Plant a Patchwork Garden

Try using a quilter’s mindset to maximize garden produce.

Mother Daughter Gardening

Try growing small groups of rotating crops for year-round harvests.

Photo by iStock/martinedoucet

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Many gardeners see the progression of a growing season as fairly straightforward and linear: They do all their soil prep in spring, then plant the entire garden around May 1st. Throughout the year, they’ll harvest what’s ready, but may not follow up with more planting. But using this method, we end up with 12 heads of cauliflower at once, then none the rest of the season. That’s not how we shop for food, and it makes the garden less useful than it could be.

For the past several years, I’ve taken a different approach. To make full use of my relatively small growing plot and harvest a wide variety of vegetables every week, I’ve gardened via what I call the “patchwork” philosophy. I take advantage of my space by sowing little patches of crops wherever possible, whenever possible. I spread out the planting of any given crop so that I’m not putting it all in the garden at once. The idea is to maximize production and diversity, and to never leave a spot empty that could be growing food—even a small amount. Growing my patchwork garden not only yields more overall food, but introduces a fun element of strategic planning. 

I invite you to see your whole garden as a colorful patchwork quilt that’s constantly changing. Forget straight rows or one “planting date” for each season or each crop, and think more in terms of an evolving network of different-sized rows and patches that you’re continually sowing throughout the year. 

The Strategy

There’s no single prescriptive plan for planting a patchwork garden. Rather, this is about seeing your garden in a new and unusual way. To help you visualize some possible planting progressions, I’ve divided several popular garden crops into “Rotating Crops,” “Fixed Crops” and “Canopy Crops,” organized in the chart here.

“ROTATING CROPS”
comprise fast-maturing crops; “one and done” crops that don’t offer a continuous harvest; cool-weather crops that only take up space from spring to summer or from summer to fall; and overwintering crops, such as garlic, that will only take up space during late fall of one season, and then until midsummer the following season. 

“FIXED CROPS” generally need to stay put — or “fixed” — longer than Rotating Crops. That’s because they either need a long growing season and plenty of warmth to mature, or they continually put on a harvest once they reach maturity, meaning you’ll benefit from keeping them in the garden until frost.

“CANOPY CROPS” will be in the garden a relatively long time, like Fixed Crops, but they lend themselves well to interplanting. This means they’re spaced far enough apart when they’re first planted that you can tuck in another fast-maturing crop between them. For instance, in late spring if I transplant five tomato starts, I have to space them appropriately so they have plenty of room to mature. That leaves temporarily empty space between and along the plants when they’re young, where I can sow patches of fast-maturing greens and radishes, which I’ll harvest right about the time the tomato plants get big enough that they need that space. Corn can work the same way, and can also function as a living trellis for pole beans and a canopy for squash, such as in the traditional three-sisters planting technique.

In general, with patchwork gardening, you’ll have an advantage if you choose quick-maturing varieties. Long-season broccoli, for instance, can take more than 90 days to mature, but much faster varieties have been developed that produce in 55 to 65 days. The quicker your crops mature, the sooner you’ll be able to fill those patches with new crops, and the more overall food you’ll harvest. Using season-extension devices, such as cold frames and mini low tunnels, will also give you extra time to fit more patches into your plan. 

There’s a temptation to cram too many plants into a given spot with this method in an attempt to grow more. That won’t pay off. Although you’re tucking in small patches, take care to plant crops far enough apart that they have the space they need to mature and thrive. 

Because patchwork gardening is all about maximizing space and potential, it goes hand-in-hand with vertical growing. Any time you can save space by growing up a trellis or support, such as with cucumbers, do so. 

If you can, start your own seeds. Days to maturity is one thing, but “days spent in the garden” is another. You can sublet a lot of days to your seed-starting pots. Even try transplants for crops like beets, which are often direct-sown, to decrease time in the garden and increase the patches you can squeeze in. Seed-starting also offers you more control over timing. Instead of transplanting all your fall cauliflower on one day, you can start a small number each week for several weeks, and then spread out those transplant dates over time.

I’ve left perennial crops out of this discussion, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make up permanent patches in your overall quilt. In fact, they should! I simply plant around my perennials, such as rhubarb and strawberries.

‘Sowing’ Your Quilt

You’ll want to know your first and last average frost dates. You can look yours up by ZIP code here. I suggest writing your dates at the front of a gardening journal that you store right with your seed stash. 

As soon as your ground is workable in spring, you can begin sowing patches of cool-season crops, such as peas, salad mixes, radishes, spinach and turnips. Even with these, don’t put all of any one crop in at once. To keep a continuous harvest flowing, break crops up in succession patches. For instance, plant a little patch of salad turnips each week for several weeks. Or, plant a patch each of snow peas, snap peas and shell peas around a few teepees as early as possible. Then, about four weeks later, plant another teepee of each. This is the strategy market gardeners use to ensure continuously available produce at market over many weeks, and you can make this work on a micro scale at home so the fresh produce you’re harvesting represents a beautifully diverse mix.

As soon as any crop is harvested, refresh that spot by working in a rich soil amendment, such as composted manure. Then, fill the spot with a new planting. In a single spot, you can generally grow at least two crops in one season — sometimes even three or four, depending on crops’ days to maturity and on the number of frost-free days in your region. For example, you might sow salad mix and spinach in a cold frame to harvest in spring, then sow carrots to harvest in late summer, and then transplant kale and collards to harvest in fall and into winter. 

Any time you’re using Fixed Crops, you’ll likely only be able to fit one other crop into the mix in that patch. For instance, you might plant your spring snap peas in one spot, and then about the time those are done producing, you could plant some sweet and hot peppers in the same spot, which will stay in the ground until frost.

You can always mix and match what goes into your patches. Let’s say you’ve harvested all your early spring lettuces that were growing in a 2-by-4-foot patch. Next, you might replace that one crop with two or three other crops, depending on how much you want of each to ripen at a given time. Perhaps you’ll sow a 2-by-2-foot patch of carrots and a 2-by-2-foot patch of beets to fill that 2-by-4 spot. 

Then, a few weeks later, when space opens elsewhere, you could sow more small patches of carrots and beets. In some seasons, I might sow any given Rotating Crop as many as six or seven different times throughout the year. For me, there can hardly be a patch too small. Even if I have five individual beets growing in a single square foot, that’s fine! That’s the perfect amount to harvest for a delicious side of roasted beets for dinner.

Because you’ll be rotating so many different crop families through many little patches, you’ll want to stay mindful about crop rotation. From year to year, I especially try to rotate my Fixed and Canopy crops, so that I’m not planting, say, tomatoes or other nightshades in the same spot until a few seasons have passed.

You’ll notice in the list of Fixed Crops, I’ve added flowers. I’m a fervent proponent of popping in long-season blooming plants wherever possible to draw a diversity of insects and pollinators to my garden.  

Join a ‘Quilting Circle’

When you buy a six-pack of broccoli starts from your favorite garden center and take them home to plant, eventually, you’ll have six mature broccoli heads ripen at about the same time. That doesn’t fit with how we shop for and use produce. If I go to the farmers market to buy broccoli, it’s unlikely I’d buy six heads on the same day (unless I’m planning to freeze them). I’d rather spread them out over the course of several weeks.

One strategy for getting around this conundrum is to form a small patchwork gardening group with friends or neighbors. You can make a date to go shopping for plant starts every couple of weeks or so. Then, split up what you buy. For instance, if you have three gardeners in your group, and you take home that six-pack of broccoli starts, everyone plants two that week. You can also swap seeds within the group to try new varieties and further elevate your garden’s diversity.