In my days as a track and field athlete, the 4 x 100m relay was one of my favourite events. It was the only track and field event that required a team, and the team's ability to work together was a huge factor in their success. Most people would probably assume that the relay team with the 4 fastest athletes should always win, but at a high level, all the runners are fast. The team with the best timing of their baton exchanges has the greatest chance of winning.
Ok, so how does this relate to vegetable growing? Well, one of the strategies we use to get the most production from our garden beds is relay planting. This is the method of growing more than one crop in the same space in the same season. The crops are not necessarily in the bed at the same time. Instead, they follow each other. After one crop is harvested, another goes in. What! You can grow more than one crop in the same space in one season? ...even in Canada, in zone 3? Yep. Gone are the days when we just plant everything on one day in spring. Now we continue planting all summer long, staggering our harvest throughout the summer, and increasing our overall yield dramatically.
A lot of these relay planting transitions take place in July for us. By this time, we can already have quite a few early crops reaching maturity, and it's also the last opportunity for us to plant quite a few crops if we want them to give us a decent harvest before things freeze up in fall. Let's look at a few examples.
One of the first relay plantings we did this summer was spinach to beets. We planted this particular spinach at the end of June, harvested it at the beginning of July, and then transplanted beets into the same beds one day later.
Beets can also be the lead crop in a relay planting combination. In the next example, we transplanted an extra early bed of Chioggia beets in early May, harvested them in early July, and followed them with a crop of Napa cabbage to make use f the growing space for the rest of the season.
Now these two examples happen to use beets, but the list of crops we have used for relay planting is actually quite long. It also includes radishes, carrots, lettuce, turnips, chard, broccoli, corn, peas, beans, garlic, onions, and likely one or two others I am forgetting at the moment. Any crop that doesn't require bed space from your very earliest planting date to your very latest harvest date is a candidate for relay planting.
Once you start to experiment with this, you will learn that timing is really important for a successful and quick relay planting combination, just like it is for a fast 4 x 100m relay. In some warmer growing zones, we wouldn't need to worry as much about the speed of these transitions, but in our short zone 3 growing season, every week counts, especially in the middle of summer. July growing days are really valuable to us since they are so much warmer and longer than the days that follow in August and September. A crop planted just 2 weeks later in July might reach maturity 4 weeks later in September just because it missed out on the optimal growing conditions of mid summer. A week of September growth just can't compare to a week of July growth.
The specifics of what we can accomplish with relay planting depends entirely on our growing zone and the season extension techniques we are able to incorporate. We can pull off really quick transitions like this now because we have kept diligent records of all of our planting and harvesting dates over the years. This information tells us the earliest and latest dates that we can plant each crop.
If you'd like to incorporate more relay planting into your vegetable growing in the future, there is a much more detailed explanation in our online Classroom. It includes a planning tutorial, more examples of successful relay combinations we have used, and lists of maturity dates and timing for each crop. Once you're in the Classroom, just type "relay planting" in the search bar and you'll find all the details.