How do you rotate crops in a home garden?

nygardener(z6 New York)August 5, 2010

I'd like to do more rotation of crops in my garden putting brassicas where tomatoes grew last year, etc. However, with limited space, there's only so much I can do. I'm not sure how much it will help to have tomatoes growing 10 or 20 feet from where they're growing now, and it would be way too much work to maintain separate gardens that are far physically separated.

How do you rotate your crops, and how effective is it for pest control and nutrient renewal?

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10 to 20 feet seems like a lot to me for problems that winter in the soil,
unless you've got water draining that far

I write up a little map of where stuff went each year
so that I can remember to put it someplace different

For me, this is just one of the less challenging steps to building up my garden soil

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 11:17AM
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mister_potato_head(VT 5a)

My garden is on a hillside, and I've terraced it into three beds.(soon to be four beds) Each division is separated by a grass path, which in effect serves as a path between rows of veggies. I mentally label each bed A,B,C and so on. I rotate between these beds each year.

If you can't give up the space for a grass path, then label each row, A,B,C, etc., and rotate your planting each year by one row.

The object of the game here is to not deplete nutrients in one part of the garden, and to make it harder for pests to find conditions to their liking. Even a small rotation plan is better than none.

Enjoy your garden.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 11:21AM
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I also have a very small vegetable garden--it is about twenty feet by twenty feet and it is made up of raised beds (my soil is about fifty percent gravel, so raised beds are the only option). It has a shed wall to the North, a six-foot privacy wood fence to the East, a house wall to the South and is open to the West. You can probably tell by now that there are various shaded spots depending on the time of day, but it is overall sunny still. In short, this is a very difficult site to do crop rotation on.

I have not rotated my crops yet as this is my first vegetable garden. However, I have been reading up on it and I have a plan for next year that I think makes a lot of sense. Given the challenges of my small garden, I have decided to micro-rotate (don't look this up on the Web--I just coined the term).

I think it makes sense to start by sorting crops by size, as no matter how you rotate, a tall plant will eventually block out a short one.

Peas (trellis)
Beans (ditto)
Cucumbers (ditto)
Melons (ditto)

Summer squash
Bush beans
Brussels sprouts

SHORT PLANTS (and plants that provide almost no shade)

Now, what I will do is to always keep tall plants along the North and East side of my garden. So, along the North side of the garden, I will have a bed about 17 by 2 up against the wall which will contain cucumbers (cucurbit), beans (legume) and corn. The following year, the order becomes corn, cucumbers and beans, and so forth. These guys have a small bed that belongs to them and they are only ever rotated among themselves.

The bed along the fence to the East is about 15 by 2, and it will contain melons (cucurbit), peas (legume) and tomatoes (nightshade). The following year, the order becomes tomatoes, melons and peas. Again, these will always stay in that very same bed and will only be rotated among themselves.

As we move further to the West, another bed contains medium plants, rotated much like the ones above, and further West, another bed contains the short plants, rotated the same way.

This way, I can ensure that no matter where I put my plants, the taller ones will always be in the back and not shading out the others. Rotation still takes place, although with this micro-rotation scheme, it is not really possible to rotate each four years, only each three years (unless you plant really small quantities of each vegetable).

To further help controlling pests and disease, I will interplant garlic and chives wherever possible and I also ensure that enough beneficial magnets (e.g., borage) are interplanted to ensure good pollination.

So, I think with a very small vegetable garden, conventional crop rotation is too problematic to be realistic. In this case, it is not the garden that should be rotated but the individual beds.

The link below leads to a very good article on keeping a small vegetable garden, rotating and interplanting. It may not answer all your questions, but it really does give some good suggestions and is quite inspiring.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 1:01PM
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I forgot to mention one more thing.

With spring crops like peas and lettuce, once the crop is harvested, I plan on planting buckwheat. This is a very fast cover crop (you can turn it under about five weeks after sowing it), and if you cut and turn it under just before it goes to seed, it will really nourish your soil for any subsequent planting.

Some people will say it is a waste of space in such a small garden, but come to think of it, it kind of speeds up crop rotation, so in the long run, it is worth wasting that small space.

It is still possible to plant something after the buckwheat depending on when you sow the buckwheat. For example, in early June after you have harvested your spring lettuce, you can sow the buckwheat, and when you turn under the buckwheat around end of July, you can still sow kale, cauliflower or carrot there, which will mature by the time you get your first frost.

Oh, and buckwheat attracts beneficials.

Below is a link to an excellent Cornell handbook on buckwheat.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 1:23PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I have gotten to the place where I only want to raise certain crops like watermelons, cantaloupe, potatoes, green beans, carrots, beets, and peppers in raised beds [not boarded] that have been heavily amended. Other crops like corn, tomatoes, broccoli, sweetpotatoes, lima beans, strawberries, and onions grow well on regular soil

So I like to have from 2 to 4 years rotation. Corn would be 2 years and melons are getting from 0 to 4 years rotation.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 2:42PM
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gardningscomplicated(southeast michigan - 5b or 6?)

John Jeavons, in his book "How to Grow More Vegetables", talks about companion planting "over time" and "in space". "Over time" is crop rotation. "In space" is what's typically considered companion planting, or interplanting. Both methods are supposed to help maintain nutrition. And both should help with at least some pests and diseases. I'm using the "in space", or companion planting method, since rotation would be nearly impossible with the space I have available. And some things, like tomatoes, supposedly like to be planted in the same place every year. If I do get a buildup of some pest or disease, I'll adjust when it happens.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 4:08PM
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Mine is now a very small garden. The rows run north to south (to avoid shading out adjacent plants) and I rotate end to end each year. The tomatoes were on the east side last year - they're on the west side now and will occupy the center next year. The bed is spaded and debris buried each spring. Tomatoes had blight last year but are fine now. And no squash bugs either (squash in one corner, cukes against north fence and swiss chard, kale and beans occupying space is the middle this time around). A few basil plants, and a big teepee of Fortrex beans and that's about it. The whole area is about 12 X 24'

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 5:48PM
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donnabaskets(Zone 8a, Central MS)

According to the reading I have done on the subject and my experiences, here's how I do it.

First, you group your plants into their plant families. (On this, every book I have ever read agrees.) Yes, plant sizes have to be planned for too, but they are not how/why you rotate.

Brassicas: cabbage and their kin: cabbage, Kale, Collards, Turnips, many Asian vegetables

Curcubits: cucumbers, squash, melons

Solanacaea: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes

Legumes: beans and their kin, peas and their kin.

There are others, but these are the major ones.

Ideally, you should not grow any plants of the same family in the same spot more frequently than every three years. This is for the purpose of not depleting the soil of specific nutrients, not allowing crop specific diseases to build up in the soil, and for staying one step ahead of the crop specific insects.

For instance, tomato hornworms are the larvae of a moth. The moth lays eggs on the tomato plant, they hatch, the worms eat your tomatoes, and any you miss and don't kill (think just how hard those suckers are to see), fall onto the soil, burrow down into it and pupate. Next year, they emerge as new moths. If you plant tomatoes in that spot again next year, they are like a welcome mat to the next generation of pests. plant your tomatoes somewhere else.

I learned this year that flea beetles love not only eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, but they also love cabbages. How did I learn this? I planted tomatoes and eggplants in the same spot that grew Kale last winter. I had a few beetles on my kale last winter, but they did minimal damage. However, after nibbling on greens all winter, they laid eggs in the soil, and you guessed it. My eggplants look like lace, and it's not pretty. Fortunately, I had one plant extra, so I put it in a pot some distance away just by accident. It has virtually no damage at all.

I garden in 9 raised beds that are about 8 feet by 3.5 feet with 3 foot paths between each one. Each summer, I plant three beds of veggies from each family, rotating the 3 bed groups yearly. Each winter, I plant three beds with cool season crops (mostly brassicas) and plant cover crops in the other six.

I keep a map and the plan in my garden notebook. Planning gives me something to do in the winter, and is a handy guide at planting time. I have adjusted my plan to make sure that cabbages will not follow or precede eggplants anymore.:)

According to my reading, if you have to cheat, or you are in doubt, plant a legume between two crops. They fix nitrogen, feed the soil, and are reasonably pest free. Use compost regularly, as it helps with disease and insects too. When you add compost, turn the soil and leave the "bottom" exposed so that birds can pick out any lurking pupae or eggs they might find.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 7:13PM
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I have been struggling with the same issues as NY gardener. I get the principal behind this and try to practice to the best of my ability. However, my garden is about 20x20. Can't a moth fly 20 feet from where it emerges on one side of my garden (where its favorite food was planted last year) to the other side of my garden where that plant is this year?

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 11:14PM
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Yes.........sure it can and it will. Crop rotation is more about soil born diseases and nutrient depletion. I rotated the area where I planted tomatoes this year to where I normally grow brassicas. There was some over-lap and I noticed that the tomatoes grown where I had them last year were the first to show symptoms of early blight. My veggie garden is large enough there are differences in soils and sun exposure and it gets challenging with larger gardens too, because of that. You really want to put certain crops in areas where they'd go better but after gardening the same plot for 25 years now, I can tell you from experience, that you can see the problems if you don't rotate.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 11:23PM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

Anther thing you might be able to do with a small garden, if you can't rotate the crops, is to rotate the soil from raised beds. I have limited space, but also limited sunlight. For instance, I only have two places where tomatoes will do well, so the most I can rotate tomatoes would be between those two beds.

So I will often dig out a good deal of top soil from those beds and move that to the compost area and/or top off another bed for a different crop, and replace that with soil (that has sat in the pile for a season or two, and fresh compost). It's labor intensive, but it seems to have headed off any soil issues (so far). And it *is* a very small garden, so even the hard labor isn't that awful.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2010 at 11:34AM
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potterhead2(z5b NY)

I agree with donnabaskets, group your plants by family and don't grow any plants of the same family in the same spot more frequently than every three years

My home garden is also small (12 x 24), and it is arranged in 3 raised bed areas. I rotate the Brassicas, Curcubits, and Solanacaea between these three areas. The legumes are fit in wherever I have room, but I am careful not to plant them in the same area two years in a row.

Keeping good records (including sketches of what went where) is critical in getting this to work. I absolutely will not remember where I planted everything this year when next spring rolls around ;-)

On the other hand, at least I can rotate at home. I'm not able to rotate crops at my community garden plots at all. The whole field is plowed under in the fall and when we lay out the plots in the spring they are never in exactly the same spots as the year before. Oh well.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2010 at 3:00PM
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cabrita(9b SoCal)

I just rotate between winter and summer crops, but I pick different ones to rotate, this seems to work. We grow all seasons, so have to pay attention to nutrient depletion and pests. So far so good.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 12:33AM
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Ditto 'susan2010' My small yard is surrounded by shade producers [houses, trees] and a defunct pool [now, big ugly hole]hogs the sunniest spots .. so I also move the soil .. after excellent results from first experiment, I'm a believer. If can't rotate crops, rotate soil.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 1:10PM
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If you can stand to give ourself a rest from gardening for a year or 2, plant a cover crop or 2 over the entire garden and let your soil rest also. This will provide a great opportunity to deal with weed problems like bindweed that come up from an established root system whether you use a chemical (herbicide, vinegar, etc.) to control the weed(s) or do it by hand. It is also a good time to soil sample and get things like manure or compost incorporated or top dressed to help build the soil for those hungry vegetables that will be planted subsequently. If your garden is in an arid area it will also help recharge the soil profile with water lessening the need for irrigation.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 4:51PM
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Think this through. It doesn't make sense to worry about crop rotation on a small garden plot. It makes a lot of sense to do it on large scale agricultural plots. If you compost heavily and move dirt around, you're distributing the same pathogens around the yard. Bugs fly and crawl around no matter where plants are placed. Soil born diseases such as powdery mildew and root knot nematodes are ubiquitous anyway. Look for resistant/heartier plants and plant away freely. By composting, mulching and fertilizing you will be replenishing the soil. No need to rotate your trees and bushes either. :)

    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 7:46PM
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dancinglemons(7B VA)

Went to a seminar several years ago and was told "do not worry about rotating crops in small home gardens".

The technique to use according to these folks is to plant a cover crop when the summer garden is finished and turn that crop under in early spring before planting summer garden. What about overwintering crops?? Plant fast growing cover crops (2-3 weeks) in early spring and turn them under when putting in summer crops. The workshop had films and still photos of folks who do this and they had marvelous gardens.

I grow in containers and a few raised beds. The containers get top 3-4 inches of potting mix removed each season and the raised beds get cover crops. It works......


    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 1:28AM
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tdscpa(z5 NWKS)

I have two distinct segments to my garden, separated by a rock path between timbers, separating the sides by about 9 feet. Kind of like a road down the middle. I move crops around on each side every year, but when I start to have crop failure problems, I switch the problem crops across the "alley".

The last two years were not good for my melons, even though they were grown several rows away from their location the previous year, so they are on the other side this year, in the space where corn grew before.

Move every year? No. I like some crops in specific places (Better sun, wind patterns, ease of cultivating and irrigating, etc.). But, if it quits working, they will be planted somewhere else next year.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 1:51AM
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jimster(z7a MA)

If crop rotation were the only consideration in laying out my small garden it would be easy. But, with so many other factors to take into account, I just can't bother with it. There may be some problems resulting from this, but nothing very serious that I can see. I'm not depending on my crops for my livelihood, as a farmer is, so I can afford an occasional crop failure.


    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 11:56AM
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If we compost as we should, everything we plant is a cover crop. We harvest the usable parts of the plant and turn the unusable parts back into the soil. Planting specific cover crops for turning back into the soil is useful in large plots, as spreading compost over a large area is very labor intensive.

Bear in mind that home gardening approaches do not always scale up to commercial applications, and commercial approaches can be overkill when scaled down to home gardening applications. I think that's the case when it comes to crop rotation and cover cropping.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 12:39PM
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Starting last year, I tried doing crop rotation. But after thinking about things this year, I've decided I'll make an effort, but not freak out about it too much, unless there is a special circumstance.

My garden is only 200 sq. feet, not counting paths. (I wish it could be bigger, but I'm not willing to cut down forest.) I inter-crop, and with decent soil, roots go pretty far. I figure that roots of plants of various families could probably be found in most places in my garden. I would imagine that this makes the soil depletion issue not so much of an issue. To boot, I add lots of compost, turn in tons of compostables in the fall, use fish emulsion as a spot treatment, and use organic fertilizers.

I live in southern New Hampshire, and here in New England late blight was pretty impossible to avoid last year. I held it off with compost tea, but eventually my toms got it like all my neighbors'. Since late blight overwinters, I did my best to move the toms for this year. The Extension told me a few feet away was probably enough because I didn't grow potatoes last year.

Gardeningscomplicated, sounds like I should look at the Jeavons book. Sounds like it would make me feel better about my method.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 12:57PM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

Rotation for nutrient depletion is different, I think, than rotation to avoid soil borne viruses and such. In a growing season you can fertilize to make up for the first. Nothing you can do, after the fact, for the latter.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 4:34PM
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Rotation is for disease, and to maintain micro-flora. The nutrient thing does not compute, since only nitrogen cycles naturally in the soil, and veggies may range in mineral needs from 4-1-2 to 3-1-6, which is not a lot of variation. Microflora is suppressed or enhanced by different plants. Onions and potatoes, for example, are known to make good use of organic matter through extensive fungus webs around their roots. Likewise, organic matter is more of a fertilizer for things like these than for other veggies.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 9:41PM
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