Why should I rotate my garden crops? If I do, what’s the best way to record what I’ve planted year after year?
Rotating your annual crops—even in a small-scale home garden—can help thwart potential gardening woes. If you plant the same crop in the same spot every year, overwintered pests, disease spores and nematodes can build up in that bed’s soil. A lack of rotation also means that the main nutrients a crop pulls from the soil will become depleted in that spot over time.
The first step to establishing successful rotation practices is to get to know the crop families. Plants should be rotated based on family, because crops in the same family generally have similar nutrient requirements, and they also attract many of the same pests and diseases. (You can print out a chart of common garden crops, grouped by family.)
A good rule of thumb is to avoid planting crops that are in the same family in the same spot in your garden more often than once every three to four years. If this is tricky because of limited space or the diversity of the crops you grow, don’t stress; it’s merely a good ideal to shoot for. Even a two-year rotation is better than nothing.
To start keeping simple crop-rotation records, draw out your garden beds on graph paper or in a gardening notebook or journal, and fill in what you’re planting where that season. You can use colored pencils to shade in planting areas based on which crop family is planted where — such as shading all tomato-family crops in red and all cabbage-family crops in green. Then, before you put any seeds or transplants in the ground the following season, sketch out a new planting arrangement for the year. Reference the previous year’s arrangement, and don’t put any related crops in the same location.
Another record-keeping option is to plan your garden with MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Vegetable Garden Planner, which can track your crop rotation for you. When you draw out your garden beds on what is essentially digital graph paper, the Planner will automatically color-code your crops by family. Then, when you map out your planting arrangement the next year, the Planner will alert you if you’re planning to put a crop in a place where you recently planted a crop from within the same family. If you’d prefer to plan your plot on a mobile device, try the Grow Planner for iPhone or iPad.
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.