Garden Crop Rotation Simplified

Crop rotation can get a little confusing but is necessary in traditional gardens and in raised beds.

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by Unsplash/Markus Spiske

One of the biggest obstacles for gardeners is crop rotation. This sounds like a simple task, but when you take into account which plants are companion plants, what type of soil each needs, and try to work those into crop rotation, well it gets a little confusing.

Crop rotation is necessary whether you plant in a traditional garden or plant in raised beds. The bottom line is that soil needs to rest between different types of plants, no matter where they are rooted. Soil nutrients are depleted when a large number of the same plant family are grown in the same ground year after year. Also, certain pests like large numbers of the same crop. Rotation deters these pests.

When plants are grown in the same area year after year, the soil needs to be replenished. Often, this requires artificial fertilizers to rebuild it. Soil also becomes compacted if subjected to the same mechanical processes.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, anyone who has ever grown mint knows how fast it spreads and it can literally take over a growing space. When growing mint, you may want to keep it in the same raised bed or spot in your garden. If in an open garden, be sure to plant in a metal ring or bucket with the bottom cut out to contain it. Perennial crops like rhubarb and asparagus also need a dedicated spot since they are not dug up every year.

This year, I ran across an article by Henry Homeyer in The Old Farmer’s Almanac that helps to simplify this process. Thank you to Henry, as I am going to share some of his highlights of planting in quarters, along with some of my techniques.

Advantages of Crop Rotation

Different plants extract different nutrients from the soil so it minimizes nutrient depletion.

Rotation reduces the spread of diseases that live in the soil. Certain funguses and bacteria can survive from season to season and planting their same host plants in the same spot year after year helps them to flourish.

Crop rotation lessons the need for pest control.

Crop Rotation Using Quarters

The simplest way to accomplish crop rotation is to divide your garden in quarters by establishing a central point and rotating crops around it. This works for beds and traditional gardens. For raised beds, simply rotate crops from one bed to another.

For regular gardens, if you grow the same vegetables every year and all members of a vegetable family fit into one quarter, this is fairly simple by rotating quarters. However, this hinders weed control a bit. If, like me, you like to rototill between the rows, then doing each quarter separately doesn’t work so well. Also, if you have more of one family of vegetables than others (like more tomato plants than green beans), then your quarters will not be equal.

For this reason, I like to rotate with the row method. Instead of a central point, I plant everything in rows like always. The first few rows that have vegetables of the same family will become the last few rows next year, the second few rows will become the first, the third the second and the fourth will move up to third.

Whichever way you choose to do it, the same crop will only be planted in the same garden spot or raised bed every four years.

Most soil-borne pests and diseases run their course after three or four years. This is why a four-quarter plan works well. If you are doing a row method or raised beds, a three-year rotation also works. A three-year plan doesn’t lend itself well for dividing the whole garden as managing a third of a garden is hard since no rows would be straight and of the same length.

Another important, and often overlooked fact, is to be sure and keep a chart each year. I know, spring comes and you just want to dive in and plant.

Remembering next year what was planted where is easier said than done. Keep a chart; it won’t take that long to create and is great for future reference. I actually have a folder where I keep all of my charts so I have a history of the garden layouts.

Other Strategies

As with anything, no one strategy will solve all pest and nutrient problems. Although crop rotation plays a big role, a few other things come into play to ensure a healthy, productive crop.

Have a tall and short garden crop rotation.

Tall varieties of beans, gourds, cucumbers and other vegetables can share trellis and fence space. Then plant vegetables that don’t need support in other parts of the garden.

We once had a pumpkin vine that got away from us and climbed up the pine tree. We actually had small pumpkins hanging in the tree!

Some crops are heavier feeders than others.

One example is corn, which does well growing where nitrogen-fixing peas or beans have previously grown and built up the soil. Lighter feeders like carrots, lettuce, onion and squash families do well in soil where heavy feeders have recently grown.

If you have the space, let the garden lay fallow for a year.

You can divide your garden into two sections, planting one every other year. If you really have extra space, you can have an “extra” garden and rotate them each year, covering the idle one with compost and mulching heavily. To keep weeds at bay in the spare garden, you can plant cover crops like buckwheat. Just remember to cut it before it goes to seed.

For those perennial areas where garlic, rhubarb, or asparagus are established, they need to stay in the same spot until there is a reason to move it. Just be sure and compost it every year and add some organic fertilizer.

Tough pests.

Even crop rotation can’t squelch die-hard pests like potato beetles and Japanese beetles. Wherever you move the host plants, they will find them. Predatory insects like ladybugs and certain flowers like marigolds can help control certain pests that just won’t give up.

Crop rotation plays a vital role in a healthy garden but it is only one of the components. Plants need 13 minerals and a bag of 10-10-10 only provides three of them. Having good soil by applying lots of organic matter rather than commercial fertilizers and having a healthy environment for them to flourish will help ensure a productive garden.

Lois Hoffman is a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Michigan.

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