I first heard about it at primary school. The teacher waxed lyrical about it, somewhere between the lesson about Charlemagne and the one about the Crusades. I remember drawing the scheme in my notebook, along with doodles of serfs and their feudal lords, and chanting the order like my times tables. Beans, cabbage, roots. Cabbage, roots, beans. Roots, beans, cabbage. Crop rotation was simple in those days. Thirty years on, with a small north-easterly facing patio garden, it is a surreal workout for body, mind and memory.
The case for crop rotation
Horticultural books gloss over crop rotation in their chapters on container growing. They merrily proclaim there is no need to swap crops around year on year to avoid the risk of soil borne diseases as the soil is changed annually.
In an ideal world this may be the case but with a mix of raised beds, ladder allotments, two dozen pots and no driving license, changing the compost each year would be a logistical nightmare. It would involve multiple journeys to our local DIY/garden centre, which is – I imagine – twinned with the fourth circle of hell, followed by endless hanging around as I wait for a taxi driver willing to pick up a strange woman with a dozen ‘smelly‘ bags. That is, of course, assuming I can find enough peat-free compost at the garden centre in the first place.
So after much research I decided that the age-old practice of crop rotation would be preferable. It would not do away with the need for new compost entirely but I calculated that with the organic matter from our compost bin and one trip to the garden centre I could probably refortify the soil for the beans and potatoes, give the brassica some additional organic matter and leave the roots to fend for themselves.
Theory into practice
During the grey days of winter, I therefore perched on the landing stairs staring out at the garden. With the help – or rather hindrance – of my feline assistant Zoë I sketched last season’s cropping scheme. The neat rectangular plots of my school days seemed a million miles away as a mosaic of raised beds, hanging bags, trugs, canvas planters, terracotta and azure glazed pots were transformed into green, white or red blobs on the page.
The logical next step should have been to copy the multi-coloured planting scheme and shift each pot up one colour. This would not, however, take account of two other critical considerations. I had deployed the containers in function of their depth – potatoes and carrots in deep planters; salads, beans and tomatoes in shallow ones. And their location in the garden was determined by each crop’s need for full sun or tolerance of light shade.
With these constraining factors there was nothing for it. At the start of March, I rolled up my sleeves, dug out the soil and systematically moved it from one container to another – mixing in new compost for the lucky few. Soil from the kale crates went into canvas potato bags, and from the blue glazed bean planters to the kale planters. Hanging bags that had previously contained cabbages were emptied, the soil sieved and transferred to the raised bed for this year’s carrots and beetroot… The operation taxed my legs, back and thighs as well as my memory as each evening I updated my cropping scheme to document the day’s soil movements.
Last week, as an early summer descended across the South East, I finally started to make use of my surreal, back-breaking rotations. My first and second early potatoes were planted in half a dozen canvas planters; I sowed my first square foot of carrots and another of beetroot; and I planted out two dozen broad bean seedlings whose roots had outgrown their windowsill pots.
Over the coming months, I face numerous tasks and challenges, from regular successional growing and 101 trips around the garden with a watering can to organic pest and disease control and harvesting salads and herbs before they bolt. I shall need scheduling skills that rivals those of a conference organiser to get winter crops into the ground as spring and summer ones fade and to catch the small window between lifting potatoes and the deadline for sowing green manures. Today, however, I can sit back with a well-deserved cup of tea and admire a garden that, despite the unorthodox method and mosaic of containers, has much in common with those of the medieval serfs and lords I doodled as a child (except the potatoes of course).