In Texas, Breaking the Crop Rotation Rules


Carol Ann Sayle

"I suggest you try growing tomatoes (or any crop, for that matter) without rotation. Nothing is as stifling to success in agriculture as inflexible adherence to someone else's rules."
-Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower

Is someone sitting around the dinner table making up these "rules"?

My intern inquired if we follow the rule of rotating crops each year so that no member of a plant family is grown where another family member resided the previous year.

In my tangential way of thinking, I suddenly thought about human families—specifically, children moving around the dinner table as in a "musical chairs" game, so that each child would sit in a different chair for every meal. That would not have worked in the little green kitchen of my youth. The table, also green, barely had space for the five of us, and none of us three siblings, each differing greatly in size, thought of moving to a different (green) chair on a daily basis. Think about the quarrels that would have provoked! (But, notice that we were "green" before it was cool!)

Back to the vegetables ... The intern's question was rather disconcerting, for we've certainly broken that regulation, but I wonder who dreamed it up anyway? And why?

Nature doesn't set out to "rotate crops." A tree and its progeny grow in the same spot for many years. When the "mama tree" eventually dies, the saplings continue on in the same place. It's home. I think most plants in nature, lacking legs, prefer to stay put. One exception is if the plants want to increase their territory, so that they won't be overcrowded (the table is only so large for them too). To do that, they devise seeds that "fly" on the wind, seeds that cling to animals, or seeds that animals eat and then deposit with instant fertilizer somewhere else. Finally, their seeds wind up in a farmer's or gardener's hands, in Texas perhaps. Conditions, such as severe drought, may prevent wild plants' revival in the same spot from one year to another, but in general, with rain, there they are again, blooming in the original place.

So, what is wrong with a tomato seedling being planted in the bed that formerly hosted its sister, the potato? A lot, say the rule makers! The potato may have had a disease that will now attack the young tomato. And for added drama, the pests that bothered the potato may be lurking in the mulch, waiting to irritate the tomato. Perhaps also, the potato ate up every single nutrient that is needed by the tomato. (Now that would have been a distinct problem back in the green kitchen to those who sat in the green chairs at the green table.)

But what if there was no disease, and what if the farmer actually added some nutrition to the soil before the little tomato was tucked in? And what about the fact that down here in Texas, because of our two distinct seasons (hot and cold), the pests of one season are typically not present in the other season. Alas, apparently there are no exceptions to the rule.

I admit, hackles up, I've strayed. A hard and fast rule that doesn't seem to make sense, especially if you are studying nature at all, is not one I'm afraid to break.

But to justify my bad-girl streak, I like to think I can rationalize this. After all, we are not growing just potatoes or tomatoes on this farm. We are a diversified-crop farm, planting many different families year round, and although we try to rotate them, sometimes we copy nature, and the crops still seem to excel—probably because we nurture our soil.

Rotation may be important up north where the season is short. Some of these vegetable families are large and can swamp a small farm if all the members are planted. Brassicas include many siblings such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mustards, and kales. Then there's Soanacea (tomato-eggplant-potato-pepper) and those prolific Curcurbita with the vast array of squashes, and their half-sisters, the Cucumis (cucumbers and pumpkins). Then the families of beans and peas, onions, carrots and parsnips. How are you going to grow a diversified farm while tying yourself up in knots trying to figure out how to keep each member from banging a plate over another's head?

I vote for letting them sit, eat, and grow where they are comfortable, just like kids around a green table. But to nix any squabbling, mix them up as best you can, and keep the soil healthy.