Crop Rotation in a Small Garden

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Specific plants use up the same minerals and nutrients from the soil every year. Each successive crop depletes those elements further.

Leaning over the fence and smiling, your neighbor shows you her old, dog-eared garden plan book. It has everything in it. She draws little blueprints,-diagrams that show all of the vegetable rows meticulously numbered. She has a drawing showing what was planted in every row, every year. You tried hard not to laugh out loud, but did anyway. Especially when she showed you the page showing what she had planted fourteen years ago in row number nine. Swiss chard, lettuce, and marigolds. That was the first year she moved in, and her garden has always looked great.

“If your soil is really poor, peas and beans should always follow corn,” she said, pointing out the same row on her plan for the following year. Why does she do that? Gardeners with a green thumb know.

Mendel Gardening

Mendel Gardening (Photo:

Plants Deplete Soil Nutrients

Maybe your own garden looked better a few years ago. You always plant everything in the same location, in the same order. This year the corn looks yellow and stunted. The potatoes are scabby. The carrots have hairy roots all over them. The peas are moldy-yellow-looking instead of being rich, healthy green. The onions were so full of bugs last year you didn’t want to plant any this year at all.

If your plants looked healthier a few years ago, maybe it is time to rotate your crops, even in that little garden, the same way your neighbor does. Get out a book and pencil. It is helpful to start keeping records too. Start by planting the corn where you have always planted the peas. Plant the potatoes or peas where you had the corn. Plant the onions way over on the other side of the garden.

Move Plants Around

Specific plants use up the same minerals and nutrients from the soil every year. Each successive crop depletes those elements further. For instance, corn demands a lot of nitrogen. Unless you’re using commercial chemical fertilizers, each subsequent crop will be less and less productive. Weaker plants encourage the buildup of disease and insect attack. The fact is, insects and disease always attack weak, undernourished plants. It is nature’s way.

Enter Crop Rotation

If you plant peas or beans in the location you had corn growing in last year, the peas and beans will replace the nitrogen in the soil. Legumes store nitrogen from the atmosphere in nodules that grow on the roots. When the roots decompose, the nitrogen is left in the soil by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, enriching the soil.

Peas and beans need to be moved regularly regardless, as they are subject to virus and fungus problems, but keep in mind they replace nitrogen in the soil, an advantage for other vegetables. The fact that you can even avoid using artificial fertilizes entirely by rotating crops is amazing, particularly if you wish to maintain an organic garden, free of chemicals–and you also add compost, straw, and other soil-building organic materials annually.

Similarly, if you have planted carrots where peas and beans have been for several years, you may get carrots with masses of hairy rootlets on them. “Hairy” carrots are caused by an excess of nitrogen in the soil. Carrots clearly do not like an excess of nitrogen in the soil. That problem can be caused by over-manuring the garden plot so remedy the problem by planting corn in that location instead. Why? Corn needs lots of nitrogen.

Rotate the location of tomatoes and potatoes for more than one reason. Both are subject to a number of diseases that remain in the soil for two or three years or more, depending upon conditions.

Potatoes should also ideally be planted the year after corn, since potatoes may become scabby from too much nitrogen. Remember, excessive nitrogen can occur from an excessive application of manure too.

Even a modest application of some high-nitrogen fertilizers such as fresh chicken manure may have an excess of nitrogen–at times to the extreme of burning the important feeder rootlets on the garden plants.

Hint: All manures should be composted with leaves, straw, sawdust or other organic materials for a year prior to use in your garden, which reduces nitrogen and also kills weed seeds

Onions can be the victims of excessive nitrogen as well. Onions grown in soil with too much nitrogen may display large, thick necks and will not store well. Insects, those nuisance onion bugs, whitefly, thrips and maggots, live happily in the soil where onions, shallots, or garlic varieties are planted year after year. Take the opportunity to rotate onion and garlic rows, following corn or other higher nitrogen-consuming plants, and practice good garden sanitation to substantially reduce insect problems.

Remember, as a rule, the healthier your garden plants are, the less they will be attacked by insect and disease. Rotation of garden crops, even in a small garden, is an important contributor to the nutrient values in the soil and improves the health of the vegetables you grow. The key to successful, healthy garden growth is a balance of minerals and nutrients. Rotation of crops substantially improves that balance.

All vegetables in your garden clearly cannot follow corn at the same time. That generates the need for healthy rotation and a plan. Get a little book and start taking notes; soon it will look just like the one your neighbor has.

How does your garden look this year?

Do you rotate your crops?

Maybe you have already discovered this valuable practice by accident a few years ago, and that’s why it looks so good. If so, you’re well on your way to a healthier and happier garden!

© Raymond Alexander Kukkee

Raymond is a freelance author and writer who practices traditional and experimental gardening using natural, sustainable methods in the challenging Zone 3 environs of Northwestern Ontario. Read more articles by Raymond.

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