The Real Dirt 

Seasonal rotation

During winter's short days and longs nights, my garden sleeps under a blanket of mulch and snow. Except for a few hardy sprigs of creeping thyme that edge my walkway, my garden patiently waits for spring. I, on the other hand, spend that time planning. Where should I put carrots this year? And the peas? And the bean towers so they don't shade the Swiss chard? In my mind and on paper, my 2016 garden started long ago.

My perennial beds where I grow herbs and flowers are fairly static. Once plants are established, I don't rearrange the beds except to split overgrown plants and to occasionally share a zealous grower with friends or neighbors. My vegetable garden, on the other hand, changes dramatically from year to year.

I grow vegetables in my shady yard and in a community plot rented through Missoula's Garden City Harvest. Both planting spaces are fairly small and I always have to be conscious of what is planted where and how large any given plant will grow. As I begin my planning, I gather paper, pencil and last year's written plan. With my limited space, my biggest concern is planting so I don't repeat vegetables in the same piece of ground year after year.

I work on the plan for my yard's vegetable garden first. Three full-grown maple trees shade my yard. My house and garage also send afternoon shadows across my garden space. Only shade tolerant vegetables will produce a crop in these limiting conditions. Almost all vegetables love sun. When they don't get enough light during the day, they don't produce. Over the years, I've discovered the following vegetables will produce in a partially shaded area: leaf lettuce, cilantro, arugula, radishes, parsley, ox-heart carrots (small, round variety) and pole beans.

The pole beans are an anomaly. They prefer full sun, but with a tall enough bean tower, they'll grow up to the light and produce wonderful beans. The only problem, I have to use a step stool to reach the beans!

click to enlarge realdirt_tomatoes.jpg

Once I've decided what I'm planting this year, I take a quick look at last year's plan and try to reorganize so that each vegetable has a "new" spot in the garden. So, last year where I had the bean towers, this year I'll plant cilantro and ox-heart carrots. Where I had cilantro last year, I'll plant radishes and arugula, and so on. This practice is basic crop rotation.

Rotating where a gardener places vegetables benefits not only the plants, but also the soil. Soil that has the same crop planted in it year after year can become depleted in nutrients, leading to stunted plants and poor vegetable production. By varying where vegetables are sown from year to year, the soil can better support healthy plant growth and production.

Another benefit of crop rotation is a reduction of insect pests. For example, the wire worms that attacked my turnips last year are still in that same spot in the garden. If I plant turnips in the same area, I'm simply providing them an easy feast and ensuring my turnips fail. If I plant bush beans where I had turnips last year, I'm forcing the wire worms to at least wiggle their way across the garden before they infest my turnips. As a general rule, I like to rotate from root crops to peas and beans to tomatoes, and then back to root crops. But, given the small space I have, I don't always make that three-year rotation.

In the sunny community garden spot I rent, I plant sun-loving vegetables: squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, broccoli, onions and Swiss chard. I also use this space to try out new vegetables or varieties. Last year, I put in four artichoke sets. They were amazing to look at and did produce eight small heads, but I won't plant them again. For the amount of space they took up and the number of aphids I hand-squished on their stalks, I didn't find them worth the effort.

This leads me to another planning factor I haven't mentioned: weighing the "payoff" from my investment of energy, time and seed cost. Put another way, is what I grow in my garden worth the effort? For example, I no longer grow potatoes because they take up too much of my valuable space and I can purchase organic potatoes at the farmers market. Tomatoes, on the other hand, I am willing to plant and pamper, as my own homegrown paste tomatoes make the best salsa. Not even the excellent farmers market tomatoes can compare.

Ingrid Estell is a gardener at Garden City Harvest's Northside Community Garden and contributes to The Real Dirt, the nonprofit's blog. For more Dirt, visit gardencityharvest.org.

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