I pulled out the remains of summer’s snake beans from one of my garden beds and was amazed by the sight that met my eyes.
The roots were a horrid, knotty mass of distorted lumps.
In the spring the beans had done excellently so I planted a second round in the same area. It grew rapidly but seemed to have a much harder time producing a crop than the earlier set of plants.
In short, they were a fail.
Sometimes you can get away with planting an area multiple times in a row with the same crop. I have a neighbor who plants a plot of crowder peas every summer… and from what I can spy over the fence, it seems like they’re in the same place. He seems to do fine; however, the plot probably reverts to weeds and grass through the rest of the year.
That rest can make all the difference.
Many of the problems in modern farming, from the need for extra pesticides to the use of genetically modified plants, relate to a lack of rotation. When the same ground is used to grow the same crops over and over again… pest problems start to build.
Granted, many farmers rotate between soybeans and corn or other pairings… but they don’t have the luxury of putting space aside for long term rotation plans like a home gardener can do with his plots.
In the case of my knotted bean roots, I won’t be planting anything susceptible to nematodes in that same space for a while – and I definitely won’t be planting anything in the bean and pea family.
Instead, after pulling the beans, my wife and I cleaned up the bed. Then she sowed a good handful of mustard seeds across the surface of the nematode-ridden earth.
Mustard, like many of its brassica cousins, can actually repel nematodes. They hate eating mustard.
If you really want to improve a bed and kick out garden pests before they become a big issue, give your gardens even more time than a year or so between similar crops. In a small space, this may not always be possible, but in a system like mine where I have a lot of beds it’s pretty easy to pull off.
If you can rotate not just types, but entire plant families, you’ll do well.
Hardcore Crop Rotation: A Five-Year Plan
If you really wanted to go nuts with your plant rotation, you could switch plant families for five years without many issues. Call it a five-year mission to boldly plant what no man has planted before…
You know, when I was a kid I used to bike over to my Grandma’s house with my brother in the summer and watch Star Trek on her Beta VCR. We’d eat her amazing homemade macaroni and cheese (she used Vermont aged cheddar) along with frozen slices of mango from her tree out back. She had also air conditioning and we didn’t. It was awesome. Man… those were the days. No responsibilities, cool grandparents, fast bikes, Kirk and Spock and green ladies, a good brother to hang with…
Where the heck was I?
Being a grownup and writing a gardening article… yeah… that’s right. Dang it.
Okay. Crop rotation.
Try this five-year plan on for size:
SPRING YEAR 1: Snake beans/other beans (Fabaceae)
FALL YEAR 1: Mustard/Broccoli/Kale/Cauliflower (Brassicaceae)
SPRING YEAR 2: Corn/Rye/Wheat/Sorghum (Poaceae)
FALL YEAR 2: Carrots/Dill/Parsley/Cilantro (Apiaceae)
SPRING YEAR 3: Peppers/Tomatoes/Tobacco/Potatoes (Solanaceae)
FALL YEAR 3: Beets/Amaranth/Lettuce/Chard (Amaranthaceae)
SPRING YEAR 4: Sunflowers/Jerusalem artichokes [though hard to remove – beware]/Artichoke/Yacon (Asteraceae)
FALL YEAR 4: Garlic/Onions/Chives/Leeks (Amaryllidaceae)
SPRING YEAR 5: Squash/Cucumbers/Melons/Zucchini/Bitter Gourds (Cucurbitaceae)
FALL YEAR 5: Corn Salad (Caprifoliaceae)
You don’t have to go for a full four years: usually two is enough – however, this plan does give you an idea of how many crops from different families can be planted without repeating a family. There’s some good food coming out of that bed, no matter which year you’re in.
The Biblical Method
Exodus 23:10-11 states: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.”
Basically, the land was left alone. With what we now know about tilling and the power of weeds to restore the soil this seems… shall we say… inspired?
I visited one of the University of Florida’s agricultural research sites and was fascinated to see that they converted many of their test plots back to grass while they were in between crop tests.
It makes sense when you consider that many insects and other garden pests are on multi-year cycles. If they nested in your corn one year, then were expecting to have corn again the next year… and instead got boring old grass… they’d starve.
When the ground has a chance to just sit, it also rises in organic matter and nutrient content thanks to the working of fungi, bacteria, the rain and the action of various weeds.
Lousy Gardens Are For the Birds!
What about this addition to your crop rotation plans: add chickens!
I have an area of my front yard that was really lousy. That is… until I added a chicken tractor earlier this year. That ground is greening up rapidly and I’ve been chucking seeds all over the areas that have been tilled by the birds’ relentless scratching for feed and insects. They’re removing potential pests, adding manure and seriously improving the soil as they go.
If you let animals eat the remains of previous gardens – as Exodus states – you’re practicing an excellent method of land use rotation.
The main reason to avoid repetition is to keep diseases and pests of one species from turning into plagues (there we go with the Biblical references again!). Chickens can really bust that pest cycle to pieces.
Another Simple Solution
Here’s another thing you can do if you’re less of a long-term planner: mix your garden beds up.
When you plant, throw in onions, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, peas and kale into the same bed in spring, randomly arranged. No nice blocks! Then later in the year, you can throw in beans, tomatoes, squash, peppers and other warm-season crops.
With enough of a mix you’ll have a lot of different flavors and scents that will confuse garden pests and keep the chances of seriously destructive disease within acceptable parameters.
Though it may not work for the neatnik, throwing a mix of seeds across a bed and thinning later can work quite well.
Whatever you do, don’t plant snake beans in the same place twice in a row if there’s a risk of nematodes.
Especially not if people read your columns on the internet.