The goal for any gardeners in the world, small or large, should be to get the most food out of their growing space. This isn’t hard with baby greens and lettuces that bring in a high yield per square foot, but it can be a challenge for longer-season crops like broccoli, cauliflower, corn and onions, which take up a lot of room for a relatively small amount of payoff.
One great way to make the most out of these crops is to plant a second, faster crop alongside them in their beds. Usually, this is well-thought-out and in our garden plan, but sometimes these intercrops are admittedly a bit of an on-the-fly decision when the season calls for it or when we see opportunity. Here are a few crops we always turn to when we have a little extra garden space to fill.
Both head lettuce and cut lettuce are ideal intercrops. Head lettuce is nice because generally you are transplanting it into a row with maybe 30 days or so left until it’s ready to harvest. In that case, if you have a crop like broccoli or cauliflower or even tomatoes, you can transplant your lettuce first, then the other crop a week or so later (after a cultivation, preferably), and pull your lettuce just before the larger, longer season crop takes over.
As for cut lettuce, this is a crop that we’ve found does well with long-season onions, leeks and green onions. We like to sow a thick band down the middle of our leeks to produce one or two good cuttings before the leeks are ready. That way, we are taking advantage of all the space something as thin as a leek leaves unused.
Radishes might be the perfect intercrop. They are fast and compact, do not require a lot of nutrients, and are easy to harvest. You can sow radishes with nearly any long-season crop as long as it doesn’t impact your crop rotation too much. Personally, I like sowing them with slow brassicas and tomatoes.
Turnip greens are larger than radish greens, so we use this crop strategically, as it will block out sunlight in the wrong situations. Generally, I will sow it with our green onion transplants so that immediately after the green onions are pulled, the turnips can take over the bed for another week or two. You can sow turnips with other crops, too, but keep in mind that at around 55 days to maturity, they take longer than most others on this list.
Many gardener’s introduction to intercropping is through the three sisters method: planting corn, beans and squash together in the same plot. I have personally had mixed results with this practice. What I have had better results with is using just two of the three, especially dent or sweet corn and dry beans together. Planting a drying bush bean between (or within) your corn rows can be an excellent way to feed your corn crop as it grows, shade out weeds, and make the most out of that space. Your yields may vary depending on season and variety, but you will almost certainly get two crops for the price of one. Seed your corn as soon as the soil is warm enough. After the first cultivation, once the corn is 2 inches or more, sow your bean seed. This will allow the corn to outcompete the beans and not get overtaken. The goal is a dried bean, though you can harvest beans green. It gets a little stuffy amongst corn rows and difficult to maneuver, but it’s definitely possible if space is limited.