When you’re first getting your garden started or you’re starting a new bed, the soil may not be all that great. You could shell out all sorts of cash on soil conditioning products, or you can look into other options that may require a little more time, work, and/or planning.
One of the easiest things you can do to prepare your soil for future planting, after it’s been reclaimed from the grass, weeds, and other vegetation, is to grow a nitrogen fixing plant in that space as your first crop. In layman’s terms, that just means you’ll plant beans or peas there.
While most vegetable plants will use up the nitrogen that’s in our soil (and suffer if there’s not enough there for them), beans and peas do not. Instead, they basically put nitrogen into the soil in a way that future crops can easily access it. That’s why it’s always a good idea to make them your first crop in a new garden space.
Future plantings of other veggies will use up the nitrogen that the beans and peas set up in that space, though, and that’s why crop rotation is important. We are beginning a 3-year rotation schedule starting this year. Basically, that means we have 3 groups of veggies. For illustration purposes, I’ll call them tomatoes, squash, and peas. There are other plants in each of the groups, but those are each representative of their groups. Now let’s say we have 6 long garden beds all in a row (we have more than 6, and they are not all in nice rows so it’s a little more complex, but I’m trying to keep things simple here).
So our rotation schedule is as follows:
Bed 1, year 1: Tomatoes
Bed 2, year 1: Squash
Bed 3, year 1: Peas
Bed 4, year 1: Tomatoes
Bed 5, year 1: Squash
Bed 6, year 1: Peas
Bed 1, year 2: Squash
Bed 2, year 2: Peas
Bed 3, year 2: Tomatoes
Bed 4, year 2: Squash
Bed 5, year 2: Peas
Bed 6, year 2: Tomatoes
Bed 1, year 3: Peas
Bed 2, year 3: Tomatoes
Bed 3, year 3: Squash
Bed 4, year 3: Peas
Bed 5, year 3: Tomatoes
Bed 6, year 3: Squash
Bed 1, year 4: Tomatoes
Bed 2, year 4: Squash
Bed 3, year 4: Peas
Bed 4, year 4: Tomatoes
Bed 5, year 4: Squash
Bed 6, year 4: Peas
Or, broken down by bed
Bed 1: Year 1- Tomatoes, Year 2- Squash, Year 3- Peas, Year 4- same as yr 1
Bed 2: Year 1- Squash, Year 2- Peas, Year 3- Tomatoes, Year 4- same as yr 1
Bed 3: Year 1- Peas, Year 2- Tomatoes, Year 3- Squash, Year 4- same as yr 1
Bed 4: Year 1- Tomatoes, Year 2- Squash, Year 3- Peas, Year 4- same as yr 1
Bed 5: Year 1- Squash, Year 2- Peas, Year 3- Tomatoes, Year 4- same as yr 1
Bed 6: Year 1- Peas, Year 2- Tomatoes, Year 3- Squash, Year 4- same as yr 1
Using this rotation method puts peas into each bed every 3rd year, which ensures that the soil will have plenty of nitrogen for the tomatoes, which are notoriously nitrogen-hungry. It is worth noting that beans and peas can be grown in with the squash if needed- they are very good companion plants. I’ll get into companion planting on another day, though.
You can help prime your soil for healthy plants by mixing in some compost before planting, as well. You can make good compost for free, which is fairly simple, but can take a couple of months and requires a bit of work, or you can check if your municipality has a composting program where they will give it to you for free or cheap. If you have access to rabbit ‘droppings’ they make an excellent fertilizer, too.
If you are considering adding non-rabbit manure to your soil, be warned- it needs to be aged before you’ll be able to grow anything with it. The chemical composition of fresh non-rabbit manure, such as that which comes from cows or chickens, will actually cause any vegetation to burn up in a chemical reaction! It needs to be left to compost and age for a few months before it mellows enough to be used in your garden.
Do you have any ideas or suggestions for folks who are just starting out with their first garden or who are expanding into new space? I’d love to hear from you if you do!