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Crop rotation can be very confusing for a beginner hobby gardener. There are already so many rules to follow, so many things to learn. I decided not to rotate crops in my raised beds, or at least not do it intentionally, and see what happens. As it turns out, if you take care of your soil, you should be okay.
The purpose of crop rotation is to avoid soil depletion and bring new nutrients through raising different plants. We can achieve that through succession planting, alternating between two or three crops throughout the season, and feeding our soil with compost and mulch.
While I understand that crop rotation is what every old-school gardener recommends, gardening has evolved, and crop rotation is plain incovenient. In this article, I’m going to add to the controversy and encourage you NOT to rotate your crops in your raised beds, especially if you have a small garden like mine.
The purpose of crop rotation in large-scale farming
The crop rotation method has been introduced in the 16th century, and by the 18th century, it became standard practice. In today’s modern agriculture, crop rotation is an essential part of farming, and this is mostly due to monocultures.
Large-scale agriculture occupies sometimes hundreds of acres with the same crop, and this depletes the soil of certain nutrients. Because of the lack of diversity, certain resistant pests and weeds can develop and crop rotation can help with this.
But in spite of rotating crops, soil erosion eventually occurs because the soil never gets the chance to rest. Nutrients get depleted with this method of agriculture, so farmers add synthetic fertilizers to their crops, which are really meant to feed their plants, not enrich the soil.
In modern times, crop rotation is really a method to minimize risk from pests and disease, not enrich the soil’s biodiversity or help with its fertility.
The principle of fallow ground, and how we can apply it to a small garden
My family owned land in a rural area and we used to sow corn and potatoes on a sizeable plot of almost an acre. Every fourth year or so, my grandparents would leave at least some part of the field to lie fallow.
Fallowing is simply leaving a plot rest for a certain period of time, usually a year. When doing this, grass and weeds can grow freely, and animals can graze this new pasture. Cow and sheep manure will enrich the soil’s structure, as well as the green material that decomposes back into the ground.
Fallow ground is an age-old principle. In fact, it’s even mentioned in the Old Testament:
11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.Exodus 23:11
Whether farmers actually applied this principle throughout centuries is up for debate, but it’s undoubtedly a great thing for the soil.
So what does fallowing have to do with raised beds or crop rotation?
Fallowing is a way for nature to build back soil, and that’s exactly what we’re doing to our small gardens when we add a generous layer of organic compost or well-rotted manure every year, according to Scott Head.
What makes for a year-long process of decomposition in nature is done quicker in our gardens, with hot compost, or compost that we bring from other sources. We put back what we take from the soil, and then some. In fact, this nutrient-rich method of gardening gives plants much more resources than they even need.
Crop rotation in raised beds isn’t necessary if you care for your soil
Crop rotation in raised bed gardens is complicated and anything but practical. Firstly, crops of the same family should never follow each other.
Here is an example of a 4-year crop rotation: Potatoes and cucurbits are followed by roots and alliums. Roots and alliums are followed by legumes and salads. Legumes and salads are followed by brassicas. In year 5, you start again with potatoes and cucurbits.
You can see why moving your crops around in this way can get confusing. Not only do you have to keep in mind where your plants were during the past year, but you also have to visit your notes 3 years back.
Another thing that makes crop rotation inconvenient is garden structures. If you already built trellises on top of your raised beds, it would be too much of a hassle to keep moving those trellises around. Yes, you could grow other vertical crops on them, but if you know that your beans, for example, grow best in a certain spot, why not keep growing them there?
If you’re sighing with relief right now, remember you only have to do a few things for your soil to keep it healthy and thriving – things you would be doing anyway with no-dig gardening.
Use succession planting and alternate between crops
There’s a better way than crop rotation, and that is succession planting. Intensive gardening in small spaces like raised beds already uses this principle found in nature. Throughout the seasons, nature has a way of growing different kinds of plants that thrive and flower during different times of the year. Some like the cold weather, while others thrive in summer.
When I say succession planting, I don’t mean sowing radishes or carrots every two weeks to get a staggered crop. Succession planting, in my mind, is immediately replacing one crop, when it’s finished, with another.
So in my garden, this translates into: potatoes followed by leeks, broad beans followed by carrots, onions followed by beets, etc. The possibilities are endless – there’s just one rule: never leave a raised bed empty for months at a time. It’s a waste.
Amend your soil with compost
Another essential thing we need to do to avoid crop rotation is amending our soil with good organic compost and/or well-rotted manure. A one-inch layer is an absolute minimum, while 3 inches are even better.
The key here is to be patient and avoid disturbing the soil microorganisms by digging it. Soil building takes a long time, and if your base soil wasn’t very good, it will take a few years until your topsoil is almost entirely made up of fluffy compost.
Protect your soil with a cover crop or mulch
We can learn a lot from observing our plants and seeing how nature works. For example, you’ll never find bare soil in nature. Weeds will grow and take over it, or leaves will form a thick mulch and decompose into hummus on the forest floor. You can emulate this by careful mulching, especially in hot, dry climates.
Another way you can keep your soil covered during times when you’re not planting anything is by sowing green manure on it. Green manures are fast-growing crops, like mustards, for example, that shade the soil and keep it moist. Some of the green manures can benefit the soil by fixing nitrogen, as well as protecting it.
Giving up crop rotation – what about pests and soil-borne diseases?
I’m not saying you should keep your potatoes in the same bed if you had a bad case of blight the past year, although moving them 50 feet away won’t make much of a difference.
A good way to avoid blight with potatoes, especially in wet climates, is focusing on growing first earlies and second earlies, and getting them out of the ground as soon as possible.
From different gardeners’ observations, such as MIgardener, blight has more to do with the time of year, and less with soil-borne pathogens.
Take tomatoes for example. In my first year of growing tomatoes, I lost them all to blight in early August, although I had a newly established garden. There are ways to prevent this, such as improving airflow, making the leaves inhospitable for blight, and mulching. Rotation won’t help nearly as much, but it never hurts to try.
The point is to create an ecosystem within the soil, where organisms keep a healthy balance, and by adding lots of organic matter, we are doing just that.
Another thing we could do to suffer less from pest damage is to focus on the quality of our seedlings. Strong, healthy, stocky seedlings that have been well-transitioned will have a much better chance of survival than week leggy seedlings. The quality of our seeds has a lot to do with germination and pest resistance.
If certain crops are particularly susceptible to pest damage, you can try growing those plants in containers for as long as possible, so that they are strong when you finally plant them in the ground. Or you can use floating row covers or garden mesh to protect them from insects.
Many gardeners practicing the no-dig method have concluded that there’s no need for crop rotation if you have a small garden consisting of a few raised beds. Charles Dowding has, in fact, proven this year after year by comparing two plots – dig and no-dig – in which he planted the same vegetables time and time again. His crops didn’t suffer in the least, if anything, the no-dig method was far more productive.
If, however, you notice that your plants have been affected after being in the same place for a few years, consider the weather first. How has that year been – was it very rainy or very hot and dry? Climate has a lot more to do with the success of your harvest than crop rotation.
I hope I’ve convinced you not to worry too much about crop rotation. Gardening has a steep learning curve, and it’s much better to spend your time learning about plants than worrying about charts.