It's easy to see that as empty spots appear in the garden, they fill up with weeds. More work for you, and less return for your effort.

Garden books suggest sprinkling some lettuce seed in the gaps, as a "catch crop." Great concept--except that lettuce really hates to sprout in hot weather. Books also suggest flats of seedlings ready to plant when a gap appears.  Not realistic for most of us. We like to use a real-world combination of the right plants and the right location: The key is creating microclimates by layering sun-lovers above and shade-lovers underneath, just as nature does.

Say you have a bed of  broccoli or lettuce. As you cut the veggies, bare spots appear. If you scratch in a few seeds for heat-adapted crops like orach, purslane, amaranth, or squash, you cover the ground quickly and have a healthy, juicy crop to harvest. Learning how to use a bumper crop of an unfamiliar heat-lover is a better alternative than watching the weeds choke out a few bitter, stressed, lettuces, radishes, and the like.  Using the right crops makes it easy.

Creating the right location is mostly a matter of pairing tall sun-lovers with short shade-lovers. Understory crops give you a great place to grow plants that like relief from direct summer sun. Carpet the ground under and between your taller plants. Any plant that tends to have problems with bolting, tipburn, scorching, sunscald, or bitterness when grown in hot sun is a great candidate for the understory layer.  Beets, lettuce, and arugula do well under tomatoes; so do cucumbers. Cilantro and greens thrive under corn. Less room for weeds, more food for you.

Smaller plants that love sun are best placed to the south of your tall sun-lovers. That is where the hot sun will slant in. Plant basil on the sunny side of your pepper plants to protect the peppers from sunscald. 

Three sisters plantings of corn, beans and squash use this principle. The corn is planted in a circle, fairly well spaced. Pole beans grow up the corn. Squash carpets the ground outside the circle. Since all of these are sun-lovers, they need to be spaced fairly widely for the sun to get in. If you live in a cloudier climate, or want to space the corn more closely, try using shade-lovers like greens instead.

Three sisters plantings were traditionally for dry storage corn, beans, and squash. A faster-growing, fresher alternative is to use sweet corn, green beans, and summer squash. Paired with the forth sister, sunflower, we carry these as a kit, called the Four Fresh Sisters Collection.

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