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March 10, 2014

Rotating crops can help avoid some problems

With temperatures sinking below zero during the first week of March last week, the spring planting season is still a long ways off.

Gardeners are itching to get busy but have to wait while March and April drag by, teasing us with spring-like spells that are inevitably followed by cold snaps.

To put some of that pent up energy to good use, gardeners would be wise to spend a good chunk of time now planning out their gardens.

Perennial flower gardeners can creatively rearrange their plants and search for particular colors or bloom times to fill in gaps. Today I want to focus on vegetable gardens, and how planning ahead can help reduce some disease problems.

The first step is to learn the families. Luckily, there are just a handful of families that most vegetables belong to. The legume family includes all the beans and peas, plus clover and alfalfa. Cucurbits include cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, zucchini, pumpkin and melons.

Crucifers or brassicas include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and also kale, arugula and radish. The solanceous, or nightshade, family includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tomato, and the allium family includes onions, garlic, leeks, shallots and chives.

There are a few outliers including lettuce, spinach and corn (which belongs to the grass family) but you can see that most home vegetable crops belong to one of five main families.

It’s helpful to know these families because diseases and insect pests are often particular to one family but not the other. Late blight only affects tomatoes and potatoes, it does not touch cucumbers or broccoli.

The new pest in our area, leek moth, only affects members of the onion family, while any crucifer is prone to flea beetles. Some crops such as corn and tomatoes are heavy feeders, using up a lot of reserve nutrients in the soil while legumes can “fix” nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots, which can benefit the next crop planted there.

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