Raised Beds, Biointensive Planting and Crop Rotation

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Raised Beds, Biointensive Planting and Crop Rotation

You build raised beds, and your garden design is pure perfection. You think you’ll never want to change a thing. Au contraire, my friend.

If you don’t rotate your crops from year to year, disease and insects will make your beds their playground instead of yours. 

Biointensive Gardening
Before we talk about crop rotation, let’s discuss raised beds. Growing plants in raised beds is really biointensive gardening which means to grow plants close together in a small space. If you live in an urban area, raised beds and vertical gardening are useful techniques because sun exposure and planting areas can be quite small. One method of biointensive gardening is square foot gardening, a style and term coined by Mel Bartholomew. It uses 4' x 4' square beds like the one below.

4 x 4 raised bed

You may want to line your raised bed with landscape fabric to keep tunneling weeds—like Burmuda grass—out of your planting area. However, most weeds are seeds blown in on the wind or dropped by birds. I use a mix of garden soil and compost in my raised beds. Every year, I place more compost on top of the existing soil to keep it fertile and crumbly like chocolate cake.

Cutting weed barrier

There are entire communities online devoted to square foot gardening, and many participants create charts displaying their best planting schemes.

Kitchen garden planting

In my potager—kitchen garden, I use a method called block planting. In place of long straight rows, I grow blocks of plants. Larger crops, like tomatoes and squash, take up half of a four-foot bed, while other tidier crops, like peppers, are planted one foot apart. While it’s not as formal as square foot gardening, block planting is still a biointensive method.

Assume the square below is one bed. You could plant four indeterminate tomatoes in this space with one in the center of each square, or you could plant two tomatoes centered on one side, and four peppers on the other.

Chart

You don’t have to be tied to the 4’ x 4’ model though. You can make beds longer and narrower. The ones in my potager are rectangular instead of square. A common size is 4’ x 8’ or 4’ x 12’. It depends upon the size of your garden space and how many plants you want to grow. The four-foot width is standard because most people can reach to the middle of the bed for planting and harvesting. Any wider, and you may need to walk upon the soil, compacting it.

Crop Rotation
When I want to rotate my crops, I simply assign one bed to each type of vegetable and its companions—like herbs and edible flowers. Each spring, these plants do the shuffle. The easiest way is to move everything one square to the right each year. If you don’t want to write your plants down in a garden journal, take photos of the garden when planted in spring and save them into a notes program on your computer. I drag and drop photos into my Evernote app. It’s also where I keep all of my garden notes.  When planning next year’s garden, I write down where everything is, and how I will shift the plants next year. That way, I don’t plant tomatoes, for instance, in the same place two years in a row. My state has trouble with root knot nematodes, and they can stop tomato or pepper production in its tracks. What’s worse is you won’t even know you have them until you pull up your tomatoes and see the evidence in their twisted, bumpy and gnarled roots. Crop rotation is all about location, location, location.

Completed raised garden view

I do some of my best designing when I’m staring outside at a winter landscape. Make your notes in summer and then draw a simple garden plan in winter. Make copies of the plan, or if you’re going all digital, you can do all of this in Excel. However, if you’re the creative type, maybe you’ll want to get out your colored pencils. Either way, works just fine.

Kale growing in a raised bed

The one year I didn’t use crop rotation, I had more disease problems and bugs in my garden than ever before. Even if your garden looks perfect now, just remember a garden is never static. It’s always growing and changing. That’s what makes it fun.