Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Episode 3: Wherein Organigirl Discusses The Proper Response to Gnome Biological Warfare - Crop Rotation

Garden Gnome by Aubrey Kirkham
Gnomes are merciless, albeit small and surprisingly defenseless, warriors. They rely on their charmingly babyesque features to keep them out of any real danger, and it works because who could hurt anything so cuddly? Many of the “scary” or “dangerous” gnomes we see depicted on television and in bus station ads are just a caricature of what the media wants us to believe gnomes are really like. The sad truth is that this is just another case of media bias perpetuating the false belief that gnomes not tiny, cuddly and squishy. Yes, the gnomes have infiltrated Hollywood.

It’s because of this adorable defenselessness that gnomes have perfected a well-known defensive strategy - “offense is the best defense”. They are relentless in their pursuit of vegetative destruction and they know that no matter how much damage they inflict on your precious tomatoes, kale, and kohlrabi, if you happen to catch one in the act (which is unlikely, as they’re excellent at avoiding people, despite their lack of speed), you’ll probably take one look at that darling little face, and, before you can stop yourself, pinch it’s chubby little cheeks and tell it all your secrets. Terrifying.

Among the worst types of offensive attacks in the gnome arsenal is a type of biological warfare which I call “catch and release”. Gnomes have a lot of time on their fluffy little hands. While you’re off impressing people at your day job or shuttling kids to and from clogging class, gnomes are sitting almost motionless among your boxwoods and pansies, catching various nasty little bugs and setting them aside for later use. Then, while you sleep peacefully in your bed, they release those same bugs onto whichever of your edibles are currently at their most fragile, delicious or pretty and then let out a tiny, high-pitched giggle of glee as they return to their place of refuge and wait patiently for months or years until one day, their tiny insect minions rise up, band together, reproduce en masse, and destroy every last shred of whatever variety of plant they were programmed to obliterate. Oh the humanity!

So what recourse have you to avoid such great loss? The humble crop rotation plan.  By rotating your crops, you ensure that when insects planted in, say, a bed of summer squash, reach the point in their lifecycle where they’re ready to begin chomping away at the squash vines, they’ll find that the bed in which they’ve hatched is no longer a squash bed at all, and that nothing in the bed is even remotely appealing to a squash bug! It’s a marvelous switcheroo, and it works like a charm. You may find a few bugs here and there in a given year that make their way to the appropriate beds (probably by way of gnomes), but the damage those bugs can do is minimal in comparison to the damage done by bugs that have had an entire season to multiply (and rabbits rate of reproduction is nothing compared to that of the humble garden insect).

A crop rotation plan is your best defense against insects. In addition, because different types of crops use different nutrients at different rates (and some actually add certain nutrients to the soil under specific circumstances), rotating your crops leads to healthier plants, and more even nutrient distribution in your soil.

Some crop rotations are advanced, with many different considerations necessary in order to decide what goes where, but I’ve had great results with a simple crop rotation schedule which is both easy and effective. It goes as follows:


That’s it! Leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, arugula, mizuna, kale, etc.) are followed by fruiting “vegetables” like squash and cucumbers which are then followed by root vegetables like carrots, radishes, turnips, parsnips, and beets. The root vegetables are followed by our last type of vegetable, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), and then we start all over, by planting leaf vegetables once again. For a complete list of which vegetables belong in which of our categories, be sure to check out my Vegetable Growing Guide.

Some gardeners include fruit vegetables from the Solanaceae (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes) family in their crop rotations, while others - including myself - prefer to plant them in tomato pots or elsewhere in the garden because of the uncertainty as to how plants in this family affect their host soil.

So here’s a diagram to help you visualize our simple crop rotation:

Before planting each year, organize everything you’ll be planting into one of the four categories (or solanaceae family, if you decide to separate those plants from your rotation), and plan to plant one category per bed (or per part of the bed if you’re a beginner and are smartly following my advice to start with one bed).

That’s all you need to know to get started with your crop rotation. Before long you’ll be growing beautiful, pest free the chagrin of our miniscule enemies - the gnomes.