Do you find yourself growing the same thing in your garden every year? Perhaps consider a variety of crop rotations to improve your garden ecosystem. Because after all, that's the best thing to do: build an ecosystem. Crop rotation is an opportunity to add variety to your garden. The following content also has some reference value for raised garden beds.
In this article, I'll discuss the role crop rotation plays in large-scale agriculture and how we can scale it down to small homesteads. While not all benefits apply to small homesteads, crop rotation still has many benefits, such as improved soil health and a more diverse garden ecosystem. As gardeners, crop rotation gives us time to try different crops in the garden. Growing new crops helps us better understand new crops and techniques, which ultimately makes us better gardeners.
What is a monoculture?
Before we can understand what a crop rotation is, we first need to consider what a monoculture is. Monoculture is a system of farming in which one crop is grown in the same place each year. Traditional monoculture systems include continuous cropping of maize. These multistep systems are intensive processes that emerge in mass production.
These crops need to be cultivated regularly, both before sowing and after harvesting. Tillage is especially damaging to the entire soil. Annual tillage prevents steady accumulation of organic matter. Tillage is a destructive process for many reasons, but reducing water infiltration and soil erosion are two of them. Tillage leaves the soil bare, which can lead to runoff. Depending on the farmer, this may happen several times a year.
In many large farms in the food belt, farmers plant and fertilize crops at the end of the season. Fertilizer prices were lower then, so farmers bought and applied it during the off-season. By the time farmers plant this cash crop in the spring, excess nutrients like nitrogen (and some phosphorus) have been leached out of the soil. During this time, the other crops in the row crop become unavailable to the plant roots. More fertilizer will be applied to make up for the unavailable nutrients.
Such row crop systems, while still highly productive, can eventually cause soil and environmental damage. They found that there was less variety of bacteria in the surrounding soil and fewer beneficial bacteria. While the study focused on peanuts, other crops have had similar effects on soil microbial communities and soil structure as a whole.
Monoculture is the process of planting the same crop continuously, without rotating it each year. The most common example is corn or soybeans. These two crops represent the largest crops in the United States. Monoculture is a highly intensive process that usually requires more fertilizer, tillage, and chemicals like herbicides and pesticides to mitigate plant disease.
What is crop rotation?
Crop rotation is the opposite of monoculture. It is a planned sequence of different crops over a period of a year or more. Crop rotation is different from mixed and intercropping. These describe the practice of growing multiple crops in the same place at the same time, which can also benefit the garden. In general, the more varied the rotation, the better. Rotations can last for years. Typically, these systems try to keep the soil "green," meaning there are always living plants on the ground.
Traditional systems rely on herbicides to terminate cover crops in rotation, leaving residues on the surface. In the organic sector, avoiding farming on a large scale is a challenge. Limited chemical options make it difficult to control weeds during planting and harvesting periods. Even if tillage is necessary, crop rotation is beneficial. Crop rotation is good for soil, pests, pathogens, and productivity.
Cover crops are a key part of any crop rotation. These crops cover the soil and improve soil health. They are usually planted out of growing season, but can also be planted on land that is not in use. This section covers the major types and the importance of mixing them together.
There are many varieties of such crops. They all have one thing in common: their relationship to nitrogen-fixing rhizobia in the soil. Nitrogen fixation is the process of absorbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and converting it into compounds available to plants. This process is done by these special bacteria and humans in the Haber-Boss process to make inorganic nitrogen fertilizer. These crops form nodules at the roots, as shown in the image below. Nodules form when soil bacteria enter the roots of plants. The inside of active nodules appears red due to a compound, mauglobin, which is similar to human hemoglobin but found in bacteria. Leguminous crops include clover, beans, peas, alfalfa and vetch. Some people tend to have more nodules than others.
The important thing for legumes to consider is that if you fertilize them, they won't form these nodules. Rhizobia provide the plant with a usable source of nitrogen in exchange for the plant's sugar. If nitrogen is not needed (because it is provided by fertilizer), plants will not accept bacteria. Therefore, avoid using nitrogen fertilizer when growing these beans.
Planting pulses before planting cash crops with high feed and nitrogen use is one method of rotation. This allows the crops below to access some of the nitrogen provided by legumes. Planting crops after legumes is crucial because nitrogen can easily seep into the soil profile.
Brassicas include turnips, turnips, mustard greens, canola and other plants in the cabbage family. Radish and rapeseed are two of the more common brassica plants used as cover crops. These crops have large taproots that remove excess nutrients and improve compacted soil. They also have good aboveground biomass to help mulch the soil and better control erosion. Forage radishes (a type of white radish) are particularly good at this. Below is forage/cultivated radish. These plants have large roots, much larger than the typical root crop you see in the garden.
Their taproots penetrate deep into the soil, absorbing nutrients from deep in the soil and doing a good job of separating and decompressing the soil. During the plant decomposition process, these nutrients can be used for the following crops. Rapeseed also has strong root systems that are capable of doing something similar. These crops are being cultivated without causing soil disturbance and the negative effects of tillage.
Oats, rye, Sudan grass, sungrass, triticale, wheat, and other small grains can be used as cover crops. This veined crop has fibrous roots and usually has a high biomass. They are particularly good at adding carbon to soil and providing better erosion control. Fibrous roots do a good job of holding the soil and the high biomass provides mulch for the soil. Once the next crop is planted, the crop can act as mulch to suppress weeds and protect the soil.
Rye, wheat, and triticale are all refreshing grains that you can plant in late summer. They grow a little in the summer and fall, then overwinter into spring. Oats are less hearty and spoil in cold weather. This provides a natural way to terminate crops in the fall. Sudan grass and Sun hemp are warm weather crops that can be used as cover crops during the warmer months, after the spring crop. It all depends on the climate, because some places are much warmer than others. Consider your climate and decide what to plant and when.
The importance of mixed cover crops
Cover crops are good, and each crop has a specific purpose. But they all have drawbacks, which is why mixing them will give you the best of each one. Legumes add more nitrogen to the soil, but are a low-residue crop. Adding crop residue helps reduce weed pressure and soil erosion. Brassica helps tamp down the soil and brings nutrients to the surface. Grasses provide better erosion control and add carbon to the soil. Remember, higher carbon levels lead to less nitrogen. Combining these crops into a single combination provides the benefits of each crop while eliminating their disadvantages. Often cover crops are already sold in mixed form, which makes them easy for home gardeners to use.
The Times and kinds of rotations vary. Here are several possible crop rotations used by farmers. The typical rotation is the two-year rotation of corn and soybeans. This rotation is better than corn monoculture, but it still lacks diversity. Another rotation could be soybeans, corn and wheat. However, another rotation may include tomato crops, cover crop combinations, and alfalfa. There are endless possibilities for rotation. Years can also be added to include other crops so that a five - or seven-year rotation can be achieved. The general rule of thumb is to plant nitrogen-fixing crops (legumes) first, followed by heavy feedstuffs that use a lot of nitrogen. These include vegetables and cash crops. Including legumes can reduce needed inputs and ultimately improve future crops.
Livestock is also an option on larger farms. Grazing land increases crop diversity and nutrients in addition to producing row crops. Row crops can be crowned in a few years. Existing hay stations could be used to graze sheep or cattle in the next few years. And then back to the vegetable row crops.
The goal of crop rotation
This section details the benefits and objectives of implementing crop rotation in mass production.
Crop rotation improves soil fertility and overall soil health. Good soil health and reduced soil erosion are essential to the success of farmers and home gardeners. Putting crops in the ground at all times allows organic matter to build up, especially if farming is limited. Rotating crops and leaving crop residues in the field keeps most of the same nutrients in the system. This results in a decrease in synthetic and organic inputs. Reducing erosion and increasing soil organic matter through crop residues and continuous vegetation cover can prevent nutrient pollution and improve the quality of nearby water sources.
Pests and diseases
Another benefit of rotating crops is pest control, especially on large farms. This is useful when growing many crops on several different fields. Pest management needs to look at agricultural systems as a whole. Integrated pest management is the key to understanding how to control pests. This is a holistic approach aimed at reducing the need for pesticides. Crop rotation is part of this approach. By rotating crops across several fields, the pests' ability to cause damage is reduced. The distance the pest must travel for the host plant increases, and for many pests, this distance is too far. They can't survive, so it's hard to reproduce. The time interval between crop rotations helps to reduce the number of pests. Reducing pests reduces pathogens because there are fewer vector insects to spread disease.
The benefits of pathogen management through crop rotation are similar to those of pests. Some are vector-borne, some are soil-borne. As with diseases between humans and animals, not all diseases affect the same plant species. There are some diseases that affect many kinds of plants, but there are also many diseases that affect a small percentage of plants. A crop in a rotation system that is not affected by a particular pathogen in order to reduce pathogen load.
Organic farming attempts to reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic inputs: pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Rotating crops helps reduce pests and pathogens, thus reducing the need for these chemicals. Fewer pesticides means better soil content and improved water quality in nearby water sources.
The goal of agriculture that many farmers miss is to build an ecosystem in the process of producing food. Diversifying crops in crop rotations can increase the number of beneficial organisms in the ecosystem. As mentioned earlier, rotating several crops can increase the diversity of the microbial community, which can also benefit other plants over time. Many beneficial insects have specific crops that attract them. Adding different plants allows more insects to find their way to the farm or garden. Attracting more insects means it is possible to attract predators to reduce pest populations. By building ecosystems, farms become more resilient. That means farms are more self-sustaining and better able to deal with problems
Apply for home gardener
The purpose of this article is to help you understand how to adapt crop rotation to your needs. The specific rotation methods have different applications, but how to implement them is the same.
Crop rotation is a very beneficial method of farming, especially in large-scale operations. In small gardens, pest control may be less effective due to scale. In many cases, the same common crops are grown on the same land. Less space makes it easier for pests to find their target crops. Increasing diversity can attract pest predators and help reduce pest populations.
Crop rotation circulates nutrients by using other crops to keep nutrients in the system. Adding compost to the system promotes plant growth and productivity. The combination of crop rotation and limited tillage is extremely beneficial to soil health. In this case, the soil structure remains intact, thus improving water quality, even on a small scale.
There are many different ways to include crop rotation in a home garden. A good rule is to plant crops from different plant families in the same spot next year.
Q: What is crop rotation?
A: Four-crop rotation refers to the incorporation of livestock grazing into the system commonly used in the UK.
There is no particular rotation that should be used by everyone. Crop rotations vary in timing and diversity. The general rule is to plant heavy feed after planting nitrogen-fixing crops.
Q: What is a 2-year crop rotation?
A: A two-year rotation is a rotation that lasts two years. One of the most common methods is to plant corn one year and soybeans the next.
Q: Is crop rotation still in use today?
Answer: Yes! Many farms rotate crops. The methods used vary greatly depending on the type of rotation and the crop used. Corn-soybean two-year rotation is most common in the United States. Rotate between crops and livestock for five years or more