by Norm Budnitz
Or perhaps more appropriately, rotation, rotation, rotation.
Closely related plants tend to be susceptible to similar diseases and insect pests. For example, the caterpillars that eat cabbages are quite happy to gnaw away at cauliflower as well. Both of these crops are members of the mustard family (the Brassicaceae, for the vowel lovers among you), along with kale, broccoli, kohl-rabi, Brussels sprouts, collards, turnips, and radishes.
The fungus-like organism (Phytophthora infestans, for you consonant lovers) that causes ‘late blight’ was responsible for destroying the potato harvest in Ireland in the 1840s, resulting in part in the Great Irish Famine. That same organism attacked tomato plants in the eastern US a couple of years ago. Potatoes and tomatoes, along with peppers and eggplants, are members of the nightshade family, the Solanaceae. But so are belladonna (aka deadly nightshade), jimson weed, mandrake, and a number of other plants that produce some chemicals that can be quite toxic to humans. Tobacco is also in this family. I’ll let you decide into which group to put it.
Here at Four Leaf Farm, we grow lots of crops from both of these families. And there is a third family well-represented in our gardens as well, the Cucurbitaceae—squashes, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, gourds, and even luffas.
It is good farming practice to move these crops around in our gardens, so that no member of a given family grows in the same spot where another member of that family just finished growing. For example, it is not a good idea to grow tomatoes in a section of the garden where we have just dug potatoes. Or if we have grown squash in one section this year, next year we will grow them in another section. In other words, we ‘rotate’ our crop families.
So here’s a puzzle for you. On Norm’s land, we cultivate 4 plots of garden space (about 1/8 acre each). We mostly grow members of the 3 families described above (cabbage relatives, squash relatives, and tomato relatives). The cabbage family crops like cool weather, so we grow them in one whole section in the spring and in a different whole section in the fall (never in the same section). Potatoes like it cool, too, so they get a whole section to themselves in the spring as well. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants like it hot, so they go in for the summer, one whole section, but not where potatoes have grown recently. Squash do their own thing, get a whole section in the summer, and they can follow either of the other two families.
Three families. Three seasons. Four sections. How would you set up the rotation? Oh, and by the way, we also squeeze in a couple of rows of other crops, too—okra (mallow family, along with cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus), edamame or green soybeans (legume family, along with peas and other beans), and sweet corn (a grass, like wheat and oats). And if we have some time between plantings, we put in a cover crop like buckwheat or ryegrass.
So how would you set up the rotation? I dare you to try.
[FUN WITH WORDS. For those of you who like to read out loud in your heads, you may be wondering how to pronounce the ‘-aceae’ ending on those family names. Here’s one way: a (as in ‘hay’), suh (as in ‘yes, suh’), ee (as in ‘seed’). “Yes, suh. I’m a hay seed, suh.” ‘aceae’—a suh ee. Try it. You’ll like it. Try the names above. Then try these: Chenopodiaceae (the ‘ch’ has a ‘k’ sound, these are things like beets, chard, and spinach); Scrophulariaceae (snapdragons); and my personal favorite, Bignoniaceae (trumpet vine).]