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Crop Rotation, Plant Families And The Vegetable Garden

When planning your vegetable garden, consider the benefits of crop rotation. Good crop rotation prevents the build up of pests and diseases in the soil and preserves micro-nutrients. For example, legumes (beans and peas) will actually add nitrogen to the soil. While crop rotation will not guarantee that diseases will not occur, it greatly reduces the chance that soil born pests and diseases will ruin your vegetable crop.

Crop rotation is not very difficult, it just takes some advance planning. Vegetables are classified by plant families. Simply, vegetables within the same plant family should not be planted in the same location as they use soils in similar ways and share similar pests and diseases.

The following shows the major plant families and their most common vegetables.

Plant families should be rotated every year on a four year plan.

Another factor to consider is that some vegetables are heavy feeders (tomatoes, corn, cabbage), others light feeders (potatoes, root and bulb vegetables, herbs) while others build nutrients into the soil (legumes). When planning your crop rotation, try and plant heavy feeders, followed by light feeders and then nutrient builders in the third year. Think heavy - light - feeder when planning your garden. Practically this may not always work and it doesn't in my garden since I have by far less light feeders than heavy or feeder plants. So I've adapted a bit and that means legumes following heavy feeders for me in some years.

Heavy Feeder
Light Feeder
chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots
broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi
mustard greens, radish, turnip, rutabaga
spinach, swiss chard
arugula, chicory, endive, escarole, radicchio, lettuce
cantaloupe, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash, watermelon, gourd
beans, peas, peanuts
eggplant, peppers, tomatoes
carrot, dill, chervil, cilantro, parsley, fennel, parsnip

The key to managing all of this is to carefully planning of your vegetable garden each year. To design a vegetable garden, you should sketch out your plan, dividing the garden into major sections. Rotate your families among these sections every 4 years. Rotate as well as possible following the heavy - light - feeder routine. Here is our plan for 2009.

Sketch of Vegetable Garden Plan

The next step is to schedule out a time line of when vegetables should be planted either directly in the garden or started indoors. For more information on when to plant various vegetables in the garden see my notes on Planning A Spring Garden Planting Schedule.

Update 2012: Gardening evolves with knowledge and experience. I have been formally planning my vegetable garden layout on paper for 4 years now and each year I think I get a little bit better. In addition to learning about plant families, I have come to realize how you effectively rotate your crops depends upon what exactly you grow. Do you grow three times as many tomatoes as beans? Does something as space heavy as potatoes throw a wrench into your planning? All of these needs have to be worked out together, with a bit of give and take depending upon your particular garden. Watch my plans as they have evolved to accomodate our ever increasing garden size and what seems to be a never ending lengthening of the varieties of vegetables we want to grow.

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