I’m a creature of habit. I wake up at the same time every day, have the same breakfast, and sit in the same spot to read. Some would call this dull – I call it comforting.
Because I like routines in my life, I must remind myself of the importance of crop rotation every spring.
Even in a small garden, crop rotation is a valuable exercise.
The benefits to the plants include reduced disease and pest damage; the benefits to the soil include time to rebuild depleted nutrients taken from the ground as certain crops grow.
Crop rotation simply means not planting the same thing in the same spot every year. By rotating or choosing a different location for your tomato plants this year, you will have healthier plants and healthier soil.
Taking the rotation process a bit further can include looking at the families of common home garden crops and how they use the soil to grow.
The families include:
Alliums – onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, Legumes-green beans, peas, and other legumes. The legume family of plants adds nitrogen back into the soil and is referred to as soil fixers.
Brassicas – broccoli, kale, radishes, and collard greens. This family needs nitrogen-rich soil. It would be wise to plant this family in the spot where legumes previously grew when practicing crop rotation.
Nightshades – tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. These are all heavy feeders and need rich soil. Rotating their spot in the garden will lessen the chance of disease forming in the soil, finding and harming the plant, and the same for insects. Moving the plant to a new spot will make it more difficult for nightshade-loving pests to find the plant in the spring.
Umbellifers – carrots, parsnips, fennel, and parsley.
Cucurbits – zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins. Members of the Cucurbits family are heavy feeders and will do best when planted in rich soil.
Rotation is not all about disease and pest management; certain crops will add to the soil’s health. Plants such as tomatoes and carrots have roots that grow deep into the soil. As the roots travel through the soil looking for minerals, they create pathways for air and water to travel. By aerating the soil, they create better soil for next year’s planting.
Another way to increase the soil’s nutrients through crop rotation is after growing beans or peas from the legume family don’t pull the roots. Remember, they are soil fixers and have nitrogen-rich bacteria (not all bacteria are bad) that will enrich the soil if left underground to decompose.
For years when I thought of crop rotation, I thought of big fields and expansive crops. Yes, that’s true. My friends who are commercial farmers practice rotation. They rotate the fields of wheat, corn, and soy. This means planting the same crop in the same field every three years.
Don’t have acres of big fields? No problem. Maybe you move tomatoes and peppers to the other side of the garden. Perhaps you add a few containers to your rotation planting. If planting 4 x4 raised beds, rotating might mean planting in the back instead of the front or on the left and not the right. The more distance, the better, but a gardener has to do what a gardener can do with the planting space available.
The “experts” say to rotate on a three-year cycle. Three years-who am I kidding? I’m lucky to do it every other year, but that still helps.
Another thing to keep in mind. Perennial vegetables and herbs do not need rotated. Asparagus would be a good example. It takes a few years to settle in and produce, so let it be.
Consider crop rotation another tool in your toolbox. Something to use when raising the level of your garden produce and garden soil. If or when you decide to try moving crops, there is no downside.