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A Garden Gift from George Washington Carver

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When most of us think of George Washington Carver we think of peanuts. But, contrary to popular belief, he did not invent peanut butter.

His true gift to gardening and agriculture was crop rotation. The south had depleted its soils growing crop after crop of cotton. This was especially devastating to poorer small farmers. To expand his influence, he outfitted his “Jessop” wagon as a mobile classroom. In this way, he was able to teach farmers about crop rotation and other soil improvement options. Peanuts were a big part of his plan to rejuvenate soil in Deep South cotton-growing regions.

As gardeners, we need to stop and ask ourselves, do we grow tomatoes in the same place year after year? Does it seem that our results don’t match up to the prize tomatoes we remember growing? Crop rotation is just as important in a garden as it is on a farm. Many pests complete part of their life cycle in the soil. For example, tomato hornworms live out their pupal stage in the soil. If you plant your tomatoes in the same place, you will have an enormous crop of hornworms to devastate your tomatoes long before the first one turns red.

Garden rotation can be difficult due to limited growing area. The trick is to separate what you are growing by plant family. Tomatoes, peppers and potatoes are all part of the nightshade family. Cucumbers, melons and squash are in the cucurbit family. Onions, garlic and leeks are alliums. Brassicas are broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Legumes, which add nitrogen to the soil (an important part of improving soil) include green beans, peas, soybeans and G. W. Carver’s favorite peanuts. If you move these three or four favorite planting groups from place to place in your garden, you are practicing crop rotation.

In one simple rotation, plant crops from the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers) in one bed, squash and melons in another and, in the third bed, cabbage and broccoli (Brassicas). This leaves out nitrogen-fixing legumes like green beans and peas, so a four-bed rotation is better.

To avoid complication, here are a few ideas: don’t plant the same thing in the same spot two years in a row; move things from one corner of your garden to the other. Divide your space into four and move through the rotation as best you can. Find a space for peas and beans (legumes), even if it means giving up something else. Last of all, realize it isn’t possible to do all of this in a small space. Above all, enjoy your garden and don’t worry.

In a small way, Master Gardeners carry on George Washington Carver’s work teaching sustainable horticultural practices.

Jim Bliss is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County. 

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