Anyone with a green thumb knows a garden is only as good as its soil. There are a number of ways to maintain veggie-friendly soil health. That can include:
Using Compost and Fertilizers
- Mixing compost and natural fertilizers into your garden to boost nutrients, retain moisture, and fend off plant diseases
- Keeping weeds out to prevent competition for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight
Balancing pH Levels
- Balancing your soil’s pH level, aiming for 5.5 to 7
- You can lower pH with acidic additives, like sulfur, and raise it with more alkaline substances such as limestone
- pH-altering products can be found at your local garden store
- If standing water collects after a big rain, you’ll have a water-control problem that could lead to erosion and plant diseases
Beyond these points, of the best long-term strategies to keep your garden at the top of its game is by rotating the types of vegetables and fruits you plant each year.
Why You Should Rotate Your Garden
When you put the same type of plant in the same spot in your garden every year, you compromise the soil’s health over time. Different types of plants pull specific nutrients from the soil, leaving behind others and altering the overall balance of your garden.
The distribution of organic matter can also be negatively impacted over years of placing the same plant families in the same spots in your garden. But maybe most importantly of all, the complex make-up of microorganisms that contribute to your soil’s health can be thrown out of a natural balance if you don’t prioritize crop rotation.
What Happens If You Don’t Rotate Your Garden?
Non-rotated gardens are more likely to leave plants weak and prone to disease. The reason is that pests and bacteria that are specific to certain plant families can build up in the soil over time, leaving your newly sown seedlings at a disadvantage with each year.
Say you plant a crop of potatoes. As the growing season progresses, your potatoes become more likely to harbor damaging fungi. These fungi can grow throughout the soil and lay dormant over the winter, waiting for their next victims — aka, the potatoes you plant in the same spot the very next year.
These potatoes are less likely to succeed. And the next year, it’ll be even worse.
So what to do? Rotate your crops!
What’s A Good Plant Rotation Strategy?
A basic rule of thumb when rotating your plants is to keep veggies from the same plant family out of the same spot every year. A specific species is not the same as a family. A family can include a number of different types of plants, which share many of the same core characteristics when it comes to nutrient needs and likely diseases.
The main plant families you might be growing in your garden are:
- Cabbages: Arugula, cabbage, collards, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts
- Lettuces: Artichokes, endives, and leafy lettuces such as Romaine
- Tomatoes: All tomatoes, as well as peppers and eggplants
- Squash: Butternut and acorn squashes, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumber, winter squash, and melons
- Spinach: Spinach, beets, and chard
- Beans: Peas and Beans
- Onions: Shallots, leeks, and onions
- Carrots: Celery, parsnips, parsley, fennel, cilantro, and of course, carrots
Plants from the same family shouldn’t be planted in the same place in consecutive years because the bacteria and diseases that feed on them can build up and get stronger over time. Plus, those areas are more likely to be drained of the nutrients that plants within the same family go for.
In addition to family consideration, think about the needs of certain types of plants. Some plants are what we call “heavy feeders,” while others are “light feeders,” which take fewer nutrients from the soil. Rotate each area of your garden between heavy feeders and light feeders so that no one area is over-worked with heavy feeders year after year.
Examples of heavy feeding plants:
Examples of light feeding plants:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
There are also certain types of plants that can help your soil rebuild, such as beans, peas, and cover crops like clover. Rotating these in is a good way to give areas of your garden a chance to recover every couple of years.
How Often Should You Rotate Your Crops?
Rotate your crops every year, returning to the same spot only once every 3 years.
If you plant tomatoes in spot X in 2020, plant them in spot Y in 2021, spot Z in 2022, then back in spot X in 2023. Harvest, devour, be happy, repeat.
An example rotation between 3 areas of your garden might look like this:
Spot X: Tomatoes (heavy feeder)
Spot Y: Peas (soil builder)
Spot Z: Onions (light feeder)
Spot X: Onions
Spot Y: Tomatoes
Spot Z: Peas
Spot X: Peas
Spot Y: Onions
Spot Z: Tomatoes
If you don’t want to eat the same veggies every year, this can quickly get complicated, especially if you don’t have a lot of room to work with! That leads to the next question…
Is There A Less Complicated Way to Plan Garden Rotations?
If you don’t have all day to draw up blueprints for your garden’s rotations, then you can simplify your approach a bit and still help your soil stay healthy.
All of your veggies can be sorted into one of three main groups:
- Fruiting plants: Any plants with flowers that fruit, including squash, peppers, tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers
- Root veggies: Carrots, potatoes, beets, turnips, radishes, onions, garlic, and parsnips
- Leafy vegetables and cabbages: Kale, spinach, chard, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.
If keeping it simple is your thing, this is the easiest way to rotate your vegetables. Since each of these groups contains heavy feeders and light feeders, you can take your gardening game to the next level by avoiding repeatedly putting heavy feeders in the same area each year. And if you can rotate in a soil builder every couple of years, that’s even better.
At the end of the growing season, turn your garden over and plant a cover crop, like clover or ryegrass. These will help the soil maintain its health and strength. The following spring, turn over the cover crops and plant your new rotation.
What To Do If You Have A Small Garden
If you have a very small garden and can’t grow everything you want while also effectively rotating your crops, consider using pots for heavy feeders, like tomatoes.
Since you’ll use new potting soil every year, you don’t have to worry about rotating your pots, and you’ll be protecting your garden from the heavy hitters that will demand a lot of your soil.
Protect Your Garden With Compost From Your Kitchen
Every day in your kitchen, you throw precious garden-boosting nutrients right into the trash. That is, of course, unless you compost!
Banana peels and coffee grounds. The ends of carrots and apple cores. A whole lot of organic matter is generated when we prepare our meals.
With composting, you can return this nutrient-rich refuse to the soil to help grow even more food. It’s a beautiful cycle that’s great for your health, a friend to your wallet, and helpful to the environment, too!