Ask a Gardener: Do I need to rotate my vegetable and flower gardens?

Q: I was just about ready to begin drawing my plan for this year’s garden. Is rotation really necessary? And what exactly is it?

A: If by garden, you mean permanently planted beds, rotation is not possible. However, if you mean vegetable or annual flower garden, then yes, it is most desirable.

Crop rotation helps prevent the reoccurrence of disease and pests in vegetable and annual flower beds. It’s simple: Don’t grow the same plant in the same place year after year. I know that sounds difficult, and if you have limited space, you really need paper and pencil to figure it out. In fact, if your garden is really small, you may have to simply stop growing a particular vegetable or flower for a few years. Rotating just a few feet away isn’t enough to deter many pests or diseases.

If you’re growing anything in the tomato family: tomato, potato, pepper or eggplant, it’s especially important to rotate where you grow them. This family of plants is prone to soil-born diseases. When you plant in a new location you interrupt the life cycle of a pest or a disease. It’s a good thing. If you rotate where you’ve planted onions, for example, the onion maggots in the old location will die out, as they need onions to survive.

Another benefit of rotation is that you’re less likely to deplete all nutrients of a certain type in an area. On balance, rotating is a good thing to do. Many gardeners add another good practice to rotation: They leave one area previously planted in vegetables empty, and then plant a green manure. Clover, fava beans, buckwheat and peas are most commonly used as green manures. When they’re still young and green, work them into the soil for one of the best soil conditioners and fertilizers there is.

Where to start?

Gardeners faced with building new beds or landscapes often wonder where to start. The answer is to keep repeating one of the main tenants of landscaping: Right plant, right place. Follow this rule and you’ll save yourself future grief, to say nothing of lots of money.

If you’re like me, sometimes it’s hard to resist. I see plants in nurseries and catalogues that I have a devil of a time not buying. I think I control myself, but my husband often disagrees. He’s adept at driving out of sight of nurseries.

But it’s one thing to buy one too many petunias. It’s quite another to buy a lovely 5-foot tree that when mature will be 50 feet tall. And darned if you didn’t plant it right next to your house. Now you have root problems, leaf problems, siding problems and lack of light problems. And to add insult to injury, it’s going to empty the piggy-bank to have a professional take down your 50-foot tree.

Let’s talk about the opposite problem: You love watermelon, the big, red variety. So you’re going to grow your own. Or not. We don’t really have enough warmth or light to grow that kind of watermelon. Or perhaps you’ve seen the most beautiful shrub, but after proudly planting it in the bed, you watch for several weeks and finally realize it’s not going to make it. It’s too sunny in that spot.

Though there are endless mistakes gardeners make in not planting the right plant in the right place, it’s a problem easily overcome. When shopping, whether at a nursery or online, have a good gardening book with you, and consult the book to find if the plant you’ve chosen will do well in your microclimate. Then plant it where it wants to be planted, lavish it with nutrients, water and love, and it will happily meet your expectations.

Question: My wife’s birthday is coming up, and as she is a dedicated gardener I want to give her some equipment or tool that is appropriate for her smaller size. Does anyone make such things?

Answer: “Find a need and fill it” was Dorian Winslow’s mantra when 15 years ago she founded Womanswork, a source for women who need sensible supplies for women who work and garden. She started with gloves, something every female who gardens knows is a problem for women.

But Dorian’s gloves fit! The original glove was of pigskin, with long cuffs, and an optional Thinsulate-lined version. And to this day they offer hand-measuring tips so you can ensure a perfect glove fit.

Fifteen years later, the catalog features many other items. I can personally vouch for the great (and woman-sized) spade my husband got me for my birthday. Have fun shopping!