Dear EarthTalk

I want to start an organic vegetable garden in my yard and I would like to know how to combine crops to make better use of time and space.

Val Thomason

Denton, TX

Most commercial farms concentrate on growing a few select crops to supply a wide variety of customers, but gardening at home is a different story entirely. Most backyard food gardeners are looking to augment their family’s diet with a variety of seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs throughout the growing season.

For those of us who face time and space constraints in our gardening endeavors, combining crops within the same planting areas makes a lot of sense. Such techniques are particularly well-suited to organic gardens where chemical fertilizers and pesticides aren’t used to artificially boost crop productivity.

The most common way to combine garden crops is via an age-old technique called interplanting, which in essence means planting various garden edibles with different growth and spacing attributes together in the same soil beds or rows. One example involves combining fast-maturing vegetables, such as lettuce, field greens or beets, with slower-maturing ones like winter squash or pole beans. According to the informational “Our Garden Gang” website, mixing tall plants, like sweet corn, peas or staked tomatoes, with low-growing crops such as melons or radishes, is another way to maximize diversity and yield.

Building on the idea of interplanting, Better Homes & Gardens magazine suggests that gardeners combine plants that produce vines and can be grown on trellises or fences along with low-growing crops. So-called “vertical gardening” concentrates much more production into each square foot of planting area. Also, the magazine reports, crops grown off the ground “tend to be healthier because they are less likely to contract fungus infections or soil-borne leaf diseases.” Tomatoes, pole beans, cucumbers, snap peas, melons and winter squash are all examples of crops suitable for vertical gardening if staked or supported properly.

Another common technique often employed by “weekend” gardeners, organic or otherwise, is succession planting, which entails replacing a finished crop with a different one, or planting a single crop in small amounts over an extended period of time. One example would be to replace a spring crop with a summer crop, such as planting cucumbers — which thrive in warmer weather — where the peas had been growing earlier. Another form of succession planting involves staggering the planting of seeds from one specific crop throughout its growing season to ensure a continuing supply as long as possible.

Some crops particularly well-suited to succession planting include bush beans, lettuce, spinach and radishes, each of which have long growing seasons but can be harvested after only a few weeks. A related technique would be to plant both early- and late-maturing varieties of the same type of crop around the same time, and harvesting the resulting crops successively. Tomatoes and corn, for example, each come in varieties that ripen at different times during their respective growing seasons.

And while it may be easy to get carried away with edible gardening, don’t forget to plant a few flowers to spruce up the look of your garden and also attract bees to help pollinate your food crops. Marigolds and sunflowers are good choices as they are relatively easy to grow organically and tend to attract lots of bees.

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