Crop Rotation

In the spirit of making gardening easy — ie growing a maximum amount of food with a minimal amount of energy expended — I started out years ago doing some very basic crop rotation.  Vegetables will usually grow no matter where you plant them the first few years, but in the long run you’ll have healthier soil, healthier plants, and fewer pest problems (and less work) if most plants go a different spot every year.  Yep.  The benefits of crop rotation include:

  • Disease prevention (only of the plants, unfortunately, not people)
  • Insect control
  • Nutrient enhancement

Bugs live in the soil. If they wake up in the spring and find a different plant than what attracted them there the year before, they have no food and don’t survive.  Some plants use lots of nitrogen; others put nitrogen into the soil — therefore it makes sense to grow nitrogen-fixing plants one year, and nitrogen-using plants in the same spot the following year.  That’s what crop rotation is all about.

Rotating crops is easy.  It does not mean that you have to uproot and move your plants.  Crop rotation just means that plants don’t go the same place year after year.

CropRotationEasy Three-Year Rotation
This is a simple rotation that doesn’t require a degree in botany to understand about different plant families.  If you have a single vegetable garden, divide it into three sections.  Manure one section per year.  Obviously, if you have separate garden areas you can simply manure a different one every year.

In these three sections/gardens, the rotation is:

  • First section:  till in lots of manure.  Manure provides the nutrients that plants need to produce healthy leaves.1  Grow leafy vegetables that produce above-ground:  lettuce, spinach, cabbages, squashes, corn, etc.
  • Second section:  do not amend soil.  Grow root crops:  potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc.  No manure here because you don’t want to grow big tops; you want to grow lots of good roots.  Manure makes carrots hairy.
  • Third section:  do not amend soil.  Plant peas and beans, which will fix nitrogen in the soil.
  • Fourth year, repeat 1st year.

Easy 4-Year Rotation

4yr crop rotationThis is very similar to the above, but the first group is split in two:  leaves/flowers (lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) and fruits (zucchini & other squashes, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, corn, etc.)

Sketch a Plan and Put It Where You Won’t Lose It

It doesn’t have to be complex, but it’s a good idea to have a notebook (or file on your computer) with notes about what is planted in each location every year.  This can be as simple as a sketch with the year written at the top.  You can add more details as you find yourself wanting the information — things like which brand of seed, which specific variety, amount planted, yield, planting date, harvest date, weather details, etc.  Whatever information will help get the maximum yield for the least effort should go into the notebook.  Don’t be a slave to the notebook, though. It’s about making life easier!

Plan your garden before you start scattering seeds.  If something ends up getting planted in a different location than you originally planned, it’s not the end of the world.  Throw seeds in the dirt, water well, mulch heavily, and wait for plants to grow.

A More Advanced Option

Garden planning can get much more advanced.  First, consider plant taxonomy.  Plants within a family have similar needs/pests, so rotate by families, rather than the simplified rotation noted above.  Also consider companion planting.  Some plants do better when paired together, and some plants do worse when planted together, so keep these discoveries in mind when deciding where to locate plants within your garden.

Taxonomy

Gardening according to plant taxonomy rotates plants according to their families (shown in red).  To rotate this way, you will need as many areas as you have families.  There are generally eleven vegetable families, but you only need to grow what your family will eat.  For instance, I have no need to grow okra so that eliminates an entire section of the garden.  Likewise with sweet potatoes.

Garden Taxonomy

Click to enlarge

Companion Planting

Companion planting accommodates the specific needs of plants you’re growing.  This theory says that it’s not enough to rotate from year to year.  We also need to bear in mind things like the fact that beans should never follow the onion family (technically, it’s the Liliaceae family, but most people would have to look up liliaceae and then find a list of those plants, whereas most people hear “onion family” and think, “Oh, that’s stuff like onions, garlic, and shallots” without having to stop and do extra research:) ).

Garlic not only repels vampires.  It also repels aphids, so is great to plant among your roses.

Tomatoes do well with asparagus.  Both are heavy feeders.  Tomatoes also do well with basil.  However, tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family and will both have fewer pests if they are in different parts of the garden.  Tomatoes should not be near cabbage.

Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, etc) grow well near aromatic herbs like sage, rosemary, and peppermint — perennials that you don’t necessarily want in your vegetable garden, but might like to have nearby or in the border.

Lettuce doesn’t like hot weather.  It can be planted among the corn; the corn will shade the lettuce, keeping it cooler so it lasts longer.

Lots of plants don’t like to grow near sunflowers. Corn is an exception.  Corn and sunflowers both do great if planted in alternating rows.  I like to plant four rows of corn in each bed, with one row of sunflowers down the center.

Raccoons like corn, so if you’re plagued with this problem, plant vining squashes at the ends of your corn rows.  Raccoons don’t like the vines and will leave the corn alone.  In addition to putting vines with your corn, you can also plant pole beans with your corn, letting the beans climb the corn stalks.  Of course, this requires delaying the bean crop so that the corn is tall enough to support the beans when they start shooting up 4″ per day.  (Horses also like corn, but your only remedy here is to plant far enough from the fence that the horses can’t reach — easily accomplished if you leave space for vines next to the fence, but I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to figure this out).

The best thing, really, is to google companion planting and locate the vegetables you want to grow to see what things will grow well together.  Or visit your public library and borrow the book Carrots Love Tomatoes.

Fertilizer

I am amazed at the number of gardening books & websites that advocate testing soil to figure out which type of fertilizer is needed.  Don’t fall into that trap.  If you don’t have access to horse and cow droppings, you can still manure your garden.  Some horse stables sell manure — others will give it away if you do the scooping/hauling yourself.  Take a drive out in the country and knock on doors where there are animals.  You’ll have to go out in the pasture with a shovel and buckets, but the benefit to your garden is worth it. If you’re not brave enough to knock on the door of complete stranger, leave a note on the bulletin board of a feed store.  Call a large-animal hospital — some even have signs up periodically offering free manure (u-haul).  Another option is to put a rabbit hutch in your garden.  Some people put the rabbit hutch on skids and move it every year — this means you just let everything drop out the bottom and fertilize your fallow garden spot, then till it in the next year when you slide the hutch to a new spot in the garden. There are much better options than purchasing chemical fertilizers.

My Garden

Theory can sometimes be overwhelming.  “Just tell me what to plant!” someone might moan.  Well, plant what you’ll eat.  My gardens vary every year based both on what we want to eat, and on how much I have left over from the year before.

This year I’m using two garden plots and completely ignoring the third (although I should at least plant a cover crop in the third, but probably won’t get around to it):

2016Garden

Next year, everything will rotate.  Also, I put spinach in the raised beds with the strawberries (and might add borage). There’s a separate raised bed for lettuce, carrots, and peas; the peas shade the lettuce and it lasts most of the summer.  Herbs and rhubarb are near the house (I plan to move the herbs since they’ve grown much larger than anticipated), and artichokes and asparagus are in raised beds around the yard.  Sadly, something killed all my blueberries.

The whole goal is to grow what your family will eat, without wearing yourself out.  Happy gardening!

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1Horse, cow, and chicken manure need time to begin decomposing. If using fresh manure, rototill into the soil, then wait two weeks before planting. The breakdown generates heat which can kill seeds and young plants (which is why these are called “hot” manures). “Cold” manures such as rabbit droppings and llama/alpaca beans can go straight onto plants; there is no need to wait before planting in soil amended with cold manures.

Easy Gardening – Potatoes

Potato PatchWhen growing anything, my ideal plant is one that can be put into the dirt and ignored until I want something from the plant.  When growing vegetables, potatoes are close to perfect.  It can be as easy as putting them in some dirt, then ignoring them until 2-5 months later when you want to eat potatoes.

Many people say that soil should be mounded up around potato plants.  This is called “hilling” and there are tools to make the job easier (which means it’s lots of work).  I’m partial to gardening methods that require the least amount of effort while yielding maximum results.  Carefully hilling extra dirt around my potato plants every week does not fall into the “least amount of work” category.  Fortunately, potatoes are much easier to grow than all the effort required to build a small mountain around every potato plant.

Growing Potatoes
First, realize that not all potato plants grow the same way:

  • determinate – grow in one layer, so there is no point in mounding soil around the plants; usually produce an early crop (70-90 days)
  • indeterminate – can produce multiple layers, so hilling soil around plants can significantly increase the yield; usually produce a late crop (110-135 days)

Early (determinate) potatoes can be sown about 4″ deep in very loose soil.  After the plant emerges, mulching heavily will help inhibit weeds and will protect the potato tubers from being exposed to sunlight.  Sunlight causes potatoes to turn green and toxic, so mulching is important.

Late (indeterminate) potatoes are good candidates for growing in potato towers/boxes.  The best plans I’ve seen for building a potato box are here.  Put soil down and toss in potatoes; cover with 4″ loose dirt.  When the plants are about six inches high, add three inches of soil or straw or hay or dry leaves (potatoes aren’t picky), leaving part of the plant exposed.  As the potato plant grows, continue adding new layers of soil/straw/leaves; new tubers will grow at every level that soil is added. Note that boxes are not necessary for late potatoes; these spuds can be grown in traditional rows, but you use more space to grow fewer potatoes so it makes sense to grow them in towers.

Fingerling potatoes are determinate, regardless of how many days it takes them to mature.

Harvesting
Unlike beans and zucchini that can get too big and tough if not harvested at exactly the right time, potatoes can be ignored.  When the potato plant is done growing, it will die.  Some people say to wait about two weeks for the potato peels to cure.  Others dig potatoes right away and let them cure in a cool, dry place.  The potatoes don’t care, and I refuse to be a slave to my garden (it serves me; I don’t serve it) so I harvest them whenever it’s convenient.

To harvest potatoes grown in a tower, simply unstack the tower and pick up the potatoes.  When you unstack the tower, it might be a good idea to have containers handy for the extra soil.

To harvest potatoes grown in rows, use a digging fork (similar to a pitchfork, but with wider tines) to dig well out from where the now-dead plant was growing; gently lift the dirt to look for potatoes.

It’s possible to harvest new potatoes from healthy, green plants, just reach beneath the plant and dig around in the dirt.  I like to grab three or four baby (new) potatoes from every plant, leaving plenty to mature.

Soil
Do not waste manure or good, fresh compost on potatoes.  Doing so will produce fantastic looking leaves, but that is not your objective.  Save the compost for lettuce, corn, and other things that grow above ground.

Older soil (not freshly composted/manured) is great for tubers.  It needs to be loose, not compact (no clay).  It also needs to be well-drained.  Potatos will rot if the ground is too wet.

Seed Potatoes
Most potatoes from the grocery store have been chemically treated to inhibit sprouting.  Even if they get old and sprout, they don’t yield a good potato crop.  Visit a nursery and buy “seed potatoes,” which are untreated potatoes that have begun to sprout.  My favorite nursery sells seed potatoes in April (when it’s time to plant); in mid-May, when potatoes are supposed to already be in the ground, the price on seed potatoes drops to 50% off (and there is no problem with planting them late enough to get the price break).

The potato “seed” that is planted is really a sprouted potato.  At least two eyes are needed.  If you have a larger seed potato with many eyes, you can cut the potato into 2″ chunks and plant the chunks separately.  After cutting, let the potatoes sit for a day before planting; this will give the cut edges time to dry and form a seal so that the seed produces a new potato plant instead of rotting.  Some people prefer to use tiny seed potatoes that can be planted whole. Although it’s easier than cutting potatoes into chunks and having to wait a day to plant them, it is not recommended.  If you plant small potatoes, you grow small potatoes. If you plant cut-up big potatoes, you’ll grow big potatoes.

Which Kind to Plant
Choose potato varieties based on what you want to cook.

  • Baked potatoes, mashed, fried:  Choose potatoes with a very high starch content and low moisture content, which makes them ideal for baked and fried potatoes but mushy in potato salad.  These are known as “mealy” potatoes.  These potatoes tend to have a coarse-appearing skin and include Russets, Butte, Rose Gold, and Mountain Rose (to name a few).
  • Soup, potato salad, casseroles, scalloped potatoes:  Choose potatoes with a low starch and high moisture content.  These are perfect for boiling because they don’t absorb much of the cooking liquid.  Low-starch potatoes are known as “waxy.”  The moisture content is too high to make good bakers or fries.  Waxy potatoes tend to have a very smooth skin.  Varieties include Purple Viking, All Blue, Onaway, and Red Norland.

All-purpose potatoes have an in-between moisture and starch content.  Experiment to see which varieties you prefer. Yukon Gold, Peruvian Blue, German Butterball, Yellow Finn, Superior, Kennebec, Red Cloud, Bintje, Elbe, Caribe, and Katahdin are a few of the all-purpose varieties.

The waxy/mealy categories have no correlation whatsoever to whether the potatoes are determinate/indeterminate.  Ideally, a garden would have a few rows of mealy early potatoes, a few rows of waxy early potatoes, and a tower or two each of mealy & waxy late potatoes.  Throw everything in the ground and cover with about 4″ of soil.  About 3-4 weeks later, mulch rows if you haven’t already.  Add soil to towers every 2-3 weeks after that, depending on how quickly your plants grow.  It takes very little work.

Rambling About the Garden

Do you every have ambitious plans that don’t quite work out?  I had every intention of building potato towers and designing a new trellis system for my peas, but gardening season rolled around this year without those things ever taking place.  I’m having fun with plants, though.

PlanterInstead of hauling an old barbecue to the dump, I turned it into a planter.  There are flowers in the main section of the barbecue, as well as chamomile in the little basket in front.  The hanging baskets hold peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, and variegated lemon balm.  Those plants all tend to be invasive, and I’d hoped that containing them would let me enjoy those herbs without them trying to take over.  I like the look, but have decided that hanging baskets are too labor-intensive because I don’t like having to water them every day.  I also like the look of thyme & oregano in pots on the side-shelves, but the pot on the left has a tendency to fall whenever horses reach over the fence and try to eat the plant.  Once I even found the pot on the ground on one side of the fence, and the thyme plant in a big, unpotted, half-chomped clump on the other side of the fence.  Instead of killing the horse, I moved the flowerpot.

I’ve also been working on some landscaping and more veggies.  In February, I started artichoke and lettuce (romaine & red romaine) seeds in my greenhouse.  Once weather started warming up in March, I moved the lettuce to the center of a raised bed.  Note: nobody needs two 8′ rows of lettuce.

Planting peas on both sides of the lettuce provides shade, which in the past has always kept my lettuce from bolting.  This is the first year that hasn’t worked.

PEAS and LETTUCE

I should know better than to plant peas without having trellis supports already in place, but planted my second bed with supports only down both edges, not in the center.  Oops.  It gives new meaning to the phrase, “a mess of peas.”

PurplePeas

Brussels sprouts went in mid-March, too.  They’re near the sage & rosemary, toward the right of this photo:

Herb Bed

GreenhouseIn April I started corn, pumpkin, zucchini, tomatoes, and acorn squash in my greenhouse.  I even tried staggering the corn, planting one package of seeds per week for a month, thinking that staggering the planting would stagger our harvest this fall.  That might work if you’re direct-sowing, but starting indoors then transplanting out doesn’t appear to work that way.  When I set them out in May, there was an obvious difference in their sizes/ages; now that they’ve been in the ground for six weeks, they’re all about the same size.  Even though I won’t get a staggered harvest, it was much easier planting a little bit every week instead of a ton all at once.

Corn-set outI have three vegetable plots.  The one about a quarter-mile from the house is where I put this year’s corn.  Taking tips from square-foot gardening and companion planting, I made loose-form beds just less than four feet wide, and in every bed planted five rows eight inches apart:  two rows of corn, one row of sunflowers, and two more rows of corn.  The corn is now three feet high and doing well.  Pumpkins and acorn squash are also in this garden plot.

Potatoes, celery, carrots, tomatoes, basil, and zucchini are in the plot behind my house.   This afternoon I stuck my hand under some of the potato plants and pulled out tiny blue potatoes — no need to wait until the plants die to begin harvesting.

Garden by house

The photo on the right show tall potatoes in the back, and very short ones in front.  I hadn’t planned to experiment, but in mid-May, shortly after I moved all my warm-weather starts outside, a local nursery advertised their remaining seed potatoes at 50% off.  I bought a bunch.  If they produce as well as the potatoes started in April, next year I plan to wait until they’re half-price before making my purchase.

A few times I’ve mentioned mulching.  When I set out the squash & celery, I mulched that entire section of the garden quite heavily with grass clippings (about 8-12 inches).  It’s been six weeks now. I have not needed to pull any weeds from the mulched section of garden:

Mulching

TomatoBasilAnother idea I took from companion planting:  tomatoes do well with carrots, and also with basil.  The tomato rows are about one foot wide.  In one, I planted basil between the tomato plants.  In another horizontal row of tomatoes, I made short vertical rows of carrots between the tomato plants.  This conserves space and makes all the plants healthier.

TomatoCarrots

Out in the front yard, I put in some evergreen huckleberry plants.  Once they’re full-sized I should have a nice 4′ hedge.  I’m under-planting the huckleberries with lingonberries.

Future Evergreen Huckleberry HedgeHuckleberries are related to another berry that is supposed to be helpful for RA, so that’s just one more reason to enjoy them!  I also put in five blueberry bushes, and a white currant.

Along the driveway, just beside the currant bush, is a huge row of artichokes.  They should produce for four or five years before needing to be replaced.  I intend to add a few taller bushes to break the monotony, but probably not until next year.

Artichoke

And, if you just scrolled because this post got waaaaaaayyyy too long, it boils down to:  the garden is growing.  I keep playing in the dirt so that I know there aren’t strange pesticides in my family’s food.

Hope life is treating you well.