Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Crop rotation part 2: Nightshades, alliums, beets and spinach and basil

So here are some issues to be grappled with to carry out my rotation scheme:

1.  Balance.  I usually want far more tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and such than I could fit in four little boxes.  But if I do more than four, then the following year I'll have an over-abundance of some other thing.  So will start my planning at four and see what happens - perhaps will do additional boxes of nightshades which then roll over to compost immediately instead of going on with the rotation?  Have also noticed that the soil level drops a lot after the first "composting" year, probably because so much of the bulk in the box was organic matter breaking down.  So... maybe do a couple extra boxes of nightshades, and at the end of the season, dig the dirt in them out to top off the remaining boxes, leaving a couple extra boxes for compost management and launch the following year?  Also worth noting that peppers often survive the winter in which case they might be "permanent" boxes instead of annual/rotation boxes. 

2.  Sorting out spring and fall.  Really in Houston one should be able to get both a spring and a fall crop of tomatoes.  So where is the room for beets and spinach?  I'm thinking that these things just get planted around the base of the tomato plant in the fall, along with onions since they're also cold-season growers.  And in spring, could do a very early spinach crop to be harvested in time for a late spring basil crop around the base of the plants.  So then there's the question about planting the same box spring and fall... which I think I'll try doing since the fall crop would be expected to be a pretty short one and hopefully can produce before the fungus takes over.

3.  Determinate versus indeterminate - I always wondered why one grows determinate varieties.  I mean, the idea is to have a steady supply of fresh veggies, not a whole slew at once, right?  But as I think about it, I realize that every year, I get only a short window of produce before it gets super hot and the indeterminates stop producing.  By fall they're so beat up and gross that I want to start fresh with new plants.  So if I planted determinates maybe I'd end up with more total tomatoes.  Clearly the thing to do is experiment.  So, I have planted both this fall:
Indeterminates along the fence, a variety called "Early Girl" which is supposed to mature in 50 days which ought to get me fruit before we get any freezing temperatures, and 
A nice experimental determinate vine, "Celebrity", on the patio which said 65 days to harvesting - again, it should be safe to get something harvested before there's a freeze.

Around these I will plant some onion sets and spinach and beet seeds.  Maybe intersperse the spinach and beet plants, assume that the spinach gets harvested as the beets get bigger? 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Crop rotation for the semi-tropics

The home desktop died and hasn't yet been replaced, which has made it inconvenient to post.

But haven't been entirely idle even though the summer heat has encouraged me to spend a lot of time just trying to hibernate.

Got in a bit of fall gardening yesterday.  Am still really trying to teach myself to do this effectively; my childhood gardening experiences only take me so far in learning what one has to do to effectively grow fruits and veggies here in Houston.

So.  The first set of research has been around the idea of crop rotations.  Seems like everything is vulnerable to something - tomato plants get fungus, squash or cucumbers succumb to borers, slugs and snails munch the cruciferous veggies and lettuce.  Crop rotation is supposed to help reduce the problems with the tomatoes anyway.

Surfing google tells me that people use rotations that cover three or four years.  The idea is that by three or four years, soil fungus and bug eggs/larvae have probably died off, leaving soil that won't just attack and eat up that particular type of plant.  Problem is, most sources do not assume the ability to grow two crops (spring and fall) every year.  So I have to think it through a bit better.

SO after quite a bit of reading about what different things need and shuffling ideas around, I am ready to try a four-year cycle that entails pairs of plant families, with spring and fall coverage.  Or rather, a three-year cycle with a rest and recharging in the fourth year. 

In this post I'll outline the basic rotation; then plan future posts to talk in more detail about each grouping and what I plan to try with each.  The tentative plan assumes I have 16 boxes but of course could expand or shrink this number; just needs to be a multiple of 4.  For my yard plan, I've mostly gone with small planting beds - 2x2 raised wood beds, or larger-sized plastic tubs with the bottoms cut out.  So four of my little boxes is like half of one of the standard 4x8 raised beds you see on a lot of plans. 

So here's the mighty rotation, in picture form:

And if that doesn't come through clearly here's the brief list:

1.  In the first year of the rotation, I plan to pair nightshades (tomato, pepper, eggplant, pepper, etc) with the beet and spinach family, and also slip in alliums (garlic, onion, chives) and basil as companion plants.  Lots of additional detail and planning to do here, but tomato fungus is one of the primary reasons I've started this whole rotation idea.

2.  In the second year, those boxes would go over to some mix of brassicas (kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, radish, etc) and legumes (beans and sugar snap peas).

3.  For year three, those boxes would now be filled with some combination of cucurbits (squash, cucumbers) and for the cooler weather there's parsley and carrots (who knew those were in the same family?) and lettuces.

4.  And, the fourth year is a chance to plant odd-ball families like sweet potatoes (did you know they're actually related to morning glories), and give the boxes at least one season of rest during which I will add a bunch of compost to raise up the soil levels in the box, maybe plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop like alfalfa or clover to prevent weed growth and further enrich the soil.

One thing I like about this plan is that it gives me a good place to KEEP compost to minimize the amount I have sitting around in bins.  Emptying the compost bin into the beds and covering the compost with a pretty cover crop strikes me as a good solution to help handle the influx of yard clippings in spring and leaves in fall. And by using all that material more effectively I hope to lessen my contribution to city landfills, and also decrease my need to purchase soil or compost from the local big box store.

In reality, this plan won't be a stable "rotation" for many many years.  For one thing, I haven't half finished my plans for building out the garden design.  And things will also need to shift around to accommodate other changes, like my fruit trees getting bigger.  In the end I expect to have more than 16 little planting boxes available for edibles around the yard, which is a good thing because I'll need additional boxes to house perennials and herbs (rosemary, lemon grass, thyme, sage, oregano, mint, etc) as well as natural biennials (parsley) and annual veggies that inexplicably decide to become perennial in my yard, like these broccoli plants that have cheerfully ignored two hot summers now including one of the worst droughts we've seen in decades:

So yeah, that's the plan.  More ruminating on it later.