Grow More Using Easy Intercropping Techniques

, written by Ann Marie Hendry gb flag

Intercropping beans and onions

Like many gardeners I’ve decided to grow a little more this year – just in case. I don’t want to create more beds (yet), but I do want to produce more food, so a little planning is required to tweak my planting plan and maximize how much food I can eke out from the space available.

Intercropping (also known as interplanting or double cropping) is key to making the most of limited space. While I do use intercropping techniques every year it’s not something I usually plan to any great extent. Fast-growing, undemanding intercropping stars like lettuce and radishes are so quick and easy I just pop them in wherever I have gaps, without any real forethought. They’ll happily canoodle with most vegetables for at least a little while before the growth of the other crop threatens to swamp them, or until one or both crops are harvested.

But to get maximum benefit from intercropping it pays to think more deeply about how plants might interact with potential partners.

“Intercropping
Fast-growing crops will grow and be harvested before the slower-growing main crop needs the space

Slow Crop, Fast Crop

Mixing slow-growing crops with speedier ones makes excellent use of space. Crops that take time to mature leave a lot of bare soil around them for a long while. Haven’t we all been horrified by the space required by some plants, and been tempted into planting much closer than recommended? While that dalliance can end in disaster, planting at slightly wider than the recommended spacings and filling in the gaps between with something smaller and faster (or planting it closely alongside) can make for far more productive use of the space.

I’ve found that sowing radishes or arugula in the gaps in rows or blocks of bigger brassicas like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts works well, while lettuce can be snuggled in between young leeks. The fast-growing crop helps to shade out weeds and is harvested by the time the slower one decides it needs its own space. Or start off lettuces and spinach in your greenhouse or cold frame in early spring, then when you plant potatoes transplant the sturdy young greens into the gap between the rows. They should be ready to harvest before the potato foliage shades them out.

“Intercropping
Spinach can be grown between rows of potatoes early in the season

Another option is to sow fast-germinating crops as ‘marker’ vegetables along with others that take their own sweet time. Eager little radishes for instance will pop up fast so you know where to look for your parsnips, which can take weeks to show green shoots.

Relay Cropping

Relay cropping is like succession planting, but with a little overlap between successive crops. It works well for plants that are harvested around midsummer, particularly in areas with shorter growing seasons. The idea is to sow or plant the replacement crop where you want it to grow a few weeks before the first crop is harvested. Seeds germinate fast in the warm soil, and the almost-ready crop doesn’t get the chance to feel jealous of their new bedfellows. Once the first crop is harvested (carefully, so as not to disturb the new seedlings), the second sowings are free to spread out into the vacated space.

“Intercropping
Sow carrots before onions are harvested to make the most of the space

As an example, sowing carrots and beetroot between onions and garlic a few weeks before they’ll be harvested works well.

Undercropping

Try growing plants that have different growth habits in the same space. A classic combination is sweetcorn and squashes – two-thirds of the popular three sisters growing technique. This works well because the tall sweetcorn doesn’t cast a lot of shade over the ground-hugging squashes, while the squashes’ large leaves help keep weeds under control. Dwarf French beans will do a similar job. You could also grow climbing beans (the third sister) with squashes between their feet. Or go for the whole menage a trois!

“Intercropping
Grow low-growing plants like squashes around taller plants

Tall crops can be used to provide shade to those vegetables that benefit from it. While most vegetables crave as much light as they can get, some prefer a little respite from the heat of the day, especially in warmer climates. Hot weather and dry soil trigger crops like beets, lettuce, arugula and radishes to bolt, or go to seed, which prompts edible roots to turn woody while leaves become bitter. Undercrop lanky sun-lovers like tomatoes with compact cool-season crops such as salad leaves, winter radish and spinach to make it easier to keep the soil moist for these heat-averse plants.

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Comments

 
"When you intercrop a root with a fruit, are you going to disturb the fruit plants' root when you dig up the root? (say that five times fast)"
Lark on Friday 17 April 2020
"There's no way I can say that five times fast - once is almost an impossibility! :D Pairing plants that have different systems of growth below ground is just as important as making sure they don't compete for space and light above ground. So for instance tomatoes have deep roots, while lettuce has shallow roots so shouldn't disturb the tomato roots unduly when you dig it up. However if you were to pair the tomato with a root crop that also delves deep below the ground, you'd need to make sure it was something like winter radish that won't be harvested until after the tomatoes are finished. In that scenario, to avoid disturbing the winter radish I'd recommend cutting off the tomatoes at ground level instead of digging them up when they're done. The tomato roots can then be left in the ground to rot down over winter, or else dug up at the same time as (or after) the root crop. So I guess what I'm saying is: If you intercrop a root with a fruit, carefully pair the fruit and the root so the fruit's roots and the root's roots suit!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 18 April 2020

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