What do you think of when you hear the words, “Crop Rotation?” No, it’s not spinning your corn in circles to increase yields. It’s not some arcane wizardry of the fields. Crop rotation is a method of improving your soil, increasing your crops’ resistance to pests and increasing your yields, all by choosing the location of your crops with care.
Now, most people who are reading as a home gardener will not have a vast expanse of land to deal with. If you’re an urban or suburban gardener, you’re looking at a number of garden plots, not acres of land. Even if you are starting small or maintaining a current food garden for your family, it’s important to think about where you plant from year to year. Changing the places where you plant your crops is what crop rotation is really about.
Benefits of Crop Rotation
Just like people, your crops like to eat different things. Each crop can also add something different to the soil. For example, plants in the nightshade family tend to be heavy feeders. Eggplants and tomatoes are part of this family. If you grow them every year in the same location, your soil will get tired and your crops will not produce as well over time. Grow them in different locations and replenish the soil with other crops, and your yield will be good. Many people use soil-improving crops like legumes to restore tired soil. Legumes are very beneficial to the soil and are often used as cover crops or crops to restore soil that has been depleted of nitrogen. Here’s more information on legumes as a cover crop.
Crops also attract different diseases and pests. If you grow peas in one area year after year, then you’ll create a standing invitation for all of the bugs to come and visit your peas. If you grow tomatoes in the same place year after year, then the tomato blight can take up residence in your soil and infect your tomatoes time and again. Changing the location of your crops is tricky, but it’s effective. See more information on how crop rotation prevents pests.
How to Rotate Your Crops
You’re sold on the idea of crop rotation. But how exactly do you get started? First, take an inventory of the crops that you normally grow in the garden. Sketch out a map of the garden. Where do you grow these crops now? Are they in different places each year? Are they scattered around the garden, or are they in one particular place? Create a miniature map of your garden that shows areas of light and shade, wet and dry. Make a note of the places that are planted with perennials. Bring this map into the next step – designing a crop rotation for the garden.
What Crops to Rotate
How do you know what crops to rotate? Your garden needs a balance of soil improvers, heavy feeders and light feeders. It also needs to have a diversity of plants so that you can rotate crops easily and so that you don’t attract the same pests to all of the crops in the garden.
What do you have in your garden right now?
Onions, garlic, grains, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and squash are heavy feeders in the garden. To accommodate these plants, you need to have compost-rich soil and augment it regularly. These crops will tire out the soil if they are not rotated through the garden beds.
Radishes, turnips, beets, chard, carrots, and dill are all light feeders. You don’t need to worry as much about depleting the soil with these crops, although some crops like carrots attract pests and should be moved regularly.
Peas, fava beans, mint, basil, and sage all improve the soil. Legumes are especially outstanding for the soil and need to be integrated into garden plots to add nitrogen, even if you are not planning to eat the produce.
A Plan for Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is often done in a three to four-year plan. That’s long enough to complete a rotation that replenishes the soil and short enough to be certain that you will stay in a garden space.
Common crop rotations include:
Year One: Peas or other legumes
Year Two: Onions, carrots, and tomatoes
Year Three: Root vegetables like potatoes
Year One: Root vegetables
Year Two: Brassicas like broccoli
Year Three: Other crops
Year One: Leafy greens like lettuce
Year Two: Radishes and light feeders
Year Three: Legumes
You don’t have to follow an official planting plan. If you’d like to make up your own plan with the vegetables that you most enjoy, here are some tips to make planning easier.
- Choose one crop or group of crops as your focus for a particular bed, and plan around that crop.
- Plan around crop diseases and try to avoid planting crops that experience the same disease in all beds. That way, next year you can move crops to another bed that will not carry the disease.
- Plant heavier feeders after you plant legumes, since the soil will be rich with nitrogen.
- Try to alternate root vegetables and shallow-rooted vegetables so that the soil gets a variety of root structures.
Garden Design for Easy Crop Rotation
While it’s easy to talk about crop rotation, if you don’t design your garden beds well the reality of crop rotation can seem daunting. This is where garden design comes in. Work with your space.
Are you going to choose a three-year rotation? If so, develop an understanding of three places that work for your plants. Create semi-shade beds for crops like lettuce and peas. Choose sunny locations for crops like tomatoes and squash.
Plant crops in the same family together, or grow plants with similar habits and needs together. Add their companion plants too, either nearby or in the same beds. Companion plants help drive away pests and attract pollinators.
Determine where you can grow certain crops well and develop garden beds in those locations, then design your crop rotation around this garden design.
While it seems easy to rely on fertilizers and pesticides to boost the productivity of crops, in the long term these techniques will weaken your soil. Choosing the old-fashioned technique of crop rotation will help your garden plants do the work of soil-building for you. If you create a sensible garden plan and stick to it, you’ll find that crop yields and pest resistance improve enormously, without a single chemical addition to your food garden.
Tricia Edgar loves her small garden. She is an organic gardener who is intrigued by permaculture, straw bale and cob building, and green roof design. She also runs a sustainable skills mentorship program.