The Living Jigsaw:
Planning for Crop Rotation
in Your Vegetable Garden

Crop rotation is crucial for your garden's soil health, but it can also alleviate your design mind as well. The thing that makes planning a vegetable garden both more challenging and more fun is the harvest cycle. Usually, a gardener plants a plant once and then sits back to watch it grow and thrive, but in the edible garden, right when things are the most beautiful, you're supposed to run out and rip it off or chop it down!

So here's my super concise design advice for the would-be vegetable garden designer: get over that. That emphemeral quality is part of the beauty. You love it because it doesn't last. After all, part of why it doesn't last is because it tastes so good. You trade a specific visual beauty lasting for the chance to experience your garden with yet another sense.

Special Bonus: you can taste the seasons go by, even the years, because each year's fickle weather will favor a different variety or a different crop family, and a decade later you'll still be referring to the spring of the amazing pole beans.


Leaves, Fruits, Roots, Rebuild.

crop rotation 4That's your new mantra. Leaves, fruits, roots, rebuild.

Think of a salad: lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, peas. What you are eating are the leaves of the lettuce, the fruits of the tomato vine, and the root of the carrot. The pea... you are eating the fruit (seed) of the pea vine, but more important to your garden is that fact that peas and beans are soil rebuilders because of their marvelous nitrogen fixing capacity.*



Cabbages and lettuces. This includes everything from broccoli, Red cabbage from DC community gardenkale, collards, and cauliflower to bok choy, tatsoi, and good old fashioned romaine.

These plants all do well with higher nitrogen levels present at the start of the rotation cycle. A lot of these plants do well in the spring and fall seasons, some even over the winter, but have more trouble in the summer.

Trouble can come in two forms: pests to eat the plants, and hot weather, which encourages a number of them to bolt up quickly into flower and seed forming stage. This makes the leaves bitter, so we thwart bolting whenever possible.




Two groups: the lasagne and the soup. Lasagne is tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. And tomatillos (don't skip learning about ground cherriesSquash by David Monniaux from our Don't Miss List).

Soup is squash and pumpkin. And cucumbers. So really it's soup 'n' salad. If you were going to try a native American "Three Sisters" garden (corn, beans, squash), those are all fruits and could go here.

These plants all pull from the phosphorus levels in the soil, that middle NPK number on the fertilizer bag, obtained naturally from bone and composted manure. They do not like too much nitrogen; it makes them too tasty to the pests, this is why we sent in the cabbages first- to eat that sweet stuff.

This is a fairly summer intensive plot, with plants lasting into the fall a bit, but generally being frost tender. Leaves and fruits make up the two biggest quandrants in my garden, so I try to take advantage of that seasonal offset and spill each group into the other plot a bit, interplanting ones that are going to die (or be eaten) soon with ones that will take over after that happens.


Again, two groups: onions, and not-onions. Onions includes garlic, Red onions by Stephen Ausmusshallots, and even chives, though chives are perennial and are best planted somewhere out of the way of all these rotation shenanigans.

Not-onions includes carrots, radishes, rutabegas, turnips, and beets. Because beets and chard and spinach are all in the same family, I lighten the load on my leaves block by sending the chard and spinach around with the root vegetables.

One notable absentee from the roots rotation: potatos. potatos are in the same family as the lasagne fruits, so all the bugs that bothered them will bother the potatos. Better to give a year between them to starve the pests out.

The root plants like a decent potassium level in the soil. By the time we are this far into the rotation cycle, that's all that's left in any abundance.



Blaushakker peas by Molly PhemisterPeas and beans, on the one hand, and corn and potatos on the other. Peas and beans are nitrogen fixers, and corn and potatos are both heavy feeders that will clean out the soil of remaining nutrients and are bulky crops hard to fit anywhere else.

Some folks treat these as two separate groups, giving them 5 groups to move through their gardenwhich looks like this:

crop rotation 5






Another Variation

Some gardeners take that habit of the each crop rotation package falling into two groups and create two subgroups for each, or 8 groups total. It's still Leaves, Fruits, Roots, Rebuild, but now it's the heavy eaters for the first four years, then the light eaters for the next four. Year four itself is rebuilding in the form of clearing any excess, and year 8 is rebuilding in the more classic re-invigorating sense.

crop rotation 8

Which ever route you take in planning your vegetable garden, you can do it all at once, or you can build a new bed each year to take on the next rotation. Either way, you'll want to know more about design ideas for using vegetables beautiful, and more about the physical labor (or not) of how to get that bed created. Coming soon are pages introducing double digging garden beds, no-dig gardening (a.k.a. no-till), and raised bed gardening.

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(* no plants are nitrogen fixers. What some of them are are excellent nitrogen-fixing soil-critter habitat makers. It's like planting a nitrogen-fixer-microbe spa, right there in your garden.)