Intercropping: Minimize Your Effort While Maximizing Yields

You can save time and garden space by planting two crops in the space usually reserved for just one.

| Spring 2018

  •  intercropping options
    Gardeners can take advantage of several intercropping options, including planting a quick-growing crop between slower-growing plants.
    Photo by Getty Images/PhilDarby
  • mature chard
    In this garden, mature chard is being used as a nurse crop to shade lettuce planted underneath.
    Photo by Getty Images/PHILIPIMAGE
  • Interplanting
    Interplanting two or more crops (here, onions, lettuce, and chard) will help keep your attention on the need to weed and harvest all the crops.
    Photo by Getty Images/sanddebeautheil
  • Onions and cabbage are harvested early
    Onions and cabbage are harvested early in this garden, leaving later crops, such as bush beans, room to grow.
    Photo by Getty Images/PhilDarby
  • Tall okra
    Tall okra will shade a second crop planted below.
    Photo by Getty Images/mansum008
  • A Three Sisters garden consists of corn, pole beans, and squash.
    A Three Sisters garden consists of corn, pole beans, and squash. The crops form a cooperative association in regards to light and root space.
    Photo by Elayne Sears
  • Okra seedlings grow
    Okra seedlings grow in the greenhouse at Twin Oaks Community, where the author has gardened for more than 25 years.
    Photo by Kathryn Simmons
  • Twin Oaks Community, fall spinach
    In the garden at Twin Oaks Community, fall spinach is interplanted with peas in spring.
    Photo by Kathryn Simmons

  •  intercropping options
  • mature chard
  • Interplanting
  • Onions and cabbage are harvested early
  • Tall okra
  • A Three Sisters garden consists of corn, pole beans, and squash.
  • Okra seedlings grow
  • Twin Oaks Community, fall spinach

Tangible benefits come to gardeners who practice intercropping. Also known as relay planting, interplanting, or undersowing, this technique is a version of companion planting where the second crop is planted while the first is still growing. Don’t worry about whether the two crops benefit each other — just look at how the gardener benefits! Growers are drawn to intercropping because it’s a way to increase the land’s productivity while also boosting the diversity of insects and other beneficial organisms. Other efficiencies include having two crops share a single row cover or irrigation system.

There are several intercropping models. Sometimes a small, quick-growing crop is planted between slower growing crops to use the space not yet needed by the slower crop. Sometimes a tall crop and a sprawling crop are planted together. Sometimes a later, slower crop is given a chance to get started before the first crop is cleared. The first crop may act as what’s known as a “nurse crop,” providing shade or soil-holding roots for the second crop. Note that the intercrop should never be allowed to dominate the main crop, and weeds shouldn’t be allowed to compete with either crop. High soil fertility is needed to make this system work.

Early Spring Intercropping

Intercropping peas and spinach in spring makes good use of garden resources. As legumes, peas don’t need high levels of nitrogen in the soil. So, in soils with good fertility, you can interplant peas in a standing crop without adding any more compost.

Because spring heats up quickly here in central Virginia, we have a short season for peas — we have to start them as early as possible, or we won’t harvest any. We plant a single or double row of peas in the middle of each spinach bed, and then we care for the two crops together. The crops share row cover, warmer soil, cultivation, compost, and, above all, space. By intercropping these two, you can eliminate one tilling and still have a bed that’s doubly productive. Plus, planting them together will help keep your attention on the need to weed and harvest both crops. The spinach will gradually give way to the peas as spring advances.



The trick is to plan ahead. In fall, we plant four rows of spinach in one 4-foot-wide bed. When winter arrives, we cover the beds with sturdy double hoops and thick row cover to save the spinach from getting weather-beaten. In spring, we transplant more spinach plants into additional beds.

When you plant the spinach, make sure to leave a slightly wider central space between the inner rows for the peas — less than a whole row’s worth because peas are a vertical crop. We use the Bed Preparation Rake with Row Markers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds — it’s a worthwhile investment for making consistently parallel rows, and also makes faster hoeing possible.






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