Plant Grow Harvest Repeat

Grow a Bounty of Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers by Mastering the Art of Succession Planting


By Meg McAndrews Cowden

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“Wonderfully written, beautifully illustrated, and everything you need to know to get more productivity out of your food garden.” —Joe Lamp’l, creator and executive producer, Growing a Greener World

Discover how to get more out of your growing space with succession planting—carefully planned, continuous seed sowing—and provide a steady stream of fresh food from early spring through late fall.

Drawing inspiration from succession in natural landscapes, Meg McAndrews Cowden teaches you how to implement lessons from these dynamic systems in your home garden. You’ll learn how to layer succession across your perennial and annual crops; maximize the early growing season; determine the sequence to plant and replant in summer; and incorporate annual and perennial flowers to benefit wildlife and ensure efficient pollination. You’ll also find detailed, seasonal sowing charts to inform your garden planning, so you can grow more anywhere, regardless of your climate.

Plant Grow Harvest Repeat will inspire you to create an even more productive, beautiful, and enjoyable garden across the seasons—every vegetable gardener’s dream.



Life cycles in the garden are rhythmic and seasonal, and life succeeds through the succession of plants. As one generation completes its lifecycle, more and often different species are waiting in the wings to take its place. This constant changing of the guard is the tried and true way of the dynamic plant kingdom, and it blesses us with life: the air we breathe, shelter we seek, clothes that protect us, and food on our plates.

Summer is the most robust season in a prairie, offering the widest range of flower types that attract the broadest insect diversity to our landscape.

In the simplest terms, succession means one follows another. In ecology, succession describes how plant communities develop over time, with different groups of plants succeeding one another. Plant succession encompasses a procession of life, starting with pioneering grass species that fill in bare earth, and eventually give way to trees that, after millennia, become a beloved forest. Succession occurs in every landscape—even in our home gardens. The only difference is the time horizon we, as humans, inhabit.

Examining how various ecosystems succeed one another across generations is a beautiful way to study how we can meaningfully bring succession into our gardens. The food garden, that quintessential summer tradition, completes its life cycle in a matter of months, but the principles of succession are very much alive even in this abbreviated setting.

What Is Succession?

A succession garden lengthens the season on both ends, and if planned well, even reduces the summer overwhelm so common in traditionally planted gardens.

A succession garden incorporates lessons from plant communities into its very fabric. It dynamically emulates natural transitions across time. This garden nourishes you, the gardener, for as long as is feasible, because you have utilized plant diversity of both perennials and annuals to weather seasonal challenges with ease.

Succession gardening will increase your garden’s productivity by maximizing the days of your growing season, even if those days are limited, and maximizing your space, even if your garden is small. It is a mindset meant to engage your imagination and your unique goals for your family’s table, and fuel your stamina for sowing throughout the growing season.

The forest is an incredible teacher for the succession gardener. Though its time horizon spans human generations, it is nimble and ready for change. Armed with a deep seed bed, a forest can respond as needed to changing light levels and disease pressure, adapting and modifying its plant communities to match its dynamic environment. As you gather your seed packets for the season, so too does the forest keep a stash of seed on hand.

The once expansive tallgrass prairie is perhaps the landscape from which I have learned the most in succession gardening. The prairie is like a perfectly orchestrated bouquet, with more than one flower in bloom each day of the growing season, always offering food for wildlife. Imagine if your garden offered you nourishment from very early in spring to well beyond first frost, beyond the traditional growing season. Again, this is my ideal garden, where copious vegetables and fruits are accessible as many days of the growing season as possible.

A midsummer prairie is dotted with early season flowers like white false indigo, Ohio spiderwort, and purple meadow rue, a harbinger of the feast to come.

The common bond between your garden and these vast ecosystems is that they all begin with bare ground. Many of the same principles present in larger ecosystems abound in our little home gardens, principles such as edge and gap dynamics, overstory-understory communities, and interplanting relationships.

Lessons from the Prairie

The prairie is an incredibly dynamic and sophisticated ecosystem. It offers nectar, pollen, and habitat to innumerable insects and wildlife, and the constancy of its nectar throughout the growing season is steeped in wisdom. The lesson inherent in the dynamic prairie is that each season is enough. Flowering plants shift and negotiate space as the system evolves. It doesn’t rely on just a few plants to nourish, but as many as are willing and able to thrive. I can’t help but think of a diverse food garden when observing the prairie’s cornucopia of flowers across the seasons.

Prairies, like forests, go through many stages of development. Short-lived perennials arrive early and anchor the space, while other, later succession species don’t establish until five to ten years after planting. While all the seeds are sown at the same time, their maturation varies widely—a nod to the succession garden, to be sure. While the garden may be planted just once in a season, it is filled with vegetables that vary in their days to maturity, and so the harvests extend across several months. While an orchard is planted once, its maturation also spans several years.

Constancy is the prairie’s foundation. It times its flowering to be seasonally constant, as the insects it relies on for pollination have evolved in tandem with its rhythms to successfully produce the seeds of life that ensure it flourishes. I am simply in awe of the sleek yet understated sophistication of the mature prairie.

The revolving door in the early years of a planted prairie: early Canada wild rye fades to yellow and the coneflower starts to sunset for the season as stiff and early goldenrod arrive.

Like a well-planned succession garden, the prairie offers modestly in the shoulder seasons and more robustly in summer. But the prairie’s real trick is that its offerings during spring and fall are sufficient to feed wildlife in the growing season’s marginal weeks, and the same holds true for how the succession garden can provide for you. The prairie’s steadfastness as a source of nutrition for its communities, even in the lean months, reminds me there is always a way. The key for the garden is to bring the right foods in at the right time.

In this way, the prairie teaches us that abundance need not always equate to excess—that, in fact, abundance can be simply having enough; that what is produced and offered each season is sufficient. This is the rhythm by which seasons ebb and flow in a naturally interplanted prairie: a little bit is offered, for an extended period of time, nourishing at a more sustainable rate than the predictably overwhelming harvests of summer.

The height of summer is a naturally overflowing moment in the growing season, even in the prairie. There, summer’s floral explosion is commensurate with gloriously long days and ample rain, and the prairie offers robustly during this midseason floral succession. Similarly, the food garden offers the largest cornucopia of variety during the hottest weeks of the year. For the prairie, however, the season of abundance stretches well beyond summer’s floral fireworks.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer a steady, manageable stream of food from my garden all season long. It seems most years, during the height of summer, food comes at us in waves and quickly seems insurmountable, a veritable burden of abundance. The ingenuity of the prairie is how it spreads the feast out and marvelously times its blooms for as long as possible. And the makeup of the prairie ebbs and flows across the years—some plants are short-lived, while others arrive later, heralding maturity, inviting us to consider how that can apply to our food gardens.

I’m here to tell you that with a succession mindset, your garden can feed you longer too, taking its cue from the prairie. Let’s consider what that looks like. What if you actively tended growing vegetables under a low tunnel while late winter and early spring frosts persisted? What if you timed your plantings so the harvests arrived across an expanded time horizon, instead of just a few frenzied months? Could this possibly meet your food needs, reduce seasonal overwhelm, create a more robust local food system, and thus feed you more completely?

As the growing season fades against the cold of late autumn, what remains in the prairie is a substantial bed of seed, a veritable grocery store for flocks of hungry birds and small mammals. Likewise, you have the opportunity to stretch your harvests by growing vegetables that persist beyond the first killing frosts. You can put up shelf-stable vegetables in root cellars and store dried goods in your pantry. If your climate is mild, you can tuck root crops under row cover or mulch for winter harvesting, or grow overwintering crops like sprouting broccoli. Another beautiful lesson offered by the prairie is how to embrace these lean, dormant months of winter by producing and gathering a steady stream of nourishment for them.

At a foot tall, a closed canopy of garbanzo bean plants perfectly demonstrates the relationship between plant spacing and light availability.

Lessons from the Forest

The forest offers wisdom for the keen observer in many of the same ways prairies do. The forest imparts lessons about light availability; the relationship between overstory and understory plants; disease management; and the merits of planting diversely, all with whispered caution of the perils of overplanting. I see vegetable gardens as little fairy forests whose maturity, while it happens at warp speed relative to a forest, mimics much of what we understand from studying forest dynamics.

For most, more light means happier, stronger plants. Sure, there are shade-tolerant species, but they’re largely the exception, particularly in food gardens. Plants that suffer from low light do not develop as strongly as those with adequate light, predisposing them to all sorts of challenges.

In a dense, mature forest, it’s easy to observe the relationship between available light and canopy structure. Light penetrates as deeply as possible, but when a forest canopy is closed, most of the green is way above your head, consuming most of that light. A closed canopy is filled with mature trees, their branches stretching out to meet one another some tens of feet high, occupying every last square inch available in which to produce energy and thrive. (The space their leaves occupy is called leaf area.) At ground level, there is very little understory because of the lack of light that reaches the forest floor.

Your garden creates canopies of many different heights, depending on the crops you grow. My rule of thumb is that I want the plant canopies, no matter the crop, to remain in full sun and grow openly until they’re more than halfway to maturity. So, eventually, I expect my tomatoes to mass together in a big, beautiful hedge, but not until they’re at least several feet tall. The space you allot aboveground to your plants is more or less equivalent to the space they occupy belowground. And while it is possible to give plants too much space, more often than not, the opposite occurs.

Pushing my luck with this interplanting, the kohlrabi and onions spaced too close together, the first row of onions stunted from lack of space and light. Kohlrabi’s massive leaf area shaded the onions out.

When plants are young, sunlight likely reaches all the way to the ground, regardless of how densely a garden is planted. How long it remains that way is a function of who’s growing, their initial spacing, how fast they mature, and available daylight hours. Capitalizing on all this sunlight is both feasible and advisable. You can grow more than one crop in a space when your dedicated overstory plant (the one that will remain in place longest) is young. Quick succession crops are your understory, and before or as the canopy closes, these understory plants will be mature and ready to harvest.

Ever notice spindly understory trees trying their hardest to reach for distant sunlight as it’s consumed by the overstory? Perhaps they remind you of struggling vegetables who may have been crammed together because you simply had to grow them all? Older, mature forests with multiple canopy heights teach of interplanting as a viable technique for gardens, used with caution. Considering the maturation rates of plants paired together is part of the equation, as well as ensuring appropriate light levels remain throughout the duration of each plant’s lifecycle.

A July gap in the cabbage bed created by harvesting the last of our interplanted beets, arugula, and spinach opened space for summer sowings of carrots that will germinate under damp burlap.

Walking through the woods, have you ever taken notice that suddenly you’re in a sunnier spot? And in that gap in the forest, the composition of plants differs from where you just were? These gaps provide new life, and a chance for the seed bed to shake things up, bringing diversity to the ecosystem, all thanks to a tree that fell and opened a hole in the canopy. Depending on what plants establish in these gaps, the species composition will grow and mature at a different rate than its surroundings. These plants offer themselves to the landscape at different intervals, creating a few successions within the same space. Gaps like these create extended harvests that are precisely what we are aiming for in our home garden. Has your perfectly planted garden ever been menaced by an unwelcome disease, a hailstorm, or a garden pest? I see these calamities as opportunities. Of course, they come with a heavy dose of humility, but the gaps created by these mishaps (abiotic and biotic) immediately spark a new growing season. What you choose to do with this extra season is up to you, your creativity, your growing climate, and your seed stash or garden center.

Most forests hedge their bets against these inevitable bumps in the road with diversity. So should every gardener. The more diversity you add to your garden, the higher the likelihood of your success. Those unplanned gaps become smaller and smaller as you spread your garden out across the growing season and across plant groups. You can hedge your bets by cultivating a robust list of fruits and vegetables that excel in every pocket of each growing season, again, to create constancy (a trait the forest and prairie share).

I marvel at forest edges—the space where meadows, fields, or bodies of water meet the forest. The forest edge is naturally sunnier than its companion forest. More light penetrates the edge, decreasing precipitously as you head deeper into the forest and the canopy closes. Edges typically display a bouquet of green from forest floor all the way to the top of the canopy. Edges thrive with diverse plant growth at nearly every height. It’s a beautifully orchestrated display of plants negotiating space.

Your food garden is full of edges. An edge borders every raised bed. Some edges face the sunny south side, while others meet shadier northern aspects. As with forest edges, these unique spots within your garden are where light penetrates the full height of the bed, despite plant competition, and they’re also prime opportunities to interplant. Not only are edges eye-catching and diverse, they are productive. In raised beds, edges offer opportunities for flowers, herbs, and vegetables to cascade. You can interplant in these areas with more success than under or near overstory plants. My garden edges are often dedicated to pollinator or salad garden habitat.

Edges have their limits as well. Even a full sun edge can be planted too densely, and a rush to establish dominance ensues. Proper plant spacing will ensure the plants you add to your understory and along your edge have room to thrive, creating their own closed canopy as they reach maturity, adding a second canopy to the planting, and visual, edible interest to your vegetable beds.

Oak Savannas

Oak savanna is a blend of prairie and woods, overstory trees dotted within thriving open spaces. Leaning more toward prairie, this ecosystem is characterized by low density, open-grown trees. A diverse community of herbaceous plants flourishes in the vast areas of open space between the trees, like prairie grasses and flowers. As the trees grow tall, establishing themselves between fire cycles, they persist across the decades, while the understory plants ebb and flow.

In the span of a growing season, you can create these sweet little pockets within your garden through staggered successions and interplanting. There’s something very grounding about the open-grown sturdiness of an old oak tree, and my autumn kale “trees” are that for me. I set our earliest kale in place in late March, as tiny little seedlings. They grow up among a cohort of early producers, and the canopy of brassicas closes by early May. Soon after, we harvest the surrounding food, leaving the kale plants in place to dominate the bed for the remainder of the growing season. With a blank understory, we sprinkle carrot seeds, a perfect low-growing companion to our open-grown greens. As the kale plants mature and gain stature as foundation plants in our annual summer garden, the understory of carrots takes root, creating a mini, edible oak savanna.

Autumn gold in a restored oak savanna prairie ecosystem in Minnesota, where the dominant landscape remains in full sun.

A small seedling in late March, Scarlet kale now anchors this late summer bed and creates little trees amid a bed of carrots thriving in the understory.

Mixed Species Forests

Older succession forests with mixed species are some of the most resilient of all. These forests have repopulated gaps at various intervals over time. This uneven-aged canopy is the portrait of species diversity and stability. When calamity blows through, the mixed forest is protected thanks to its species composition and age diversity.

The mixed forest is the ultimate interplanted forest. It includes several different tree species growing together. This ecosystem is the antithesis of modern agriculture, where the orderliness of monoculture (a planting of a single tree or other plant species) eases overall management at the cost of biodiversity and resilience. Unlike a managed, even-aged forest, the mixed species forest is a living tapestry. With canopy diversity, this system thrives as light penetrates to different heights throughout. Each species has different nutrient, light, and moisture needs, and thus the system is more resilient and adept at weathering annual climatic variabilities.

A diversely planted garden is both aesthetically pleasing and practical, offering smaller gaps to replant throughout the season.

The home garden often embraces order because of its inherent ease of management, and while growing large blocks of the same thing does simplify matters, it is not the way of the natural world. Implementing smart and thoughtful interplanting, on the other hand, will improve your garden’s resilience, increase productivity, and foster healthy soil. The natural world’s system is tried and true, and embracing diversity is what we are called to do in this moment.

What natural ecosystems speak to your own gardening style? Where do you derive inspiration for your garden? Let’s dig deeper into how you can embrace the lessons of the prairie and the forest to bring food to your table for weeks or months more, across the four seasons.

The garden is always between seasons, and yet always in season. We are present in one season while preparing for the next, enjoying the moment while implementing an actionable plan for the months ahead.


The foundation of all succession plans is just that: a plan, and a thorough one. In order to maximize joy and productivity across the four seasons, your plan requires a grounded presence in today, as well as clear foresight of impending seasonal shifts, no matter the size of your garden. With a keen eye to the present, the fruitful gardener can embrace the now and derive just as much joy in what is to come, cultivating abundance with the seeds of today.

Just as forests and prairies progress through time, the annual food garden has a rhythm and succession as well, with a time scale measured in one growing season rather than years or decades.

In this chapter, I will discuss strategies for succession planting and how to implement them your garden, as well as some dos and don’ts. Those strategies include:

• Continuous planting

• Variety

• Blocking

• Endurance

• Zone bending

• Interplanting

• Staggering the harvest

• Food with flowers

• Vertical gardening

Balancing presence in the moment while dreaming, scheming, and taking action toward the season ahead is the basis of succession gardening. Gardens are dynamic systems. In the case of food gardens, the passage of time is marked by a near constant arrival and departure of crops as seasons blend, overlap, and play together across weeks, and in milder years and climates, months. Anticipating gaps in your garden, selecting plants that will produce over an extended period, and keeping the garden renewed with transplants are all excellent strategies.

Succession planting is the act of maximizing your garden. By amplifying what nature has taught us, my family has cultivated a garden that is exponentially more productive. We have learned to maximize our growing days, producing as much as we can on each square foot of soil in the shortest possible timeframe. You can accomplish this in your garden too, in a multitude of ways. Each approach has many benefits, and one or more can and should be used in conjunction with another to create a dynamic garden landscape. Let’s discuss the most common ways home gardeners and farmers alike achieve continued and extended harvests.

Continuous Planting: The Art of the Now and Then

A tool for all climates, continuous planting turns a typical “main season” garden into a spring, summer, fall, and winter garden. It transforms the garden into the produce aisle, providing food in every season. Executed well, continuous planting produces a diverse array of food throughout the growing season. The garden becomes a place where spring cabbages are met with early summer cherry tomatoes, and then late-ripening peppers collide with fall apples and frost-kissed Brussels sprouts. Continuous planting is the ultimate garden tool, enticing you to experiment and try something new, to stretch your season a week or a month longer, and to keep your sowing stamina strong.

Grasping the notion that a garden is never fully planted is key to embracing the concept of continuous planting. Think about how florists work to get the most vase life out of their bouquets by knowing which stems will last longer and which will need to be swapped out. The succession gardener must implement continuous planting in a similar way. Sure, your garden would be a satisfactory afternoon project on a sunny, late spring weekend, planted in a day and done. But that also means yields will be concentrated into a narrower time horizon, and harvests more meager than if you planted over a longer period and more diversely. Even just a once-a-month reminder to sow something for the next season is a major shift in rethinking the garden as the revolving door it truly is. The concept of continuous planting is fluid. I think of it like a garden renewal; motivation to keep an eye on your space, what’s maturing soon, and where space will open up for new plantings. Having a plan for the food or flowers you want to tuck in or direct sow as soon as that space is free makes the process more approachable.

Started indoors in early July and transplanted in early August, these heat tolerant head lettuces settled right in after our garlic harvest at the end of July.

Continuous planting is its own kind of garden plan. The clearer you can be with the types of food you want from your garden, the stronger your plan will be, and the more motivated you will be to implement it. Do you want salads all summer long? Get your pen and paper, scour the seed catalogs for heat-tolerant lettuce varieties (there are many to choose from these days), and sow a diversity of lettuce from late winter all the way until the end of summer. How about green beans three months straight? There are varieties for that. The key is to embrace seed starting, which opens up a truly endless world of possibility for the curious and ambitious grower, with new varieties released annually.

While seed starting (direct sowing) in the early season is easier—cooler temperatures, fewer distractions, more consistent moisture—plants establish much faster in the warmer months. So, while it feels more arduous to sow beets in the heat of early July, they take off more quickly than those transplanted under row cover in late March. Tune in to the intricacies of your growing season and the cravings of your palate to work through these details.

Continuous planting is the heart of the succession garden. If the thought of it sounds, well, exhausting, that’s because it is. I’ll be the first to admit it. Truth be told, it is a practice in mindfulness, of being aware of your garden’s needs now, and in a month, and next season. Enjoying where you’re at and seeing where you can be. Tuning in to where and when space will materialize and continuing to renew that space, maximizing the productivity of your garden. When you succeed at feeding yourself, your family, neighbors, and friends, the rewards more than compensate for the fortitude you had to muster to keep sowing.

Variety: Single Crop with Staggered Maturities


  • “Meg is always a wealth of information on succession planting and we cover her best tips for mastering the art of that gardening method and extending the growing season.” —The Joe Gardener Show

    “Full of wisdom, inspiration, and practical knowledge to help any gardener maximize production through creative thinking and strategic planning—naturally!”—Deanna Talerico, creator, Homestead and Chill
    “Wonderfully written, beautifully illustrated, and everything you need to know to get more productivity out of your food garden.” —Joe Lamp’l, creator and executive producer, Growing a Greener World

    “Cowden is encouraging, offering a variety of tools for gardeners to try in their own spaces, but understanding that gardeners like the gardens they tend move and grow at their own pace.” —The Northern Gardener
    “Learning how, when, and what to succession plant is a skill that comes with experience, but you can take a shortcut by reading Plant Grow Harvest Repeat. Essential reading for all vegetable gardeners.”—Niki Jabbour, author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener
    “An incredible tome on getting the most out of your garden, big or small.”—Kevin Espiritu, founder, Epic Gardening

    “This master class will entice seasoned gardeners and newbies alike.” Publishers Weekly

    “[An] inventive, commonsensible, effectively illustrated guide…A useful guide for readers in any hardiness zone, but especially those whose growing season is pinched—and just in time for the 2022 growing year.” —Booklist

    “The wealth of useful information in this book will encourage you to start maximizing your vegetable garden harvests.” —Susan’s in the Garden ​

    Plant Grow Harvest Repeat is your guide to jumping into the growing season at any point or dusting yourself off and after a crop failure…Above all, the book is an encouragement to experiment and expand your garden’s goodness." —The Seattle Times 
  • “Meg is always a wealth of information on succession planting and we cover her best tips for mastering the art of that gardening method and extending the growing season.” —The Joe Gardener Show

    “Full of wisdom, inspiration, and practical knowledge to help any gardener maximize production through creative thinking and strategic planning—naturally!”—Deanna Talerico, creator, Homestead and Chill
    “Wonderfully written, beautifully illustrated, and everything you need to know to get more productivity out of your food garden.” —Joe Lamp’l, creator and executive producer, Growing a Greener World

    “Cowden is encouraging, offering a variety of tools for gardeners to try in their own spaces, but understanding that gardeners like the gardens they tend move and grow at their own pace.” —The Northern Gardener
    “Learning how, when, and what to succession plant is a skill that comes with experience, but you can take a shortcut by reading Plant Grow Harvest Repeat. Essential reading for all vegetable gardeners.”—Niki Jabbour, author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener
    “An incredible tome on getting the most out of your garden, big or small.”—Kevin Espiritu, founder, Epic Gardening

    “This master class will entice seasoned gardeners and newbies alike.” Publishers Weekly

    “[An] inventive, commonsensible, effectively illustrated guide…A useful guide for readers in any hardiness zone, but especially those whose growing season is pinched—and just in time for the 2022 growing year.” —Booklist

On Sale
Mar 15, 2022
Page Count
288 pages
Timber Press

Meg McAndrews Cowden

About the Author

Meg McAndrews Cowden is a self-taught organic gardener with an advanced degree in natural resource management. Having lived on both coasts and settled in the upper Midwest, she has knowledge and experience living, playing, and gardening in many different ecosystems, from the eastern hardwoods of southern New England, where she ran free as a child, to the majestic rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, where she found home in college, to the edge of the prairie outside Minneapolis, where she and her husband are raising their two boys. Follow her on Instagram @seedtofork.

Learn more about this author