All gardeners have their favorite crops that they plant year after year. But planting the same crops in the same space every season can have an adverse effect on the plants’ health and performance as well as the soil. Rotating crops annually is the key to maintaining a healthy, productive garden.
Benefits of Rotating Vegetable Crops
Crop rotation is an effective means of managing crop-specific diseases, weeds and insects. It helps you get the best out of your garden. In the long run, it helps improve the soil’s physical, chemical and biological characteristics as well as its organic matter content. Rotation of crops also reduces erosion and helps the plants consistently produce to their potential.
Planning Crop Rotation
The general rule for crop rotation is this: do not grow plants from the same family in the same space more than once every three years.
If gardeners with small growing spaces are unable to do this, they should aim for changing the planting mix every 2-3 years. This helps minimize the risks of crop-specific pests and diseases while still improving the soil.
Gardeners with adequate growing spaces should plan out their crop rotations. Start with a paper template that shows the vegetable crops and growing areas. Record what plants you grew in each area every year. Before each growing season, map out a plan for the garden. For instance, if you planted peas in area X of your garden last year, use that space for squash instead.
It helps to follow nitrogen-enriching crops with crops that thrive on nitrogen. If you plant peas or beans in an area one year, plant kale, cabbage and other leafy greens that thrive on high nitrogen the following year.
To get you started, some of the common plant families are listed below.
Beans enrich the soil with nitrogen. This family (Fabaceae) includes green beans, green peas, peanuts and alfalfa.
The Solanaceae, or Nightshade, family includes heavy feeders like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants. Make a note to avoid following up a potato crop with tomatoes for they can fall prey to late blight-causing microorganisms that might have survived in the soil.
Also called Brassicaceae, the cabbage family includes cabbage, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and other leafy greens, all known to relish nitrogen-rich soils. They’re the ideal follow-ups to members of the bean family.
The family Cucurbitaceae comprises heavy feeders like gourds, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, summer and winter squash. Rotate your crops in such a way that these heavy feeders find themselves in a spot with rich, fertile soil.
Each year I like to take on a new gardening challenge. This year my goal is to be better organized—and I’ve started by organizing my seeds.
Decide how many seeds you want to store – and for how long!
There is nothing worse than finally having the perfect planting weather and not being able to find a lettuce seed packet I know I’ve purchased. Getting my seed packets organized has proven to be a huge time saver in the garden. And, it’s a task that can be done on rainy days.
Some thrifty and nifty ways to store seed packs include inserting packs into photo albums, alphabetically organizing them into expanding file folders, or tucking them into hanging shoe organizers. The best organization method will depend on how much seed you have and where you want to store it long term.
Here is a system that works well for me:
- Group seed together by type (carrots, peppers, tomatoes, etc). Each type gets a plastic sandwich bag. Label the baggie along the top edge so that it’s easily readable.
- The baggies are lined up in a plastic bin (shoebox size works well). When not in use, I store the seed boxes in a dark, cool corner of my basement.
- Incoming seed is placed into the appropriate baggie as it arrives. Once I have all my seed, I pull out the bins and choose what to grow that year. At this time, I also check packet dates and toss old seed.
- Everything being planted this season is separated into three categories. I use a 1-gallon baggie to hold each:
- Early Sow Indoors
- Early Sow Direct
- Direct Sow-After Frost.
- When it’s time to sow, I simply grab the appropriate 1 gallon baggie and take it with me to the garden or the potting table.
Below is a guideline for how long you can expect your seed to stay viable (Oregon State University). Optimal storage conditions can lead to a greater shelf life. If in doubt, you can always perform a germination test prior to planting.
1 Year: sweet corn, parsnips, spinach
2 Years: bush, pole beans, beets, parsley, peas, peppers, Swiss chard
1-3 years: annual flower seed
2-3 Years: leeks, onions
2-4 Years: perennial flower seed
3 Years: tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, oriental greens, rutabagas
3-4 Years: squash
3-5 Years: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, collards, kale
4 years: radish, turnips
I group my seeds together by type.
Pea seed can be sown before the threat of frost has passed.
We’re still experiencing some frosty mornings—and the soil is still too cool to plant many vegetables. But there are some veggies you can plant now. Cool season spring vegetables not only withstand the cool conditions, they actually relish them. Take a look at some of the vegetables you can (and should!) plant right away.
Lettuce does well in both sunny and partly shaded sites provided the soil has good drainage and is rich in humus and nitrogen. You can grow lettuce for baby greens or wait and harvest when they’ve grown into full-sized leaves or heads. If you’re aiming for baby greens, make sure you sow lettuce seeds closer together in rows. Cover the seeds with 1/4 to 1/2 inch of soil (or as mentioned on the seed packet).
While spinach grows best in sunny sites, it can produce a hearty harvest even in partly shaded spots. Look for a site with moist, but well-drained soil. Spinach is one of the most frost-resistant and fast-growing spring vegetables. You can harvest fresh baby spinach in just three weeks after planting. When growing for baby leaves, remember to plant spinach seeds close together in rows.
Arugula relishes sunny or partly shaded sites with organically rich, moist, well-drained soil. Arugula seeds germinate in about 7 days and you can harvest within 3-4 weeks of planting. Want a continuous harvest? Sow more seeds every 2 weeks, right until hot weather arrives.
Find a sunny or partly shaded spot that isn’t open to strong winds and you’re good to plant your pea seeds. While peas will thrive in most soil types (apart from heavy, impermeable clay), make sure to add plenty of organic material if your soil isn’t too fertile. Soak pea seeds in water overnight before you plant them in the garden.
The perfect potatoes come from sites in full sun, with loose, well-drained soil. They root aggressively and are capable of turning in big yields even in less than perfect soil and growing conditions. Eradicate all weeds from the site before you plant potatoes. Depending on the variety that you plant, your potatoes will be fully mature at anywhere from 60 to 130 days.
A site that receives full sun and has organically rich, well-drained soil is perfect for growing onions. Make sure you remove all weeds from the area and work in good quantities of compost before planting onions. Green onions will be ready for harvest within 30-40 days of planting and will fully mature in about 100 days.
Gurney’s Blue Ribbon Hybrid Broccoli
Here at the Gurney’s farm, we are busy preparing for spring. The greenhouse is being warmed up, irrigation is back up and running and trial packets of seed are arriving daily.
We spent the winter compiling wish lists of vegetable varieties and finally narrowed down our final selections in February. As a gardener, you know it’s easy to go overboard. Each year we struggle with keeping the varieties—especially the tomatoes—at a reasonable number. In our half-acre trial garden we’ll be planting a wide range of vegetables with a big focus this year on sweet corn (18 varieties), bush beans (11 varieties), lettuce (18 varieties) and tomatoes (25 varieties). The early season cool crops have already been started in the greenhouse; we’re up to 9 flats (648 plants total) of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onions and leeks. The warm season crops will be started soon.
Our trial manager and her assistant are responsible for all aspects of planting, tending and harvesting the vegetable garden. It’s a big job for just two people, but we have a beautiful garden each year. All season long we watch and evaluate our crops—taking note of yields, plant health and hardiness, disease susceptibility and more. When harvest time and taste testing roll around we try to persuade as many people as possible to participate. For some reason we always get plenty of volunteers for watermelon and sweet corn…but few for Brussels sprouts and okra!
This whole process helps us select the very best varieties to offer to you in the Gurney’s catalog and on the website. In fact, many of the new items in this spring’s catalog were top performing varieties in our 2014 trials, including the Gurney’s Blue Ribbon Hybrid Broccoli and Gurney Girl’s Hybrid Tomato. This year we’ll be playing with some gardening techniques as well—raised beds, container gardening, trellising techniques, companion planting and experimenting with how to attract more pollinators to the garden. We’re also looking at way to expand our growing season–from finding vegetable varieties that are extremely cold and heat tolerant, to which row covers offer the best winter protection, to which root crops, winter squash and pumpkins perform the best in storage.
Look for updates to the blog on how our trials are progressing through the spring and summer. In the mean time, think spring!
Our greenhouse manager starting tomato seeds.
I admit: I’m a sucker for healthy food marketing schemes. Which grains, which colors, which cooking styles to use – I’m definitely guilty of observing magazine tips and daytime talk show fads. And, I’m constantly trying the newest thing in the health food aisle (because those “low fat”-labeled cookies are healthy, right? right?). But, nutrition doesn’t really change. Vitamins, nutrients, and fiber are the hallmarks of truly nutritious food. If an alien life force demanded that I take him to the earth’s healthiest food source – I’d have to recommend nutrient-rich vegetables. We all know that green vegetables are among the most healthy foods – but which are the best and brightest among them? Let’s talk about cruciferous vegetables.
The term cruciferous vegetables encompasses a large section of popular veggies including Arugula, cabbage, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, radish, and watercress. These vegetables pack good quantities of dietary fiber, along with protein, omega-3s and other macronutrients. They contain many B-complex vitamins, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and detox nutrients, along with their own set of phytonutirents and glucosinolates which do not occur in the same extent in any other food group known to man. Cruciferous vegetables bring to the table a range of nutrients broader than any other food group and as such are a must for every conceivable healthy eating plan. But that isn’t all.
Recent studies have revealed a link between cruciferous veggies and cancer protection. Sulforaphane, a phytochemical present in cruciferous vegetables has been found to stimulate enzymes that detoxify carcinogens before they can damage the cells. Indole 3-carbinol and crambene- compounds found in cruciferous vegetables are also suspected of activating detoxifying enzymes through different mechanisms. A diet rich in cruciferous vegetables can vastly reduce the overload of oxygen-free radicals, reducing oxidative stress along with the chances of your contacting breast, colon, lung, prostate and other cancers.
It’s March at last, but the cold, dreary winter weather is still hanging around, refusing to give up and let spring take hold. These last few weeks of cold, wet days are always the hardest to take. Planting season is so close, yet feels so far away. If you are like me and you simply can’t wait until your garden reappears from under the snow, here are a few projects to tide you over.
- Plant microgreens. They are tasty, nutritious and easy. Seedlings do well under a grow light or in a bright, sunny window, and they will be ready to eat in 1-2 weeks!
- Did you store onions over the winter? If you have any left, I’ll bet they are beginning to sprout. Bring them out into the light and place in a pretty container; no soil or water is necessary. They will produce some lovely green onion tops for use in the kitchen.
- Get your kids excited for gardening season. Sprout some beans or peas in a jar so they can watch the magic unfold. Plant a sprouting potato or force some spring bulbs in an indoor container.
- Get ready to plant seeds. Make paper pots from old newspaper and get your seedling labels and trays ready.
- Make sure you’re ready for gardening season. Clean up your tools, wash your gardening gloves and check your supplies.
Easy to grow indoors, microgreens can provide fresh nutrition when it’s too cold to garden outdoors.
Onions from last season can provide tops to use in cooking.
It’s easy to sprout beans in a jar – and kids will love watching these little seedlings grow!
Cucumbers- the perfect snack or salad topper, and the perfect addition to your summer garden! Considering their crunchy, refreshing taste and quick proliferation, cucumbers are among the vegetables I look forward to most. Growing cucumbers is fairly easy and highly rewarding. But those of us with a limited growing space are often faced with a difficult choice- Should we grow slicing cucumbers or go for a pickling variety? What if we want both? I’m pleased that Gurney’s is now offering the Perfect Pickle Cucumber– the most delicious dual use cucumber ever! These dark green cucumbers have a wonderful sweet taste, great texture, very small seed cavity – and zero bitterness.
Gurney’s Perfect Pickle Cucumber will perform best in sunlit planting sites with well drained fertile soil. You can plant cucumber seeds in the garden once the soil temperature has reached 60 degrees, with no threat of frost. Sow cucumber seeds at a depth of 1 inch, allowing a separation of 12-18 inches between the plantings. Space the rows/hills 4-5 feet apart. Keep the soil moist and the seedlings should be out in 8-10 days time. Perfect cucumber plants are vigorous, with exceptional disease resistance. They’re also pretty easy going- water them regularly and they’ll keep at their business, which is to give you a hearty yield in about 40 days time. Pick the fruits when they’re 3-4 inch long for the best pickles ever. Wait until the cucumbers are a little longer, and you’ll have the perfect slicers for salads and snacks!
Hugelkultur gardening uses raised beds over decomposing wood and compost.
If you’re like me, for the last several months you’ve been drooling over glossy, full color images of juicy red tomatoes, crisp green lettuce and luscious ripe peaches in the gardening catalogs. You’ve probably been dreaming of the coming spring’s garden, remembering last year’s successes, forgetting the failures, and making wish list after wish list of the new fruits and veggies you want to try (without regard for how you will actually fit 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in your garden).
But now that we’re in the fourth week of February with temps 30 degrees lower than average, I’m starting to wonder if spring will ever come. I’m trying to hold out hope, but in the meantime, the planning continues.
The first big project I’m jumping into as soon as the weather breaks is the construction of my new hugelkultur beds. I just learned about hugelkultur (a German word roughly translating to hill or mound culture) while attending the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association Conference.
Hugelkultur essentially replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on the forest floor—think of all that beautiful rich, black hummus that occurs when branches, logs and fallen leaves decompose. The beauty of the hugelkultur method is you can create nature’s perfect growing media in full sun, right in your backyard or wherever is a convenient location for the vegetables and fruit you want to grow.
Some of the benefits of the hugelkultur method include: better moisture retention in your growing beds, improved drainage, increased soil fertility and soil biota. This is a no-till method of gardening, and if you use biointensive planting or a square foot gardening style, very little weeding needs to be done.
The most commonly recommended size to start with seems to be a 6’ long by 3’ tall hugelkultur bed, but I may get creative. I’ve seen images online of some really beautiful hugelkultur beds– Schooner Farms in northern Ohio has created a replica of the ancient Serpent Mound using hugelkultur. Beds can be constructed on top of lawn or existing garden space. You may also choose to scrape off the top layer of grass/topsoil and use this on top of your bed when finished.
To create your bed, simply arrange the logs in the size/shape you want your beds to be, pack leaves and wood chips tightly in between, use branches to create an interlocking “frame” for your bed, pack straw and compost tightly between the branches and finish off with topsoil. Plant your seeds/plants and cover with a mulch.
Hugelkultur seems to be a perfect choice for my tiny homestead. We live in a partially wooded area so we have access to fallen trees, branches and leaves which all need to be cleaned up and used anyways. The hardest part may be deciding what I want to plant in my beds once I get them built. I suppose I may have a few more weeks of winter planning to figure that part out!
With all the plotting, planning, and assessment of variables – prepping to start a vegetable garden sounds much like going to war. Fortunately, it isn’t! Here’s some inside intel (read: start-a-garden tips) to help you out.
Make a map
Not talking about bringing in a cartographer, just grab a pen/pencil, a piece of paper and make a map of the land available for gardening (to scale, preferably), marking out the sunny, shaded areas. This will help decide the best locations for your vegetable plants and overall organization process.
Do a soil test
Get a good soil test kit and ascertain the nutrient levels and imbalances in the soil. Many county extension offices offer soil testing services for cheap – check with yours! You’ll want to make the necessary amendments – organic matter if the soil is too acidic, lime if it’s too alkaline – to the soil before planting.
Plan for irrigation
Regular irrigation is paramount to the success of this operation (i.e. your new garden.) Check the varieties of seeds you’re planning for, and determine whether the soil is too dry or too wet for your selections.
By targets, I mean the vegetable varieties you want to grow. List your favorite vegetables by family. It’ll help you plan rotations in the future. Write down the estimated planting date, days to maturity and harvest for each variety. Oh, and remember to identify and mark the ideal spots for every variety on the map. Take your time when you’re at it, organizing individual vegetable varieties such that they’re getting the right conditions and companions for optimum growth.
Study the space allotted to each plant variety in your map, consider the space a single seed or plant will require and ascertain how many seeds and plants you’ll need to buy.
Next step, order your seeds and get ready for some fun in the sun (and in the dirt!).
Fruits- the sweetest source of dietary fiber, essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients, and for many, the very reason they started gardening. Growing fruits is about as close us grownups can get to the excitement of stealing them from some unsuspecting neighbor’s garden. Growing new fruit varieties, now that’s even closer! Take a look at some of the newest additions to Gurney’s roster- the hottest new fruit varieties for 2015.
Grape lovers, we bring you the break-through in the world of grapes- RazzMatazz WOW Fruit Now! This sumptuous seedless self pollinator combines the disease resistance and hardiness of muscadines with the tender-crisp texture of table grapes. The result is sumptuous deep burgundy grapes that produce hearty yields right from midsummer to the first frost. No need for spraying! This sun loving variety is a must for grape lovers in Zones 7-9 – those Southern regions where fruit can be tough to grow. RazzMatazz is the first-ever continuously fruiting seedless muscadine grape – meaning that you’ll see continuously growing bunches of grapes all down the vine!
Early Blue and Sunrise Honeyberries
Fruit growers in Zones 3-8 will have a wonderful year with Early Blue and Sunrise- two new honeyberry varieties that better the deliciousness of the best of blueberries with an amazing sweet-tart flavor. Gurney’s “blueberries with an attitude” are the earliest (ripening in late May-June) and the tastiest of all honeyberries. These wonderful honeyberries require no spraying and relish partially shaded sites (Sunny planting sites recommended for regions in the far North.)
Romeo Dwarf Cherry
Finally, a cherry that’s larger, juicier and sweeter than Carmine Jewel. It even has the same great plant habit! These full sized cherries are a glossy deep crimson, with amazingly rich sugar levels for a tart cherry type. Romeo Dwarf is a sun loving self pollinator with exceptional cold-hardiness and high flesh-to-pit ratio. An absolute must for fruit gardeners in zone 2-7.