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Rotate crops in your small garden

Crop rotation is the practice of changing what you plant where from one year to the next, based on plant groups. Rotating crops is important for vegetable gardeners, but it can be tricky in a small space. Here are a few tips for making the most of rotations in your small garden.

Several raised garden beds with flowers and vegetable plants in a fenced yard.

Why rotate?

Rotation is critical in vegetable gardens. It helps to reduce diseases and balance nutrients.

For instance, tomatoes are prone to one set of diseases and take up specific nutrients from the soil. While cucumbers have a different set of diseases, and they take up nutrients in different amounts. Rotating your veggies helps to balance your garden system.

Rotating in a small space

If you have a very small garden, simply moving plants down a few feet is a good start, but it might not give you the full benefits of rotation. There are a few simple ways to create distinct planting spaces to allow rotation in a small space:

Raised beds 

By making raised beds, you create a physical barrier between your different garden areas. Rather than making one large bed, consider making a few small ones.

Plant your solanaceous crops (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant) in one, cucurbits (cucumbers, melon, squash) in another, and brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.) in another, and then rotate your planting order in the years to come.

An ideal rotation is every 3 or 4 years, so if you make 3 to 4 raised beds, you can complete a full rotation of plant families.

Use pots for disease-prone plants

If you have a variety you love to grow (such as heirloom tomatoes), but you're concerned about significant diseases, consider planting them in a separate pot to keep diseases outside of your main planting area.

This is also a great solution if you only have one main garden bed. By growing things in pots, you give yourself extra space for rotation.

Coordinating with neighbors and friends

Do you have a friend, neighbor or family member who loves growing and eating fresh food as much as you do? Consider coordinating your garden space.

There are a few reasons to do this. One is to reduce disease pressure, but another is to have fun experimenting with more varieties.

I am really excited about trying different heirloom beans this year, but if I plant too many beans, I won’t have space for other things like tomatoes and peppers. By coordinating with my neighbors, I can grow as many fun beans as I want, and then trade them for tomatoes with my neighbor who loves to try new tomato varieties.

More disease prevention tips

Beyond rotation, there are a few simple practices that can help to prevent disease spread in your garden:

  • As the weather starts to warm, now is a great time to clean and sterilize equipment such as hoops, stakes, and pruning shears (pruning shears should be cleaned regularly throughout the season).
  • When you’re choosing seeds, look for varieties that have resistance to plant diseases you’ve seen in your garden in years past. 
  • As the season progresses, keep an eye out for diseases. Use tools like What’s Wrong with My Plant for identification, and remove diseased plants or leaves from your garden.

Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator in horticulture and food system agriculture

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