How to Practice Crop Rotation (Benefits Explained)
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!
Don’t miss these awesome articles:
- What is No-Till Gardening (aka No-Dig), Benefits Explained
- How to Kill or Remove Your Grass (and Grow Food, Not Lawns!)
- Composting 101: What, Why and How to Compost at Home
- Companion Planting 101 (with printable companion planting chart)
- How to Build Raised Garden Beds
Other sites say radishes and turnips are brassicas and should in that group.
Can you confirm?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Dan, you are correct that radishes and turnips are in the brassica family but they are also root vegetables. We keep them in the root vegetable section as they are grown and harvested like other root vegetables and have different nutritional needs than other large heading brassicas like cabbage or cauliflower. Thanks for reading and reach out if you have any other questions, have fun growing!
If I am reading these charts correctly for seasonal rotation, there are “seasons” where it implies you would not have root veggies or legumes planted. Is there a reason for that?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Kristina, I am not sure exactly what you are referring to but we consider a season to be one year or two growing seasons (spring and fall), the different veggie types just switch between the different raised beds or garden zones, the charts shown are used as an example if you had 8 different raised beds or growing zones. Hope that helps and reach out with any other questions you may have.
I just read your article on tomatos and wow, you really covered all the bases. I have been doing the 12 branch system for a couple years now. I grow them up about 6 feet and then run them along a string that hooks onto my house, my Sungold tomato vines are about 17 feet long. To be honest, the tomatos are starting to taste bland.
Anyway, congrats on writing such a good article, it is impressive.
I live in Sacramento Ca, I would be interested to know where you garden.
I have been racking my brain, trying to find a crop rotation plan that works.
The problem I am having with your 4 year rotation plan and others that say the same thing is that
Tomato’s have to be planted in the next planter in the following year in the begining of April while the onions and garlic that are in that planter do not get harvested until about June.
How can you design a rotation plan like that?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi John, obviously with limited space, perfect crop rotation isn’t that practical for many backyard gardens, we try and alternate crops from one bed to the next from season to season. If you have two garden beds and really like to grow tomatoes, just alternate what bed has tomatoes each summer. We are located on the Central Coast of California, hardiness zone 9b. We do grow onions in spring and fall/winter, we just harvested our onions that we started from seed in February. We started more onion seedlings a few weeks ago that we will plant out in October and will likely harvest them come late winter or early spring.
Anne in KY
Thank-you for this! I especially appreciate the wonderful visuals to use as a guide. Will following the four crop rotation as shown here, provide sufficient “friends” of companion planting and make sure there are no “foes” in the same bed? Also, one of the categories contains herbs. If herbs and beneficial flowers are planted throughout the beds and not rotated according to crop, will it throw off the soil benefits of rotating? Thank-you again for the in depth information! You guys are such a blessing!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Anne, having herbs and or flowers planted throughout your beds and not rotated with the crop rotation will not throw off the benefits of crop rotation itself. We usually have various annual flowers and herbs planted throughout our raised beds and we don’t worry too much in that regard. As far as companion planting goes, you can intermix certain varieties that are considered “friends” of a certain family of plants even if they aren’t in that specific crop for the rotation. There shouldn’t be any “foes” in the set crop rotation as each crop is its own type of vegetable. Refer to your companion planting chart for specifics. We use this crop rotation as a guide and don’t always follow it to the “T” and don’t be worried about mixing in various plants or vegetables, just be aware of what doesn’t like to be planted together and you should be good to go. Hope that helps and good luck!