If you’ve spent time researching what to grow in your vegetable patch or allotment, then there’s every chance you’ll have read about various cropping systems that you can use to maximise your efforts. But what do they all mean, and how do you go about using them? Ever eager to squeeze more use out of our own vegetable plots, we’ve given some of these techniques a go and have outlined the five cropping techniques we think are the most beneficial.
But before we introduce you to these common cropping systems, a quick recap on the main technique employed by gardeners and allotment holders: crop rotation. We’ve gone into more detail about this method in a dedicated crop rotation blog here, but essentially it’s a way of planting groups of plants (commonly divided into brassicas, roots, potatoes and legumes) in their own areas of your vegetable plot and rotating them on an annual basis. This is primarily done to maintain soil health and prevent any diseases that can occur by growing the same crop in the same place over consecutive years.
With careful planning you can follow these five cropping techniques to work alongside crop rotation, should it be a practice that you already follow, but they’ll also be of benefit to the non-rotators too.
A catch crop is a quick growing plant used to fill temporary gaps in a vegetable patch. Catch crops can be grown during the time between harvesting one crop and sowing the next, or in between rows of crops that are slower to reach full size. Radishes make excellent catch crops and work well alongside slower growing roots such as parsnips. Some quick growing lettuces also make useful catch crops and are commonly dotted around runner beans, ready to pick before the runners break out in a tangle of leaves and beans.
Intercropping refers to various methods of growing different crops in one vegetable patch to make the most of the space available. Generally, the aim is to plant combinations of plants that have different heights or root sizes so you’re not wasting any space, but careful gardeners will also combine plants that offer nutritional benefit to each other. For example, long rooted carrots can grow alongside the shallow roots of kale. And above ground, we allow low-lying strawberries to run amok in between taller plants such as beans and sweetcorn, a trick that also works with sprawling squash plants. Not only are you saving space, but the leafier, low-lying plants will also starve young weeds of light and suppress their growth.
This is another technique of growing different plants next to each other, but instead of being used for space saving, this is done so that one plant can “help out” the other plant. The type of help provided by a companion plant can include deterring certain bugs, drawing in vital pollinators, or the ultimate in plant-friendly deeds, acting as a sacrificial offering to hungry pests. For example, few plants are as popular with black fly as the nasturtium, so these are often grown close to broad beans to draw the flies away from the more precious beans. Some folk will also grow pongy garlic near their carrots, hoping that the whiff will put off the pesky carrot root fly from approaching.
Succession planting is simply a way of continually sowing vegetable seeds to ensure you get a constant supply of each crop. It’s of particular value for plants that have either a long growing season, such as beetroot, or those that reach maturity quickly, such as lettuces. Rather than chuck in an entire packet of seeds in one go, sow smaller amounts every two or three weeks, and your harvest time will be extended.
A green manure (also known as a ‘cover crop’) is a quick growing plant that is sown in a large area to protect the soil when it’s not being used for more valuable vegetables (usually over winter). By covering the ground with growth instead of leaving it bare you can prevent soil erosion during bad weather, while the leaves help to suppress weeds and the roots improve the soil condition. And for even greater benefit, most green manures can be dug back into the soil once they’ve done their job to give it a boost of vital nutrients. Commonly used cover crops include some clovers, rye grasses, mustard and field beans.
Do you have a vegetable plot at home that you want to use these cropping techniques on? What crops have you tried in your allotment? Do you have a favourite cropping technique? Let us know in the comments.