Using Crop Rotation To Keep Tomato Plants Healthy

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by Unsplash/Cathy VanHeest

I am about to bust all your crop-rotating hopes and dreams.

I have bad news.

I have experience.

I have tomatoes.

I have tried rotating.

I have tried companion planting.

I have top-dressed with loads of compost.

I have have amended the beds.

I have followed the rotational rules.

If your garden is on the small side (under 1/2 an acre – like mine) rotating crops may not work.





Let’s start from the beginning …

What is Crop Rotation?

Simply put, it is when you divide your land/farm/garden into sections and plant different types (families) of plants in a given space each year. You do not plant tomatoes in the same place over and over and over. If you did, eventually they would deplete your soil of what it takes to make a tomato. Additionally, all the pesky things that plague tomato plants (like blight, fungus and rot) will set up camp and build homes in your soil — thus infecting and murdering all your future tomato hopes and dreams.

Rotating the placement of plant families will keep the soil healthier, the plants healthier, and the diseases at bay (in theory).

The standard rotation goes something like this: Salad (leaf) first, Tomatoes (fruit) next, carrots (roots) third and peas (legumes) after that.

Why rotate crops?

• Rotating crops is healthy for your dirt. Legumes actually feed the soil.
• Rotating crops allows you to use your beds/ space most efficiently. The leaf family eats the nitrogen. The fruit family eats the phosphorus. The root family eats the potassium. The legumes put nutrients back into the soil. Each family takes something different from your soil. By planting these in sequence they can get what they need from the soil and the soil has time and is equipped to replenish over the years.
• Rotating crops reduces diseases. Moving plants can also prevent a disease that could be living in your soil from years past. When you move the tomato plants they are less likely to get the blight from last year.
• Rotating crops reduces insects. When the squash plants are relocated the squash bugs may not find them (Yay!). Or they may die trying to find them (Happy dance).

Crop rotation can be very complicated, or very simple depending on how technical you want to get. I don’t do complicated. I just want tomatoes. Thank you. Let’s make this easy.

Rotation made simple:

Here’s the order that will get the most from your soil and replenish it at the same time:

• Leaf — First plant leafy stuff:
Brussels Sprouts

• Fruit — Second come the summer goods:

• Root — Third are the underground crops:

• Legume — Last it’s the soil feeders:
Cover crops

Got that? Leaf — fruit — root — legume.

Now, the bad news.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

I have been a good girl who has following the rules and moving the tomato plants like a crazy person … BUT

What the crop rotating enthusiasts don’t tell you is that:

• Those squash bugs can pack their bags and travel to the new squash plant. No problem.
• The cabbage worm butterflies (those little pale yellow ones) have no trouble fluttering to wherever you moved the kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc and …
• The tomato fungus/blight that showed up at the end of the season last year will rear its ugly head in June this year. Even if you moved the tomato plants 30 feet from the past planting.

I have a fungus/blight problem. I have a squash bug problem. I have a cabbage worm problem.

There. I said it. I’m admitting it. I’m a failure. I can put the healthiest, most robust tomato plant into any of my 21 beds and it will have spots on the leaves in 2 weeks.

garden divided in to squares

Did you hear that? ANY of my 21 beds. I have a pretty nice sized garden. Some of the beds are more than 30 feet away from each other. Some of the beds have NEVER grown a tomato. But the blight is everywhere.

The truth is, with wind, rain and feet — it is easy for diseases to travel from one end of the garden to the other. I got away with tomato success for 4 years. The 5th year was a bust. I thought I was buying infected plants at first. I thought it was too much rain. I thought I was doing something wrong.

Maybe not.

Once a garden has been growing in the same spot for several years it is considered “established.” Established may sound like you’ve achieved something, like you’ve made it. It’s a bit deceiving. If you ask me, “new” gardens are better than “established” gardens.

Established gardens have things like bugs, slugs, snails, beetles, worms, fungus, mildew, blight, ants and snakes. New gardens are fresh, clean, unfound and untapped.

Those first years are magical. The soil is light, loamy, unused, full of nutrients, free from disease, uninhabited by bugs and full of potential. Your plants will be Hercules. People will think you are feeding your garden steroids.

A few years into your garden you may notice some disintegration, even with soil amendments and crop rotation. Rotating is absolutely good. It will definitely help. It certainly won’t hurt anything. But it isn’t perfect either.

You just can’t grow tomatoes, squash, cabbage and potatoes in the same general vicinity over and over and over and not expect to eventually have problems.

Deep thoughts: In a perfect world where there are beautiful gardens sprinkled over acres of rolling land a person could plant the tomatoes in a new spot every year. With 4 different garden spots, the tomatoes could make the rounds year after year. They would only be inhabiting each pocket of soil every 4th year — thus giving each garden a 3 year break from tomato fungus.

BUT, we live in the real world, with one garden and a severe need for tomatoes.

What’s a girl to do?

There is a simple fix. There are actually a couple of fixes:

• Get new soil. This is what my dad did. He removed the soil from his garden and had fresh, new compost delivered. This is a ton of work and possibly a lot money too if you don’t have cows.
• Put in a new garden (far-far-away from your current garden). This is what I did. 4 years is apparently the magic number for tomatoes. 4 is the number of years you can (usually) grow tomatoes in the same area before the Grim Reaper shows up. 4 is also the number of years to give your ground a break from tomatoes in order for the Grim Reaper to die.

Crop Rotation DOES work — you just have to rotate the plants FAR enough away from their last home. This is where the backyard garden struggles. At least mine does. The solution is super easy — move the plants.

wood stakes in three lines

You don’t have to erect the Taj Mahal. I literally threw down some cardboard boxes (free from dumpster) on top of the grass. This will kill the grass and compost over time. I then jabbed tomato stakes in them to hold them down. I carved a hole in the box and planted the tomatoes in the holes.

I topped it all off by mulching with a bale of hay.

stakes in three rows on hay

I have rows of tomato plants in brand new earth with grass walking paths in between.

This entire project took me a couple of hours. It was pleasant work and I have a fresh new start for my tomato plants. If I don’t want to grow in this spot again it’s super easy to remove. Just pull out the plants & stakes and sprinkle some grass seed.

It can be yard again in a few short weeks.

I’m not saying that you have to retire your old garden — just use it for anything but the tomato family (or cabbage family, or whatever family you are having trouble with). Does that make sense? I have a blight/ mildew problem, so I’m using my old garden to grow everything else and putting the tomato-like crops in new earth.

After 4 years of tomato rest — I’m told I can rotate tomatoes back into my old garden beds.

For now, I’m moving the tomato plants to a land far, far, far, far, away from the blight-realm.

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Happy Spring!