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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Benefits of Crop Rotation

A friend once asked me if it is true you shouldn't plant tomato and pepper plants in the same spot every year. Of course, I told her, they’re in the same family. She merely stared at me with a look that clearly said “And that means what exactly?” Let’s put it this way, would you want to be planted next to your obnoxious cousin Larry every single summer? Bad enough you have to see him during Thanksgiving but sitting next to him every day? That’s how the tomato feels about the pepper...sort of. That needs to be explained further.

The reason for not planting vegetables of the same family in the same place year after year is to prevent the repeated depletion of vital nutrients in the soil and to prevent the increased possibility of diseases and pests likely to be attracted to that family. Plants of the same family have very similar requirements, you see. So if you constantly plant a tomato, or one of its relations, in the same place year after year you’re just asking for trouble. You’re more likely to deplete the soil of vital nutrients and more likely to get a nasty bug or dreaded disease to your garden. Nobody wants that.

This is where we come across Crop Rotation, a nifty little activity which helps keep the soil productive, not depleted of nutrients, and hopefully, disease and pest free keeping everybody healthy and happy.

Crop rotation obviously is not solely for maintaining fertile soil but the lack of this activity was the reason for the dust bowl. Too many farmers were trying to get all they could out of the soil without giving it a rest in between crops nor replenishing the soil. Thankfully, we know better now. Legumes in particular have a nifty ability in which they can take the nitrogen in the air and fix it into the soil. This is called nitrogen-fixing and many farmers now use nitrogen-fixers after a planting of nitrogen-feeders, the greatest of which is corn. Corn is notoriously known as a heavy feeder as is cotton. Hence why it makes sense for cotton growers to rotate with peanuts, a nitrogen fixer. One year nitrogen fixer and the next nitrogen feeder. Do you see the genius behind this? I hope so. It’s rather important for proper soil management.

After a planting of heavy feeders organic matter is a must to replenish the soil or you'll have worthless soil. To prevent this you can till in shredded leaves, well-rotted manure, grass clippings, compost or plant a cover crop or “green manure” as it is sometimes called. Planting a cover crop of winter rye, red clover, another nitrogen fixer, or even some hairy vetch then tilling this into the soil provides enough nutrients for another bountiful crop of vegetables, flowers or trees and shrubs. All these cover crops when tilled back into the soil and left to decompose will attract tons of microorganisms and worms who come and do their stuff aerating the soil, munching on the green stuff and leaving behind wonderful castings, in themselves full of nutrients. Cover crops are a Godsend to the farmer and to the home gardener providing nutrients to enrich soil, keeping it productive, humus rich, healthy and able to keep going.

But back to the tomato-pepper relation thing. In the typical home garden crop rotation might not be so obvious nor a practical thing to accomplish. If you have a tiny little spot in which to garden and you have a nasty insect or plant disease lurking anywhere near your place does it really matter if you plant the peppers two feet to the left of where it was the previous year? I'm thinking your plant will be found eventually. Knowing this all you can do is try to keep your plants un-stressed.

No, plants don't take well to yoga nor meditation but keeping them healthy goes a long way. Keep your plants in appropriate sun light, well watered, with ample air circulation between them, fed properly with plenty of compost and they should do well. Also, making certain you are diligent about picking leaves up which might carry fungal diseases and NOT placing them into the compost pile. Anything diseased should get thrown into the garbage where it won’t infect anything else. This is essential. The less stressed your garden plants are the more able they will be to survive any attack. If you're not certain about your soil just get the compost out. It can fix tons of garden problems except for your obnoxious cousin Larry stepping on your tomatoes. I can’t help you there. Sorry.

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