Featured, Food, Outdoors, Science

More Food with Less Work: Crop Rotation and Interval Planting

By Allison Sayer for Seward City News-

Gardening season is here once again. I’d like to discuss two strategies that can increase your yield without increasing the amount of time or money you put into your garden: crop rotation and interval planting.

Fight Pests with Crop Rotation

This hoophouse was planted with crop rotation and interval planting in mind. Brassicas are all grouped together in one row. Space is left bare for new seeds to be planted throughout the season. This hoophouse utilized true succession planting: planting cool and warm season crops as appropriate through the seasons. Photo: Allison Sayer

Why is crop rotation important? The main reason it is important at the home garden scale is pests. Different pests and diseases specialize in different crops. They multiply in the soil from year to year, and rotating crops helps keep them down. Have you ever seen a broccoli grow into a beautiful plant, then fall over and die overnight? That was most likely a cutworm, a particularly nasty soil pest. Other diseases might stress your plants and lower their yields, even though you do not see obvious symptoms.

In addition to keeping soil pests and diseases down, crop rotation results in better yields because different families deplete or strengthen the soil in different ways. By rotating crops through your soil, you will balance these effects and you will have bigger, healthier plants.

The goal of crop rotation is to alternate families, not individual species. For example, beets and chard are both in the same family. Therefore, if you plant beets one year and chard the next, it is not a rotation.

Here’s the bad news: a huge chunk of Alaskan staple crops are all in the same family: brassicas. Brassicas also have some unique and terrible pests and diseases, so they are one of the most important to rotate properly in our climate. Brassicas include, but are not limited to: broccoli, cauliflower, radish, mustard, bok choi, kale, arugula, turnip, and cabbage. How do you know if something is a brassica? They all have the same characteristic heart shaped cotyledons (those very first leaves on sprouts). Also, any seed supply catalog or customer service agent or internet search can let you know.

Pea. Photo: Allison Sayer

Because it is so important to rotate brassicas specifically, I avoid planting a few brassicas here and there in every bed or container. Depending on how much space I have I will have one 0r two beds, rows, or containers with all my brassicas, and then switch them every year.

So, what is not a brassica? Beets and chard (which are in the same family as each other), carrots, lettuce, spinach, onions and garlic (which are in the same family as each other, and also unfortunately tend to do poorly if planted immediately after brassicas), mache, peas, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers (which are in the same family as each other), most herbs, and zucchini are all members of different families. 

It is important to draw yourself little diagrams if you employ crop rotation. That way, you can reference them next year when you plant again.

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If your plants have declined over the years and you do not think the problem is nutrition, rotating crops would be an excellent way to troubleshoot the problem. This is especially true if your plants start out fine and then experience sudden death or illness. 

Interval Planting: Don’t front load your garden

Delicious lettuce. Photo: Allison Sayer

Here’s a less than ideal scenario: You have tons of lettuce starts you either bought or grew from seed, you spend a good chunk of the day finding spots for all of them as May winds down or June begins, and then…  in July you have more lettuce than any human can eat and by August it has all gone to seed. It tastes bitter and looks like a wedding cake.

Here’s another: you spent a whole day planting seeds last week which are now coming up. The forecast for the next week calls for hot, sunny temperatures. Little sprouts are very vulnerable to drying out because they don’t have big roots yet. Bigger plants can find water deeper in the soil with their roots, and they have more tissue to store water in. Now, if you don’t water your garden twice a day you will lose the whole thing. This will take hours a day. Also, what if you want to take advantage of the good weather to go on a kayak trip? Do you stay home just to water your sprouts?

Interval planting your leafy greens is a great way to avoid these scenarios, and also to give you a better tasting, longer lasting harvest. Plant just a few starts, then make a row next to those and plant just a few seeds. A week or so later, plant a few more seeds. Repeat this process through the summer. Make sure to label your rows so you don’t get confused.

This approach will give you young, tender greens all summer and even well into the fall.

This strategy is also easier on you. You can go plant your tiny rows of seeds in just a few minutes here and there before you go to bed. You will not have to give up a whole precious summer day for planting. Ditto for watering. On dry days, you can water all your new sprouts in minutes instead of hours.

Let’s go back to your kayak trip in the sunshine. If you interval planted, it’s no big deal. Maybe one week’s seeds will die, but you can rely on the bigger plants from earlier in the season to survive and you can plant twice as many when you get back. Essentially, you can live your life. While you’re at it, you can also drape a piece of row covering over your garden while you’re gone. This will help keep the soil from drying out.

This is what summer is all about! Let your garden take care of itself! Photo: Allison Sayer

I love gardening, and I do work hard at it. However, I also love the philosophy of producing the most food with the least work, using plants’ natural abilities as my allies. One of my favorite authors, Eliot Coleman, is a major guru of this philosophy. I highly recommend reading his books to learn more.

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