Rethinking the Garden Year

You might be surprised to hear me say that I’m feeling frantic about how far behind I am in planning my 2018 garden. That’s because I made the choice not long ago to set the start/end date of my garden year to coincide with Summer Solstice. I’m going to explain why in this first installment of a new series of occasional posts on garden planning.


Before I get into the more complex bit, though, here’s a tip for readers who may be fairly new to gardening:

We have reached the time of year when some of the crops we planted in the spring are beginning to peter out. As you empty out space in your garden, consider replanting it now with a cover crop mix. You will be amazed at how much easier it will be to work your soil next spring, and how the weeds will begin to disappear.

Oats, or a mixture of oats and field peas, are a good beginner’s cover crop. They will die when the temperature falls below 20* F. and their remains will break down over the winter and be easy to mix into your garden soil in the spring. Many local garden centers now offer small packets of cover crop seed mix, or have bulk bins where you can weigh out your own selection.

Once you have learned this late summer trick, the rest of this post will make a lot more sense.


Despite what folks may tell you, virtually all gardeners plan, and most have a recurring trigger event that gets their horticultural juices flowing each year, prompting them to drive to the nearest garden center to purchase plants, make up a seed order, or  put pen to paper. True, the term “planning” may be ever so loosely applied: possibly just an ever growing whim that eventually wells into action. In the case of the hard bitten, it may mean nothing less than a detailed spreadsheet or scale drawing showing each crop with all its timing and location details.

The event that triggers planning activities also runs a gamut of possibilities. It may simply be the first warm day of Spring, or the date that the seed catalogs start accumulating in the mailbox, or the mid-winter reminder from the community garden manager that our annual plot fee is due. In my case, it is the day that the sun tips toward the South, and the days start to get shorter, i.e. Summer Solsticea date that falls between June 21st and 23rd each year.

Recently, in the interest of improving the productivity of our small footprint garden, I’ve been developing crop rotation plans where even the cover crops provide edible harvests. One crop that falls into this category of serving as both food and soil conditioner, is wheat. In the process of researching winter wheat culture, I ran across one passage in a far flung blog post that turned out to be a pivotal key in my developing philosophy of garden planning. It reminded me to approach my crop studies from a life cycle perspective, instead of simply in terms of frost dates, days to maturity, etc. Here’s what it said:

“The [natural farming] of winter wheat is simply the sowing of wheat into a permanent green manure cover crop as early after midsummers’ day as is practicable.

When you want to grow winter wheat, ask of the winter wheat! Let the wheat be what it is and it will grow itself. Seed early, seed widely and seed superficially. Watch how fast the seeds germinate, how quickly the initial leaves unfold and then the wheat begins to tiller prolifically, reflecting the proliferating, ramified root system. Primary tillers tiller, secondary tillers tiller and as Autumn fades to winter, the dense wheat tufts slow their growth, having laid down immense root reserves ready for Spring.

Watch again as the Winter moves to Spring and the wheat comes back to life. The root reserves providing the resources during this season’s soil nutrient scarcity. Once the ground has warmed and the days lengthen the wheat begins to rise. From each leaf, from each tiller, stems mount. This tall wheat soon dominates all competition and as the tiny flowers emerge it draws on the growing warmth and life in the soil and air. Given some Spring rain, given some early Summer sun, the wheat seeks out the nutrients it needs to fill the growing grains on the many ears it produces. Soon it will be ready for harvest.”

—Jamie Nicol, The Natural Farming of Winter Wheat, August 10, 2011.

Winter wheat is typically planted later in the fall, like other fall cover crops, and allowed to continue its life cycle in the spring, reaching harvest stage in mid-June. After its early summer harvest, the wheat bed can be planted to second succession summer vegetables or fall crops. Nicol came at things from the perspective of the wheat’s reproductive cycle in a naturalized, self-sowing, setting. So, contrary to all other protocols I had run across, he recommended planting winter wheat as close to summer solstice as possible. This made sense to me, but it meant that I needed to rethink the crop sequence for my winter wheat bed so that it would be clear for planting by mid summer. In other words, the planning for that bed needed to begin with the summer solstice!

At this point, I saw that this concept could be applied to the entire garden, and would altogether transform how I approach gardening. From now on, the soil building, season-spanning, crops that benefit from being planted soon after solstice will be the first to be arranged for.

With some initial experimentation on paper, I found that working on a four-year rotation cycle might allow everything I wanted to grow to fit beautifully around the tenure of the cover crops in the garden. This pleased me, since it is in keeping with my philosophy that if the gardener focuses on building healthy soil, healthy and plentiful vegetables will be the natural by-product.


A Practical Example

Let’s take a look at how this might work in practice via the draft rotation plan that we hope to transition towards in 2018. A key premise is that we want to keep the entire garden in active production year-round, and do so without depleting soil resources or harboring soil born diseases. We might try to imagine a grid that plots the rotation schedule on two dimensions: Time (the period that each crop requires bed space) on one axis, and Space (beds and groups of beds), on the other.

Time:

Commonly touted rotation plans are based either on plant families, or, “heavy feeder” vs. “light feeder” groupings (and there are other—mostly nutrient based—schemes, as well). We do take those factors into account, but the first consideration in our new approach, is the time that each group of crops occupies the soil based on whether its life cycle is annual or biennial.

In ancient times, the year was considered to have only two seasons, instead of four. It turns out that that old framework is actually much better suited to our soil building, crop production, cycle than the relatively modern concept of four seasons. The period between winter and summer solstice, has been referred to as the vernal interequinoctial season. For our purposes, this period encompasses plant varieties that grow from seed to harvest during the time that the days are lengthening.

The period of shortening days, starting around June 21st and ending with the December solstice, is called the hybernal interequinoctial season. This half of the year is dominated by plants with biennial life cycles. Like the wheat, they take advantage of the short days of winter to grow strong root systems and finish their lives the following calendar year. Our hybernal crops are primarily cover crops, but the group also includes biennial vegetables that we want to allow to reach maturity for seed saving purposes.

We have a group of crops that has time characteristics that fit into either vernal or hybernal periods. We call them market crops, because we grow them for consumption in quick successions, harvesting before they complete their life cycle, and we can count on them to be finished in time for the next seasonal transition.

Space:

Our garden is divided into four identical quadrants: we’re calling them North Block,  East Block, South Block, and West Block. This allows for a simple four-year rotation plan where crop groupings move one quarter around the garden each succeeding year. (Individual beds may also need a cropping sequence, but I’ll talk about that in a future post.)

Capture
The four quadrants, or rotation blocks, in our 2018 garden plan.

The Planning Process

To begin with, we have decided that we would like one quarter of the garden to be devoted to hybernal soil building crops each year. We pencil Winter Wheat into the forth quadrant (we’re going to work backwards). Because we want to plant the wheat around the summer solstice, we need to make sure that previous crops in the assigned quadrant will be finished by midsummer so we can plant at that time. Therefore, in the preceding season, that quadrant must be planted only in early season, fast maturing, market crops, such as peas, spinach and the first successions of summer greens. So, we pencil Spring Market Crops into the preceding (third) quadrant.

Now that we have the Spring Market Crop  in its place, we can consider its life cycle. We know that our fast growing spring crops like to be planted as early as mid-March. Ideally, we like to do bed preparation for these crops in late fall. One technique that is suitable here is to cover the beds with tarps after we prepare them in the fall. Then, they can simply be uncovered and planted when the snow melts in spring. Having made that decision, and knowing that these beds aren’t going to be occupied by cover crops over the winter, we can take advantage of the extended fall space, and precede this quadrant with our late summer roots and fall greens.

Now the fall roots have a quadrant assigned to them, and we look at their life cycle pattern. Many fall root crops can be planted in late summer, so we think we can squeeze our early corn and sunflower plantings into this block and get them harvested before it is time to plant the roots that are scheduled to follow.

Thus, through our process of working backwards, we have determined each of the four rotation blocks by implementing the constraints set by its successor.

Finally, lets bring this whole post together in the chart we mentioned, earlier.

Capture
(Select this image to open it in full size.)

Notice how reading downward—take the North Block column, for example: the quadrant has a different crop group in it each year. Reading across the chart for Year 1, shows that within each year, all the crop groupings are represented, and each block also has a mid-season crop transition that roughly corresponds to the summer solstice turning point. Reading diagonally shows how each group moves through the quadrants, year by year.


I’m really looking forward to working out the details of this new system of garden planning over the next several years. Our garden has been undergoing some growing pains recently that have resulted in redefining its quadrants. So this coming year is going to be another transitional year for us as we continue to explore the nuances of life cycle based rotation planning. The first step, which is overdue at the moment, is to decide where the winter wheat should be!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Diane Garey says:

    hi the oats info is wonderful. Would it work in a partially shared flower grarden?

    Like

  2. Carla says:

    A winter cover crop is useful anywhere that you would otherwise have bare ground. So, annual flower beds, especially, would definitely benefit. Cover crops can be used with perennials, but there are some additional considerations to take into account.

    Like

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