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.
Easy 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
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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!
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.