You don’t have to be a farmer to use crop rotation; gardeners and homesteaders can also benefit from this technique to improve their crops. All you need is enough room to plant 3-4 different kinds of crops, some dedication, and a plan. If you’re currently planning out your herb and vegetable garden for next year, this is the perfect time to think about trying it out.
Ready to get started?
What is Crop Rotation?
Crop rotation is the practice of regularly moving the location of different crops in your garden or vegetable plot and planting different things in different areas. You move planting locations between growing seasons, often rotating plants between 3-4 different areas over so many years. These practices have been used by farmers for thousands of years to increase crop yield.
The objective of this is to improve the quality of your soil and the crops you produce. Different crops interact with the soil in different ways (such as by either increasing or decreasing the amount of nitrogen is in the soil), and if you keep one crop in the same place for a long period you can deplete the soil of vital nutrients. Crop rotation avoids this by moving crops around every season.
Benefits of Crop Rotation
Crop rotation helps to keep your garden healthy. You’ll have better produce, more reliable crops, and less work to do in maintaining your garden. Crop rotation provides this by improving soil fertility, weed control, and soil structure. It can also help reduce soil erosion:
Increased Soil Fertility
Crop rotation helps to keep your garden nutrients at their best possible levels by preventing any one crop from depleting the soil of too many nutrients. Because each different crop has different nutrient requirements, the soil can recover after each one.
The key to this is how crops interact with the soil. One of the most important elements for plants is nitrogen; they can’t take nitrogen from the air, so they have to get it from the soil. One common method of ensuring plants get enough nitrogen is to use fertilizers, but crop rotation can achieve a similar effect.
Crop rotation is useful because some plants (such as peas and beans) are ‘nitrogen fixers,’ which add nitrogen to the soil. By rotating crops, you can add nitrogen to an area one year, then next year you put a plant there that likes lots of nitrogen (for example, cauliflowers or cabbages).
Reduced Soil Erosion
Keeping the same plants in one spot doesn’t just deplete nutrients, it also damages soil structure because you have the same root structure season after season. By changing between plants with deeper and more shallow roots, soil structure is improved, and plants take nutrients from different depths of soil.
Improved Pest & Weed Control
A crop rotation plan helps with reducing plant diseases such as white onion rot and clubroot (found in brassicas). Changing crops every season interrupts the life cycle of these diseases and that of many pests, which would otherwise build up in the soil season after season.
This is a particularly important benefit if you are growing a sustainable garden and avoiding using chemical pesticides, as you’ll need all the help you can get to keep hungry pests away!
Reduced Need For Fertilizers
A better-nourished soil will help to reduce any dependency that you have on fertilizers and pesticides, as your plants will naturally be stronger from growing in an optimized soil. You’ll increase the amount of food you grow, have stronger crops that are more resistant to pests, and have the satisfaction of doing it in a way that is good for the environment.
Crop Rotation Planning
What should a crop rotation plan look like? Well, you have several options. Most crop rotation plans run for either three or four years, although some run up to five. Depending on your garden size and how confident you are feeling about your endeavors, you can choose to keep it simple or go more complex, it’s up to you.
First of all, you need to draw out a plan of where you have grown all your crops this year. Don’t forget to include any herbs you grew too. What was where? Did you grow groups of vegetables together, or did you just plant things randomly, where you made space, and the conditions were suitable? Depending on how you planted, you might need to replan your garden or it might just be a case of moving things round.
Next, when you have worked out what was where in this years’ garden, you need to make a list of all the vegetables and herbs you wish to grow. Then, divide your vegetables into groups:
- Onions and root vegetables
Brassicas are vegetables such as swedes, turnips, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, radish, rocket plus any other leafy green vegetables.
Legumes are peas and beans, including borlotti, snow peas, and mangetout.
Onions and root vegetables include leeks and garlic, as well as carrots, celery, beetroot, fennel, celeriac, butternut squash, and parsnips. Include herbs such as parsley, dill, and cilantro here too.
Potatoes – include any tomatoes, eggplant, and capsicums in this group, too.
Now, you want to divide up your plan of the ground you have available into four sections (three, if you are doing a three-year crop rotation plan).
Year one: Plant your brassicas in section one, your legumes in section two, your onions and root veg in section three, and your potatoes in section four.
Year two: Plant your legumes in section one, your onions and root veg in section two, your potatoes in section three, and your brassicas in section four.
Year three: Plant your onions and root veg in section one, your potatoes in section two, your brassicas in section three, and your legumes in section four.
Year four: Plant your potatoes in section one, your brassicas in section two, your legumes in section three, and your onions and root veg in section four.
If you are working to a three-year crop rotation, do as above, but put your legumes, onions and root vegetables into one grouping.
What if my crops don’t fit into those categories?
No problem, create a new group and add this to your rotation plan.
Other crops could include vegetables such as sweetcorn, asparagus, okra, and chicory and herbs such as oregano, mint, rosemary, basil, and sage. If you prefer to stick to the four main groups above, these vegetables can be placed in areas around your main planting groups.
These vegetables are generally not prone to soil borne diseases, so can be planted more freely than the others. However, maintain the principle of moving them annually to keep soil nutrients from over-depleting.
Should your herbs move too?
You can choose to keep your herb garden where it is or include it in your crop rotation. Consider whether your vegetables will benefit from having herbs with them, as some herbs make great companion plants and can help to protect against pests.
How much land do you need for crop rotation?
You don’t need to be a farmer or own a field to practice crop rotation. You need 3-4 specific areas, whether they’re raised beds, or partitions of a bed (one for each of your rotations). This can be just as effective on a small scale.
Use cover crops to protect bare soil
Over the winter, many areas of your vegetable garden will become empty after you harvest your crops. Rather than leave these areas bare, consider growing cover crops, such as clover, ryegrass, or oats and leaving them over winter. These crops aren’t grown to produce food, but rather to protect the soil against erosion, pests, and weeds. Once you are done with them you can use them as green manure by digging them into the ground. These practices ensure the nutrients they’ve used go back to the soil ready for your next food crop – harvesting them wastes their biomass for little gain.
Always rotate into favorable soil and conditions
If you are making your own crop rotation plan, consider which groups of plants like which type of soil. Try and rotate each group into the most suitable soil the following year and make preparations over winter for the most nutrient-depleted soils if you are going to introduce new crops which require a richer soil the following year.
When you have decided your plan, over the winter, you can start to prepare the soil accordingly; weeding and fertilizing as needed. When you are ready to plant out, think carefully about how everything can be accessed and watered, leaving yourself walkways to give yourself access. In thick and heavy soil, you may wish to consider raised beds, which can give you extra space to add a top layer to lighten and aid drainage.
Crop rotation does require a little planning, but take and keep notes and plans in a gardener’s diary for future reference. Once you see the benefits of increased crop outputs, reduced soil erosion, increased soil fertility, and fewer pesticides, you’ll be glad you did it.