How to Intercrop Your Garden
Updated: Jul 25
With a variety of crops, how should we plant beds to maximize the characteristics of each?
This Lesson Plan is part of the Gardening and Sustainability modules of SustainEd Farms' virtual programming.
Background: Intercropping Your Garden
In nature, the likelihood that a plant -- in any given habitat -- would be the exclusive plant species found there is very improbable [if possible at all]. Yet, in industrial agriculture, the model has been just this: to plant just one type of crop in the absence of all other plants, and doing so for as far as the eye can see, for as long as can be done. The drawbacks of this strategy -- called monocropping -- are becoming quite clear: diminished biological control of pests, increases in the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides (and increases in resistance to those synthetics), decreases in soil cover (and organic matter) and subsequent increases in soil erosion, and a characteristic inability of the soil to hold water well.
Luckily, there is an alternative management system to that of monocropping known as polyculture (polycropping), which institutes the use of multiple crops at once and across time. While harvesting and general management of a polycropped system may be more labor-intensive than monocropping, the longevity of these systems, as well as their ability to increase productivity and soil fertility, is what makes polyculture an attractive farming scheme. Under the umbrella of polyculture is a practice known as intercropping, which is simply the planting of different crops next to or near one another. After a cropping sequence has been decided on, the next step to planning out the garden space is choosing how to intercrop -- that is, space out -- the crops that have been selected. If done mindfully, intercropping can help maximize the garden or farm’s output.
Students will be able to...
Understand and apply the general principles of intercropping to their own garden or farm
intercrop /ˌin(t)ərˈkräp/ verb/noun. - to plant different types of crops in close proximity to one another
monocrop (or monoculture) /ˈmänəˌkräp/ verb/noun. - a crop that is not planted with other plants and not part of a rotation of any kind
polyculture /ˈpälēkəlCHər/ noun. - the practice of planting multiple crops simultaneously
1. Gather your materials. You will need the following supplies:
a variety of seeds · a prepped garden bed · tool to make rows (hands, trowel, shovel, etc.)
2. Watch the following YouTube video to see a demonstration of how to intercrop a garden. Then, follow along with the remainder of the lesson by reading the steps below.
🤝 The Three Sisters … Companion crops, such as corn, beans, and squash, provide structural, chemical, and regulatory benefits to one another. As a legume, beans provide ample nitrogen to the heavy feeders (corn and squash); corn, meanwhile, gives the bean vines a structure on which they can attach to and “climb” to find more light; finally, squash plants have large leaves that act to regulate temperature (keep a cool environment) and retain moisture.
3. The first step in intercropping a garden bed is to carefully select the different varieties of seeds that will be used. The first consideration (or limitation) for seed selection is the sequence of your crops: it is important that you are not planting crops from the same family that was planted in the area the year (or two, or three) prior. Additionally, you will want to select crops that complement one another in terms of their differing needs and what characteristics they bring to the garden bed. Select anywhere from 2 - 5 different species to plant when considering the following information:
🧅🍓🌶Why intercrop? … The practice of planting different vegetables and fruits among one another mimics natural systems, thereby maximizing traits such as:
Diversity of root structures: Planting different crops near each other (grains, root crops, mulching crops, etc.) will add root diversity beneath the soil, which can allow the soil to more equitably allocate certain resources like water and nutrients.
Photosynthetic output and heat regulation: Tall crops that are spaced out correctly (with other crops planted in between) have increased access to light when they are not forced to compete with one another. Additionally, tall crops can provide shaded areas for plants that are easily heat stressed.
Increased productivity: Taking advantage of different crops’ overlapping growing seasons and space requirements will allow the grower to maximize the amount of food produced
Resistance to disease and pests: Planting different crops next to one another allows for a “biological rainbow” of sorts to take over-- different plants can confuse harmful insects, while attracting beneficial predatory insects (trap crops).
Adding nutrients to soil: By including cover crops in an intercropping sequence, more organic matter can be given back to the soil. Additionally, leguminous covers -- such as alfalfa, clover, vetch, beans, peas, and lentils -- will fix nitrogen from the air, giving other crops a vital building block for chlorophyll and protein production.
4. After -- or perhaps before -- selecting the types of plants for the garden bed, read the back of the seed packet to determine the typical spacing and/or light requirements needed by each plant. Then, using these spacing requirements, create a mental or physical representation of which crops will be planted directly next to each other, and how much space will be permitted between crops of the same type and crops of a different type.
First, take the plants with the greatest spacing requirements and plan out how they will be aligned within a single row, and how far each row must be from the next: this will give you a general structure for where the other plants will be planted.
After staking out the place of the larger “full sun” crops, you can take into consideration the spacing of other crops that will be planted in between the main rows. These, too, should maintain proper spacing between plants of the same variety and differing varieties.
5. Using your hands, a trowel, a shovel, or some other device, make rows in the soil that abide by the spacing requirements aforementioned. Check the sewing depth of each plant variety to guide how deep to make your small trenches.
6. Plant your seeds according to the spacing requirements you determined previously, and cover the rows with soil. Soon enough, you’ll have a wonderful variety of plants growing amongst one another, adding to your garden’s diversity!
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