The first steps involved in growing your own fresh vegetables are determining what you will grow and where each crop will be within the garden. Carefully planning a vegetable garden is very important as the garden layout can actually help reduce the severity of plant diseases that attack a garden. This is accomplished by practicing crop rotation and companion planting.
Rotating your crops doesn’t involve pirouetting potatoes or planting on turntables. Crop rotation simply involves not planting crops of the same family in the same spot in the garden year after year. Crop rotation should always be considered when planning a vegetable garden.
Companion plants are vegetables, flowers or herbs that are mutually beneficial when planted nearby each other. Companion plants come to their neighbors’ aid by deterring pests that typically attack the neighboring plants or by attracting pollinators, and sometimes simply by enriching the soil.
Plants that are related to each other tend to be prone to the same diseases and insect pests. For example, squash borers will attack not only squash vines but also pumpkin vines. The squash borer larvae overwinter in the soil, but if they wake up the next summer and the squash and pumpkin vines are now at the other end of the garden, the borers will have more difficulty finding the vines.
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Potato beetles and potato scab also overwinter in the soil, ready to infect the next year’s crop come spring. Establish your potato plot in another section of the garden each year to avoid those pests, and plant garlic or onions where the potatoes had previously been grown. Garlic and onions will repel some garden insects and will also suppress some soil-borne plant diseases.
Potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes are prone to the same blights and should not be planted next to each other. When planning a vegetable garden, never locate potatoes where tomatoes or eggplants had been the previous season. Instead, plant beans, corn, onions, or a member of the cabbage family where the tomatoes or potatoes were growing last year.
Tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants are all in the nightshade family. Plants in the nightshade family produce an alkaloid called Solanine which helps keep away the little green cabbage looper worms that do so much damage to broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. When planning a vegetable garden, locate plants in the nightshade family near your cabbage-family crops, or plant them where your cabbage-family crops were the previous season. These cruciferous crops also have the ability to clean the soil of diseases that attack members of the nightshade family.
It can be beneficial to include aromatic herbs when planning a vegetable garden. The smell of fresh basil may seem heavenly to a gardener, but basil’s strong aroma repels many insect pests. Basil and tomatoes are delicious together, and they also go well together in the garden. Plant basil near tomatoes, peppers, any members of the cabbage family or asparagus. But avoid planting basil near beans.
Dill is another herb that can be added to the list of companion plants when planning a vegetable garden. Dill serves as a host plant for the larvae of some beneficial insects, while its aroma deters other insects. Plant dill near members of the cabbage family or cucumbers. Dill goes well with cucumbers when they’re made into pickles, and it also goes well with cucumbers in the garden. Dill will repel cucumber beetles, but it is also favored as a host plant for the moths that develop from tomato hornworm larvae. Do not plant dill near tomatoes, and it should also not be planted near carrots as its presence can stunt the growth of carrots.
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Lettuce and parsley are not only common to many gardens, but these crops are also rotation-friendly. They get along well with most other vegetable plants and they attract few pests. Aphids will occasionally attack lettuce, but a nearby planting of chives or garlic will help to repel aphids. Aphids can also be blasted off the plants with a strong shot of water from a garden hose, or a spray of insecticidal soap. Better yet, plant parsley amongst the lettuce where it can attract beneficial insects that will feed on the aphids.
When you’re planning a vegetable garden, it can be helpful to include some flowers in your plan. Not only will their cheery blossoms add some bright spots of color to the garden, but some flowers also make excellent companion plants for vegetable crops. Calendula, sometimes called pot marigold, will deter asparagus beetles, while sunflowers are beneficial for a bean crop. The sturdy sunflower stems make convenient natural trellises for pole beans. Sunflowers will also attract butterflies and other pollinators to the garden.
Nasturtiums are another worthy addition to the vegetable garden. Nasturtium flowers will attract Colorado potato beetles, luring them away from the potato crop. Nasturtiums also repel bean beetles, and this spicy plant makes a good companion for members of the cabbage family, cucumbers, melons, radishes and tomatoes.
Some plants are heavy feeders and will use up much of the available nutrients in the soil. Sweet corn is a heavy feeder that has an especially large appetite for nitrogen. Planting a legume such as peas or beans in that same plot the following year will replenish the nitrogen that was used by the corn. Native Americans practiced companion planting when planning a vegetable garden, and they referred to corn, beans and squash as the three sisters. These crops were often planted together, where the corn would provide a natural trellis for the climbing bean plants. In return, the beans provided nitrogen for the corn, while the large squash leaves shaded the surrounding soil and crowded out weeds. The prickly squash vines also helped keep marauding deer and raccoons away from the corn crop.
A simple method of rotating crops is to divide your garden into four fairly equal sections and move particular crops clockwise from one section to another each year. It is helpful to make a map of the garden that can be used for future reference when planning a vegetable garden. Rotating your vegetable crops and adding in some herbs and flowers also gives the garden a different appearance each year and makes the garden a bit more visually interesting.