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The Basics of Intercropping
No matter how large your vegetable garden is, there just never seems to be enough space for all you want to plant. It's easy to get carried away buying seeds and plants. Finding a place to tuck them all in is a challenge. Two techniques that can help you squeeze more into your garden are succession planting and intercropping (or interplanting).
Succession planting involves repeatedly seeding small amounts throughout the summer or planting varieties that mature at different times. There's more on how to do that and which vegetables make good candidates in our article about succession planting.
Intercropping, on the other hand, is a fancy word for planting two vegetables in the same space. Some vegetables can share space amicably. You can plant early crops that will be removed from the garden with late season crops. Radishes are often planted with carrots. The radishes mature quickly and loosen the soil for the late sprouting carrots. Unlike companion planting to deter pests, intercropping combines plants to save space. However, that doesn't mean you can't still derive some of the benefits of companion planting.
This can get a little tricky. You don't want two space hogs competing for elbow room, sun, water, and nutrients. One plant is likely to win out at the expense of the other. To ensure your vegetables can peacefully coexist, pair them in one of three ways.Continue to 2 of 4 below.
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1. Intercrop with Vegetables that Mature at Different Times
Large vegetable plants, like cabbage and cauliflower, may need to go out into the garden early in the season and remain there for several months, but they won't start filling out for at least 6 weeks. While they are small, you can use the space between them to sow quick maturing vegetables like lettuce, spinach, arugula or beets. These can be harvested as needed and in the meantime, they will act as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and suppressing weeds. Or seed some annual herbs, like cilantro and dill, which tend to decline after a couple of months of growing and harvesting.
Bush beans are faster growers than tomatoes and peppers. You can seed some beans in the spaces between the other plants, harvest and remove the bean plants when the tomatoes and peppers fill in. Beans give you the bonus of leaving nitrogen behind in the soil, to feed the remaining plants.Continue to 3 of 4 below.
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2. Make Use of the Shade Made by Tall Plants
This second technique for intercropping is probably the easiest. You simply make use of the partial shade created by tall plants by planting vegetables that ordinarily wouldn't grow well in summer's heat.
For example a tall tomato and corn plants love being sited in a warm, sunny spot, but it will create a shaded area behind or under it that is a perfect spot to sow some lettuce or beet seeds. Trellised squash, melon and cucumbers make and ideal screen for plants that need the relief of shade during the summer.Continue to 4 of 4 below.
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3. Tuck Shorter Vegetables Under and Between Taller Crops
The classic intercropping example is the Native American 3 Sisters. Corn, pole beans, and squash were planted in the same spot. The corn grows tall and acts as a support for the pole beans. The beans feed the soil for the corn, which is a heavy feeder. The squash covers the ground acting as a mulch and its scratchy leaves help protect the beans and corn from marauding animals.
Root crops lend themselves well to this type of intercropping. Vegetables like onions, carrots, and rutabagas don't need a lot of space below ground and even less above ground. They can be squeezed into the spaces between any number of plants, like cabbage, broccoli, peppers, and kale. You can do closely spaced rows, plant along the edges of beds or simply mix things up. If you are willing to forgo the idea of planting everything in rows or blocks, you will be amazed how much produce your garden will hold.