When I was a young teacher looking for ways to engage my students in science learning, I came across a lesson called, “Nothing Succeeds Like Succession.” It covered the topic of ecological succession (ie, from pasture to gorse to regenerated native forest). To be honest I have absolutely no memory of the lesson itself, but for some reason my neurons have retained that catchy phrase for over two decades.
Near our home in Castlecliff, ecological succession is getting a leg up on the dunes from Coast Care, whose efforts essentially speed up the process by removing non-native species and planting native seedlings with water-retaining organic matter (rather than into pure sand).
A similar process is occurring in our back garden, although we call it successional planting. Yes, we remove non-natives (aka weeds) and add copious amounts of compost to each seedling we plant, but we do it not to reach a climax forest ecosystem, but to maximize the amount of food growing in limited space.
Our first ripe tomato: 11th December
This style of vege garden management is sometimes called bio-intensive, and it fits well with our eco-thrifty philosophy. Growing more food in less space is thrifty because you don’t need to own lots of land. For us it’s also eco because our intensive plantings thrive due to the use of rich, healthy, organic compost rather than commercial chemical fertilizers.
Garlic Day 1
Garlic Day 150
Our vege gardens consist of 8 cm of topsoil on top of 8,000 cm of sand – not necessarily a formula for success. But the strategic and generous use of high quality compost has allowed us to grow onions over a kilogram, broccoli over three kilograms, and one cauliflower over four kilograms. And, for those who remember from last December, The World’s Best Garlic.
In a vege garden, successional planting can take many forms. It’s simplest application takes the form of planting a seedling for every mature plant harvested – a little like a radiata pine plantation. I use this technique sometimes, but I’m more likely to plant seedlings two to three weeks before harvesting mature plants. No, it’s not magic, but the results sure seem like it.
This form of successional planting may also be called inter-planting. It speeds up succession by giving the seedlings a two to three week head start while the maturing crop is still in the ground. For example, I have tomato seedlings between rows of onions that are about to come out. By getting the tomatoes into the ground early, they will be fruiting earlier, and when they are short there is no chance they will shade out the onions.
Another example of successional planting involves running veges such as pumpkins. I like to plant them in the corners of my gardens so that their vines can run along the garden edges, up fences, and in some cases onto the neighbour’s section. As I was harvesting broad beans recently, I started in one extreme corner of our vege gardens and immediately put in three pumpkins in a mound of compost. As I harvested the approximately 40 litres of broad beans over the following week, the pumpkins were establishing themselves and beginning to spread.
Broad beans coming out and pumpkins going in.
Using techniques such as successional planting in our vege gardens and layering among our perennial fruiting trees, shrubs and vines, I reckon we will be supplying half of our food come January from about half of our 700 square metre section. As they say, “Nothing succeeds like succession.”