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Big Ideas for Small Spaces: Rotation!

 Multiple small raised beds are often better than one large planting area.
Photo: Gail Hudson, UMN Extension
Rotating crops is important for gardeners, but it can be tricky in a small space. Here are a few tips and tricks for optimizing rotations in your small garden.

What is rotation? It's the process of planting different plant families in a different location each year. By rotating your tomatoes to a new spot each year rather than planting them in the same place (and everything else in the Solanaceae family such as peppers and potatoes), you can help to prevent problems in your garden.

Why rotate?

Rotation is is critical in vegetable gardens. Rotating helps to reduce disease pressure, and also helps to balance nutrients. 

Tomatoes have one set of pathogens and uptake specific nutrients; cucumbers have a different set of diseases, and they take up nutrients in different ratios. 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 exclusion between your different garden areas. Rather than making one large bed, consider making a few small ones. Plant your solanaceous crops in one, cucurbits in another, brassicas in another, etc., and then rotate your planting order in the years to come. 

An ideal rotation is 3-4 years, so if you make 3-4 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 but you anticipate significant disease pressure (such as heirloom tomatoes), consider planting in a separate pot to keep the residues 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 the U of M’s tools like What’s Wrong with My Plant for identification, and remove diseased plants or leaves from your garden. 

Small space gardening: what would you like to learn?

We hope you are enjoying this new series in the Yard & Garden News! Future installments of this series will include succession planting, soil testing, and tips for starting seeds indoors. 

What else are you curious about? Let us know in the comments! I’d love to hear your suggestions for future articles. 

Author: Natalie Hoidal, Extension Educator, Horticulture - Food System Agriculture


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Comments

Unknown said…
What if you're in a community garden, with plots sharing a boundary or in close proximity, and the tomato fungus and cucurbit fungi are already widespread? Or if these problems are already widespread in my plot with two raised beds and three other sections? Is it still worth rotating crops?

Thank you!

Unknown said…
What is the rotational order? Should i grow beens first, then tomatoes, then cucumbers or visa versa?
Natalie Hoidal said…
Thanks for your great questions.

In a community garden, rotation is really tricky. I'd say it's still worth trying to rotate, especially if you have raised beds or some physical separation between plants (physical separation could even mean a wall of flowers). It won't work as well as rotating on a larger scale, but it may help a bit. Definitely invest in disease testing so that you can use resistant varieties in future years - once you have a pathogen present in the garden, it can be hard to get rid of, especially a community garden.

I also think a lot about how community gardens can coordinate rotations. It depends a lot on the scale and how well you know each other. If you have garden planning meetings, it might be worth discussing how you could use the space a bit differently. Rather than each person having a small plot, maybe people could collectively manage the space so that you could grow tomatoes in one area, broccoli in another, etc. It really depends on your space and who's involved.

As for rotational order, it doesn't really matter whether you grow beans, then tomatoes, then cucumbers, or tomatoes, cucumbers, then beans. Just as long as you're rotating, you should see the benefits.