Crop Rotation for Home Vegetable Gardeners
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, crop rotation? Maybe it’s something you think you have a basic understanding of, but when it comes to actually putting it into practice in your garden, you come up with more questions than answers. Maybe you wonder…
- Is it necessary to rotate your crops from year to year, especially if you grow in a small space?
- Do all crops need rotation?
- What does it mean to rotate by plant families, and how are you supposed to know which plants are in which families anyway?
- What if your garden consists of more of one plant family than another?
- What about companion planting and succession planting with crop rotation?
I have to be honest — at this point I usually throw my hands in the air wondering how I’ll ever figure out this impossible puzzle.
If you’ve ever wondered any of those things, in this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, we’ll talk about crop rotation at a non-phD agricultural level. Click below to listen or continue reading.
What are the Benefits of Crop Rotation?
Have you ever wondered why we talk about crop rotation? Why should we move our crops around from year to year? Why can’t we just use the same garden plan every season? There are three main benefits for rotating your crops: replace soil nutrients, interrupt disease cycles, and interfere with pest cycles.
Replace Soil Nutrients.
Certain crops require different nutrients from your soil. If you plant the same crop in the same plot of soil year after year, eventually those crops can strip the soil of those specific nutrients, particularly if you don’t replenish that soil in some way. This makes a difference in growth and yield. When you rotate crops, you give that plot a chance to replenish those nutrients.
Interrupt Disease Cycles.
Some diseases are soil-borne, like early blight in tomatoes and powdery mildew. When you rotate crops you stop feeding that disease and have a better chance of interrupting the disease cycle.
Interfere with pest cycles.
If you have a problem with persistent pests like squash bugs, and you continue to plant squash in the same plot the squash bugs will continue to thrive. But when you rotate their favorite crops out of that area, you can slow the progress of these pests.
How often should you rotate your crops?
Most of the people recommend home gardeners plan crop rotation cycles for every 3-5 years. It depends on your space. The bigger space you have, the longer you can wait. If you have a small space, you’ll need to rotate more frequently.
3 Crop Rotation Examples for the Home Gardener
If you’re like many home gardeners, crop rotation isn’t as simple as it seems. Maybe you have a small space or you plant more of one family of crops than another. Or you practice companion planting. If that’s the case, below are some simpler basic guidelines to keep in mind. For simplicity’s sake CHOOSE ONE of these suggestions, selecting the one that seems to fit you and your garden best:
1. Don’t plant the same plant family in the same location, particularly the three heavier feeding families.
You may not even know that plants have families, but it’s an easy thing to look up. Each family has similar nutrient requirements so it is good to rotate them out of the same soil from year to year.
Although there are technically eleven plant families, I focus my crop rotation on three. I prioritize rotating them out of the same location and fill in with others in between.
- Solanaceae: peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes
- Brassica: cabbage, broccoli, kale
- Cucurbits: cucumbers, squash, zucchini
The members of these plant families uptake similar nutrients, succumb to similar diseases, and are vulnerable to similar pests. This is why I prioritize these three. But if even thinking about three plant families is too complicated for you, simply focus on individual plants in those families and don’t plant the same plant in the same location for the next few years if possible.
2. Rotate based on growth habit.
If rotating by plant families seems too complicated, another option is to rotate your crops based on how they primarily grow: leafy vegetables, root vegetables, and fruit vegetables. If you have a bed of each, you could rotate them between the beds. You could also add legumes (like beans and peas) to the rotation because they add nutrients back into the soil.
The problem with this system is that I don’t grow nearly as many leafy vegetables as fruit vegetables, like tomatoes or squash. In addition, in my area, most of my leafy vegetables grow in spring and fall, whereas my fruiting vegetables grow in the summer. But if you’re in an area where these plants grow at the same time, rotating by growth habit may be a perfect option for you.
3. Rotate based on nutrient demands.
You could also categorize your crops by whether they are generally heavy or light feeders (this is based on how much of a nutrient load they tend to require and take from the soil).
Choose one rotation of heavy feeders, like tomatoes or broccoli; one of light feeders, like sweet potatoes or carrots; and one of soil builders like beans, peas, or cover crops. This site shows a chart of heavy, medium, and light feeding vegetables if this option appeals to you.
One problem with this is that, again, you may not grow equal amounts in each category. Still, it’s a good guideline to keep in mind.
Focus on enriching the soil, not creating an elaborate crop rotation plan.
If all of this is a little confusing, don’t worry. Instead of planning an elaborate crop rotation schedule, focus on enriching your soil. Add compost, do a soil test to discover what your soil needs, and start experimenting with some organic fertilizer options.
Crop Rotation in Raised Beds or Small Gardens
How do you rotate your crops if you only have one raised bed or a small ground plot?
Focus on soil fertility, continually enriching the soil
You’ll hear me say this repeatedly because it’s so important: focus on soil fertility. Add compost once or twice a year. Add a cover crop when you don’t have crops growing. Before you try to figure out the puzzle of crop rotation, focus on your soil. Once you understand that, here are a few tricks for incorporating crop rotation into a smaller garden space or raised bed design.
Try not to plant the same plant family in the same place next season, but don’t worry about an elaborate rotation system.
You don’t need to know where each crop will go five years from now. If you like planning in that way, have at it! But if not, try to focus on moving your crops each year instead of creating an elaborate system.
Focus on rotating the heavy feeders, like tomatoes and brassicas
Mentioned in the previous section, this method is ideal for smaller garden spaces. When you can’t plan crop rotation for every crop, just focus on the heavy feeders. My first priorities are always tomatoes, broccoli, and cabbage.
If you have a major pest or disease issue, consider skipping a season with that plant, or research resistant varieties.
Some pest or disease issues prove so bad that you might consider skipping at least one season to disrupt the pest or disease cycle.
For example, if I have a small problem with squash bugs, I simply rotate my squash to another bed. But, if squash bugs proved to be a bigger problem, I might skip a year growing squash to disrupt their feeding and reproduction cycle. This could work with other pests or diseases as well. But with some more troublesome diseases, I recommend checking with your local county extension service to see how long you need to wait to plant that crop again.
Companion Planting and Crop Rotation
How do you plan crop rotation when you practice companion planting? I love companion planting! But if I am growing crops from different families and then want to try to rotate my crops, I start to get a little confused. Here are some methods I use when it comes to both crop rotation recommendations and companion planting dynamics.
Rotate companions as a set.
If you have certain crops that you always like to plant together, rotate them as a set each year.
For example, I always grow garlic, spinach and peppers in the same bed. Each year I rotate them to a different raised bed. Another example is if you plant a “three sisters” garden with corn, pole beans that climb up the corn stalks, and squash between the corn, you can rotate all 3 to a new bed each year.
Focus rotations on the heavier feeder.
When you plant two crops together but you don’t necessarily want to always rotate them at the same time, focus your rotations on the heavier feeder of the two.
For example, if I plant tomatoes and carrots together then I would focus on rotating the tomatoes but I may plant the carrots somewhere else entirely.
Focus on soil fertility.
Again, and always, focus on soil fertility. If you are mixing plant families, they are drawing a variety of nutrients from the soil. Make sure that you are replenishing those nutrients each season.
Succession Planting and Crop Rotation
Succession planting is when you grow one crop and when it is finished you replace it with another. Relay planting, which is my favorite, is very similar where you plant a crop and as it is nearing maturity to plant another so that the second crop will mature when the first can be removed. I will companion plant garlic and spinach together and then relay plant peppers as the spinach begins bolting. The peppers and garlic grow together until I harvest my garlic, at which point the peppers take over the space.
But you can see, again, how succession planting and crop rotation can get a little confusing. How do you plan rotations when you succession plant?
Treat each succession as one rotation.
In the example above, my “crop rotation” looks like this:
Garlic → Peppers
From two different families, the garlic and peppers each serve as a rotation, meaning I have two rotations that year. Then, I try to think about each crop and try to find a different place in my garden for it next year. Therefore, I won’t plant garlic OR peppers in that same raised bed next season. I may instead follow it with a leafy crop.
Avoid returning the same crop the next season.
Similar to the example above, if I plant [spring] peas and succession plant [summer] sweet potatoes in the same area, the following year I will put both peas and sweet potatoes in a different location. I may not make it the full 3-5 years because I only have so much room in my garden, but that’s ok. I’ll focus on my soil fertility and do the best I can.
Enrich the soil prior to each succession planting.
As you plant your next succession crop, add another layer of compost or another layer of slow-release, organic fertilizer. If disease or pest issues aren’t a huge issue, don’t stress; simply focus on soil fertility.
Customize Your Simplified Crop Rotation to YOUR Garden
There is a lot to think about when it comes to crop rotation. Each one of us has a different set of circumstances — the size of our gardens, the length of our growing seasons, or what we like to grow. We want to learn and grow as gardeners, but not be stressed about the perfect crop rotation schedule. Always remember to focus on soil fertility and do the best with what you have.
Further resources on crop rotation:
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I have very limited space to garden. I use 5 gallon container bags, maybe 10 to 15 of those, and one strip of yard that is 25 feet long by 2 feet wide, just enough for one row of planting in ground that is 25 feet long. So, my crop “rotation” is very limited. I’m growing corn for my spring garden/summer harvest, then will plant broccoli for my summer plant/fall harvest. After that, I’m stuck. Maybe legumes next spring plant/summer harvest?
I think legumes would be great or something in the cucumber/squash family.