Garden Planning, Crop Rotation and Seed Selection

When we get into the thick of February, I'm always starting to get a little desperate for Spring. 

I am so tired of the cold days and dark nights, though I'm thankful at least that the days are growing gradually longer. The snow is piled in huge drifts well past my knees, I haven't gone on a good outdoor hike in weeks, and even though there's a lot of sunshine in our winters (thank God), I'm still craving heat, green, growing things, and the unimpeded outdoor movement that summer brings. In plain English: I want to be able to go outside without putting on extra clothing.

The natural response to this usual depression is to start planning our beautiful and happy gardens for the summer. When you can't live in your reality, project your future reality! We can look forward to an orchard, two flower gardens and (thus far) three vegetable gardens... with more in the works this year. One of the veggie gardens is the main one, and full of all the goodness to feed our family. Last year, we added two small plots for overflow vegetable gardens. One was just potatoes in vertical columns, and the other was 30 tomato plants plus my son's heirloom seed garden. We're currently planting vegetables over more than 10,000 square feet, and are planning to add more space this year. 

Most people think we are a little bit crazy to attempt this, and I tend to agree. It's a lot of work. I'm thankful that all 6 of us are invested in growing food for our family. Example? We're into February and still eating beans, broccoli, beets, potatoes, pickles, carrots, corn, and tons of tomatoes from last year's garden. There are still some squashes and pumpkins that are fresh in the cellar, and canned and frozen zucchini, too. Our goal? Not have to buy these things from the store... ever. 

Over the past couple of weekends, J and I have pored over seed catalogues and websites, looking for various varieties and organic, heirloom seed. I'm also interested in some organic hybrids that have proven to produce well in our short growing season. 

Planning ahead helps me to feel hopeful about the upcoming season, and also serves the important work of creating all of our plans. That way, when the snow melts, we will be ready with our seeds and transplants, garden maps and plans. 

Nurturing the Soil with Crop Rotation

In order to properly feed my soil without artificial means, we are sure to rotate our plantings each year. Not only do we reduce the possibility of disease and pests (that might discover our plants, lay eggs in the soil and wait for a re-planting the next year), rotation of crops ensures that we strike a balance of minerals and nutrients in the soil. 

This is based in an understanding of what various crops need from the soil, as well as what they give back to it. Leafy crops require nitrogen, fruit-bearing crops require less nitrogen but they require more phosphorus, root crops need more potassium but still less nitrogen, and legumes create nitrogen and fix it in the soil for other crops to enjoy. 

Your rotation requires that you divide the garden into categories, and then plant each as follows, rotating each year: Legume > Leaf > Fruit > Root. We like to divide our garden into quarters and rotate clockwise, but I have friends who create a row map and then swap the bottom rows for the top rows each year, moving everything down a few rows. 

We also nurture the soil by adding rich compost each year. We compost any kitchen scraps that don't go to feed our chickens, and we also compost the chicken manure and add that to the soil, too. I learned so much about composting from this book (affiliate link helps me to earn revenue, if you happen to purchase it)!

What are My Plants?

You can look up your seeds with a Google search to figure out where they place, but an easy legend is: 
  • Legumes are commonly your potatoes, beans and peas, 
  • Leaf vegetables include lettuces, spinach, brassicas and corn, 
  • Fruit crops are things like tomatoes, squash, peppers and cucumbers, and 
  • Root veggies are carrots, beets, onions, and radishes. 

A Garden Map

It's important for us to have an idea of where we are planting everything, as we often run out of space in a quarter . A proper crop rotation will have us plan our garden in quarters, though we often expand beyond a quarter for some categories. Example? As you can see, our legume consumption is pretty high. Peas, beans and potatoes take up nearly half of our garden each year. 

That's ok! We just turn the map a quarter turn to the right for the next year, and it's all good.

The first map on the right is the planting map I take out with me while I'm planting with the family. I erase and re-add things in approximates, as we go. 

The next map is my final, which shows how many rows - of which varieties - we ended up with. This one is a little clearer and will be helpful as we plan our seed purchases and our mapping for the next year.

Why Plant Different Varieties?

It's a common question - why plant different varieties, when you have found one you like? The answer is just as simple. Depending on the growing conditions of the year, as well as whatever pests happen to be more in season that year, some varieties of a vegetable will just do better in a given year. In one year, I might be up to my eyeballs in Black Beauty Zucchini, for example. The next year, the Black Beauty might not grow at all.... so I'm thankful I planted my Italian Cassia (pictured)! A year without zucchini might as well be a year without a garden, am I right? 

What about beans? Whether you want pole beans or bush beans, slender, broad or drying beans, it's important to have a few varieties on hand for the same reason. Bean plants don't like being touched when they are wet, for example. That encourages rust to grow on the leaves and even the bean pods, and you wind up with super unhealthy plants. 

We don't know how wet a year we will wind up with, so, just in case, plant a variety that might not be as prolific, but is resistant to rust. Our best producer last year was Delinel, but the year before it was Empress. I'm glad I had both in the garden this year, or we might not have had enough to freeze.  

Favourite Varieties

Just a shortlist of some of our favourites:

  • Peas: Green Arrow, Oregon Sugar
  • Beans: Slenderette, Delinel, Calima, Tendergreen, George Murphy's Wax Bean
  • Beets: Cylindra, Bull's Blood, Early Wonder, Touchstone Gold
  • Carrots: Scarlet Nantes, Purple Sun, Yellowstone, Napoli
  • Cucumbers: National Pickling, Corentine, Muncher heirloom
  • Radish: Cherry Belle, French Breakfast
  • Tomatoes: Purple Brandywine, Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, Moneymaker Medium, Amish Paste, Ailsa Craig, Mountain Princess, Old Time, Black Krim, Costoluto Fiorentino
  • Squash: Burgess Buttercup, Cinderella Pumpkin, Cassia Zucchini, Black Beauty Zucchini
  • Broccoli: Waltham, De Cicco
  • Cauliflower: Early Snowball, Amazing, Graffiti 
  • Cabbage: Chieftain Savoy, Glory of Enkhuizen, Primero
  • Brussels Sprouts: Jade
  • Fennel: Florence, Preludio
  • Lettuce: Drunken Woman, Bibb, Valmaine, Grand Rapids
  • Spinach: Bloomsdale Savoy, Red Kitten
  • Chard: Bright Lights
  • Kale: Toscano, Laurel's Frilly, Black Magic
  • Corn: Honey Select, Candy Mountain Sweet, Delight Bi-Colour
  • We also grow hot and sweet peppers, tomatillos, bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, and tons of herbs and edible flowers. 

Don't Forget About The Bees!

Make sure you plant some flowers and herbs that will attract bees and other pollinators to your garden. We've had years with really healthy plants that produced nothing, and I blame myself for not having bee attractants in the garden that year. If you're not planting self-pollinating hybrids, you need to make sure you are attracting the bees. There's also the fact that there isn't much for the bees to feast on at the beginning of the season, so take that into consideration with your early plantings and transplants.

I usually stop at the greenhouse and get some already-flowering plants right at the beginning of Spring, just so there's some established nectar there while other plants are still growing. The bees love things like hyssop and borage, and once those are established in your garden the bees will keep on coming. Trust me, I've regretted it when I've NOT done this. 

Your Turn

I love hearing about other people's garden plans, especially in February. What are you dreaming and scheming for your growing season? 

Me.... outstanding in my field. ;)