Sunday, February 7, 2010

Garden Planning Part 1

I think I've been hibernating. There certainly hasn't been anything but the winter wind whistling through this site lately! It's been weeks since I've even been able to GET to my garden plot since the parking lot has turned into a snow-covered ice-skating rink. And after our mid-Atlantic blizzard dumped almost 2 feet of snow on us (with an additional 6-8 inches by tomorrow) I'm not going anywhere for a while! And a Note to Self: Leaving your winter supply of parsnips and leeks in the ground means they STAY in the ground until it thaws. It would take a jackhammer to free those puppies! Sigh. Live and learn.

Luckily the seed catalogs arrived as usual, and they've inspired me to start thinking about spring and what to put where (and when) in the garden. One thing I've resolved to do better this coming season is crop rotation. I've spent a good part of the winter reading up about why this is important, how best to do it, what plants should follow what, and I must say I STILL don't have a clear picture about it all! So I figured I might as well write about it! I'll either clarify things for myself, or confuse a few more fellow gardeners!

Elliot Coleman introduces this concept in his New Organic Grower (I love this book!) as follows:

In a word, crop rotation means variety, and variety gives stability to biological systems. By definition, crop rotation is the practice of changing the crop each year on the same piece of ground. Ideally, these different crops are not related botanically. Ideally, two successive crops do not make the same demands on the soil for nutrients, nor do they share diseases or insect pests.

Makes sense, and certainly seems like a simple enough concept. So how to get started? Well, first figure out what "families" the plants you want to grow belong to and group them accordingly. Plants that are related have similar nutrient demands, diseases, and pests, and often require the same growing conditions. You can find the botanical families of many common food plants listed here, or in many gardening guides, including Coleman's book. The goal in crop rotation is to avoid growing plants from the same family in one location year after year. For example, you don't want to plant eggplants and peppers where you had tomatoes or potatoes last year because they're in the same family (Solanaceae).

Next, (and this is what I'm going to try doing this year) pick a color for each of the families you're growing from. Write the name of each particular plant you want to grow this season on an index card or sticky note in that color (good excuse to break out the crayons!). Then make a diagram of last year's garden plot and color in where you had each plant family. You'll want to avoid putting anything the same "color" there this year (and ideally for the next three years.) Now you can start putting your cards on your diagram, avoiding like color on like arrangements. This is the first and simplest step. If you do successive planting the way that I do you'll have different crops in each area depending upon the time of year. Well, I guess it's a good thing I'm snowed in for a while!