Have you heard about crop rotation, but aren’t sure what it’s all about? Or, wondering if it’s something you should be doing? Then you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you the quick-and-dirty on crop rotation: what it is, the benefits it can provide to plants and the environment, and how to practice it in your garden. I’ll highlight and provide examples of using the 4-year cycle or “4 crop rotation” method specifically. To be honest, we aren’t perfect in crop rotation efforts in our garden – but it’s something we do try to be mindful of!
What is Crop Rotation?
Crop rotation is the practice of changing or switching the crops that are grown in a particular location (e.g. a field, plot or garden bed) every season. In other words, it’s when a farmer or gardener makes a concerted effort to avoid growing the same family of vegetables in the same spot year after year. It is an essential component in regenerative and sustainable agriculture systems, alongside good mulch, companion planting, and no-till or no-dig practices.
Crop rotation can be as simple as switching between two different crop families, or developing a planned sequence of up to a dozen crops. Allowing fields to fallow (go unplanted) or utilizing cover crops between seasons can also be part of a crop rotation routine.
Why Crop Rotation is Important
There are numerous benefits to crop rotation. First, practicing crop rotation can naturally enhance soil fertility and reduce the demand for chemical fertilizer inputs. Even better, research indicates that harvest yields can be 10 to 25% greater when crop rotation is used in comparison to monoculture cultivation!
Crop rotation can also help break the cycle of pests, diseases, and weeds, thereby decreasing the need for pesticides. The use of cover crops in crop rotation improves soil health while also minimizing soil erosion and runoff.
The Rodale Institute explains that crop rotation can improve soil health and organic matter “by increasing biomass from different crops’ root structures” while increasing overall biodiversity among the soil and farm. Below ground, microorganisms and other members of the soil food web naturally thrive with variety – as do the beneficial insects, pollinators, and wildlife above ground!
Now let’s take a deeper look at a couple of these benefits.
How crop rotation improves soil fertility
Each type of plant draws slightly different nutrients from the soil. For example, tomatoes, leafy greens and corn require a good amount of nitrogen. On the other hand, legumes such as peas and beans fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and return nitrogen to the soil as they grow! Continuously planting the same crop (or members of the same plant family) in one location will easily lead to nutrient depletion or imbalance. In contrast, crop rotation allows the soil to rest, rebound, and regain balance between seasons.
This concept extends beyond macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) to micronutrients, minerals, and even microorganisms as well. The ‘soil food web’ is a dynamic community of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and other critters that live in the soil. They’re all intimately involved in nutrient cycling, decomposition, disease suppression, and overall soil health.
The more diverse plantings we provide (including through crop rotation), the more the soil food web thrives – as do our plants!
How rotating crops reduces pests and disease
Crop rotation can break the cycle of disease or pests by removing the preferred host plant from the area. Once established during the growing season, disease-causing fungal spores or soil-dwelling organisms like cutworms, root-knot nematodes, or curl grubs can overwinter in the soil – ready and waiting to pounce on their favorite victim the following season! Growing a different or less susceptible crop in that location instead can reduce or eliminate the pests/diseases ability to reproduce or survive.
Consider powdery mildew for example (aka PM, a common fungal disease in our garden). If our zucchini plants were significantly infected with powdery mildew during the growing season, I’d try to plant something less susceptible to mildew in that location next. (Such as radishes, peppers, fava beans, onions, cabbage, or cauliflower.) It’d be wise to avoid growing other PM-prone crops like tomatoes, beans, or more squash in that spot for a season or two. They would only encourage the fungal spores to proliferate.
Is crop rotation necessary in raised beds or home gardens?
Yes and no. Maybe so? Practicing crop rotation is an excellent goal in any setting, including raised garden beds or small plots! Home gardeners can reap many of the same benefits as larger farms. Rotating crops in raised beds can be especially useful for reducing the prevalence of persistent diseases and pests.
However, us home gardeners already grow far more variety in our gardens than most larger operations. Many of us practice polyculture, or planting a mix of several types of crops in one small growing space or bed. I don’t know many gardeners that grow just one thing in the same bed year after year… do you? That said, crop rotation offers the largest impact and environmental benefits when used as an antidote or alternative to large-scale monoculture (the cultivation of a single crop) – which is commonly practiced in big ag, not at home.
Furthermore, it is admittedly more difficult for a home gardener to practice “perfect” crop rotation, especially with limited growing space! We often can’t afford to give up an entire bed to fallow or grow cover crops every season. If you have several raised garden beds, it’s ideal if you can rotate crops amongst different beds each season. However, even the simple act of planting crops in alternating ends or sides of one bed is better than nothing!
Just remember: perfection is not the goal. Try your best with the space you have. And don’t forget to add companion plants to boost your crop rotation efforts!
How to Practice Crop Rotation
In the most basic crop rotation practice, simply try to grow different plant families in your beds or rows every other season. More complex rotations may span several years and involve significantly more crops, planning, and strategy. Common crop rotation schedules for large farms include cycling between corn, wheat, legumes, and other crops.
Small farms and serious home gardeners can consider practicing a four-year crop rotation cycle, alternating between:
- 1) Legumes such as peas, green beans, soybeans, peanuts, alfalfa and fava beans.
- 2) Greens and Brassicas including kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, herbs, lettuce, and other leafy greens.
- 3) Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, melon, peppers, eggplant, or potatoes.
- 4) Root veggies such as turnips, radishes, beets, garlic, onion, leeks, parsnips or carrots.
Click on any of the highlighted veggies above to see our corresponding grow guides!
In a four-year crop rotation, when you start the cycle doesn’t matter, but the order does.
The legumes fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, adding to the soil. The greens and brassicas that follow then utilize a lot of nitrogen to support their leafy growth. By using up some nitrogen, the greens are also preparing the soil for the next group. Next, fruiting vegetables need ample phosphorus to develop flowers and fruit (and will focus too much on leafy green growth instead of fruit if they’re provided too much nitrogen). Finally, the root veggies are the least heavy feeders, but perform best with more potassium and phosphorus than nitrogen. Then the cycle starts all over again with nitrogen-fixing legumes.
How to Keep Track of Crop Rotation
The most difficult part of practicing crop rotation can be keeping track! Use a planner, spreadsheet or chart to keep track of what you’re growing in each bed every season. Then you can look back at previous years and also plan ahead for the future. We like to use our Homestead and Chill plot plans to map out our garden each planting season. In addition to serving as a great reference for years to come, they help me plan how many seeds to start and make transplanting day much more smooth and organized!
Some organized gardeners (and serious crop rotators) move their crops from bed to bed in sequence with the four-year crop rotation cycle. See the example below. We’ve never had enough room to follow a model quite like this in the past. But now that we have more raised beds in our new garden, we may give it a try! However there are other variables we need to consider too, such as which beds receive the best sun for the heat-loving crops versus others where more shade-tolerant plants may thrive.
Do I still need to fertilize if I practice crop rotation?
While it’s great for the soil, you may not be able to rely on crop rotation alone to adequately nourish your plants. We recommend amending garden beds with aged compost and a top-dressing of mild, slow-release, well-balanced organic fertilizer each season. Throughout the growing season, we also like to water our garden beds with aerated compost tea – which provides gentle nutrients and boosts beneficial microorganisms. You can find our full garden bed amendment routine here.
And that’s the 411 on crop rotation.
As you can see, there are numerous benefits to practicing crop rotation. It helps your plants, soil, and the environment! Yet it can also make your head spin a little, and that’s no good. All in all, I hope that this article helped make it much easier to understand – and empowers you to try crop rotation at home if you desire! Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below. And if you found this information useful, please spread the love by sharing or pinning this post. Catch you on the flip side!
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