Maintenance & Crop Rotation

You’ve finally finished the hard work of breaking up sod, double digging to break up a hardpan, and planting all of your seeds and seedlings. It’s time to relax and enjoy your garden–almost. Gardeners through the years have discovered that there’s always something to be done in the garden, to make sure that weeds don’t overcome their plants and the soil remains healthy.

Grow What You Sow

Keeping a garden weed-free required patience and persistence. If you’ve done your job of creating soil that’s fertile and alive, then your plants will flourish–but every weed on the block will want to sneak in and set down roots. Through mulching and weed control, you’ll be able to prevent them from taking valuable water and nutrients away from your plants.

Using Mulch

Mulch is an indispensable tool in an organic garden. Used properly, it can add organic material to the soil, prevent weeds, help soil retain moisture, keep plant roots warm, and add to the aesthetic appeal of your garden. There are so many different types of mulches, with different benefits and uses, that every gardener will be able to find one to suit his or her purpose.

Organic Mulch – Organic mulch is a wonderful and often attractive way to add nutrients and texture to your soil as you prevent weeds. Organic mulches come from trees or other plants, which have been chipped, composted, or cut into useable form.

  • Compost – Because of its high nutrient composition, compost is one of the best mulches available. Spread it around trees and shrubs, in vegetable gardens, or on flowerbeds.
  • Grass clippings – Grass is high in nitrogen, which will make your vegetables happy. Too heavy an application can burn your plants, so consider combining grass mulch with wood chips or compost.
  • Straw – Hay and straw make great mulches. They add a different look to your garden, and have all of the benefits of other mulches. Make sure your hay is seed-free or you’ll be inviting more weeds than you’re removing.
  • Wood chips – Wood chips and bark are the most common type of mulch, and for good reason. They break down slowly, do a good job of keeping weeds away, and are available in a huge variety of sizes and colors.


Plastic Mulch – If you need your mulch to keep your plants warm, consider using plastic mulch or landscaping fabric. These materials heat up during the day, keeping your garden a couple of degrees warmer at night than organic mulches can. Don’t use plastic mulch around trees and shrubs, because the plastic will encourage shallow roots.

  • Plastic – For superior weed control, plastic is a great tool. Spread the material on your planting site, cutting holes for your plants. Consider putting a soaking hose under the plastic, since water can’t get through.
  • Landscaping fabric – Also called geotextiles, these plastic fabrics allow air and water to get through, so they have a slight advantage over plastic. They also biodegrade over time, so they’re a good choice for establishing a groundcover on a steep slope.

Whichever kind of mulch you choose, prepare your site properly before laying it down. Make sure you remove all of the weeds and seeds that you are able. Apply mulch thickly enough to choke out any seeds that escaped you, and maintain the mulching by adding more when it starts to look thin.

Weeding your Garden

Even the best mulch won’t keep all of the weeds out of your garden. It’s important to pull weeds as soon as they sprout, because weeds suck the water and nutrients out of your soil, taking them away from your plants. Weed often and with vigilance, and you’ll keep weeds from gaining a foothold in your garden.

Weeding Tools – Many people find that a two-pronged garden fork is a great tool for removing weeds. The prongs allow gardeners to quickly scoop up the weed, roots and all, and the tool is small enough not to damage the roots of new plants.

Gloves are also important for weeding. Soil contains bacteria, such as tetanus, that can enter through small cuts and make humans very sick. Gloves will also keep squeamish gardeners from weeding gingerly, allowing them to get down into the dirt to get out the entire weed.

When to Weed – Time is the most important tool you need for weeding. During the first few seasons, you should spend a few minutes every day in your garden, looking for sprouts that you didn’t plant. Pulling weeds up quickly will allow you to more easily get all of the roots, which is important because many weeds can come back from just a tiny bit of root left in the soil. Getting to weeds quickly will also prevent them from setting seeds, which could make for a serious problem next season.

Keep the Soil Healthy by Rotating Crops

It’s easy for the soil in a vegetable garden to lose fertility. Many vegetable crops feed heavily on the nutrients in the soil, or encourage pests and diseases. By planting your vegetables in different locations every year, you can keep diseases and pests from setting up house in your garden while keeping a good nutrient balance in your soil. This technique, called rotating crops, is both effective and easy to implement.

Implementing a Crop Rotation System

The most successful crop rotations use a system. There many different ways to rotate crops, so it can be tough to choose which system is best for you. Many gardeners find that a four-plot rotation is easy to use and works well. This system will give the soil plenty of time to heal after a heavy feeding plant or one that is susceptible to many pests and diseases, and will allow time for a light feeder, a heavy feeder, a beneficial crop, and a green manure or resting season.

Crop Families

Knowing what crops to group together, and learning the qualities of each group, is the basis for every crop rotation system. Vegetables all belong to a taxonomic family, and vegetables within a family have similar qualities. Put members of the same family in the same plot on your rotation, and change spots each year.

Family Name

Common Crops

Alliaceae garlic, leek, onion, shallot
Chenopodiaceae beetroot, quinoa, spinach, swiss chard
Compositae chicory/endive, jerusalem artichoke, lettuce, salsify
Cruciferae broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, calabrese, cauliflower, kale, kohl rabi, radishes, swedes, turnips
Cucurbitaceae cucumbers, courgette, melons, squash, pumpkin, watermelon,
Gramineae wheat, oats, rye, corn
Leguminosae alfalfa, beans, fenugreek, clovers, peas, vetches
Solanaceae eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes
Umbelliferae carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, coriander, celleriac


Crop families can be further grouped by how they affect the soil. Base your crop rotation system on which families add nutrients and which take them away, and don’t plant heavy feeders in the same spot during subsequent years.

Beneficial Crops – Members of the family Leguminosae benefit the soil by adding nutrients. They don’t draw pests, and make good green manures. Members of the Gramineae family also benefit the soil by improving drainage and helping to control weeds.

Light Feeders – Cucurbitaceae, Alliaceae, Umbelliferae, Chenopodiaceae, and Compositae are all light to moderate users of soil nutrients.

Heavy Feeders – Cruciferae, and Solanaceae are the plant families that draw the most nutrients from the soil and are the most susceptible to pests and diseases.

A Sample Crop Rotation

Choosing which plants to grow in your garden is a highly individual choice. I’ve chosen my own favorite members of each crop family for this sample rotation.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
Plot 1 broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes fallow/ cover crop garlic, spinach, carrots corn, runner beans
Plot 2 fallow/ cover crop garlic, spinach, carrots corn, runner beans broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes
Plot 3 garlic, spinach, carrots corn, runner beans broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes fallow/ cover crop
Plot 4 corn, runner beans broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes fallow/ cover crop garlic, spinach, carrots