Crop rotation is one of the oldest and most effective strategies for organic pest control and maintaining healthy soil in your garden. Specifically, it means the planned order of vegetables or fruits in garden beds; avoiding planting the same crop (and the same family of crops) in the same space for a two or three-year period; and knowing what family your edibles belong to.
The rules of crop rotation apply to plants in the same family, like tomatoes and potatoes, as plant families are usually susceptible to the same pests and diseases (unless a particular variety has been bred for resistance).
Many new gardeners become discouraged in the first few seasons when they make the mistake of planting tomatoes or lettuce or potatoes or corn in the same garden beds year after year. They can’t understand why those hornworms, caterpillars, tomato blight, and powdery mildew keep ravaging their veggies. Where the same vegetables or fruits (or families of) are grown in the same patch of soil successively, soil depletion and pest infestation usually follow.
Crop Rotation Helps to Avoid Disease
Growing the same crop in the same spot year after year is called Monoculture. Wherever monoculture exists, pests and diseases concentrate their efforts (it’s why Big Ag farmers have to use heavy applications of pesticides and fertilizers). If Verticillium Wilt infects your tomatoes this year, and you plant tomatoes in the same bed next year, the previous season’s soil-borne Verticillium will quickly have its way with your tomatoes and will produce even more fungi in the process. But if a crop resistant to Verticillium follows the tomatoes, like broccoli or mustard, which doesn’t mind verticillium at all – the fungi diminish.
The same idea holds true for diseases such as tomato blight. If your tomatoes were infected with blight last year, fungal spores from the blight most likely overwintered in your soil. Planting tomatoes the following year in the garden bed furthest from the blight infested bed will minimize the chances that your tomatoes will pick up the disease again.
Crop Rotation Controls Insect Pests
Many soil dwelling insects are fairly immobile. Take wireworms for instance. They love to feast on sweet potatoes and carrots. If you plant those edibles in the same raised bed every year, wireworms will build up in the soil and in a few seasons you’ll have a terrible infestation on your hands. But if you follow carrots or sweet potatoes with a non-root vegetable like lettuce or spinach, the wireworms will lose their food source and will be incapable of multiplying. Similarly, if aphids infest your broccoli, planting that crop again or any cole crop like brussels sprout or cabbage in the same bed the following year is just asking for double the infestation.
Crop Rotation Avoids Depleting Soil Nutrients
There are additional benefits to crop rotation. Yields decline if the same vegetables are grown in the same garden beds year after year, due to soil nutrient depletion. Additionally, roots which plunge to different depths each year keep the soil food web active; legumes stimulate beneficial soil microorganisms; and big, leafy greens are excellent at suppressing weeds.
Every plant requires unique amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (N-P-K) and trace minerals. When the same plant makes repeated demands of the same patch of soil, the elements it requires become depleted and may take years to replace. For this reason, use a soil test for monitoring levels of N-P-K and composting in between crops is recommended for soil health.
If your garden is small, perhaps just one raised bed, you can still practice crop rotation. If you can’t live without tomatoes every summer, grow tomatoes in containers on the porch for one or two seasons and give your garden bed over to lettuce or beans.
One rule of thumb: you can plant peas and beans before or after anything. These legumes harvest nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil, unlike any other family of plants. After harvest, work bean and pea vines into the soil to add organic matter and nitrogen or add the vines to your compost pile.
3-Year Crop Rotation Plan for Vegetable Gardens
If you have three or more garden beds, assign each plant family below a letter: one group to A, one to B, one to C. Grow plants from the same family together.
- 3-year, 3-bed crop rotation plan:
- 1st year: Bed 1: Family A Bed 2: Family B Bed 3: Family C
- 2nd year: Bed 1: Family B Bed 2: Family C Bed 3: Family A
- 3rd year: Bed 1: Family C Bed 2: Family A Bed 3: Family B
Todd Heft is a lifelong gardener and the publisher of Big Blog of Gardening. He lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA with his wife who cooks amazing things with the organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs he grows. When he isn’t writing or reading about organic gardening, he’s gardening.