If you’re like me and many other Americans, you’re growing vegetables this year. For those of us who live in suburbia and aren’t blessed with unlimited space, we have to get very creative when deciding where to grow our vegetables. If you have always planted your vegetables in neat and tidy rows, without much creative thought, try a new planting scheme this year – companion planting.
Companion planting is a method of arranging your plantings according to which types of plants are potentially beneficial to one another. Companion planting may reduce competition for water and nutrients, decrease pest and disease problems, and possibly increase vegetable production.
Companion planting is thought to work, in part, because it increases plant diversity. Imagine a hungry insect population finding its way into your garden. If it encounters an entire row of its preferred food, you can bet that the entire row will be decimated before you even notice. However, what if that insect population found one plant of its favorite food, only to be halted from moving onto the next one because there’s a plant it doesn’t like in its way? You would probably notice the damage and might be able to control the problem before losing your entire crop. And, the insects may move on to “greener pastures” if undesirable plants are mixed in with desirable ones.
In its simplest form, companion planting is alternating two types of vegetables in a single row. This is sometimes called intercropping, and alternating garlic or basil with tomato plants is a popular example. You can also intercrop more than two varieties. A classic multispecies intercropping example is growing onions, lettuce and carrots together. Each of these plants grows its roots at different levels in the soil, so they don’t compete with each other for nutrients. Aboveground, these plants have such distinct growth habits and foliage shapes that they don’t crowd each other for sunlight or space.
Bush beans and peas are popular vegetables to intercrop with plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders. This is because beans and peas are nitrogen fixers, meaning they can utilize atmospheric nitrogen for their growth and reproduction. They have symbiotic bacteria that live on their roots and form nodules rich in nitrogen. Plants growing near them will be able to intertwine their roots with the beans’ roots and utilize the nitrogen stored there.
An ancient and popular companion planting is the Three Sisters garden. I have grown a Three Sisters garden and loved it! The Three Sisters method is a unique Native American way of growing corn, pole beans, and squash. These three plants mutually benefit each other as they grow. The corn provides a living trellis for the pole beans, the pole beans provide nitrogen for use by the corn, and the squash provides living mulch. The three plants create a synergy that produces a greater yield, increased nutrition and more food calories than if only one of the crops was grown alone in the same space. The Three Sisters garden was developed by the Iroquois, and its cultivation was adopted by Native American tribes all across the country. The Anasazi added another sister, bee plant, Cleome serrulata, to the plant mix to improve pollination of the beans and squash and provide pollen to the bees. Here's a list of popular intercropping companion plants.
Companion planting has its roots in both science and folklore. Some people swear by planting basil with their tomatoes, and others won’t plant basil without garlic. Here are some suggestions for popular homegrown vegetables. If you would like to read more about companion planting, “Carrots Love Tomatoes,” by Louise Riotte, and “Gaia’s Garden,” by Toby Hemenway, are a couple of books that have comprehensive plant lists and design suggestions.
Companion plantings aren’t limited to vegetables. Flowering plants are also great additions to vegetable gardens, as many of them attract beneficial insects. For example, cosmos attract syrphid flies, lacewings and tiny parasitic wasps. All of these insects help control pests such as aphids, leafhoppers, spider mites and cutworms.
Growing a variety of flowers and vegetables around an apple tree is a common way to grow more food and provide benefit to the tree. Try planting a ring of perennial flowering bulbs, such as daffodils (don’t eat the daffodils, as they will make you sick) or edible chives, around the trunk of the tree. Next, plant a ring of edible herbs and flowers, such as borage and cilantro, which attract beneficial insects. Then, plant some larger-leafed vegetables, such as rhubarb and zucchini, or some smaller plants, such as strawberries and bush beans, to act as living mulch. Finally, plant another ring of bulbs, such as edible day lilies, or ornamental perennial flowers to attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Be sure to arrange your plants so that they don’t shade each other out.
All of these plants perform a specific function for the apple tree and each other. You can expand upon this idea by also planting beneficial perennial shrubs, such as currant or Siberian pea beyond the drip line of the tree. The drip line is the reach of the trees limbs. You could even add an annual vine, such as sweet pea or some nasturtium, to grow up the trunk of the tree. Both plants look pretty and attract pollinators. If you grow nasturtium, you can even eat the flowers!
Companion planting or intercropping can also be expanded into a polyculture. A polyculture is essentially a dynamic plant community composed of many species. Think of hiking through a beautiful meadow in the Bridger's at the height of wildflower season. You don’t see row upon row of one type of flower. Rather, you see a multicolored carpet of many different types of flowers. Many of the flowers bloom at different times and grow to different heights; and when they die, they open up new spaces for another plant species to grow. You can follow these same principles when designing a polyculture in your own yard.
Polycultures have long been popular with traditional or aboriginal societies. The advantage of a polyculture is that it provides a constant supply of food over the entire growing season, and begins to function dynamically – repelling pests, building the soil, attracting beneficial insects, etc. Polycultures are typically started in the early spring, before the last frost, with cool-season crops that are sown free-form into the garden in mixtures. For example, a mixture of mustard seeds, arugula and other leaf lettuces are sown together. This is followed with a planting mixture of radishes, carrots and other root crops. Next, an herb mixture, such as cilantro and parsley, is sown. Finally, cool-season peas and bush beans are pushed here and there into the soil, about 12 inches apart.
The plants can be thinned once they’ve germinated, and then harvested by either cutting or pulling entire plants. As summer approaches, many of these plants will reach their maturity and can be pulled and replaced with warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and squash. In the early fall, beneath the dappled shade of the warm-season crops, cool-season crops are sown into the soil a second time to provide a fall harvest. Finally, in late fall or winter, cover crops are sown to replenish the soil.
The trick to keeping a polyculture under control is to sow the seeds lightly and thin judiciously. The goal is to produce different varieties, not a lot of any single plant variety. If you sow too many seeds, your garden will quickly become overcrowded, and nothing will reach its full potential.
No matter your gardening style and plant preferences, you can use companion planting to benefit your garden by attracting pollinators, providing living mulch, building the soil, potentially decreasing pest and disease problems, and above all else, providing you and your family with bountiful homegrown abundance!
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
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