Plant a Patchwork Garden

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

| March/April 2017

  • Mother Daughter Gardening
    Try growing small groups of rotating crops for year-round harvests.
    Photo by iStock/martinedoucet
  • Vertical Growing
    In a patchwork garden, take advantage of vertical growing spaces whenever you can.
    Photo by iStock/Brzozowska
  • Late Spring Garden Map
    Garden bed plan
    Photo by Shelley Stonebrook
  • Garden Bed One Month Later
    Garden bed plan (one month later)
    Photo by Shelley Stonebrook

  • Mother Daughter Gardening
  • Vertical Growing
  • Late Spring Garden Map
  • Garden Bed One Month Later

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.

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. 

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