What Is Intercropping?

Plants in the ground

It’s amazing how much food you can grow in a very small space. Picture a tomato plant in a pot or potatoes in a barrel. Think about prolific heads of lettuce and spinach side by side in an overflowing raised garden bed. One way to make even better use of a small garden is a technique called intercropping. This basically means sharing one space between different types of crops. Intercropping has been around for many generations, and for good reason.

Different Types of Intercropping

One way of intercropping is to mix seeds prior to spreading them across the field. In this manner the plants grow in a random pattern across the space. The growing and harvesting processes are the same as with other crops, so thinning will be required, but otherwise the crops can grow side by side.

Another type of intercropping involves the careful timing of planting so that one crop overlaps another. When the first crop nears the mature stage, the second crop is planted and encouraged to grow in the space that will soon be left by the first crop.

The third and most common type of intercropping is especially useful for the backyard gardener. Row intercropping is achieved by planting compatible plants in tight rows next to each other. This is typically done with an above-ground crop, such as lettuce, next to a below-ground crop, such as carrots, that are planted at or near the same time.

Yet another way to tackle intercropping is to plant a fast-growing, short season crop intermingled with a long-season crop. This way, the ready-in-a-month radishes will be out of the ground before the 90-day peppers need the space.

Plants growing outdoors

Benefits of Intercropping

One of the major benefits of intercropping is the sheer number of plants you can squeeze into small spaces. With proper planning, you can essentially double the amount of food you are growing!

In addition to making efficient use of small spaces, intercropping provides the gardener other advantages as well. Think about the practice of crop rotation. Farmers do this to avoid one crop stripping the soil of all the nutrients. The diversity of plants through intercropping helps to stabilize the nutrients that they all need, assuming the soil is nutrient dense to begin with. Happy soil leads to happy plants, which leads to happy gardeners.

Another advantage of intercropping is that a greater number of plants can share limited resources. The result is healthy plants with fewer raw materials. For example, the water in a typical garden would be absorbed into the soil, however, with intercropping any excess water from one crop is taken in by the neighboring crop. This process also saves you money by conserving water and minimizing the required soil amendments.

Intercropping is also a time saver. With plants so close together, there is less back and forth. Plus, the “overcrowding” of plants naturally pushes out weeds, meaning less time pulling them by hand.

Seeds in the ground

What to Intercrop

You will need to take your personal preferences into account of course when assessing what crops you want to include in your garden. Some plants play the intercropping game better than others. Investigate the harvest length, gestation period, and height of plants in your consideration. Look for plants that like shade to hover beneath the leaves of taller, lusher vegetables. Place shallow-rooted options, like lettuce, next to underground-growing crops, like root vegetables. Watch for plants that are incompatible because they absorb the same nutrients, release gases that harm another plant, or cause them to battle for the same resources, such as beans and tomatoes fighting for sunlight.

The technique of intercropping holds many advantages for the backyard gardener. Regardless of the size of your yard, your garden can provide food throughout the season. Let your DIY spirit loose to build those raised beds, organize your supplies, and get those seeds or plants in the ground for the healthy harvest season ahead.