New gardeners often are advised to grow foods that they and their families like to eat. It makes sense. Why grow tomatoes if no one at home will eat them? That advice, though, is less firm for gardeners who have been working their soil for a few years. Longer-term gardeners should consider branching out a bit, with regard to what they grow. Here is why:
Different crops can improve your crop rotations
Crop rotation is the practice of growing different kinds of crops in succession within a growing space. “Different kinds” here means plants from different plant families. An example of crop rotation, to illustrate the practice from one space in my garden, is this: kale (fall/winter), followed by peppers (summer), followed by garlic (fall/winter).
Why should you be concerned about your crop rotations?
University of North Carolina’s article, Advantages of Crop Rotation, explains that rotating crops can reduce buildup of pests and diseases. It can also improve the balance of nutrients in the soil and improve soil structure.
Organic gardeners, especially, who may see themselves as stewards of the soil, will find that crop rotation is a practice that can enhance their gardens.
A chef argues for eating more kinds of crops
I remember reading a Yale Environment 360 interview with chef Dan Barber who explained how he came to understand that supporting sustainable agriculture can mean learning to eat new crops.
The central example discussed in the interview was a farm that was growing emmer wheat, an ancient variety that Barber was excited about using in recipes. This is the relevant bit in the interview:
…I was standing in the middle of a field, and all of a sudden discovered that he [the farmer] was growing very little wheat, and that instead he was growing a whole suite of lowly grains like millet and buckwheat and barley, and leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas and kidney beans. He was growing a lot of cover crops like vetch and clover. And they were all meticulously timed and spread out among the 2,000 acres I was standing in the middle of. And that’s when I sort of had this agricultural epiphany. But it led to this gastronomic epiphany, which was that here I was as a farm-to-table chef waving the flag of sustainability and realizing that I wasn’t supporting most of the farm. In the case of Klass [the farmer growing the emmer wheat], he needed these lowly crops and cover crops and leguminous crops because his soil health needed it to grow wheat. You couldn’t get the wheat unless you grew all these other crops. And you had to time it in this way that brought the fertility to the soil to give you this incredible tasting wheat.Diane Toomey, How to Make Farm-to-Table a Truly Sustainable Movement, interview with chef Dan Barber, Yale Environment 360, 15 Sept. 2014
Most of us are not going to develop elaborate rotations for the production of emmer wheat, but the interview made me feel like less of a loon for growing – and learning to prepare and eat – crops that are not my favorites, all because I thought they’d be good for the garden.
Adding more plant families to the rotation, for home gardens
An example of adding beets
Years ago, I decided to expand my spinach/amaranth family plantings by growing beets, even though I didn’t really like beets. I could have planted more spinach, instead, but the phosphorus level in my soil was a little high. I knew that a root crop like beets would use up some of that extra phosphorus, helping to rebalance the nutrients in my garden’s soil.
Over time, as a result of this decision, I learned how to prepare beets in a way that Joe and I actually like. Now, beets are just one more good food that we look forward to bringing in from the garden.
I have worked on collard greens in the same way, but with less success. The good news is that Joe likes them.
Why grow collard greens?
A good reason to grow collard greens is that collards (and mustards) help suppress the root-knot nematodes that are such a big problem in Southern soils. At the garden/farm where I used to volunteer, the winter mixed-greens crop of collards, mustards, kale, and radishes was called a “fumigant” crop for the good work it does in cleaning up the ever-present nematode pests in the soil.
These greens can stay in the ground all winter long in the South, harvested leaf by leaf, so they work on the soil for many months. Tilling in the remaining leaves and roots about a month before spring planting just frosts the cake of their beneficial effects.
Plant families for garden crops
The list of plant families that include food crops, to enhance your own garden crop rotations, is large. Here are examples of plant families and some crops in each one:
- Tomato family – tomato, pepper, eggplant, potato, tomatillo
- Cabbage family – cabbage, broccoli, kale, collards, mustards, radish, turnip, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, arugula/rocket
- Bean family – bush beans, pole beans, Lima beans, peas, Southern peas, cover crops like clover and vetch
- Onion family – onions, garlic, shallots, chives
- Carrot family – carrots, parsley, cilantro, parsnips, dill, fennel
- Spinach family – spinach, Swiss chard, amaranth, beets, Good King Henry
- Squash family – cucumbers, summer squashes, zucchini, winter squashes, pumpkins, melons
- Sunflower family – sunflowers, lettuce, chicory, radicchio, escarole, endive
- Mallow family – okra, roselle
- Morning glory family – sweet potatoes
- Mint family – mint, basil, oregano, thyme, anise hyssop, rosemary, sage, marjoram
- Borage family – borage
- Grass family – corn, wheat, rice, oats, lemongrass
- Buckwheat family – buckwheat, French sorrel (and rhubarb, which is not a plant for the South)
Growing some chicories
Personally, I would like to see more gardeners branching out a bit into the unknown, in terms of crops. That is why I took seedling chicories to the Soil3 Garden Show, to give away with a handout of information about chicories.
I have found that these plants are relatively pest-free in our area. For organic gardeners in the South, pest-free crops are an amazing gift! Chicories also have deep roots, which can help break up heavy soils and can bring up nutrients from deeper soil layers.
In addition, they are useful in the kitchen as greens, which we all probably need to eat more of (chop some up to put on your pizza), and the roots can be roasted to make a coffee substitute. If the plants stay in the garden over a winter, they will produce a tall stem with blue flowers, in spring or early summer, that will support many pollinators.
Not everyone will appreciate the bitter flavor of chicories, but if you like the flavor of radicchio in your salads, you may like other garden chicories, too. The very first one I grew, Italiko rosso (which Baker Creek labels as a dandelion, possibly because of its leaf shape), is still a favorite.
Hope your gardens are all growing well!
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