Rotating, Companion Planting, and Vegetable Garden Planning, Oh My!
It’s that time of year, when gardeners are planning where to place their plants if they haven’t already. I get a little overly excited and planned out my garden beds last November. It is a challenge trying to keep all of the important factors in mind when placing my vegetables. Family rotation, fertility rotation, companion plants, and planning for a year-round garden are among some of the things I took into account.
I think I planned and re-planned my garden beds 10 times before I was happy. It was the most time I had ever spent planning out my gardens (I am adding on 10 new garden beds). I really want to keep strong plants year after year and so I decided to take some extra time.
Here are some garden planning tips I would give myself (or I will remind myself of next time) if I were to do it again. First, it can’t be perfect, as much as I would love to have my garden beds always in use, compatible plants always together, disease prevented by plant rotation, and excellent natural nutrients, I don’t think I will ever find the perfect design. If anyone has figured this out, I would be very interested. I will explain the basis for my garden placement design.
Choosing Favorite Vegetables, Herbs, and Fruit to Eat
The most important was to compile a list of vegetables I eat. I don’t know how many times I have planted Swiss chard thinking this time my family will actually eat it. It just isn’t a vegetable my family eats. I have grown it and it always just goes to waste. I plant it because I don’t want to waste my perfectly good seeds and I try to tell myself that my tastes will change, but it never seems to change. This year, no, I am sticking to vegetables we buy from the grocery store. Some of them are new varieties, but they are the types of vegetables that we eat. First things first, I made a comprehensive list of what I wanted to grow and added in the items my kids begged me to grow. Unfortunately, by the end not everything made the cut, but maybe next year I will have more room.
Finding Vegetables that Grow Well Locally
I crossed off the items that don’t grow well locally and added and defined varieties that do grow well locally. I took my list of favorite foods from above and researched these types and varieties. I have my tried and true, but I also have vegetables I may want to rotate out of my planting plans. As much as I would love to grow sweet potatoes, they just don’t grow well in my area and I don’t include them. I found a list of suggested local varieties from a non-profit organization in my area. I used varieties that I have used successfully before and loved. I also tried a few new ones. I am careful when using a seed catalog for all of my information. They are full of beautiful pictures, but the varieties may not always work the best here. If I do use a seed catalog, I usually choose one from a company that grows seeds in my area.
To invite the most appropriate pollinating insects into my garden, I chose a few varieties of flowers to rotate into my plans. I chose edible varieties with the intent of trying to eat some of them this year. These flowers also attract beneficial insects to help prevent pests in my garden.
I added the quantity I want to plant of each item to the master list. I tried to be better about quantities during this year. There are many different lists on various websites suggesting how many of each plant is required to provide all vegetables per person for the entire year. I just tried to take a realistic look at what we purchase from the grocery store. I try to fine tune it every year, I still don’t always learn. I am sure I will have more cucumbers this year than we would normally eat.
Choosing Heirloom over Hybrids
I choose heirloom varieties for items from which I want to collect seeds. I also choose heirloom varieties because I just like to. There were a couple of hybrid varieties I chose that are more disease resistant or my kids just love. I found it easier to shop from a seed company that only sold heirloom seeds and then go elsewhere if they didn’t have the variety what I wanted.
Initially I forgot to plan for gardening in the fall and I ended up redoing everything. I found a year-round gardening calendar for my location. It contained information about sowing date ranges, days to harvest, the harvesting season, and if it needs frost protection or can naturally over-winter. I collected all of this information for all of the plants I was interested in planting.
Taking my master planting list, I researched companion plants. I first started with the Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening book and was a little disappointed in the book. The book is full of great information, but it doesn’t have an easy table to reference compatible plants. I started to put together my own compatibility list of plants, researching from many different sources. Next to each of my plants, I listed which plants were compatible or not and kept my list in a safe place so I don’t have to do that again next year.
Cold Sensitive Perennials
One of the easiest parts of the planning, was listing which cold sensitive perennial plants I want to have. These are the plants I will place in pots and bring inside during the winter. Generally, these are my herbs. These also may be a type of plant that I want to collect seeds from that take more than one season of growing before it will go to seed like a carrot. This year, I decided these will only be herbs for my garden.
Family rotation is important for interrupting insect and disease cycles. For example, I don’t plant Brassicas in the same bed the next year so the Brassica pests don’t reappear. If I can’t decide where to place a plant, I go by family rotation first. I add the families of my plants to my master planting list. I use this later when re-arranging plant locations. I am supposed to wait three to five years before planting a crop of the same family in the same location, but I tend to have certain crop families that are my favorite and so it doesn’t work out for me. I try to spread them out as well as I can.
The next addition to my master list, is rotating the part of the plant I harvest. The parts tend to use different types of nutrients from the soil allowing for natural fertility. For example, leafy plants require a lot of nitrogen, while root vegetables require less nitrogen and more potassium. I list the plant type of leaf, root, flower, or fruit on my master planting list. For example: onions, garlic, and lettuce are leaf; carrots and beets are root; fava beans and edible flowers are flowers; tomatoes, peas, and peppers are fruit.
Garden Bed Layout
Finally, I start to layout my plants. I draw out my garden beds for the spring and the fall planting at the same time, like below. This allows me to make sure I don’t forget about rotating in the fall crops.
Then, I took out my pencil and sketched things out, erased, and then tried again multiple times. Planning out the garden layout can be done many different ways keeping all of the above steps in mind. I am just providing what I did. I labeled each of my beds for fertility rotation, leaf->root->flower->fruit. I really didn’t care which bed was where at this point, I was just taking into account the rotation.
Notice how 3/5 of my beds are rotated starting with leaf and the other 2/5 are rotated starting with root. This is so that I can have all of the different plant types during the different seasons. Otherwise I would only plant leaf and flowers in the spring and root and fruit vegetables in the fall.
My next step was adding family rotation with harvest and fall planting dates in mind. This was really a challenge for me. I just want to plant a whole lot of fruits. In order to rotate properly, I had to cut down a little and I eliminated some of the vegetables from my list. When I placed the vegetable, I wrote down the harvest and planting date to make sure that they coordinated with the next season. I really had to erase a lot and re-review and revise until I came up with my final rotation plan.
After I add my rotation, I started to add companion plants. I don’t do a huge amount of companion planting, I know that some people do a great job of rotating in companion plants for shade, insect repellents, and more. I just choose to keep my companion planning simple this year. I added herbs, radishes, and more here and there. I plan to move some of my cold sensitive perennial pots near some of the companion plants during the summer.
I additionally added notes of where I will need some type of over wintering protection. I will likely use row cover, but I used a cloche image as my indicator.
My last step was placement in the garden. I actually haven’t finalized all of my placement because some of it will depend on when each garden bed is ready and what needs to be planted first. I keep in mind which plants are tall and make sure they aren’t blocking plants that require full sun. I don’t have any hills, so I don’t have to worry about micro-climates.
Of course, I will modify and adjust as I go, but it is a great feeling to know I have a plan and am able to prepare for planting. Do you have anything in particular you like to keep in mind when you plan your garden? I would be very interested to hear about it!