Simple Crop Rotation for Organic Gardening

Reader Contribution by Erik Thiel
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Crop rotation is an important factor of organic gardening. It’s just as important as composting and cover crops. By not following these simple steps of crop rotation the soil will require more input from the gardener. Soil-borne pests and diseases, low-to-no vegetable yields, and a reliance on store-bought products can all become a reality inside the vegetable garden. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The good news is this garden is organic and the reliance is on the self. Here is how and why to rotate your vegetable crops to rely on your Self.

How to Rotate Vegetable Crops

Our yard is tiny, 43-by-21 feet tiny, not all of it is in the sun, and we have two female boxers who like to think it belongs to them. Therefore, our space is limited for gardening. We do have four, 8-by-4-foot vegetable plots located in the sunniest area. This is perfect for this simple form of organic crop rotation we found in the Encyclopedia of Gardening published by the American Horticultural Society.

The easiest way to follow crop rotation is to have four distinct areas in the garden. Each area will be home to one family of crops each growing season. By making a garden plan at the start of the season, it will be easy (and only become even easier) to know exactly where each crop will be planted at any time of the year.

Four Important Crop Families

Brassicas (Cabbage Family). Brassicas include everything from broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, and rutabagas to radishes, turnips, bok choi, oriental mustards, and mizuna greens to name a few. Given our one, 8-by-4 foot plot for brassica we like to keep it simple. After multiple failures growing romanesco, we have decided to grow spring and fall harvests of dwarf broccoli and kale this upcoming season.

Legumes and Pod Crops. Legumes and pod crops include all the many beans and peas and also okra. After multiple seasons of growing beans we have decided to switch it up this season by growing spring and fall harvests of two types of peas.

Alliums (Onion Family). Alliums include all the types of onions and also garlic. Bulb onions, pickling onions, welsh onions, oriental bunching onions, leeks, scallions, and shallots. And any other type of onion one can think of. This is where I am the least experienced. In fall we planted garlic and we have yellow onion seeds that just arrived in the mail.

Root, Solanaceous and Tuberous Crops. Roots, solanaceous, and tuberous crops include potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, also eggplant, celery, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and taro to name some. To simplify things inside my own head I like to refer to this plot as only roots. That is because we enjoy growing potatoes and carrots so much.

Now with a general idea of the four crop families and what specific crop falls into each family, the only thing left to explain is how to move these four families from one garden plot, or section of the garden, to the next. This is easy. In the exact order I have mentioned them in.

I even came up with an acronym for simple crop rotation – BLAR. Brassicas, legumes, alliums, and roots. Each garden season every family of crops is rotated clockwise to a new plot. Brassicas are moved to last season’s legume plot. Legumes are moved to last season’s allium plot. Alliums are moved to last season’s root plot. And roots are moved to last season’s brassica plot.

Every fourth gardening season you will be right back where you started. This is how it only becomes easier and easier to remember what goes where each year. Even organizing many varieties and planting successions of crops becomes easier. But other than ease, why is it so important to rotate vegetable crops from season-to-season?

Why Rotate Vegetable Crops?

By following these simple crop rotation methods any potential build-up of soil-borne pests and diseases will be filtered out and the need to rely on non-organic herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides will never be necessary. The Encyclopedia of Gardening lists nematodes, clubroot, and onion white rot as some examples of soil-borne pests and diseases that will build-up if proper crop rotation is not followed.

Some other benefits of crop rotation are improved yields and workability of the soil, a reduction in soil crusting and erosion, and the recycling of plant nutrients, according to the USDA.

Potatoes cover the soil allowing few weeds to grow. When you plant onions after potatoes less weeding takes place. Peas and beans have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Brassicas require high amounts of nitrogen to grow. When you plant broccoli after peas, the broccoli thrives from the extra nitrogen leftover in the soil.

Different plants require different amounts and types of nutrients. If broccoli is planted in the same location year after year the soil will require high inputs of nitrogen brought in from outside sources. More and more nitrogen will be needed. Eventually clubroot will become a major problem and chemicals will be required to combat that. Now nitrogen and chemicals become necessary. Next thing that happens is a reduction in broccoli yields. As you can see, not rotating vegetable crops will result in catastrophe.

This means one thing to me. An increased sense of self-reliance properly balanced with a decreased reliance on marketed, non-locally produced, store-bought items. Nature works if you work with her. If you push her, she’ll push you back. By practicing crop rotation, by composting, and by planting cover crops nature will know harmony and you will too. With that comes bountiful harvests and joy to share.

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