What is Crop Rotation and Why is it Important
Crop rotation systematically plants different crops in the same area, over different years or seasons. It also includes alternate planting of crops, that are deep and shallow-rooted. We will go through the advantages, with example charts and plans for 3 and 4 years.
Crop rotation is beneficial for many reasons;
Crop Rotation Advantages
- Returning the essential nutrients to the soil
- Deter pests and prevent plant disease
- Reducing or stopping soil erosion
- Improving the fertility and soil structure
- Better weed control
- Reducing the risk of crop death, due to disease or drought, and much more
The rotation schedule differs due to different types of soil, climates and other factors. That means that different areas of the world might have very different rotation schedules. The rotation length also depends on individual needs. Short rotations don’t always provide the best balance for the crops and increasing the number of fields can sometimes complicate things, if we don’t know how to use it to our advantage.
History of Crop Rotation
All over human history, there are traces of crop rotation in food production. People have first used it more than 1300 years ago, and most likely before that in ancient Egypt, and possibly even prior.
Around 800 BC, farmers in Europe started to use a simple system of crop rotation of two fields. They planted crops on one of the fields, while the other one rested.
In the middle ages, a three-field system was implemented. Farmers started to split the land into three parts, and that brought them higher yields. One of the three fields was always left to rest. For the second one, they grew vegetables that would enrich the soil with nitrogen, such as peas, lentils, and beans. The third field was often used to grow different oats, rye, wheat, and barley.
Farmers from Flanders (some parts of France and Belgium) have discovered the four-field rotation. They added an additional field, used to grow fodder. Fodder was used to feed the livestock, which could then be bred all year round. This system helped with soil fertility and restoring its nutrients. Turnips and clover were used to add more nitrogen to the soil.
The fundamental concepts, of more effective crop rotation systems, started to develop in the middle of the 19.th century. They presented three different classifications; the close-growing grains, sod-forming, and the cultivated row. Demands for land were increasing, and ideas to use the land better also increased. They started to convert pastures into the land, used to grow crops. Many improvements came from the area of Netherlands and Flanders, where they started to build canals, drain soil and improved soil restoration techniques.
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Advantages of Crop Rotation
As mentioned before, crop rotation is beneficial for many reasons, as it helps to improve the soil fertility, reduces soil erosion, provides better weed control, helps to stop pests and to prevent plant diseases.
If crop rotation is not applied, many plants can exhaust the soil, especially in the long term. Once the soil is exhausted and drained of nutrients, it’s going to be much harder to “revitalize” it, so it’s very important to preserve the soil quality as much as we possibly can. But there are many more benefits to crop rotation. We are going to talk about several benefits, including more detailed explanations.
3.1. Enriching Soil with Nitrogen
Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for healthy plant growth. Despite a large percentage of nitrogen in the atmosphere, the plants can’t draw it directly from there. They mostly draw it from the soil.
Different legumes, such as; peas, beans, soybeans, lentils, and others, enrich the soil with nitrogen, and the effect lasts longer compared to artificial nitrites.
Improving Soil Structure
Soil structure is very important to grow healthy plants. The best soil structure is airy and allows water and nutrients to pass through the roots. Good soil structure will also allow the roots to expand more easily.
If the soil is hard and compressed, the plants won’t be able to develop healthy root systems, and that will result in poor plant health. When we rotate crops in the same area, we have to make sure that we switch between shallow and deep-rooted plants. This will make the soil airier, and allow the nutrients and water to get to the roots easier. Legumes will also improve the soil’s structure, and enrich it with the much-needed nitrogen.
Weed – Pest – Disease Resistance
When crop rotation was used in human history, it was largely linked to pest, weed, and disease prevention. Today, a lot of pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides are used, poisoning the environment. Many people stopped rotating crops and turned to “easier” practices, not taking into account all the negative consequences.
Pest and Diseases
Crop rotation can truly prevent the further growth of different pests and diseases. How? These pests and diseases, often rest over the wintertime and remain in the soil. If we plant the same vegetables in the same area again, we will give the pests a good start to regrow, reproduce, and spread further.
Since different diseases and pests are often linked to a certain type of crop, replacing that crop can prevent their growth and chase them away, (we have to plant veggies that don’t have problems with the same type of pests and disease or even repel them). Crop rotation is a well-tested method for pest management and a good way to reduce the use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.
Using artificial fertilizer in the soil, to increase nitrogen levels can have severe consequences. It can increase nitrogen levels over the recommended level, destroying the balance of the ecosystem. A big part of excess nitrogen ends up in water systems, and also our water supply. Water-rich with nitrates can cause severe medical problems, especially in babies and small children.
A big part of our water supply already has excessive levels of nitrates. This doesn’t affect only the farmer, who uses a lot of artificial fertilizer, but truly affects a wider population. Crop rotation is the perfect solution to naturally boost nitrogen levels, without polluting the water and the environment. The nitrogen produced by plants remains in the soil for longer than the one artificially added.
Crop rotation not only improves the structure of the soil, but it also increases its water-retaining properties. The water is retained longer, and it’s also more evenly spread to the roots. There are many benefits of better water retention, such as;
- Using less water for irrigation
- Reduces soil erosion
- Healthier crops
- Nutrients stay in the soil for longer
- Lower risk of drought and flooding
Many studies have shown, that crop rotation indeed increases yields. The best results went as high as a 50 % increase. When applied properly, the yields can easily double. All this can be achieved, because crop rotation provides you with a healthier soil, increased nutrients and decrease of pests, disease, and weeds.
Nature and Health
This might be shocking and surprising, but thousands of people die every year, by pesticide poisoning, and health problems related to pesticide use, come in millions. Pesticides are used excessively, and a big part never actually reaches the pest, but it does reach the people who eat the produce, and the environment.
It is proven, that more than 90 % of pesticides are released in the environment, poisoning nature, animals, and people, never reaching the actual pest. Crop rotation can highly decrease pests, weeds, and disease problems, and it’s by far the healthiest and cheapest option to increase yields and prevent pests and disease, in existence.
Prevent – Reduce Soil Erosion
Many farmers and gardeners all over the world, face the problem of soil erosion. The nutrients and the water will runoff, and the soil is more susceptible to drought and flooding.
- Crop rotation has been proven to reduce soil erosion by up to 90 %
When a part of the soil is left alone, the soil has the opportunity to rest and replenish. Often legumes like clover, beans, peas, etc. can be planted to increase nitrogen levels. Also switching between shallow and deep-rooted plants will improve the soil structure and prevent the loss of nutrients. Soil structure is improved, the soil’s capacity to retain water also improves, making it less likely to be damaged by heavy rainfall.
Disadvantages of Crop Rotation
The advantages of crop rotation, most definitely outweigh the few potential disadvantages. However, there are a few things that we have to take into consideration;
For crop rotation to fully function, we have to plant different crops almost every time. If a farmer wishes to specialize in limited types of crops, this might pose a problem. But at the same time, producing the same crop all over again, on the same piece of land, will cause many different problems and eventually exhaust the soil.
The yields will get lower and less healthy every year. So, even if we wish to grow the same crop all over again (on the same piece of land), crop rotation is necessary, to prevent soil exhaustion, pests, disease, and also to increase yields.
Our crops are like our babies, we don’t want them to come to any harm. If we don’t rotate crops properly, we could jeopardize them. Guessing which crops to rotate will eventually lead to a bad year in your garden and it may harm the soil for a number of years, plus involve heavy labor to turn the soil back to a healthy state.
This article will give you plenty of information to make it a success. Be sure to read on, and have the know-how to make crop rotation a success.
With no crop rotation, many gardeners, continue planting their crops in the same places year on year. Then manure, lime, fertilizers are added to protect and maintain. Crop rotation needs some planning and rearranging of the garden each year.
Records need to be kept and a cycle maintained. Depending on your rotation, you may need to move structures, such as trellises, to keep to a plan. So there is more work than normal initially, but this can save a lot of time in the future. Keeping a healthy garden requires less groundwork to be done in the long run.
Effects of not rotating
There are many negative effects of not rotating your crops, which are very evident if you go through the list of benefits of crop rotation. Just to name a few effects of not rotating your crops;
- Decreased soil quality and loss of important nutrients (soil can completely exhaust over time)
- Soil erosion
- Soil loses its water and nutrient retaining properties
- Pests and disease spread and reproduce more every year
- Pesticides and herbicides required
- Decreased yields, and overtime complete soil exhaustion
- Polluting the environment
Certain vegetables use more nutrients than others. In the process, they exhaust the soil and leave very little nutrients for the plants that come after.
These vegetables include;
- Tomatoes – Peppers – Spinach – Beets – Corn – Cabbage – Broccoli – Onion – Kohlrabi – Brussels Sprouts – Celery
Different nutrients are taken from the soil, which means the soil can be depleted in many ways.
Improve soil quality
On the other hand, some plants will enrich and improve your soil. Here is a list with short explanations;
The legume family, and provide the soil with nitrogen, improving fertility.
This also fits in the legume family, providing that much necessary nitrogen. It also has water-retaining properties and prevents weed growth due to its density. It also attracts pollinators, and its roots improve soil texture!
Beans and fava beans
They are other members of the legume family, enriching the soil with nitrogen, and preventing excessive growth of weeds.
Although they have a bad reputation. This versatile and healing plant that is also edible, pulls the nutrients from the depths of the surface. Of course, we have to let it grow in moderation.
They are a vegetable that can be grown in a variety of soil. They are tasty and very good for you. After the season, the radishes can be left in the soil and will enrich it with nutrients and organic material, increasing the water retentive properties of the soil, overall improving its quality.
When to rotate
Crop rotation is ideally once a year. This is to minimize the chance of soil depletion and soil infections. The more year that you delay rotating, the more chance that problems will affect your soil.
Using a Spare Bed
If you have a spare bed, that you are going to rest in the crop rotation cycle, you will give your garden a greater chance of avoiding issues. You could extend the rotation cycle to every two years, if only possible then. Some people only rotate every 3 years, but this carries a major risk to your crops, along with the chance of an undeveloped crop in the third year.
Another method of crop rotation is to rotate the companion plants together (plants that naturally grow well together). This system will work with nature and may extend your rotation periods. If for some reason a crop fails, it is best to rotate the following year. But it is best not to wait for this to happen for the rotation to begin. For best practice, rotate every year.
Spring or Fall
As most crops grow in the spring and summer months, it is best to rotate your crops after the harvesting season. If you are planting winter vegetables, you can begin the rotation cycle at the end of summer in the fall. Otherwise, you can do it in early spring.
If you are planting winter lettuce or cabbage, make sure you rotate it to a different part of the garden than the spot where summer lettuce or cabbage were growing (never plant them in the same spot twice in a row). If you are not growing any crops in the winter, you can add compost or manure to your plot to allow is to develop over the winter and be ready for spring.
Standard Crop Rotation Groups
Make a List
If you are working on a few different sections of the garden, make sure you make lists, to know what to rotate next year. Of course, you can also plant different vegetables in your garden, but this shows the veggies that you can always rotate together, just by switching sections next year, as shown in the example above.
Number of Sections
You can do this with any number of sections, but try to keep a variation and add plant legumes to add natural nitrogen. This crop rotation system is very simple and easy to follow. Starting with 4 different vegetable groups, dividing them into four different sections of your garden, and switching their spots next year (and the years to come).
Low Demanding Plants
Planting fewer demanding veggies, where the hungrier ones used to grow last year. As shown in the example, replacing root vegetables with legumes is a good option.
If you have the opportunity, you can leave one of the parts of your garden empty for a year, to let the soil rest and replenish. This is especially advised after growing “greedy vegetables”, such as; tomatoes, peppers, beets, corn, cabbage, broccoli, onion, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and celery.
To begin, let’s divide our vegetables into four groups:
Divide your garden into 4 sections. Plant four different groups of vegetables in these 4 sections and always switch their places for the next season or year.
Let’s say we have sections A, B, C, D in our garden.
Year 1 - Crop Rotation Plan
Fruit Bodied Veg
In the 2. year we switch different groups of vegetables to different sections, to improve soil quality, nutrients, increase yields and avoid diseases.
Year 2 - Crop Rotation Plan
Fruit Bodied Veg
- Lima beans
- Leafy herbs
Ideally, for best practice we will have a spare section. So that the soil can rest and replenish for a year.
Each section will not be used, within a 4 year period. The section being rested can also be used to compost, light leafy waste – nothing too heavy or it not be ready for the following year.
Year 3 - Crop Rotation Plan
Fruit Bodied Veg
- Lima beans
- Leafy herbs
Rotate Companion Plants
Plants that grow together well companion plants. This can either, that deter pests from one another, having different needs from the soil to giving the soil the nutrients it needs. For more information on companion plants, read our ultimate guide to companion plants here. Use the companion plant chart, for grouping ideas. Select the crop you would like to grow, and grow the companions in that group – or just the ones you like.
Companion plants are known to have great benefits for the surrounding plants. It makes sense to combine crop rotation with companion plants. In areas that have a greater variety of plants in, the depletion of the soil will be less, as they all won’t drain the soil of the same nutrient.
Normally with crops, you will have rows of the same crops. When grouping companions, it is best to scatter the plants in the beds, so that companion planting is effective. Therefore, your bed will be less structured, than normal, making it slightly more time consuming, when pruning and harvesting.
Mother nature knows best, so if we combine companion planting with, crop rotation, we can work with the plants, making them happy and we will reap the rewards when harvesting.
For more information about companion planting – read our article here
Companion Plants + Legumes Crop Rotation
As we have mentioned, legumes provide the much-needed nitrogen to our soils.
Normally we use a structure for our legumes to grow along. For example, with have a cane tepee-shape, set in the ground. Instead of moving this every year, we could keep it in place and on all of our sections. Another section may have a trellis, again we can keep this in place.
Legumes on all Sections
If we have 5 sections, that we are going to rotate. We can have a legume structure on each. Keep the structure in-situ and rotate the legumes every year to another section with a climbing structure.
The example below has legumes on each section. The rest of the group are companion plants. In your plan, it is best to have a variety of plants, like marigolds and basil, as flowers and herbs have some of the highest properties when comes to deterring bugs.
Rotating larger areas
Rotation on big fields can be a little different than in the garden. Farmers often grow fewer crops and will rotate differently. Here are two examples of how to rotate larger fields. There are three main groups that the crops are divided into; grains, legumes, and cash crops.
- Grains – maize (corn), rice, oats, barley, wheat, and more.
- Legumes – beans, peas, soybeans, cowpeas, combinations of beans.
Crops to sell for profit (cash crops)
- Cotton, cannabis, sunflowers, rapeseed, different fruits, sesame, and more.
Industrial Crop Rotation Examples
• Section 1: corn
• Section 2: green beans
• Section 3: cotton
• Section 1: cotton
• Section 2: corn
• Section 3: green beans
• Section 1: green beans
• Section 2: cotton
• Section 3: corn
• Section 1: barley
• Section 2: lava beans
• Section 3: sunflowers
• Section 1: sunflowers
• Section 2: barley
• Section 3: lava beans
• Section 1: lava beans
• Section 2: sunflowers
• Section 3: barley
Crop Rotation Overview
After discussing all the benefits of crop rotation, there is no reason not to implement it in every possible growing area. No other gardening technique will allow you bigger yields, fewer pests, and disease, and protect and improve your soil and the environment, as much as crop rotation.
With a little know-how, this technique will truly improve your gardening experience in ways that you have never imagined. There is no reason to lose soil quality and poison the environment and yourself, with highly dangerous pesticides and herbicides that end up in our drinking water.
The use of crop rotation has been around for thousands of years, and only recently, we have reduced this useful practice and replaced it with unsustainable and toxic alternatives. For all the benefits that it brings, it’s definitely worth learning about and implementing it everywhere to naturally boost your crops, and protect the earth that provides us with nutritious fruits and vegetables.
The ideal crop rotation is using, companion plants along with legumes on all sections. Working with nature will be the most rewarding for all. The plants are happy, the soil is happy and we are super-happy!
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