PHOTO: NRCS Oregon/Flickr
Lisa Munniksma
September 12, 2014

“Practice crop rotation,” you’re told time and again by fellow farmers, magazine articles and extension materials. Crop rotation—seeding in groups according to plant families and rotating these groups around your growing area with each season’s planting—has many benefits. You’ll see reduced pest pressure because the Colorado potato beetles that ate your potato plants last year will probably come back to the same place looking for potatoes again. You’ll have fewer soil-borne diseases because the early blight attacking your tomatoes might be confined to a small area of your garden, and your soil nutrients will increase because the cover cropping you’re doing in between food crops are boosting fertility.

That all sounds nice, but if you don’t understand how to put a crop rotation into practice, it won’t do you any good. Organic farmer Daniel Parson has an easy-to-follow, six-step crop rotation plan that he developed for his own farm, Parson Produce, and has carried with him into his role as manager of Emory University’s Oxford Farm in Atlanta. Here’s his outline that you can put to work on your own farm.

1. Measure and Map Your Garden

Take advantage of Google for this task. Find a satellite image of your property on Google Maps, then print it and draw your garden on the printed page.

2. Divide Your Garden Into Plots

Parson’s 2-acre farm is divided into 13 separate plots, but your farm might only have four to eight, depending on its size. You need enough plots to be able to rotate through each crop family that you are working with.

You can draw your plots in any shape you want, but Parson points out that longer, rectangular blocks are easier to work using a tractor than shorter, square blocks. If you are using a walk-behind tractor or rototiller only, this is less of a concern.

Number each plot so you can refer to it easily.

3. Group Crops

Now comes the tricky part: deciding what you want to plant this year. Group those crops by family and season of planting and harvest. You’ll use succession cropping—planting one crop family after another in the same space—to use your plot throughout the year.

A succession cropping example for Plot 1 is:

  • Winter: a cover crop of oats
  • Spring: broccoli
  • Summer: a cover crop of soybeans
  • Fall: carrots

For successful succession cropping, you need serious planning. You can be really fancy and put together a whole spreadsheet of your crop, variety, planting date and days to harvest like Parson does or figure out a record-keeping system of your own. This takes some work upfront but will serve you year after year, as you can make notes about germination and yield. An easier route is to use the charts provided by seed companies (like those from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) and guides from your state cooperative extension (like Colorado State University’s “Sample Planning Guide for Raised-Bed Garden“). It’s still a good idea to keep notes about how each crop performed in your garden for future reference.

4. Outline Your Plan

Make a chart of each plot number and each season, like the example in step 3. Next to each season, fill in what you’ll plant there. Some crops will be in the field for more than one season. For example, summer squash will be planted in spring and will still be there to harvest in summer; garlic will be planted in the fall and will still be there to grow in winter and to harvest in spring.

Likewise, you can intercrop, planting more than one crop in that plot per season, such as both broccoli and cabbage in plot 1 in the fall. Just be sure to stick to plants of the same family.

Separate your crop families so a family will not return to the original plot for two to four years, advises the North Carolina State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

5. Fill in Blanks with Cover Crops

Cover crops are important because they help reduce weed germination, prevent soil erosion, raise soil temperature and boost soil nutrients. Each plot can benefit from cover cropping in between your planned food crops. Different cover crop varieties serve different purposes. Use your climate, soil-test results and future garden-plot plans to determine the best cover crop for your needs.

6. Stick to the Plan

With all of these details plugged into a chart, you now have a rotational plan for your garden. Each year, Parson moves the plans for each plot up one space. What was growing in Plot 3 in 2014 will grow in Plot 2 in 2015, and so on. This rotation will keep the pests guessing, the soil nutrients building and your vegetables growing as strong as possible.

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