Crop rotation is often thought of as a large-farm process—but gardeners, homesteaders and small-scale farmers need to be just as aware of rotating their crops from season to season
What does it mean to rotate your crops?
Rotating your crops is when you plant different vegetables in a given garden plot when switching crops from season to season. And actually, an ideal crop rotation happens when you don’t bring back a crop (or a crop from the same family) to that spot for three years. Although this can be a tricky rule to follow when you have a small plot, the benefits may outweigh the extra work it takes to plan.
Rotating crops benefits soil health
Growing the same plants in your garden bed year after year means that the same nutrients are being extracted from the soil. All crops use the basic nutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, but each needs a varying amount along with specific micronutrients. The soil can’t keep up long term with having a heavy feeder like corn in the same spot each year or retain enough calcium for tomato plants, even with consistent compost amendments or worm teas.
Crop rotation helps return nutrients to the soil without any chemical inputs and instead incorporates nitrogen fixers like legumes (peas, beans, soybeans, lentils), whose effect lasts longer compared to artificial nitrites. This will help to improve soil structure for plant roots, prevent erosion, and help to grow strong and healthy plants in the garden.Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
By rotating crops, you’re minimizing pests and disease
When we plant the same thing in the same spot each year, pests have an easier time locating that plant. They overwinter in the soil and in the roots and they’ll make themselves comfortable if they know that there is food available. Moving your cucurbits to a new spot (and ideally netting them if growing during peak pest season) will ensure that your summer and winter squashes are safe from cucumber beetles, squash bugs and vine borers. Depending on what you plant, that variety of plant might actually drive the pest away.
The same goes for diseases—they love waiting around in the soil for that same plant to come around. But different plants are susceptible to different diseases, so if you rotate your crops, you’ll help keep detrimental diseases away from your plants and ensure that you have a plentiful yield.
Crop rotation reduces the need for chemical inputs and enhances yields
Monocropped fields filled with corn, soy and wheat all rely on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to ensure plant growth and to reduce pest pressure. Unfortunately, these same inputs are incredibly harmful to soil microbial life, which is essential to human and planetary health. By rotating crops to minimize pests, disease, and to enhance soil life, we can reduce our reliance on these inputs and bring life back into our soil.
The amazing thing is that when the soil is healthy, the plants have so much to eat in order to grow, which in turn feeds us as well. The coolest part? Once the plant's life cycle is over, their roots continue to feed the soil in a full-circle cycle.
If you’re looking to rotate your crops in a small garden setting, all it takes is a well-thought-out plan—and stepping out of your comfort zone to grow vegetables that you wouldn't normally think to grow or eat. Get creative with your seed buying and transplants and feed your soil something new next season.
That doesn’t mean you have to skip out on your favourites like cucumbers or tomatoes, just find them a different spot or interplant them with a beneficial companion that will supplement the nutrients. There are so many benefits to rotating your crops; no matter the size of your plot, you’ll be doing yourself (and the planet) a favour by doing so.