You don’t have to be a farmer to use the age-old practice of rotating crop families – in fact, for the home gardener, the process is vitally important to the health and productivity of your garden. From disease prevention to nutrient balancing, the benefits of crop rotation make it worth the extra planning required to put the system in place. Here’s an easy way to plan a four-step crop rotation in a home garden regardless of the size.
Reasons to Rotate Crops
Disease Prevention: The main reason to rotate crops is to prevent the spread of plant disease. Disease organisms can build up over time, resulting in eventual crop failure. Rotating crops keeps these organisms in check.
Insect Control: Crop rotation also helps reduce insect infestations.
Nutrient Balance: Different families of plants require different nutrients. By rotating your crops, you keep the soil from being depleted and can target soil amendments to keep your garden balanced.
Nutrient Enhancement: Some plants actually enhance the soil, so rotating them through the garden can produce free organic soil conditioning.
Crop rotation helps prevent diseases, especially for tomatoes.
Principles of Crop Rotation
Simply put, crop rotation involves dividing the garden into sections, and planting a different plant family in each section every year. A systematic rotating schedule ensures that every section eventually receives each plant family. Most crop rotation systems have at least four sections, with four rotating plant groups.
You can develop your own rotation system based on the veggies you like to grow – for instance, if you love onions, you might dedicate a whole section of your crop rotation just to onion varieties. Or if you grow just tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots, you can rotate those three. The main idea is that you keep things moving around.
The Four-Step System
To get started in the home garden, you can use a simple four-step system that requires little more than a basic understanding of what part of the plant you’re planning to eat. Divide your garden into four simple groups:
Group 1: Plants grown for Leaves or Flowers, such as:
- Salad greens
- Brussels Sprouts
Group 2: Plants grown for Fruits, such as:
Group 3: Plants grown for Roots, such as:
Group 4: Legumes that Feed the Soil, such as:
- Cover crops (such as alfalfa or clover)
Legumes are called “nitrogen fixing” plants. They have nodules along their roots, with specialized bacteria called rhizobia, that allow them to absorb nitrogen from the air, then release it into the soil.
Sample Crop Rotation Plan
Tips for Successful Crop Rotation
- Even small gardens can be rotated—the four areas can simply be sections of planting beds. Although with smaller gardens, it’s harder to keep diseases from spreading from one section to another.
- Potatoes and tomatoes are actually related, and they’re susceptible to the same diseases – that’s why they’re grouped together. If you have problems with early blight, you may need to separate them and not follow one with the other.
- Since legumes add nitrogen to the soil, they’re followed by nitrogen-loving leafy crops, which reduce the need for fertilizer.
- Root crops break up the soil, so they’re followed by legumes that like the loose soil texture.
- Some veggies—such as lettuce, cucumbers, melons, and squash—aren’t as susceptible to diseases and can go pretty much anywhere you have the space, but it’s often easier to plan your garden by including and rotating everything.
You can practice crop rotation in a garden of any size.
Getting More Advanced
There are almost as many crop rotation systems as there are gardeners! If you’ve mastered the basics and would like to get more advanced with your crop rotation, the next step is to group plants according to their botanical family, which gives you more specific groups, and more sections of crop rotation. Here are some of the common plant families in vegetable gardening:
- Chenopodiaceae: beets, Swiss chard, spinach
- Compositae: artichoke, endive, lettuce
- Convolvulaceae: sweet potatoes
- Cruciferae: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, arugula, and rutabaga
- Cucurbitaceae: cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, melons
- Gramineae: corn
- Leguminosae: beans, peas
- Liliaceae: onions, leeks, shallots
- Malvaceae: okra
- Solanaceae: (Nightshades) tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers
- Umbelliferae: carrots, celery, fennel
Try to dedicate at least one section each year to a “green manure” cover crop—such as alfalfa or clover—that you can till into the soil, or mix in plenty of organic matter and allow the soil to rest.
- Crop Rotation (downsizer.net)
- Crop Rotation in the Vegetable Garden (University of Illinois)
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