When you shop from catalogs it’s easy to just click and buy. But when it comes to seed catalogs, there’s a lot more to the process of picking out what vegetables you want to grow next year.
That’s why I require a yellow highlighter, sticky notes and a tablet for sketches and notes. You must think like a designer. The reason is simple: crop rotation.
Developed by George Washington Carver to cure problems of worn-out soils of poor Southern farmers, this system of redesigning your garden every year is essential to success. It’s doubly important when growing in raised beds with high-density production, which can magnify problems that faced Carver’s farmers.
Crop rotation requires you to choose a vegetable for a particular space based on what grew there the year before.
This practice is essential for home gardeners who wish to reduce the chance of diseases decimating the garden. It is based on the concept that plants susceptible to disease are more likely to suffer if they are grown in the same place year after year. Each year new pathogens grow, and in consecutive years of the same crop they increase populations to a size that can seriously threaten plants. Change your garden each year and the virus may not get a foothold.
Rotation also affects nutrient availability. Where a crop requires large amounts of certain elements from the soil like cotton, that patch grows less fertile every year. But when you grow different crops there each season, they tend to compensate for the losses naturally. In fact, if you get creative you can actually benefit from the residue of a former crop to make your new one better.
For example, peas and beans of the legume family can absorb atmospheric nitrogen and transfer it into the soil via root nodules. The remnants of the plant left behind after harvest also contain a bonus of nitrogen stored in their tissues. When tilled into your soil it becomes enriched with this residual nitrogen. Because this is the nutrient responsible for stem and leaf growth, it’s a perfect spot for leaf crops such as lettuce or kale to grow large and vigorous in the next growing season.
As you shop for seed, design your new garden by rotating vegetables by family. The simplest method of rotation is to just change families for each spot in the garden every year. Where you grew fennel, plant radishes. Where you grew cucumbers, grow arugula etc.
Selecting seed isn’t just about looking at pictures of great veggie plants and fruit. You must read the descriptions and comments for each one to be sure it will do well in your climate. The photos can be deceiving because a large black eggplant fruit may show at the same size as a very small fruited variety. This is why you must read the entire catalog description. Sometimes it holds a key to your climatic limitations such as heat tolerant lettuce. It may also tell Northern gardeners what varieties mature in short growing seasons.
The details of new varieties and their place in your ever-rotating garden make choosing seeds and plants far more time consuming. If you’re new to gardening, select just one general catalog such as Seeds of Change and stick with their varieties. But if you’re an old hand like me, the process becomes mind boggling as I seek the right plant for the right place with the right companions and predecessors just as Carver would have done it long ago