yeah. Broccoli is a really big one, and cabbage. We are a cruciferous family. We eat a lot of brassicas, and they grow really well. And I think, we have a lot of downfalls to our cold climate, but growing brassicas from April to December is a huge benefit. And we’re lucky that we really enjoy eating them. So, that is one that I sow almost monthly.
I have got a tray I sowed right now, then end of March, maybe sometime May, but by the beginning of June I sow another tray and then I always try to eke out one last tray in July because I’m stubborn and I’m like, “O.K., how late can I sow broccoli? Let me remind myself.”
So every year, in addition to like my known, I’m always like, “Oh, if I have an extra spot in this tray, let me see. How bad would…?” I had broccoli that I had, was not able to get out to the garden until August last year. And I didn’t think it would do anything. And I did get heads by November. I mean, they were not my traditional super-large 6-to-8-inch wide heads. They were like mini-heads. But I was very proud of that. And that is the redefinition, that is being a succession planter, and that is living with a succession garden is continuing to question what your seasons are and how to define that.
But yes, you’re right, when you spoke of garden centers, I pretty much need to say, “Hi, my name is Meg, and I am my own garden center.”
Margaret: And really to do what you’re talking about in this book, Plant Grow Harvest Repeat, you really do. You need to stock up on seeds, and you need to be your own garden center throughout the season. Because otherwise, you can’t just run out to shop for this stuff at the other times that it’s needed.
So, then one that I loved, this totally cracked me up. There’s a photo of you in the book crouching between rows of like almost mature cabbages, or broccoli, or something I think, and it’s almost like there’s no space. Like no one else would see the space, but you see the space.
And you’re like crouching and you’re sowing bush bean seeds [photo, top of page]. You’re poking them in almost where those leaves of the adjacent rows of the crucifers touch. But you were kind of almost moving the leaves apart and putting those little bean seeds in there, because you know you’re going to harvest those adjacent cabbages, or whatever before long, and those beans are going to be up.
So this is called interplanting. And this is a great tactic for really maximizing space. So tell us a little bit about that.
Meg: Yeah. That space actually had radishes in it before I had put the beans in, too. So, I interplant all my brassicas with rows of radishes. Now I do this, but I also have a massive garden, so I really don’t need to interplant like this. I do it for beauty, for aesthetics. It helps me. I’m saving space, sure. But I need to acknowledge that space isn’t really at a premium in our garden [laughter]–
Margaret: No, but for most people it’s an important tactic. Even if you could wait until you pulled the adjacent crops, it’s giving you a head start on that next bean harvest, by getting them a little earlier. So, even if it’s not purely space, it’s timing.
Meg: Right. It’s weeks. And I would say, as you noted, the sort of overstory of broccoli and cabbage was not a fully closed canopy. And I’m referring kind of to the first chapter of my book here a little bit. But they were kind of more open-grown. So there was enough light there to get those to germinate.
And that is a really important thing, when you go to interplant, is to make sure that you are pairing the right things together, and you’re not overcrowding things. Because there’s nothing worse than an over ambitious gardener with some mismatched crops because it’s a recipe for disappointment, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Margaret: And a lot of times, I notice in gardens including my own, along the edges we might have tomatoes in the middle of… Say, we have a raised bed, and it’s 4 or 5 feet wide and X number of feet long. And we maybe have tomatoes down the middle and then there’s all this space at the edges. Do you know what I mean? And I know one side is going to be shadier but hey, maybe that’s a good place for something that could use a little cooling off in the heat of summer when the tomatoes are big. And so even those spaces, consider those part of our real estate, so to speak.
Margaret: You have this really fun… So besides those sort of tactics, there’s also, you kind of categorize as different types of successions. Like quick ones and, I don’t know, sort of mid-length, or midseason ones, and late ones. And I love what you call “garden fast food,” the really quick successions.
And what I wanted to do when I read that was I wanted to go back to the seed catalogs and make sure I had packets of all these kinds of seeds that make for great garden fast food, these quick successions—speaking of being your own garden center, I wanted to go and like, make sure I had enough of this stuff.
So tell us about some of those things that you can pretty much tuck in for a quick hit to maximize space, even if you didn’t plan perfectly well months in advance.
Meg: Yes. And, for me, this is really big, because these are seeds that we can plop in the ground when the ground is thawed well before last frost. These are frost-hardy. These are cold shoulder season, cold-week friends of the garden. And they’re fast. To me, they are the best of everything, especially for a Northern gardener.
So radishes that we’ve talked about already. And so many wonderful greens, Asian greens, bok, choy, mustard greens, spinach, arugula, leaf lettuce. Things that when you think about these foods, with the exception of the radish, they are producing their leafy matter, and that’s what we’re consuming. So, we are not waiting for the fruiting stage of life, which is what the later successions are. We’re eating them. So, that’s the beauty of them.
And I think this is where I didn’t used to eat a lot of mustard greens, but the more I succession garden, and succession plant, the more my palate is becoming more attuned to seasonally eating, and really embracing, and looking for, and reaching for things that are meant to be consumed at that time.
Margaret: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times: kohlrabi, which I think almost nobody grows. But you call it “the fastest brassica.” And you have some tips about it. So tell us how you got to be a kohlrabi fan, and extol the virtues of kohlrabi so that maybe some of us order some seed.
Meg: Oh kohlrabi, it really is the greatest. I would probably say that being CSA members back when we lived in the city is where we first learned of it. So, again, this is where I swear the sagest succession planters are our farmers.
Meg: Because they must succession plant to provide food every week for their customers because that’s their livelihood. So they are like the best. We could all learn more from them.
And so that’s where I learned about kohlrabi. And then we grew it. We’ve been growing it for over 10 years now. And the kids loved growing it when they were little. And I played with open-pollinated varieties, and hybrid varieties here some five, six years ago, and realized the open-pollinated varieties put on a lot of leaves. And those leaves were sticking out everywhere from the bulb. And the bulb was like half the size of a softball. And I thought, “This is the virtue of plant breeding.” And I am a fan of open-pollinated, but there’s a place for hybrid vigor.
And I really think brassicas is a huge place for me where I lean more heavily towards hybrids. They grow faster, they’re more uniform. Of course, uniformity is for the farmers, and that’s why hybrids, I think, do exist. And I digress.
But you can eat the leaves. If you don’t have any other greens in your garden and you just grow kohlrabi in spring, you have a mock kale salad with the leaves, and you have a vegetable that you can eat raw, that you can shred, that you can roast, that you can cook. I mean, it’s delicious, it’s crunchy. What else can you get that’s crunchy like that, and has the brassica flavor so quickly?
Margaret: No, but it made me smile to see you praise it because it’s not one that we hear a lot about. Well, I’m so glad to speak to you. And the book is “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat.”
(All photos from the book, used with permission of Timber Press.)
enter to win the book
I’LL BUY A COPY of Meg Cowden’s new book “Plant Grow Harvest Repeat” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is anser this question in the comments box farther down the page:
What vegetables do you grow successions of, and what’s your tactic?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 14, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify