How To Plan Garden Crop Rotations

How To Plan Garden Crop Rotations

Garden crop rotation is an easy bit of insurance to buy in your home edible garden. “Rotation” in this context means not growing the same family of crops in the same spot year after year, instead moving the location each season to prevent the buildup of diseases or to avoid the depletion of nutrients used by certain families of edibles.  In smaller gardens, it can be difficult to follow a strict crop rotation as often recommended, but with a little advance planning, you can make it a lot easier.

Make a Map

First, you will need to have an understanding of your anticipated growing space. A simple top-down garden map showing the size and location of your beds is plenty here. Sketch it out, or, if you are a nerd, like me, use a spreadsheet. I like a spreadsheet because I can also use this garden map to eventually layout individual plants, keep track of specific locations of specific plants over the course of the growing season, and have all of my garden plans in a single document.

I have twelve raised beds in my vegetable garden. Each bed is 4’ x 8’ long, arranged in 3 rows, each with 4 beds, oriented roughly north to south. In my garden planning spreadsheet, it looks like this:

my-garden-map

You will see that I label each row with a number, and each column with a letter. The same way Excel refers to columns and rows. I mentioned I was a nerd, yes. Each cell in Excel is equal to 1 foot by 1 foot. So I have beds named 1A through 3D.

Group Your Plants

The next thing you should do is think through what crops you actually plan to grow. If you are making your annual garden plan, take a look at all the items on your plant list, then group them into their respective families. If you have no idea what plant belongs to what family, a quick skim of a seed catalog or garden book will help, or you use this not-exhasutive-but-close-enough handy cheat sheet:

  • Alliums: Onions, Shallots, Garlic
  • Amaranths: Beets, Spinach, Chards, some Grains like Quinoa
  • Brassicas: Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Kale, Radish
  • Cucurbits: Cucumbers, Gourds, Pumpkins, Squash
  • Grasses: Corn, Wheat, Rye and most other Grains
  • Legumes: Beans, Peas
  • Lettuces: Artichokes, Lettuces, Sunflowers
  • Nightshades: Tomatoes, Eggplants, Peppers, Potatoes
  • Umbellifers: Carrots, Cilantro, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Parsnips

Layout Your Beds

Next, you need to have some idea of how much of each crop you want to grow, and roughly how much space that will take up. Again, use your garden book or seed catalog to get an idea of plant spacing and yield to get a rough estimate of the number of row or bed feet you will need. This will tell you how many beds you will need to dedicate to a particular family each growing season.

Some people get super fancy and interplant within beds over the course of a single season, or have little mini rotations within each bed, or otherwise have a level of focus and brainpower that I lack. I keep things simple. In my rotation, each bed is dedicated to a family for the season, and as I make my garden plans, I take into account how many beds I will need for each family.

In my case, I know I tend to grow a lot more tomatoes and melons than I do corn or grains, for canning and pickling. So Nightshades and Cucurbits get at least 2 beds, while Grasses get only one. My “Nightshades” beds will contain all of my potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. I can then break things down a little more, and get a little more granular,; I’ll figure out which specific varieties of tomatoes I want to grow that year, and how many plants I’ll have space for, and eventually get down to a plan for the number and location for each individual plant.

Plan Multiple Seasons

If you are only growing three crops, a rotation schedule would be pretty simple: just move each from bed to bed each year, and in Year 4, boom: you are back where you started. If you have more variety, the same principles apply, just across more variables.

Start with this year, then shift your following years’ beds for the next year’s season; continue to do this for as many seasons as practical. A rotation of 4 years is ideal, but you can go as nuts as you wish. Be careful to not repeat any one crop family in the same bed. You can even leave a bed “open” in a season if you want or need. You may have some constraints that you need to plan for. For example, in my rotation, I always keep the “Grasses” in Row 1. The reason for this is my garden orientation; Row 1 is on the north side of my garden, and I grow corn. Corn gets quite tall. If I planted corn in Row 3, it might very well shade out part or all of Row 3.

Again, I do this in the same spreadsheet that has my map and my annual garden plan for easy reference. It also makes planning the next 4-year cycle dead simple with a quick cut-and-paste.

Here is what my specific rotation looks like for the 2017-2020 growing seasons:

Bed2017201820192020    
1AGrassesAlliumsLettucesNightshades
1BLegumesGrassesAlliumsLettuces
1CBrassicasLegumesGrassesAlliums
1DFlowersBrassicasLegumesGrasses
2ACucurbitsFlowersBrassicasLegumes
2BNightshadesCucurbitsFlowersBrassicas
2CUmbellifersNightshadesCucurbitsFlowers
2DAmaranthsUmbellifersNightshadesCucurbits
3ACucurbitsAmaranthsUmbellifersNightshades
3BNightshadesCucurbitsAmaranthsUmbellifers
3CLettucesNightshadesCucurbitsAmaranths
3DAlliumsLettucesNightshadesCucurbits

Do not let perfection be the enemy of good, as they say. Apply these principles as best you can given your energy and constraints. And don’t let yourself stop having fun because you have a plan. For instance, in any given year, I might “use up” some extra space allocated to my “Grasses” family to grow a few more radish. Or I might  sneak in some late season cabbage wherever I have a bit of extra space for the fall. Keep good notes, take pictures, and adjust your plans as needed.


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