Crop Rotation in our Gardens

Crop rotation is the regenerative practice of growing crops in sections and then moving that crop to a different location for the following season. Crop rotation was developed to avoid depleting the soil of nutrients that are specific to plant families, and to mitigate build-up of weeds, diseases and pests. Even though strict crop rotation is important for farming, planning and executing crop rotations in our home vegetable gardens can be challenging.

I can get crossed-eyed when I tried to configure a planting plan that includes crop rotation, interplanting, succession planting and companion planting guidelines. And somehow after all that work, I often find my initial planting plan has to be altered by the time seedlings are ready to go in. Consequently, I now focus on interplanting and soil health as my main methods of preventing disease, pest populations and nutrient depletion.

For the wide variety of vegetables that I grow, I find that there is not enough growing space to conduct perfect crop rotations. I also have semi-permanent trellises and vertical structures that are in place for vining crops and like to use those each year. Being inexact with my garden design will help keep my food growing passion a low-stress and ever-evolving endeavour.

2019 many inter-planted vegetables in the back garden. Chicken coop in the background.

Going with the flow of nature in other ways can alleviate the need to focus on strict specifics. I feel that I can excel with less crop rotation because I do not grow excessively large plots of a single crop (monoculture) so my gardens are less likely to attract an over abundance of pest or develop diseases. I also amend the soil plots continuously, throughout the year, adding all kinds of micro/macro-nutrients, which provides nourishment that the plants need during their development. My ultimate goals is to grow healthy, thriving plants which can defend themselves.

I try not to plant the same crop in consecutive seasons in the same location. However, it does happen, due to the succession and intensive spacing that I enjoy doing. I’m not overly concerned about that though, every year we have an abundance of food to harvest with very few issues. Here are 6 common vegetable families that we should all be familiar with when considering planning the vegetable garden:

For two of types of vegetables that I grow, I plan rotations. These two vegetables are important for me to rotate because they are what I grow the most of. They are my largest crops, therefore take up the most of my garden space each year.

My game plan for keeping tomatoes as dry as possible to prevent blights, means that I grow them in one large main-crop block, under shelter, rather than intermingling them throughout the garden. I also grow garlic in a large main-crop block because it is harvested all at once and therefore I can easily replant the vacant block all at once in July.

I rotate those two main-crops on a 3 year cycle. My cycle is as follows;

Garlic (alliaceae) in Year 1 followed by winter kale and cabbages (which I start in July/August and harvested until April).

Year 2, following the early spring kale and cabbage harvest, I’ll add compost and then I transplant the Tomato (solanaceae) seedlings in May.

Year 3 I’ll plant early peas on trellises, followed by beans or climbing cucumbers, interplanted with carrots, radish, beets, lettuce and other plants from non-alliaceae and non-solanaceae families.

I do the same type of family rotation with onions, leeks, (alliaceae) interplanted with summer/fall brassicas on Year 1, followed by peppers and/or potatoes (solanaceae) in Year 2 then primarily pea to bean plantings in Year 3. The rest of the garden plots will be a variety of vegetables interplanted, set out or directly sowed in successions.

Carrots are another family that I pay attention to, due to the prevalent Carrot Rust Fly populations that we have here in the Comox Valley. I chose not to purchase row covers (for aesthetics reasons and tending time involved) which help prevent rust fly infestations and the damage they cause. Instead, I plant a hybrid carrot called Fly Away which has some resistance. I also have success with planting additional varieties of carrots in the under-story of brassicas, tomatoes, and near onions, beets, herbs and highly-scented marigolds to help confuse the Carrot Rust Fly from laying eggs in the area. Carrot planting areas randomly move around my garden from season to season, which also helps reduce rust fly damage.

Tomato under-story planted with spinach, celery and lettuce.

Seedlings get tucked in holes around the garden where they will get sheltered from taller plants or where they will have room to spread out. If there is bare soil because I have harvested, or edited out something, seeds will be sown or a seedling will be planted on the same day. I spend the majority of my gardening time wandering through, harvesting vegetables and planting voids with more food before weeds try to take over. Succession and relay planting is the name of my garden game!

I spend very little time fretting over the nutrient details for each specific variety of plant that I grow. I add dolomite lime to raise my ph levels, add compost, manure, seaweed, wood ash, occasionally Gaia Green and mulch with leaves, straw and grass clippings throughout the year. I never dig or disrupt the soil in my plots unless it is to make a small hole for planting seedlings. I prefer to put amendments on top and let the worms and water filter nutrients down to the rooting zone, just like nature does.

After 8 years of care and nurturing, my soil is very much alive and thriving. So much more so than anything in an bag with an “organic” label or something recently “made” at the local landscape supply. It’s absolutely precious, with an ecosystem that I can’t begin to completely understand but have the utmost respect for. It’s also important to remember that every time we till and expose soil, it releases carbon into the atmosphere.

For companion planting, I only abide by a couple of rules and other than that, it’s a free for all! I do keep track of what I won’t plant together because the list is shorter. No fennel near other vegetables because it will inhibit their grow. If I want to grow some fennel bulbs it’ll be in a flower bed or container within the garden. I also don’t interplant the alliaceae family (onions & garlic) with the leguminosae family (peas & beans). I do love to plant onion sets, shallots and tall marigolds around brassicas (cabbage & broccoli) because I’ve found that it helps deter the cabbage moth.

If you have any questions or comments please add them below, I’d love to hear from you. My next blog post will be a map of some succession and relay plantings that I am planning for our 2021 gardens. Until then, order online from your local savers and swap seeds safely!

Paisley Daisy in the greenhouse spring 2020