A Guide to Using Crop Rotation in Your Garden

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One of the best ways to avoid your crops falling victim to pests and diseases is to regularly rotate your planting. This is known as crop rotation.

Crop rotation may sound complicated but it really isn’t. Like companion planting, crop rotation is a natural, easy to follow method. It can work as a standalone system of fit in nicely with a Back to Eden approach.

Crop Rotation is an easy to follow method. By practicing it you will not only produce lots of healthy fruit and vegetables but your soil will improve and pests and diseases will naturally reduce.

During the course of this article we will look at how your plants will benefit from a simple rotation system. We will also explain how crop rotation systems work and how you can implement it in your plot, however small it is. By following a simple crop rotation system, you will be able to get the most out of your garden. 

What is Crop Rotation?

Crop rotation is a process of growing plants. Under a crop rotation system your plot is divided into separate areas. This allows you to plants from the same family, or with the same requirements, together.

Every year you rotate what you plant in each area. This gives each plant group the advantage of being planted in fresh ground. For this method to be successful you must keep plants of the same family group together.

For crop rotation to be successful you must separate your growing space into distinct areas. These can then be rotated every year with a different crop. 

Why Does it Work?

By regularly changing where you grow certain vegetables and crops you lessen the risk of soil borne disease or pests targeting your plants. Many pests and diseases focus on attacking just one type of vegetable crop or family group. 

For example, the fungal disease Club Root will devastate members of the cabbage family. However, for other vegetables it is almost completely harmless. By avoiding planting cabbages in an affected area for a few years the fungal spores will have nothing to target and will disappear. You can then resume planting cabbages in the area without any ill effects.  

Crops such as cabbages can benefit from crop rotation. The club root disease, which destroys cabbage plants, can lurk in the soil for many years. Rotating where you grow your crops gives the disease time to clear, allowing your cabbages to thrive.

Crop rotation also helps to improve the soil. Each vegetable group has a different nutrient requirement. This is often harvested from the soil. Planting the same crop in the same place every year can drain nutrients from the soil. Rotating crops helps to stop this nutrient drain, helping the soil to recover. As well as taking nutrients out of the soil crops can also improve or amend the soil. 

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeNA6XdMoF8 

A Simple Crop Rotation System

We will now explain a simple 4 area crop rotation system. This system requires you to plant in 4 distinct areas, such as raised garden beds. It can also be applied to large planters, or ground level beds. A complete cycle of this system will take 4 years.

Using separate beds can help you to clearly see each area in a crop rotation system. However, if space is at a premium, you can simply divide your plot into areas. Just make sure that you can identify each area. 

Splitting up Your Garden

Before you begin planting make sure that you clearly know which bed is which. Mark them as well as recording it in a notebook or garden planner will help. Writing everything down is particularly helpful. This not only helps you to keep track of your current crops but also helps you to plan ahead.

Vegetable Families

You may also find it useful to divide your crops and plants up into families. This helps you to quickly identify which crops should go where. If you practice companion planting you will be familiar with some, or all of these combinations.

Alliums: Garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Brassicas: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohl-rabi, oriental greens, radish, swedes.

Also known as leaf crops, Brassicas require nitrogen rich soil in order to thrive. Corn, spinach, lettuce and many herbs are all nitrogen dependent meaning they can also be grown in this group.

Crop rotation benefits plants because you grow plants with similar needs, often from the same families, together. This means growing cabbages and cauliflowers alongside other nitrogen reliant crops such as spinach or herbs.

Cucurbitaceae: Courgettes, cucumber, marrows, squash

Cucurbitaceae are generally grown in the most convenient place. Many people opt to grow them alongside their tomato crops, however you can fit them in wherever you have space. They will happily grow alongside both brassicas and legumes. This also applies to salad crops and sweetcorn. Just try to avoid growing them in the same place too often.

Legumes: Broad beans, French beans, runner beans, peas

Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, this benefits brassicas. For this reason brassicas should always follow legumes in a crop rotation system.

Many legumes tend to grow vertically. This means there will be lots of bare soil in the bed. Make use of this by planting additionally leafy crops such as lettuce, spinach, herbs or corn.  

Root Crops: Beetroot, carrot, celeriac, celery, fennel, parsley, parsnip

Many root crops can also be classified under as part of the Umbelliferae group. Coriander also belongs to this group.

Root crops require far less nitrogen so are best planted following Brassicas.  Many people consider potatoes to be root crops. However we usually plant potatoes alongside fruiting crops or legumes. Potatoes and brassicas is a combination that should be avoided. Both require 

different levels of pH in the soil to flourish.

Overly rich soil can cause root crops to produce too much foliage, at the expense of fruit. For this reason they are best planted to follow nitrogen dependent crops such as leaf crops.

Solanaceae: Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes

Fruiting crops, particularly Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae require phosphorus to blossom and fruit.

Allium and Root Crops are regularly planted together with no ill effects.

Turnips are classified as Brassicas. However they are a quick growing crop and don’t spend very long in the ground. Unless clubroot is a particular problem you will be able to grow them in any area. 

Permanently Sited Crops

Some crops are best permanently sited. To do this, identify the best location for each crop and grow it there. This can fit around your crop rotation system. Alternatively, if you have the space, grow these crops in a separate area.

Permanently sited crops include:

Asparagus

Comfrey

Globe and Jerusalem Artichokes

Rhubarb

Some crops, such as artichokes, don’t fit into a crop rotation system. They prefer to be permanently sited in one location where they won’t be disturbed. This can either be in a separate area of your garden or on the edge of your rotating beds. 

While you can incorporate herbs into a crop rotation system, you can also plant them separately in their own herb garden. A small herb garden can look great on a kitchen windowsill. Alternatively a herb spiral is a particularly attractive garden element.

Finally, strawberries can be grown in their own separate area or in the areas and beds. Many people find strawberries invasive so tend to confine them to containers.

Preparing the Soil

Before planting each year you will need to prepare the beds. While this is not essential, it will help your crops to thrive. Don’t worry if you are unable to do some, or all, of this preparation work. Many people practice no dig gardening. With the proper care and attention you will still be able to grow strong and healthy crops.

In the late fall or early winter dig over each area. This is particularly important for heavy and clay soils. Digging or turning the soil over helps to break up compacted soil clumps meaning that plant roots will be able to develop nicely. This can form part of your gardens annual transition from summer to fall. Working in some home made compost will also benefit your garden.

A rich, well balanced compost can help to improve your soil and encourage crops to grow. The compost heap is also a great way to reduce your waste and costs. If you regularly work compost into the soil it will stay rich and fertile. This means you wont need to purchase chemical solutions to amend the soil. 

If you have a loose soil, try growing an over-winter green manure or cover crop. These help the soil to retain nutrients that may otherwise wash away. The following spring simply cut the crop down and dig it into the bed.  

If your soil is particularly acidic, amend it with an application of lime. Liming helps to raise the soil’s pH level to neutral. You can also lime the plot that will hold your potatoes the following year.

In Areas 1 and 4 dig in well rotted manure. Doing this in late fall or early winter allows the matter to break down and enrich the soil.

Amend Areas 2 and 3 with a general purpose garden fertiliser. This is best done 2 weeks before planting or sowing.

Properly prepare the soil before you begin planting. Depending on the crop, and type of soil, you may need to begin this preparation work in the fall or early winter. 

A 4 Bed Crop Rotation System

This is a simple outline of a 4 bed crop rotation system. As you will see, once established you simply need to rotate where you plant each crop every year. A complete cycle will take 4 years.

Year 1

Area 1: Legumes.
After harvesting work in manure

Area 2: Brassicas.
As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Area 3: Solanaceae.
Lime the bed after harvesting.

Area 4: Allium and Root Crops.
Salad plants such as lettuce can also be planted here.

Year 2

Area 1: Brassicas

As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Area 2: Solanaceae

Lime the bed after harvesting.

Area 3: Allium and Root Crops

Salad plants such as lettuce can also be planted here.

Area 4: Legumes

After harvesting work in manure

Year 3

Area 1: Solanaceae

Lime the bed after harvesting.

Area 2: Allium and Root Crops

Salad plants such as lettuce can also be planted here.

Area 3: Legumes

After harvesting work in manure

Area 4: Brassicas

As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Year 4

Area 1: Allium and Root Crops

Salad plants such as lettuce can also be planted here.

Area 2: Legumes

After harvesting work in manure

Area 3: Brassicas

As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Area 4: Solanaceae

Lime the bed after harvesting.

A 3 Bed Crop Rotation System

If space is at a premium you can also operate a 3 area system. This is just as effective as the 4 area system. It requires you to plant the legumes, alliums and root crops together. A complete cycle of this system will take 3 years.

Legumes have an upward growth habit. This means that there is a lot of bare soil. If you don’t have much space, take advantage of the bare soil by planting alliums, salad plants or even root crops with your legumes. This allows you to get the most from your space. 

Year 1

Area 1: Solanaceae

Lime the bed after harvesting.

Area 2: Legumes, Alliums and Root Crops

After harvesting work in manure

Area 3: Brassicas

As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Year 2

Area 1: Legumes, Alliums and Root Crops

After harvesting work in manure

Area 2: Brassicas

As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Area 3: Solanaceae

Lime the bed after harvesting.

Year 3:

Area 1: Brassicas

As you harvest, plant winter varieties

Area 2: Solanaceae

Lime the bed after harvesting.

Area 3: Legumes, Alliums and Root Crops

After harvesting work in manure

In the 4 bed system salad plants were planted alongside alliums and root crops. If you struggle to fit them in, try planting them in another area, filling in the gaps between other crops. This is perfectly fine as long as you remember to rotate their position every year. Finally, planting pot marigold, or other companion plants, in each area as trap plants will also help to keep pests away.

Crop rotation is not a complicated or time consuming process. Once you understand the basic principles you will be able to easily apply it to your garden. This will enable you to grow healthy crops while also improving your soil.

Crop rotation can be a simple and easy to follow process. It can benefit even the smallest of gardens, helping gardeners to enhance their crops and get the most from their space. With a little planning it is easy to implement. Also, once established, little additional effort is required allowing you to get the most from your garden.

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