Planting Between the Lines: Intercropping Basics

Intercropping is the agricultural concept of planting two or more crops next to one another in a field to increase productivity. Oftentimes, this practice is used in large-scale agricultural settings, but it can also be adapted to home gardening and urban farming. Here at the Jewel of Encanto Farm, we have several beds where we simultaneously grow two crops in order to save valuable space and increase overall farm productivity. For us, intercropping is a way to better utilize the limited space we have and produce the most output possible.

As we have started planting out our fall season, we currently are experimenting with different crops to utilize in intercropping beds. We have a raised bed in which we are growing green leaf lettuce along with spinach. The green leaf lettuce was transplanted into rows & spinach seed was sowed in between the lettuce rows. Spinach takes about 40 days to harvest & leaf lettuce takes about 55 to 60 days; this way both crops can be ready to harvest at relatively the same time. Because both are leafy green crops their roots are less invasive and therefore there won’t be root competition below the soil surface. The lettuce, although it is currently bigger than the spinach, doesn’t shade the spinach out because they’re still relatively the same height. 


A recent intercropping experiment we have tried is planting lettuce heads between the stems of butternut squash plants. Our butternut squash plants had a rough time with the record breaking heat this summer and died back towards the base of the plants. This left the areas on top of the raised bed clear of leaves. We are hoping that the butternut recovers as cooler weather settles in and the fruit continues to get larger. However, we are ensuring that the time spent waiting to see if the butternut succeeds is not wasted if the crop fails by adding an additional crop. The lettuce was transplanted into the gaps between the stems and once the butternut crop is done, the stems can simply be cut at the soil line and the lettuce heads will be able to finish their growth cycle. 


At the farm, we also have a small bed where we are growing i’itoi onions and chives. Because these two crops can take 60 to 80 days from sow to harvest, and can be especially slow with the higher temperature we had, we decided to grow zinnias to add beauty to the area and utilize the space. The zinnias grew fast in the bed and overcame the onions slightly, however the i’itoi onions are still thriving under the zinnias and getting enough light to be successful. The zinnias will continue to flower until the first frost, however we will most likely remove the zinnias when we harvest the i’itoi onions and chives in order to clear space for a new crop. 

There are a few important things to remember when intercropping: spacing, growth habit, root depth, and sow to harvest days. It is important to give each transplant or seed you are planting enough space so it can fully grow without inhibiting the growth of the plants around it. If you are sowing seed you can always thin out a line once seedlings emerge. Correct spacing is only possible if y

ou know the growth habit and final size of the crop you are planting. If you are unsure of the spacing or final plant dimensions, check the back of your seed packet. Knowing the growth habit will then allow you to determine if a certain crop will shade out its intercropping counterpart. Also consider the root dimensions of the plant. If you are growing a root vegetable it may be a good idea to have its counterpart be a plant with shallow roots such as leafy greens. Some plants have invasive root systems that can choke out other plants, so understanding root systems can be an integral component of successful intercropping. An important aspect of intercropping is trying to time days to harvest so that both crops can be harvested simultaneously. Timing harvests will allow you to re-plant the entire bed once the crops are done and have a more cohesive planting succession. 

Intercropping can be a great way to grow a more efficient garden and save valuable planting space! Try experimenting with a few different crops to know what works best for you and your garden!