Pairing Up Plants to Save Space in the Vegetable Garden

How to Interplant to Maximize Your Small Garden Plot

  • 01 of 04

    The Basics of Intercropping

    Mustard Green Red Frills, lettuce, in raised bed. Dorling Kindersley: Peter Anderson/Getty Images

    No matter how large your vegetable garden is, there just never seems to be enough space for all you want to plant, especially if you've gotten carried away buying seeds and plants, which is so easy to do. 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. 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 alongside late-season crops. Radishes are often planted with carrots, for example. 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. 

    This can get a little tricky. You don't want two space hogs competing for room, sun, water, and nutrients. In that case, 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, with the right partners.

    Continue to 2 of 4 below.
  • 02 of 04

    1. Intercrop With Vegetables That Mature at Different Times

    Aerial Shot Of Organic Vegetables On Farm Plot
    TommL / Getty Images

    Large vegetable plants, such as 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 six weeks. While they are small, you can use the space between them to sow quickly maturing vegetables such as 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, such as cilantro and dill, which tend to decline after a couple of months of growing and harvesting.

    Another example: Bush beans grow faster than tomatoes and ​peppers. You can seed some beans in the spaces between the other plants, then 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.
  • 03 of 04

    2. Make Use of the Shade Made by Tall Plants

    Underplanted Tomato Plant
    This tomato was underplanted with parsley, which is enjoying a little relief from the sun and attracting beneficial insects. Marie Iannotti

    This second technique for intercropping is probably the easiest. You simply make use of the partial shade created by tall plants by planting vegetables next to them that ordinarily wouldn't grow well in summer's heat.

    For example, tall tomato and corn plants love being sited in a warm, sunny spot, and they create a shaded area behind or underneath that is a perfect spot to sow some lettuce or beet seeds. Trellised squash, melon, and cucumbers make an ideal screen for plants that need the relief of shade during the summer.

    • Vegetables that can grow in partial shade: arugula, beets, endive, lettuce, mizuna, mustard, pak choi, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, and tatsoi
    Continue to 4 of 4 below.
  • 04 of 04

    3. Tuck Shorter Vegetables Under and Between Taller Crops

    Growing Squash with Beans
    Letting squash vine on the ground can be an easy way to deter animals and have a living mulch, but it's going to be difficult to harvest these beans without stepping through the prickly squash vines. Marie Iannotti

    The classic intercropping example is the Native American "three sisters." Corn, pole beans, and squash are planted in the same spot. The corn grows tall and acts as a support for the pole beans. The beans enrich 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 such as 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, such as cabbage, broccoli, peppers, and kale. You can do closely spaced rows, plant along the edges of beds, or simply mix things up by interspersing them in whatever nooks and crannies are available. If you are willing to forgo the idea of planting everything in rows or blocks, you will be amazed at how much produce your small garden will hold.

    • Tall vegetables: corn and tomatoes
    • Short vegetables: arugula, beets, carrots, endive, lettuce, mizuna, onions, pak choi, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, and tatsoi
    • Climbing vines: beans (pole), cucumbers, melons, peas, and squash
    • Spreading vines: cucumbers, melon,​ squash, and sweet potatoes