Even though the ground is covered with snow and ice and the sun barely shines, January is the time to plan your garden. There are four essential tenets of good organic gardening; have a readily available water source, keep on top of the weeds, feed the soil and rotate your crops. Crop rotation is probably the least understood of those subjects by home gardeners, but it is vital if you want to maintain a healthy garden. If you don’t rotate your crops, you end up with disease banks, depleted soil nutrients and insect problems. In our area, some crops, like potatoes, simply cannot be grown without insecticides unless you rotate because of the build-up of populations of potato beetles. Other crops, like tomatoes and garlic, can get diseased after a couple of years in the same spot.
The basic rule of thumb for crop rotation is never grow anything where you grew it last year. Preferably, never grow anything where you grew it two years ago. If you have a very small garden, you should consider starting a second bed somewhere so that can you rotate between beds. You don’t really need all that lawn, do you? Of course not. So if you have a sunny front yard, dig a garden bed on either end of it and rotate back and forth. If you have a single garden, subdivide it and plan a three to four year rotation of your plants between the subdivisions.
In our old house, where our garden was in our 16-acre back yard, we moved potatoes from one end of our property to the other end every year so that the potato beetles couldn’t find them. It worked wonderfully. Now that we are community sharecropping, we move the potatoes between yards, which are as much as 10 miles apart, a luxury most people don’t have if they are gardening in a back yard.
We have three different gardens going at this point, each about the size of a largish suburban front lawn. Each garden is divided into three sections and we are very careful not to grow any of the same kinds of plants in the same section more than once every three years. Within each garden there is a basic rotation: one section has a vegetable garden in it containing whatever annual vegetables the host family likes to eat. That part of the garden usually has slicing and cherry tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, basil, parsley, cucumbers, peppers, peas, sweet corn, whatever. Another section has the storage crop that interests us; these days mostly garlic and onions, canning tomatoes and potatoes, wheat and a dry corn/squash/bean combination. The third section is cover cropped, often with an early planting of weed-suppressing buckwheat, followed by some kind of legume and oats. We do intensive weeding for around 10 days in between the two cover crops whenever possible to clean up the seed bed. I will have a post about cover cropping sometime soon, since it is a vast and, to me, interesting topic.
For a home garden, where you don’t have large plots of land, I would recommend the following simple rotation. Divide your garden into three or four equal sections (depending on how large it is). Plant the sections as follows.
For a three section garden:
- Summer vegetables – the standard home garden things like green beans, zucchini, beets, salad, whatever you like to eat.
- A spring cover crop of buckwheat followed in early summer by a nitrogen-fixing cover crop like clover or an oat/field pea mix. If you have a tiller, till the buckwheat into the soil in mid June; if you don’t have a tiller just mow it or chop it up as best you can with whatever tools are handy and either dig it in or just let it lie loosely on the surface to keep in the soil moisture. Be careful never to let cover crops go to seed, or they turn into weeds.
- Whatever main crops you want to grow in quantity; garlic and onions and pickling cucumbers and tomatoes, for example.
For a four section garden:
Repeat above pattern, but have a second section of cover crop in between your two food crops. Really! It makes huge difference.
The next year, move everything over one section, so that nothing ever grows where it grew last year. If section 1 was your vegetable/salad garden this year, it will be your cover crop next year and your main crop the year after that.
If there is overlap between your main crop and your vegetable garden, simply stick the vegetable garden plants in your main crop section. For example, if you want canning tomatoes in your main crop garden, stick your slicing tomatoes in with them instead of growing them in the section of your garden with salad and other summer vegetables.
There are all kinds of subtle variations on crop rotation and endless things to consider or mess with, but the above rotation will get you started. If you are interested in more advanced crop rotation/cover cropping information that really takes soil fertility into account, I highly recommend that you read or watch anything by Anne and Eric Nordell, my farming geek heroes. There are also good plans for different garden rotations available on the web in many different sites.
One final practice tip concerning crop rotation. Keep a notebook. In two years, you may not remember if you grew cover crop on this piece of garden one or two or three years ago. Just jot down your rotation plan and note everything you put in that section. We use a loose leaf binder to keep our garden notes and make our garden plans. After a couple of years, it gets very grubby, but it frees our brains to think about other things, like new recipes for all those damn eggplants.
Editor’s Note: Dianna’s gardening posts are so helpful, I wanted to include a ‘link love’ to her past posts:
* Planning Your Garden from January 29, 2011
* Dianna’s first post on growing & harvesting wheat and what they do with it…
* Not garden-specific, but its almost Maple Tree Tapping Time: Dianna wrote a ‘how to’ post on tapping Maple Syrup.
* Compost 101
* May is the Time to Plant Your Garden
* July is for Garlic Harvest
* How to Braid Garlic
* Dianna’s more in-depth post about growing & harvesting wheat.
* September is for Eggplants