Vegetable garden crop rotation: a living jigsaw puzzle

simple vegetable crop rotation patternI’m working on a permaculture-inspired biodiverse organic garden bed theme this year, but I cut my teeth on the crop rotation patterns laid out in Straight Ahead Organic: leaves, fruits, roots, rebuild. Crop rotation is crucial for your garden’s soil health, but it can also alleviate your design mind as well.

The thing that makes planning a vegetable garden both more challenging and more fun than a perennial flower bed is the harvest cycle. Usually, a gardener plants a plant once and then sits back to watch it grow and thrive, but in the edible garden, right when things are the most beautiful, you’re supposed to run out and rip it off or chop it down!

So here’s my super concise design advice: get over it. That ephemeral quality is part of the beauty. You love it because it doesn’t last. After all, part of why it doesn’t last is because it tastes so good. You trade a lasting visual beauty for the chance to experience your garden with yet another sense.

I find I can taste the seasons go by, and even the years. Each year’s fickle weather will favor a different variety or a different crop family, and a decade later you’ll still be referring to the spring of the amazing pole beans.

Leaves, Fruits, Roots, Rebuild.

Think of a salad: lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, peas. What you are eating are the leaves of the lettuce, the fruits of the tomato vine, and the root of the carrot. The pea… you are eating the fruit (seed) of the pea vine, but more important to your garden is that fact that peas and beans are soil rebuilders because of their marvelous nitrogen fixing capacity.

Leaves

young non-heading cabbagesCabbages and lettuces. This includes everything from broccoli, kale, collards, and cauliflower to bok choy, tatsoi, and good old fashioned romaine (also known as cos).

These plants all do well with higher nitrogen levels present at the start of the rotation cycle. A lot of these plants do well in the spring and fall seasons, some even over the winter, but have more trouble in the summer.

Trouble can come in two forms: pests to eat the plants, and hot weather, which encourages a number of them to bolt up quickly into flower and seed forming stage. This makes the leaves bitter, so thwart bolting whenever possible.

Because my leafy beds were also in a pinch for space and spinach and chard are members of the beet family (chard’s other name is silver beet), I sent spinach and chard around in the root vegetable bed right along with the beets.

Fruits

red zebra tomato

(Image from Gardening After Five)

Two groups: the lasagna and the soup. Lasagna fruits are tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Relatives, like tomatillos, would count in here too. Soup fruits are squash and pumpkin, cucumbers and melon. If it helps to think soup ‘n’ salad, go for it. If you were going to try the “Three Sisters” garden (corn, beans, squash in Iroquois and other traditions), those are all fruits and could go here.

These plants all pull from the phosphorus levels in the soil, that middle NPK number on the fertilizer bag, obtained naturally from bone and composted manure.

In my experience, too much nitrogen is not helpful for the fruits, especially the lasagna group.  I’ve never had such good luck (and so few flea beetles) as the years I’ve planted my eggplants in the most ragtag garden soils you ever saw.  Sending the cabbages before this group can really help clear the excess soil.

The fruit vegetable beds are a fairly summer intensive plot, with plants lasting into the fall a bit, but generally being frost tender. While your tomato seedlings are still just getting going (and may well still be inside), you can probably run a crop of spinach, mache, or baby lettuces through the fruit beds.

Roots

This is celeriac.

Again, two groups: onions, and not-onions. “Onions” includes garlic, shallots, and even chives, though chives are perennial and are best planted somewhere out of the way of all these rotation shenanigans.

“Not-onions” includes carrots, radishes, rutabagas, turnips, and beets. As I mentioned above, the spinach and chard ended up with this group in my old gardens.

One notable absentee from the roots rotation: potatoes. Potatoes are in the same family as the lasagna fruits, so all the bugs that bothered them will bother the potatoes, and vice versa. Better to give a year between them to starve any pests out.

The root plants like a decent potassium level in the soil. By the time a garden is this far into the rotation cycle, that’s all that’s left in any abundance.

Rebuild

blaushokker peasPeas and beans, on the one hand, and corn and potatoes on the other. Peas and beans are nitrogen fixers- they get the beds ready for the next crop-go-round. Corn and potatoes are both heavy feeders that will clean out the soil of remaining nutrients (a task that has its place on occasion); they are also both bulky crops hard to fit anywhere else.

 

Variations on the Theme

Have you caught that each group is build of two subgroups?

Some folks treat these as two separate groups, giving them 5 groups to move through their garden which looks like this:

Some gardeners take that habit of the each crop rotation package falling into two groups and create two subgroups for each, or 8 groups total. It’s still Leaves, Fruits, Roots, Rebuild, but now it’s the heavy eaters for the first four years, then the light eaters for the next four. Year Four itself is rebuilding in the form of clearing any excess, and year 8 is rebuilding in the more classic re-invigorating sense.

For new gardeners just getting underway, it can be really helpful to start with one group and then build a new garden bed each year to take on the next rotation. If you do start with just one bed of edibles your first year, try to work in several nicely aromatic herbs to balance the diversity a bit.

**

Note: if this page sounds familiar to you, it’s because I wrote a very similar article for designing-edible-gardens.com a few years ago.  That site is coming down after this spring and some of the material will be migrating here.

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