Harvesting crops is a double-edged endeavour. While we have the wonderful sense of satisfaction that comes with growing our own fruit and vegetables, the very act of harvesting it can leave us with a gaping hole in our planting. This is when catch cropping comes into its own, because we can turn that gap into an opportunity to grow something else delicious to eat.
The best catch crops are either fast-maturing or winter hardy. Crops that mature quickly, such as kohlrabi, radish and salad leaves, provide us with a harvest within weeks. Winter hardy crops stay in the ground and help to bridge the hungry gap in spring before the next main crop in our rotation needs the space. Catch crops maximise yields while covering the soil and helping to suppress weeds.
Why catch cropping?
The essence of catch cropping is that we grab the gap between two main crops in a rotation, and use it to our advantage. Dual-purpose catch crops are particularly useful. Turnips may be harvested young, and beetroots can be thinned out for salad leaves, while the remaining plants are left to grow on to provide beetroots for winter storage, or turnip tops for spring greens.
Catch crops are not only useful on the plot or in pots, you can also sow them in sacks or bags that have been used to grow potatoes. Water well, since a covering of potato foliage can leave the soil very dry, then sow a fast-maturing herb such as coriander, or cut-and-come-again salad leaves. If there’s a delay in harvesting a main crop, sow catch crops in modules, transfer the young plants once space becomes available.
Summer catch crops
Pak choi, Chinese cabbage and Florence fennel actually benefit from late summer sowing as it reduces their chances of bolting. Bolting (when a plant produces flowers and seeds prematurely) can, in the case of lettuce, make the leaves taste bitter.
If an area is being shaded out by larger crops, consider growing your pak choi or lettuce there, as the cool shade might help in the battle against bitterness and bolting. Hot, dry weather can inhibit germination in salad leaves, so a little shade can go a long way in helping to produce delicious salad leaves in late summer.
Even though you may be in the midst of a bean glut in July, it’s a good time to sow runner beans, as the newer plants will crop until the first frost. Dwarf French beans may also be sown in July as they will crop quickly and provide us with tender young pods in the autumn.
French Beans can be sown into modules in July and planted out as late as mid-August, but this is only possible for those UK gardeners with a longer growing season. Gardeners in the north, or with plots at high altitude have a shorter growing season, so the selection of catch crops and their latest sowing time will need to be adjusted accordingly.
Catch cropping does place extra demands on our soil, but as long as we look after it and keep it in good heart, we can embrace the space, sow catch crops, and maximise our yield.
July catch crops:
August catch crops:
- Chard (as a cut-and-come-again crop)
- Chinese cabbage
- Endive (protect with cloches for a winter harvest)
- Florence Fennel
- Salad Leaves
- Kohlrabi (purple kohlrabi may be stored for use during autumn and winter)
- Pak Choi
- Spring Cabbage
- Summer Radish
- Winter Radish
- Spinach Beet
- Turnip – roots or tops
Autumn-sown catch crops
- Chinese Cabbage – sow in September for spring greens
- Coriander – sow in September and protect with cloches for early winter use.
- Lettuce – sow as late as September for harvesting the following spring. Protect with fleece or cloches.
- Perpetual Spinach (Spinach Beet) – sow until early September to harvest in spring.
- Spring onions – sow winter hardy varieties such as ‘White Lisbon’ in September for overwintering.
- Turnip – sow in September for turnip tops in spring.
- Cut-and-come-again salad leaves – sow until October, protect with fleece.
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