At the beginning of every season, I pull out my garden planner and sketch out what I plan to grow for the season. I check what I grew previously to help decide what I want to grow next. Then I try my best to not plant the same thing in the same place as I did the previous season. This is a little method called crop rotation. I try to use it in my organic garden so that I don’t have any unnecessary issues. Keep reading to learn more about how you can use crop rotation for your garden.
Crop Rotation Basics
Crop rotation is a way to avoid growing the same thing in the same spot year after year. When you grow the same thing in the same spot, over time you can see a decrease in the health and productivity of your plants. Simply moving your plants around each season to a new location can help lessen the need for pest control, reduce soil-borne diseases, and avoid soil nutrient deficiencies. While crop rotation is typically used by large-scale farmers, small-scale gardeners can also benefit from this method.
What is Crop Rotation?
Crop rotation has been around for a long time. It’s the act of changing the location of a plant each growing season. This can be as simple as rotating vegetable families each season, or it can be a much more elaborate schedule where a heavy feeding plant is followed by a light feeding plant. Some farmers won’t plant the same crop in the same spot for 3-4 years, will use cover crops and leave their fields fallow, and will have a specific rotation schedule.
How Does it Help?
Crop rotation provides many benefits for gardeners. When you plant the same vegetable in the same spot year after year, that spot in your garden becomes a known food source for insects. By using crop rotation, you can reduce pests, similar to the benefits of companion planting. By planting in the same spot, it also becomes a place to host disease-causing organisms. And it can deplete the soil of certain nutrients. Different crops use different amounts of nutrients, and some even add nutrients back into the soil. Some are light feeders while others are heavy feeders. Crop rotation is beneficial for managing soil fertility, reducing the damage of insects, and limiting diseases.
For crop rotation, we rotate vegetables based on their families. This is because plants are very similar within plant families. They can attract the same insects and diseases, and require similar nutrients and growing conditions to thrive. The following list shows the different family types, and what vegetables belong to each family.
Vegetable Crop Families
- Carrot Family (Apiaceae): carrot, celery, parsley, parsnip. Light-Moderate Feeders.
- Onion Family (Alliaceae): chives, garlic, leek, onion, shallots. Light Feeders.
- Spinach Family (Chenopodiaceae): beet, spinach, Swiss chard. Light-Moderate Feeders.
- Lettuce Family (Asteraceae): lettuce, endive, artichoke, chicory, sunflower. Heavy Feeders.
- Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae): broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radish, rutabaga, turnip. Mostly Heavy Feeders.
- Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae): cucumber, melon, pumpkin, summer squash, winter squash. Heavy Feeders.
- Nightshade Family (Solanaceae): eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato. Heavy Feeders.
- Legume Family (Fabaceae): beans, peas, clover, alfalfa. Soil Enricher.
- Grains Family (Poaceae): corn, wheat, rye, oats. Heavy Feeders.
- Mallow Family (Malvaceae): okra, cotton, cacao. Heavy Feeders.
Planning Your Crop Rotation
There are a couple of ways you can go about rotating the crops you’re growing in your vegetable garden. One way is pretty basic where you just made sure you’re rotating your plant families regardless of the order. The other way is more advanced where you take note of what was previously planted in an area, and plant the next best vegetable based on the previous inhabitant. We’ll discuss both.
Basic Crop Rotation Method
The basic rule you’ll want to remember is that every year you’ll want to plant your vegetables in a different spot. For example, say you have 2 raised beds, and every year you plant tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. You could alternate which bed you plant them in each year. One year you can plant your nightshades in the bed on the right. And the next year you can plant your nightshades in the bed on the left.
Advanced Crop Rotation Method
For crop rotation, we already know it’s good to mix things up and move where our plant families grow. But to take it a step further you can pay attention to what was previously planted, and what can benefit from that plant. Here are a couple of rules to go by and a few rotation examples that you can implement.
Brassicas follow legumes – legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, and brassicas (cabbage family) are heavy feeders. This means they will benefit from the rich soil. For example, after you plant beans during your warm season, you can plant cabbage in your cool season.
Root crops don’t follow legumes – Unlike brassicas, root crops don’t benefit as much from the rich soil. By having rich soil, the root tops grow lush and green, leaving much to be desired in the roots department. Potatoes are an exception to this.
Crop Rotation Example #1:
Soil Enricher -> Heavy Feeder -> Light Feeder
Here is an example of an order you may want to follow when planning your crop rotations. First soil enrichers, then heavy feeders, and then light feeders. Heavy feeders require more nutrients and more frequent soil amendments. You can plant a soil builder like peas or beans, then heavy feeders like nightshades or cabbage, and then light feeders like carrots, beets, and onions.
Crop Rotation Example #2:
Fruit Crop -> Legumes -> Leafy Crop – Root Crop
Here is another example of classifying groups. Fruit crops would be anything in the gourd or nightshade family. Legumes would be beans and peas, or even a cover crop like clover. Leafy crops would include the cabbage family as well as the lettuce family. Root crops would include carrots, beets, and onions. While it doesn’t matter as much which type of vegetable you use to start, it is helpful to have an order that’s beneficial to the following plant.
Crop Rotation Example #3:
Legumes -> Leafy/Fruit crop -> Root crop
If you think about it, this example is pretty similar to example 1. The main exception here is potatoes, which are heavy feeders that would benefit from being planted after legumes. I view the whole nightshade family as a “fruit crop” and move on.
Keep in mind that while crop rotations are good to be aware of, you may not be growing every group in your garden or have the space to really rotate your vegetables. If that’s the case, you can always use soil amendments to help your plants, such as compost.
Do you use crop rotations in your vegetable garden? Comment below!