How to Plan a Vegetable Crop Rotation

A crop rotation plan is a helpful tool to keep your garden productive and organized.

Vegetable Garden

Vegetable Garden

A well planned crop rotation will help keep your garden organized.

A well planned crop rotation will help keep your garden organized.

Serious Production

As vegetable gardeners become serious about increasing and sustaining production, an invaluable part of the planning process is the crop rotation. Crop rotation refers to the act of planting several types of plants in different parts of the garden. This helps to optimize nutrient usage and minimize disease and insect threats to the garden as a whole. Planning this rotation ahead of time will give you confidence going into the gardening season.

What Do You Want to Grow? 

If you search the Internet for the “best” crop rotation, chances are you will get results that don’t quite fit your situation. The vegetables in the “best” rotation may not be the ones that you like to grow or eat; or you may not find one or more of your favorite crops listed on a pre-made rotation plan. Your climate may determine that the crops on these pre-made plans can’t be grown simultaneously, then what? The first step toward making a workable crop rotation is to make a list of all the crops you will grow, including a rough time frame when they will be in the garden. For instance: 

  • Tomatoes: May-August
  • Spinach: March-June, September-November
  • Sweet potatoes: June-September 
  • Beans: May-July, July-September 

If you find that you have distinctly early, mid and late season crops, you will want to plan rotations within the year that will then rotate season to season. More on that later. 

Create Categories 

Group your crop preferences into three or more categories. Categories are the foundation of your rotation plan. These groupings will either be planted together or at equal intervals in the garden layout, so they should be of equal size according to the amount of garden space they require. There are multiple ways to categorize your crops: botanically related crops, sizes of the mature plants, type of crop (root, fruit, greens, etc.), etc. Categorizing according to botanical groups is beneficial for insect and disease prevention and, to some degree, nutrient optimization. Separating according to the sizes of the plants may work best in very confined or intensively managed spaces where the footprint of each plant is more important than the crop as a whole. Grouping types of crops keeps plants with similar cultivation requirements. Garden size, layout (beds or rows), crop preferences and management style all play into the decision of how to categorize your crops. Here are how a few category listings may look: 

Botanical Families: cabbage/turnip/broccoli/etc, onion/garlic, bean/pea, sweet corn, tomato/pepper/potato, beets/chard 
Plant Sizes: small (spinach, radish), medium (bush bean, cabbage), large (pole bean, corn), extra large (watermelon, pumpkin) 
Crop Types: roots, greens, fruits, vines 

For areas with long growing seasons, include separate categories for spring, summer and fall crops. You may grow both spring broccoli and fall broccoli, and they should be categorized separately because they should not grow in the same part of the garden. 

Draw Your Garden’s Layout 

Use the layout of your garden to determine which categories will go where. A well organized layout will allow crops/categories to move through the garden in a logical progression in successive seasons. For instance, I have four raised beds of equal size and my corn takes up a whole bed by itself. I will plant corn in bed 1 the first year, bed 2 the second year, and so on. The other crops will follow suit. If you have a longer season, you will have a succession of Spring, Summer, and Fall crops for each area of the garden. 

What Should Go Where? 

This is where art and science can work together. There is no perfect rotation, but there are some helpful bits of information that will get you going in a positive direction. Beans and peas add nitrogen to the soil, so they work well before and/or after heavy nitrogen users like greens. Deep rooted vegetables like carrots and daikon work well before or after shallow-rooted vegetables like spinach and lettuce. Tomatoes and potatoes do not do well in close proximity to one another. To help preserve soil structure and scavenge nutrients, include cover crops in the rotation for areas that are between produce crops and for winter coverage. Don’t worry about getting it “right” or “wrong,” simply moving your categories each season and each year is a great starting point for ensuring a healthy, productive vegetable garden.

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