Starting an organic garden is a great first step to becoming more self-sufficient…
but when you’re new to it, it can be overwhelming!
Growing an organic garden isn’t hard, you just have to keep your soil healthy so that you can avoid using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
One way to keep your garden healthy and productive is by implementing crop rotation.
What is Crop Rotation?
Crop rotation is a strategy for improving the health of your garden by grouping like plants together and rotating them to a new location each year.
Crop rotation does a few things:
Reduces Pests and Disease
When pests and diseases wake up in the spring they are no longer in close proximity to their favorite treat. Hopefully, the majority of the pests will die trying to find the new place those crops are planted in. Diseases are less likely to infect the new occupants of that bed.
Some crops allow weeds to grow and seed more easily, like squash, because it’s hard to get under the leaves to weed, or direct sow plants because they have to compete with weed seeds for propagation.
Improves Soil Fertility
By grouping plants together that need similar nutrients, we can be sure every plot will have each nutrient used and replaced evenly. Also, some plants root deeper than others. Those that root deepest open up the soil and bring nutrients up for the shallower rooting plants.
Getting Started with Crop Rotation
First things first: Break up your crops into 4 groups: leaf, fruit, root, and legume (this is the order they will be planted in each bed/plot). If you’re having trouble choosing your seeds/crops you might like this post on choosing seeds.
This group will include nitrogen-hungry crops like lettuce, spinach, chard, herbs, kale, cabbage, and other brassicas like broccoli and cauliflower. They are planted where last years legumes were.
This group is your phosphorous hungry crops. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, melons. Not only do they need lots of phosphorous, but they do best with small amounts of nitrogen, which is why they follow the nitrogen-hungry plants (more on that below).
This group is your potassium hungry crops. Carrots, radishes, onions, garlic, turnip, beets. Potatoes are a root but I keep them separate, in potato towers. Since the diseases and pests that are so harmful to potatoes are also harmful to tomatoes I like to keep them as far apart as possible. Roots need potassium but not a lot of nitrogen, which is why they come next in the rotation when most of the nitrogen is used up.
This group is your nitrogen-fixing plants. Peas and green beans are the most common to have in a backyard garden but other beans and nitrogen-fixing plants go here too. Those might include soy beans, alfalfa, clover, and fenugreek. These are planted after the root vegetables and before the leaf.
How it Works
Leaf vegetable use up lots of nitrogen in the soil. Fruit plants are planted the following year when nitrogen levels are lower. They don’t need a lot of nitrogen, and actually do better with less nitrogen, but need lots of phosphorus. Roots don’t need much nitrogen at all but love potassium, so they follow the fruits. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air, preparing the bed for next years leaf vegetables.
Planting the First Year
Divide your garden into 4 plots. Choose which plot each group will go in. I like to keep them in order, clockwise, so I know easily what goes where.
Crop Rotation Subsequent Years
This year you’ll rotate so that the fruit goes where last years leaf was, roots go where last years fruit was, etc. Leaf>Fruit>Root>Legume>Leaf. Next year you’ll rotate again. The following year you’ll rotate again and then you’ll be back to where you started.
What if I Don’t Grow Much of One Group?
Ideally each group will be the same size but in reality, they probably aren’t, like if you prefer fruit plants over legumes, as I do. Here are a few things you can do:
- Modify with containers
- Plant legumes between leaf plants (cutting your plots down to 3)
- Add a cover crop instead of legumes
- Combine fruits and roots
- Add a compost plot instead of legumes
Adding a Compost Plot to the Rotation
When it comes to gardening–well anything really–I want things to be as simple and fuss-free as possible. So instead of building a pile for compost, I use one of my raised beds. That means I am down a bed to grow in each year (though we did get some awesome compost cantaloupe last year!) but I don’t have to move compost from it’s pile to the garden since it’s already there. The compost gets a year to decompose and I don’t have to do any additional work!
So, instead of a legume plot, I use a compost pile (which I add manure to also). You could also add a compost pile as a 5th plot.
It’s pretty simple. Crop rotation paired with a good natural pesticide like this DIY one will go a long way to helping you produce organic vegetables for your family!
Now It’s Your Turn!
Have you ever tried crop rotation? What are your best tips?
Thank you so much for spelling this out in such an easy to understand way! Last year I developed a crop rotation plan but I wasn’t really convinced it was very good. I actually wrote a post on my website about my plan to see if anyone had feedback and luckily I stumbled across your article.
I also like your idea of composting as part of the rotation. However, since I am gardening over clay I have built several hugelkulturs (mounded) raised beds and I unfortunately don’t think this would work very well: http://bit.ly/1NnnTxD
Thanks again for the great info and I look forward to reading your future posts!
Ryan Scott says
I love reading your blog. It gives me idea in terms of gardening since I’m new in this kind of hobby and want to learn more thing about gardening, composting etc..
Ryan Scott says
This really made gardening easy.Thanks.
You’re welcome :)
Sasha Lovelace says
I believe your chart is backwards.
Shouldn’t leaf go where legumes were last year and root go where fruit was?
Your chart should be counter clockwise. The arrows are going in the wrong direction.
Am I right?
Interesting… If you look at the images as if they are the raised beds/garden plots then yes you’re right. However I made the image with a cycle in mind, not necessarily to move this crop here. Meaning that any one garden plot should go leaf then fruit then root then legume.
This used to confuse me too. I finally realized it was looking at it in two ways:
1. the diagram shows the sequence in a single bed from year-to-year.
2. the discussion reflects the sequence of multiple beds from bed-to-bed.
I hope this helps.
J Nekut says
I just stumbled upon this post from your emails that I’m subscribed to. The concepts of crop rotation as well as companion planting and organic gardening have just completely intimidated me. I live off a dirt road and deal with shade from the evergreen forest, roving gangs of deer, pernicious squirrels, on top of the clay soil which permeates the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I love how simply you break down the concepts of which groups of plants prefer which nutrients, and therefore logically, can be rotated in a certain order. Brilliant! This is so helpful. I bookmarked it for future reference and sent it to my oldest daughter who will be hopefully helping me garden this year and tame our acre somewhat. :) Thanks so much!
So glad you found it helpful! Best of luck :)
I’ve been thinking about crop rotation recently, your post makes it sound so simple, but I also have the challenge of living and gardening on a hillside, next to a river which I haven’t seen many address.
Any ideas how I can rotate cross but still keep the taller ones from blocking the sun for the rest? The hill goes down to the west, so if I stand at the bottom of the garden around 5 or 6 my shadow reaches above the garden (28ft).
Since I can’t see your site, it’s more difficult to help, but here are my thoughts:
As long as your plants get 6 hours of sunlight, they should be good. Does your space get at least this much sun even if plants are blocking other plants?
by 5 or 6 the sunlight isn’t strong enough to be very helpful. You want your plants to get light between 10am and 6pm – at least 6 of those hours.
Could you rotate along the hill? For example, if you plant sunflowers on the bottom of the hill, could you plant them on the left side one year and on the right side the next?
Hmm, the plot is pretty much full sun from 9AM on, so it would probably work. Thanks for the help!
Do you plant sweet corn? and if so which group?
I don’t, but if I did, I would plant it with the fruiting plants.