Food Plants - AnnualPlant Systems

Learning About Permaculture Design from Organic Annual Vegetable Farmers

Some people will tell you that there is no place in permaculture for annual crops. I’m known as something of a perennials enthusiast myself. But permaculture is in part a design system that can be applied to many areas of our lives, and this certainly includes annual crop production. In 2002 I was privileged to spend the weekend interviewing a panel of highly experienced organic farmers through my work with the North East Organic Network (NEON).

At the time Dave Jacke and I were writing Edible Forest Gardens (see here and here) and I was absolutely amazed to see the parallels between the annual crop planning and rotation system and the permaculture design process. Even today that experience is one of the strongest influences on my own design practice. Though it took a few years, a book was finally published based on NEON’s work. It’s called Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual, and you can download it here for free. I co-wrote one of the chapters which is largely a transcript of the panel.

The introduction of the book states:

Crop rotation is a critical feature of all organic cropping systems because it provides the principal mechanism for building healthy soils, a major way to control pests, and a variety of other benefits. Crop rotation means changing the type of crop grown on a particular piece of land from year to year. As used in this manual, the term includes both cyclical rotations, in which the same sequence of crops is repeated indefinitely on a field, and non-cyclical rotations, in which the sequence of crops varies irregularly to meet the evolving business and management goals of the farmer. Each field has its own rotation, and, consequently, each farmer manages a set of rotations.

I had previously always thought that farmers had relatively simple rotations that they put on "automatic pilot" for each field. For example a field might switch from tomato family crops to brassicas to squashes and back over the course of three years. What I learned is that the process is a much more dynamic and deeply integrated into the overall farm planning process. I also learned that many organic farmers on our panel believe in the power of perennials to restore soils, and incorporate multiple years in perennial crops like hay and even dwarf apples for this reason.

During the panel we used a workplace training curriculum called DACUM (Design A CuricculUM), which breaks the job (in this case "managing a crop rotation system") down into larger duties, each of which is comprised of smaller tasks. Through my employer, the New England Small Farm Institute, we had previously had great success using DACUM to create an "occupational profile" for the Northeast (USA) small-scale sustainable farmer, which you can download here for free.

I’d like to share just a few of the topics that popped out for me from the chart that we created. Here are the duties (letters) and just a few tasks for each one (letter-number). These are just a few of the 93 total tasks in the chart. For much more please review the table on pages 12-13 of the crop planning manual.

A) Identify Rotation Goals

A6) Balance acreage, at whole farm level, between cash crops, cover crops, livestock, and "fallow" (e.g., bare soil, stale seed-bed, sod/hay, permanent pasture, or woodlot; consider role of livestock in fertility and weed control)
B) Identify Resources and Constraints B9) Identify cultural constraints based on equipment (e.g., row width, irrigation)
C) Gather Data C9) Categorize crops
C10) Categorize fields
D) Analyze Data D3) Compare crop cultural needs to field characteristics (e.g., soil test results, crop residues)
E) Plan Crop Rotation E4) Consider harvest logistics (e.g., access to crops; field and row length, minimum walking and box-carry distance, use of harvest equipment, plan for ease of loading onto trucks
E8) Determine the field locations of most profitable, beneficial, and "at–risk" crops
E9) Determine field locations of lower-priority crops
E16) Develop guidelines for contingencies in case rotation does not go as planned (e.g., written or mental guidelines for improvisation; principles, priorities to use to make on-the-spot decisions)
E17) Use senses and imagination to review plan (e.g., field plans and logistics; walk fields and visualize rotation, "farm it in your head")
F) Execute Rotation F10) Plant crops (follow plan and planting calendar as conditions permit; capture planting windows, "seize the moment"; adjust plan as needed based on contingency guidelines [see E16])
F13) Adjust actions according to field and crop conditions (e.g., weather, soils, weed pressure; assign crops to different fields or beds to adjust for wetness or other problems; replant if necessary, abandon crop or replace with a cover crop to cut losses)
G) Evaluate Rotation Execution G10) Measure performance against rotation goals (positive or negative outcomes)
H) Adjust Rotation Plan H1) Identify successful combinations and repeat (set successful rotations on “automatic pilot)
H4) Tweak crop mix (e.g., based on market data and field performance; consider adding or abandoning crops or elements of rotation as necessary)
H5) Tweak field management (e.g., change planting or plowdown dates, crop locations; shift crop families to different fields; put poorly performing fields into hay ahead of schedule)
H7) Start process over

To me that sounds a lot like what Jonathan and I do when we manage our forest garden, though we may use a longer time scale. This is particularly true after the initial design and establishment. These farmers have to deal with a constantly evolving situation. Their plans go awry when fields are too wet to plow in spring, or a new market opportunity opens up. In our forest garden, things die or taste bad and must be replaced. Gaps open and we need to be ready to fill them quickly or give a chance for weeds to establish (or lose the chance to do something productive in that patch this season). These farmers all had guidelines and contingency plans ready so they could roll with the punches and improvise a successful season no matter what got thrown at them.

One of the most important things that happens in these farmers’ rotation plans is that they match crops to fields. A key component of this process is categorizing the crops and fields (see tasks C9 & C10 above). Here are some of the ways that these farmers categorize their crops and fields.

Crop Characteristics

The table below lists crop characteristics from most to least important, as ranked by expert farmers.

Field characteristics

These relatively permanent characteristics of a field are difficult to change; many affect the type of equipment that can be used in the timing of operations.

  • Botanical family
  • Market demand
  • Season of planting, harvest, labor, and land use
  • Susceptibility to pests and diseases
  • Cash versus cover crop
  • Ability to compete with weeds
  • Annual, biennial, perennial, or overwintering annual
  • Direct-seeded versus transplanted
  • "Givers" versus "takers"
  • Heavy versus light feeders
  • Cultural practices (for example, spraying, cultivation, irrigation)
  • Preferred seedbed conditions
  • Space requirements
  • Income per acre
  • Effect on cash flow
  • Harvest timing
  • Costs per acre
  • Tolerance of mechanical cultivation
  • Ability to trap nutrients
  • Root versus leaf and fruit
  • Drought tolerance
  • Row versus block planted
  • Large versus small seeded
  • Deep versus shallow rooted
  • Tolerance of poor drainage
  • Shade tolerance versus intolerant
  • Pollination requirements
  • Recent planting history (1 to 5 years)
  • Within–field variability
  • Proximity to water source
  • Erosion potential
  • Drainage
  • Sunny or shady
  • Known problems with weeds, insects, diseases
  • Poor tilth or hardpan, wildlife
  • Slope
  • Moisture-holding capacity
  • pH
  • Soil type
  • Aspect (north, south, east, west)
  • Air drainage — frost pockets
  • Size
  • Cation-exchange capacity
  • Proximity to barn or access roads
  • Stoniness
  • Shape (corners, road lengths)
  • Proximity to similar fields

I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a lot of the factors I think about when designing or maintaining a perennial permaculture system. Interviewing these farmers and then spending a few months writing up the chart and chapter has really influenced the way I think about design and had an impact on the design chapters in Edible Forest Gardens volume two as well. Whether you are growing annuals, perennials, or both (as I do), I think you’ll find this chapter has something to offer you. We all have so much to learn from farmers and researchers. Perhaps they even have a few things they could learn from us.

The rest of the book is truly fantastic and features an overview of crop rotation science, sample actual cropping sequences from our expert farmers fields, a planning procedure, ideas about crop rotation, transitioning to organic agriculture from conventional, and some very interesting guidelines for intercropping. It also has excellent tables in the back looking at opportunities and challenges in following one crop after another, and how to use rotation to minimize diseases, weeds, and pests.

Further Reading:

Eric Toensmeier

Eric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. Eric presents in English, Spanish, and botanical Latin throughout the Americas and beyond. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. Eric has owned a seed company, managed an urban farm that leased parcels to Hispanic and refugee growers, and provided planning and business trainings to farmers. He is the author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security released in February 2016.


  1. This has been so extremely useful! As an agriculture/permaculture design student with hardly any gardening or farming experience, it’s nice to have some good resources to rely on so I don’t feel overwhelmed. Thanks!

  2. Hi Eric, good article! It makes sense that when growing plants, whether annuals, biennials or perennials, that the systems we use to keep them healthy would be universal.

    With annual monoculture produce growing systems, even though the system is inherently problematic by design simply because it deviates from what exists in Nature, it can be refined, improved and made more efficient and more sustainable as you’ve shown here.

    Just reminding readers that this is not about advocating annual monoculture gardening as permaculture. It’s about improving a human system of agriculture which is highly energy dependent. Ultimately there are hard limits to how sustainable and efficient these annual produce systems can be made, because the only way to maintain a system that can’t exist naturally is by inputting energy into the system to maintain it out of natural balance, which is always going to be less efficient than any natural system in equilibrium with Nature.

    It’s great how you’ve shown that the strategies and principles we use in the nature mimicking system of permaculture can be applied to even the worst of human designed systems to improve them.

    All seriousness aside, I hope the picture in this article is just a stock photo, the exposed bare soil between rows is a recipe for destroying the soil ecology and an invitation for weeds to grow!

  3. Whether you are growing annuals, perennials, or both (as I do)


    Many permies are growing annual vegetables. If I recall correctly, Toby Hemenway grows tomatoes. If we’re going to grow them, shouldn’t we growing them in the best way possible? Perhaps there are techniques that can be used to grow annual vegetables in ways that are minimally destructive or even better, leave the soil healthier by our actions. One need only search for three sisters on this site to see one technique that achieves those soil objectives while producing a yield of storable food.

    As a permaculture designer and horticulturalist, how would you design annual vegetables into a permaculture garden in ways that protect and improve the soil while minimally disturbing it, maximize yield while minimizing labour, and have no external inputs?

  4. thanks for your comments. photo from trip to Cuba, great farm with serious slug problem so no mulch. ducks, i know, i know. maybe didn’t want manure on lettuce?
    as long as we eat annuals (and I do every day) we need to look at reasonable ways to produce them – like the farmers profiled in the article.

  5. Thanks for the reply Eric.

    Ah, the classical ‘duck deficiency’ (permaculture perspective on slug problem for new readers)!

    I agree, we do eat annuals, so we need to find ways to incorporate them into our designs and grow them efficiently. With my urban food forest gardens, I simply grow annuals wherever there is space amongst the perennials, and my annual vegetables account for around 25% of my harvest. Admittedly, I’m very lax with my effort I put into my annual vegetables. The catch with annuals is that if you neglect to go through the whole ritualised rigmarole of annual planting for a season, you get zero harvest other than some random self-sown plants. With perennials, they carry on without you – I know this from experience!

    During Oct 2011-Oct 2012 (the last year I recorded a harvest – I’m taking a break for a while), my garden produced the equivalent of 14,796 kg/acre (32,551 lbs/acre) or 36,561 kg/hectare (80,434 lbs/hectare), and with 25% annual vegetables, that’s equivalent to 3,699 kg/acre (8,138 lbs/acre) or 9,140 kg/hectare (20,109 lbs/hectare) of annual vegies growing just in the available spaces in an existing food forest garden.

    I guess I do grow a fair amount of annuals, and the possibility of harvesting over 8,000 lbs of vegies from an acre sized food forest in a year without a dedicated annual vegetable garden would be fairly impressive, but I’m only extrapolating from my statistics, and it would be interesting to see how it works in practice, but I guess it should!

  6. I grow predominantly annuals, and love doing so. It’s nice to see others doing so as there seems to be a real stigma attached to those who do. Same goes for digging vs sheet mulching. People seem to forget that these are techniques not dogma.

  7. Thanks, Eric. I think that you are right that we need to find smallholding ways to produce vegetables drawing on organic farming.

    Question: Do we say this is our organic vegetable area and this is our permaculture area or do we incorporate our organic vegetable area into our permaculture area?

    What are your thoughts on this?

  8. Totally agree Eric, an annual component of a garden, even if separated, can be a module or component of a larger permaculture garden design.

    I experiment with growing hydroponic annuals (they are just an experimental control system to compare the performance of the organic garden system to – yes, it’s unsustainable!) and if they are close enough to the organic food forest garden, they get some (i.e. a partial) benefit from the natural pest control systems that exists in the food forest garden.

    I’ve visited David Holmgren’s garden, and he has a traditional raised bed kitchen garden full of annuals just outside the back door of his house, and this ‘zone one’ area is surrounded by a permaculture garden of fruit trees and berries amongst other beneficial trees and plants. This is basically what you’ve just expressed in an existing permaculture design by one of the co-founders of permaculture.

  9. Depends on how often they need attention, maintenance, watering and how long you need to wait before harvest. Permaculture design is about energy efficiency. If you pick salad greens every night for dinner, best to place a kitchen garden close to the kitchen!

    If you have pumpkins or sweet corn that have their watering taken care of, i.e. irrigation, since these take 15-20 weeks or 11-15 weeks to harvest respectively, they can be located further out. If you have the lettuce varieties where you can pick the outer leaves as you need them, place these close by for easy regular access. Cherry tomatoes ripen faster and are used more often that really large tomatoes for example, yet all tomatoes take a while to start fruiting, then fruit fairly consistently from there on. frequency.

    Annuals can be planted in several garden beds in a permaculture design, depending on which place is most energy efficient to plant them. each type of plant needs to be considered separately. Some plants which are used daily can be located in a zone one kitchen garden, ones used or harvested less frequently can go into annual rotational beds a bit further out where there is more space, and any that can take forever to harvest and also possibly have lower water requirements can inhabit the less frequently visited outer zones. It’s all about intentional design to make best use of space and minimize energy inputs!

  10. Thanks for this valuable contribution. Too often, well-designed annual horticulture systems are a blind spot in permaculture design, given the intrinsic preference for perennial systems. I’m currently designing a community garden system, and am attempting to integrate best practices in crop rotation. It does increase the intensity of centralized management, however. . .

    The DACUM for small-scale northeast ecological farmer is a great resource. I’ll be using it to guide my own training regime.

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