How to Pair up Plants to Save Garden Space

interplanting in a garden

The Spruce / K. Dave

No matter how large your vegetable garden is, there never seems to be enough space for all you want to plant. It's especially true 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. For example, 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. 

Combining two plants in the same place can get a little tricky. You don't want two space hogs competing for room, sun, water, and nutrients. In a poor pairing, one plant is likely to win out at the expense of the other. To ensure your vegetables can peacefully coexist, match them with complementary partners and choose an intercropping technique that works the best for your garden.

Planting Timing and Strategy

Large vegetable plants, such as cabbage and cauliflower, may need to go out into the garden early in the season, but they won't start filling out for at least six weeks. While they're small, you can use the space between them to sow quickly maturing vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, or beets. These fast-growing delights can be harvested as needed. In the meantime, they will act as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and suppressing weeds. Annual herbs, such as cilantro and dill, are another great filler option since they tend to decline after a couple of months of growing and harvesting.

Bush beans grow quickly so you may choose to seed them between slower growing plants like tomatoes and ​peppers. Once the beans are mature, harvest and remove the plants once the tomatoes and peppers begin to fill in. Beans give you the added bonus of leaving nitrogen behind in the soil—perfect for feeding the remaining plants.

greens and herbs planted intermittently
The Spruce / K. Dave

Utilize Shade

Another technique for intercropping is utilizing partial shade created by tall plants and planting vegetables next to them that do not require full sun. 

For example, tall tomato and corn plants love being sited in a warm, sunny spot. They create a shaded area behind or underneath that's perfect for sowing some lettuce or beet seeds. Trellised squash, melon, and cucumbers also 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

This tomato was underplanted with parsley, which is enjoying a little relief from the sun
The Spruce / Marie Iannotti

Utilize Different Heights

An Indigenous intercropping technique called "three sisters" involves planting corn, pole beans, and squash 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. Lastly, the squash covers the surrounding ground, acting as a live mulch, and its scratchy leaves help protect the beans and corn from marauding animals.

Root crops also lend themselves well to this type of intercropping. Vegetables such as onions, carrots, and rutabagas don't need much 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 seed closely spaced rows, plant along the edges of beds, or simply intersperse in whatever nooks and crannies are available. If you're willing to forgo the idea of planting everything in rows or blocks, you'll 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
interplanting with different heights of vegetables
The Spruce / K. Dave
Article Sources
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  1. Succession Planting. UMN Extension Website