Gardening Tips: Rotate & Separate

Editor’s Note: We’re reaching into Michelle’s Smith’s archives for posts as useful now as when they were first published.


What to do this week

From the chill in the air it seems that this week is a good week to talk about fall activities in the garden.

Between now and the end of October is official root pruning season. If you have any plants you want to divide or move in the spring, now is the time to root prune them. Take a sharp shovel (yes, you should sharpen your shovel) and cut straight down among the roots to separate the part of the plant you wish to move from the rest. You are not cutting at a diagonal, as if you were about to actually dig up the plant. Cut straight down and around the entire section of the plant to be moved. Then leave it in place.

This is easiest to do with a square tipped shovel, although any shovel will do – you’ll just have to wiggle it around enough to be sure you have cut the roots completely. It is also easier to do with a sharp shovel. You can use a sanding block or a simple piece of sandpaper to sharpen it. It is worth the effort.

When you move a plant, it is shocked from cutting the roots and from the actual move. Root pruning divides the shock into two phases. It is also a good idea to cut the sucker’s root connections to its mother plant while leaving it in place. With this technique, you are much more likely to have success — by springtime, the plant will have regained its strength from the pruning shock, have developed some independence and be stronger for the move.

You can use this technique on all sorts of plants that normally reproduce from suckers or from extended roots. This includes elderberries, currants, gooseberries and raspberries.

This is also an important time of year to be picking up fruit drops around all your fruit trees. We talked about this recently, but I want to emphasize how important it is to avoid leaving fallen fruit on the ground where it will provide a lovely winter home for apple maggots and other pests.

You may have plants that you want to move now and you can do that because it is still early enough to get away with it, but take extra care to protect them from winter temperature changes. Heavily mulch the plants in their new locations with straw or leaves so that the roots don’t freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw again during the winter. They will have time to settle in before the winter if you move things soon, but they will still need this extra protection. You might lose some of your transplants, especially if we end up having a winter like last year.

Another fall thing that is on many gardener’s minds is frost, and you should be following the weather forecasts for any frost warnings because if it hasn’t already visited you, it is coming. On the bright side, if you are able to dodge the first few light frosts you will benefit from any little bit of summer that comes our way afterward. It looks to me as if all bets are off for that this year, but one never knows.

How rotate vegetables. (Source: Just Juice Source: Just Juice (

(Source: Just Juice )

Bring in all of your frost-tender things if you can. I picked my squashes today, as the leaves were starting to show chill damage. Winter squashes seem such hardy things, but their skins are actually quite tender. If they get frost they can suffer from bacterial infections that impact their storage. Luckily the leaves, which are very chill sensitive, will wilt and warn you to fetch the squash in.

Some things can stand frost better than others (some things actually improve). You should not pick parsnips until after they have had a frost or two, and kale also improves, becoming sweeter. Carrots are not improved, but being underground they can withstand frost, as can potatoes. Broccoli, and most of the brassicas, can handle some frost. Mountain Ash berries need a good frost before harvest. Work with the more tender things first.

On a different topic, this is also a good time to dig your garlic bed. Clean it up really well, get rid of all of the weeds, and add compost and bone meal. Garlic is a heavy feeder.

Don’t forget to move your garlic bed regularly. Many soil-borne pests and diseases take some time to reach the critical point, but they will eventually get there, if you plant things in the same places every year. For garlic it is more the soil-borne diseases like botrytis or various root rots that you have to worry about than pests, but crop rotation helps with that, too.

Best is to have four crops — each from a different plant family — that rotate each year, so any given crop is planted in the same plot only every fourth year.

Of course, crop rotation doesn’t apply only to garlic – it is an essential practice, in any garden, for all plants. And the four-year rule applies to all plant-family groupings. Potatoes, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes, for example, are all nightshades, so just switching them back and forth will not help keep the pests at bay. Onions and garlic are also the same family (alliums), and who knows how many brassicas you grow. Also remember that cucumbers are part of the squash family. You can think about all of this as you are digging your garlic bed. You don’t have to plant garlic for a few weeks yet, but prepare the bed if we get good digging weather.

Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to clarify the four-year rule, which is that you should grow crops from any given family in the same plot only every fourth year — in between, you should plant unrelated crops. Michelle Smith was clear about this — it was the Spectator that confused things and we apologize for the error!




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.