Planning Crop Rotation by Plant Family

All plants are botanically grouped into families; there are hundreds in total. Most vegetable crops fall into just a few of these. The main vegetable families for our region are summarized with photos below.

Like many gardeners, we plan our crop rotations according to plant family. This helps to make the plans simpler, so that it’s easier to keep track of the rotation. It also ensures that not only do we avoid growing the same crop in the same place within four years, we also generally avoid growing any closely related crops there within that time. Closely related crops tend to be affected by many of the same diseases and can deplete the same micronutrients in the soil.

To make a garden plan by crop family, first determine which families have the largest portions of what you want to grow. These will probably be the most challenging crops to fit into a healthy rotation. If you organize your plan around these crops, the others are more likely to fall into place. On our farm, we organize our plans around crops in the nightshade and allium families. Our own plans are especially challenging because each year we grow many seed crops, and those in the same species need to be separated from one another to avoid cross-pollination. We can’t put all our nightshade crops in the same area of our garden.

When we’ve figured out where to put the alliums and nightshades, we decide where to put the spring and fall gardens, which are dominated by brassicas, with some asters, umbels, and amaranth relatives. Then we decide where to put the cucurbits, the corn, the legumes, and the sweet potatoes. Then we work on details, like what varieties to trial in each of various crop types, and what beds to put where within the spring garden. Cover crops fill in any spaces that are left.

For most crops, we plan based on a four-year rotation.  To further reduce the risk of disease, we keep alliums (onions, garlic, etc.) on a six-year rotation.  We also find rotation especially important for the malvaceae (okra, roselle, etc.) for disease control.  Legume crops, on the other hand, tend to do fine even when we plant them where we’ve just had a legume crop, and our fall and spring gardens tend to do fine even when we plant them on a shorter rotation than four years.


The major plant families in a vegetable garden

Solanaceae – Nightshades
tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, tobacco, petunias, wonderberry




Fabaceae – Legumes
beans, peas, southern peas, peanuts, clover, vetch





Cucurbitaceae – Cucurbits
squash (including pumpkins and zucchini), melons, gourds, cucumbers




Brassicaeae – Brassicas
cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, mustard, kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, canola, arugula, cress



Amaryllidaceae – Alliums
onions (including perennial onions), garlic, shallots, leeks, chives




Asteraceae – Asters
lettuce, salsify, artichokes, radicchio, endive, sunflowers, Echinacea, cosmos, marigolds, various other flowers, chamomile




Poaceae – Grasses
corn, rye, oats, wheat, sorghum, rice, millet


Apiaceae – Umbeliferae – Umbels
carrots, parsnips, celery, parsley, dill, fennel, cilantro


Lamiaceae – Labiatae
mint, basil, rosemary, sage, catnip, lemon balm, bergamot, various other herbs


okra, roselle, cotton


chard, beets, spinach, amaranth


buckwheat, rhubarb, sorrel


sweet potatoes, morning glories

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Black-Eyed Peas, Greens and Cornbread for New Years’ Good Luck

Happy New Year! My family always had some traditional black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread on New Years’ Day for good luck! Smelling any kind of southern (black-eyed, crowder or cream) pea cooking takes me back to my grandma’s Florida kitchen. She would have a big pot of “peas” simmering with onions, garlic and a little smoked pork. Our New Years meal was always rounded out with fresh ground cornbread or muffins and baked sweet potatoes. Everything except the garlic was grown in our backyard garden and then either put up for later use or fresh cut like the collard greens. Every year since I started growing my own garden, I include these easy-to-grow southern staples in my garden plans, and you can, too.

Many people trace the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s Day to Sherman’s destructive march through the South. These peas were formerly considered only fit for animal fodder, and so they were spared and then they sustained both black and white southerners through the hard months that followed. That may be a reason the tradition spread — but a Jewish friend of mine says the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s goes much further back to the Talmud. According to her relatives, whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors settled around Savannah, Georgia in the early 1800s, the practice was already common long before the Civil War.

Whether you know them as southern peas, cowpeas, field peas or black-eyed peas, they are delicious and easy to grow wherever there are 60-90 days of warm weather both day and night. Vining varieties like Big Red Ripper are extremely drought tolerant but need more room to spread out. The ability of southern peas to grow in poor soil is so good that some varieties like Iron and Clay are best known as a soil building cover crop. Early varieties like Queen Anne Blackeye Pea can be grown in more northern states.

Greens are the traditional companion dish to southern peas. My grandmother loved collard greens, the old timey varieties that turned blue-purple in the winter when the leaves are sweetest. We also sometimes had Southern Giant mustards or Seven Top turnips or just mixed greens from the large patch she would sow in late summer or early fall as the summer heat began to ease. This year Southern Exposure is are offering an old timey variety called Alabama Blue that looks and tastes a lot like the greens I enjoyed as a child.

The corn bread we had in my youth was always either yellow or white and baked in a cast iron skillet so it was crusty on the outside and tender on the inside slathered with fresh butter. Here at Southern Exposure we not only offer yellow varieties like Leaming dent or Reid’s yellow dent and white like Texas Gourseed corn but also beautiful red corns like Floriani Red Flint and Bloody Butcher. We even offer varieties with blue or mixed colored kernels for an amazing array of colors and flavors.

Aside from our website, another good source of information on all these crops and how to grow them is my book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.

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Tomato Tastings and Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time

by Ira Wallace and Ken Bezilla

The arrival of Craig LeHoullier’s new book Epic Tomatoes has us excited and thinking about next summer’s garden trials and tomato tastings. We have big plans to grow many of Craig’s favorites.

Heirloom tomatoes are the stars of a great many backyard vegetable gardens and of our trial gardens for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Each summer we grow 50-75 different tomato varieties for observation and for tasting events. We have Tastings here at Acorn Community Farm, at the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, PA, Sept 18-20, 2015, and the largest of all at Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, Sept 11-12, 2015. There we include peppers, melons and more as well as tomato varieties grown by many other local Virginia farms. At Monticello, we usually end up with over 100 things to try.

Our tastings give gardeners and other folks the opportunity to sample so many different flavors, colors, and sizes of tomatoes! Of course there are many of the varieties in our catalog but we also offer ones we are considering adding in the future and ones that local farmers are selling at Farmers Markets and to restaurants. On Thursday, September 10, 2015, our special half day pre-Festival Epic Tomato Workshop and Tasting will feature Craig LeHoullier, author of the newly-released book, Epic Tomatoes and Ira Wallace, author of The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. All of our 2015 Tastings will highlight varieties featured in Epic Tomatoes.

Craig’s been growing heirloom tomatoes for almost 30 years now in North Carolina, looking for the best tomatoes he can find, and pulling off impressive crops in Raleigh’s heat and humidity. Craig’s always been passionate about heirloom tomatoes. Back in 1993, he introduced the very popular “Cherokee Purple” to the world via Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. (SESE founder Jeff McCormack was skeptical at the time whether it would sell. He worried people would think the fruits looked like bruised meat…)  Over the years, Craig’s sent many other tomatoes our way, including Cherokee Green (new this year), Rosella Purple, and OTV Brandywine (named for the Off the Vine heirloom tomato newsletter that Craig and Carolyn Male published in the ’90s).

Epic Tomatoes is truly an epic book. It’s beautifully laid out and full of great photos of luscious tomatoes. Craig writes about the history and characteristics of his favorites. Reading it has us making notes on varieties we’d like to try, and it’s hard to imagine anyone reading this book without grabbing a pen to jot down some new tomatoes to grow and to taste!

Besides being a love song to tomatoes, Epic Tomatoes is also full of good, sensible, practical advice for tomato growers old and new. There are chapters on planning and planting for new growers, tomato diseases, seed saving, and how to breed your own varieties. Craig even gives detailed information on harvesting and storing tomatoes, plus there are many great recipes. His list of 250 (!) favorite varieties organized by color makes an excellent starting place for exploring the wonderful world of tomatoes. Craig’s been growing tomatoes a long time – get the benefit of his hard-won wisdom in time for planning your 2015 garden! For a limited time we include a book plate hand inscribed by Craig LeHoullier with your copy of Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Tomato Varieties.

Related posts and info on tomatoes:

Tomato Successions: why to sow multiple tomato crops

Starting Tomatoes from Seed

Tomato Tasting Time: Planning a Fun Garden Party

Southern Exposure Tomato Growing Guide

Saving Tomato Seeds: An Illustrated Guide

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