The Importance of Crop Rotation for a Healthy Organic Garden

This growing season, if you notice that your overall harvest is less than the year before, your plants don’t look as healthy or you experience an increase in pests and disease, that could signal that it’s time to implement crop rotation into your organic garden. A time-tested agricultural practice, crop rotation, according to University of Wisconsin Extension, “involves changing the planting location of vegetables within the garden each season.”

There are quite a few benefits to rotating the crops in your garden. Crop rotation is used to maintain the health and fertility of your soil, reduce damage from pests and limit the development of plant diseases. Because each generation of similar plantings suffers from a common set of pests and diseases, soil-borne diseases can build up after years of growing in the same place. Crop rotation won’t prevent all diseases from happening, but it will make a great difference.

Crop Rotation, Two Approaches

One method of crop rotation is to divide your plants into basic harvest groups:

  • Root crops
  • Fruit crops
  • Leafy crops

Using this method, crop groups are moved in a clockwise motion around your garden each year. It’s easy to adjust this approach based on what you like to grow. For example, if you don’t plant any fruiting crops, that bed can remain fallow, meaning you leave it empty for a season or planted with a cover crop. Cover crops can also be incorporated in your normal rotation.

Another method of crop rotation is keeping it “all in the family.” This is probably the most traditional way to rotate crops, keeping major botanical family groupings within your vegetable garden:

  • Tomato family: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes
  • Squash family: squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons and gourds
  • Brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, turnips, radishes, mustard greens, and collards
  • Bean family: beans, peas, and soybeans
  • Onion family: onions, leeks, shallots and garlic
  • Carrot family: carrots, parsnips, fennel, parsley, and dill
  • Spinach family: beets, spinach, swiss chard

There are more families that only have one member, like corn, okra or sweet potatoes. In a small garden, you can group some families together to make rotations easier. For example, you can put legumes and lettuce with the brassica family.

Keep Organized with a Garden Log or Map

For crop rotation to be effective, do not plant a family in the same area more than once every three to four years. To help with planning, keep a garden log or map as a record of where your vegetables are planted each year. Look to alternate between heavy feeders and light feeders. This will reduce the demand of your soil, since differing crops use different amounts of soil nutrients, with some crops adding nutrients back in.

Rotating Crops Still Applies for Smaller Gardens, too

You can still apply crop rotation even if you have a smaller garden. Instead of providing each plant group with its own bed, separate however many beds you have into different growing areas. Just know it may be a little more difficult to prevent diseases from spreading in a smaller space, so keep a close eye on your plants and use organic preventative measures like EARTH’S ALLY® Insect or Disease Control.

If you implement these easy crop rotation techniques, you’ll be giving your plants the best preventative medicine you can give to keep your organic garden healthy.