The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Simplifying complex rotations

Pea flower

The problem with a diverse garden is that planning rotation can be a mind-bending exercise if you grow in a large space.  Luckily, there are ways to simplify the process.

The first step toward easy rotations is to figure out which families cover the most ground in your garden.  These widespread families will vary depending on what you like to eat, of course, but I always struggle to find fresh ground for legumes, brassicas, cucurbits, the onion family, and the tomato family.  Everything else is pretty easy since, for example, I just don't grow enough okra to make it difficult to find the vegetable a home in next year's garden.

You could do worse than to start off your rotation by deciding on spots for the members of the five prolific families mentioned above.  Make a list of all of the vegetables you grow in each family and divide them up by planting date, then start finding homes for each crop from earliest planted to latest planted.  Don't worry if you're stumped and can't find a good spot for the latest planted vegetables --- openings generally come up and let you squeeze the last few in.

The steps I use when deciding on a spot for each vegetable in next year's garden are as follows:

Spring planting1. Decide how many beds to devote to the crop.  I keep notes on how much I preserve of each type of vegetable and of the month when I ran out of those stored foods in the winter.  If I had to buy tomatoes starting in February, that's a clue that I should plant more beds next year.  On the other hand, if I ended up with peppers that I didn't want to eat when the time came to clean out the freezer in the spring, I might as well grow fewer this year.  Don't get too carried away, though ---  if this is your first or second year gardening, you'll want to keep your garden small and manageable.

2. Consider where the crop will grow best.  I like to save the sunniest spots for crops planted in the early spring or those which will survive late into the winter.  The next sunniest spots go to tomatoes and cucurbits that succumb to fungal diseases during our hot, humid summers.  Herbs can go anywhere, but you'll use more if they're close to your front door.  Root crops require deep, well-drained soil, so keep them out of clayey or swampy spots.  If you hand water, you might want to keep moisture lovers like celery close to the hose.

Weekend Homesteader paperback3. Hunt and check until you find a spot.  Now that I know I need 10 potato beds and that the root crop needs to be located in the loamy third of my garden, I can start hunting through the the garden until I find the appropriate number of beds that haven't grown tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, or eggplants for a few years.  With a spreadsheet, you can simply search for the bed number (or sort by bed if you have all of the information on the same sheet) and get a list of all of the vegetables grown in each bed since you started taking notes.  Although a bit time-consuming, this hunt and check method only takes me a couple of hours when deciding on spots for all of the crops in our huge spring and early summer garden.

If you need an incentive to make garden planning happen in a timely manner, you can use mine --- once I know where each vegetable will go, I'm allowed to pore over seed catalogs.  Garden porn!

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Weekend Homesteader: November.  Check out the 99 cent ebook for more information on how to store drinking water for use during power outages, to put an entire chicken to use in the kitchen, and to bring in cash without going to the office.

This post is part of our Garden Rotation lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Comment by Errol Fri Nov 4 14:19:15 2011
That's embarrassing.... I guess that's what I get for going to town and having my lunch post go up automatically. Now it's a new post....
Comment by anna Fri Nov 4 15:29:51 2011
What's the typical size of your garden beds?
Comment by Kevin Fri Nov 4 19:34:38 2011
In reality, they're all different sizes. But when I write about number of beds, I use the term to mean an area roughly 20 square feet. So various beds count as 0.5 beds, 1 bed, 4 beds, etc.
Comment by anna Fri Nov 4 21:23:13 2011

Good info as always. I have more beds of beans than anything else. Then comes various squash, then tomatoes.

Each year I try to meet more of my family's needs. I don't try to increase everything, that would just make it possible to fail. This year we likely have all our beans for the year, but some of them were purchased from a farmer. So next year instead of having 12 beds of beans, I'll boost it to 20. That seems like a lot, but there are at least 2 seasons of beans each year.

Do you do companion plantings as well? Are your onions mixed in with everything to help keep away pests?

Comment by Fritz Sat Nov 5 21:48:56 2011
It sounds like you're well on your way to growing all of your own vegetables! To answer your question, I find it much simpler not to companion plant within individual beds, but to mix beds up so that each type of vegetable is scattered across the whole garden. The few times I've companion planted, I've been unhappy with the results --- too much competition and too much of a pain to harvest. Plus it makes rotation planning even harder. Which is not to say that I won't fill garden gaps with anything and everything if something doesn't come up.
Comment by anna Sun Nov 6 08:05:55 2011

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