Your Guide to Companion Planting
The art of getting along: grow together to grow better
Plants interact with one another above the soil and within
Plants interactions go beyond competing for space. Above and below the soil, plants interact with one another more than you might think. There’s the stuff you can see, like taller plants forming a canopy over low-growing, shade-loving plants that would otherwise burn under direct sunlight. But what about what you can’t see?
Plants can be foes or friends, it all depends on how they interact with one another and even how they interact with the soil! If you’re not careful, some plants will outcompete their neighbors and overrun your garden (cough cough mint… horseradish…). Such plants should be grown alone in containers or maintained regularly to keep them from bullying their neighbors out of house and home. It’s safe to say that plants that spread aggressively don’t make very good neighbors.
Different plants interact with the soil in different ways, such as nitrogen-fixing. Soil quality has a direct impact on plant quality, whether that’s foliage, flowers, or fruit. Plants grown in nutrient-deficient soil aren’t going to produce very good flowers or fruit, if they grow any at all. On the other hand, plants grown in nutrient-rich soil tend to produce a striking abundance of fruits and flowers. No matter what you’re growing, you’ll be able to see or taste the quality of the soil that the plant was grown in.
Sometimes, one species will contribute to the soil in a way that makes the soil just right for another species. Plants that have mutually beneficial relationships with soil-quality make great neighbors! One example is planting tomatoes and basil together. Tomatoes and basil interact within the soil in ways that result in enhanced flavor for both the herb and fruit. When you put plants together that get along, you’re doing something called companion planting.
Companion planting is a practice that involves planting different crops together in the same area in order to enhance their growth and deter pests. It is a traditional method of gardening that has been used for centuries, and it remains a popular technique among gardeners today.
It’s important to note that companion planting often serves a different purpose for growing food than it does for growing ornamental plants. Companion planting ornamental plants has more to do with aesthetic arrangements than it has to do with mutually beneficial growth, but it can certainly accomplish both.
Companion planting works by taking advantage of the natural relationships that exist between plants. Certain plants have properties that enhance soil fertility, repel pests, and attract beneficial insects (that pollinate plants or munch on freeloading pests). By planting species that get along and help one another, gardeners can create a reciprocal ecosystem in their garden that promotes healthy growth while detering pests.
The Three Sisters
Perhaps the best example of companion planting is the Three Sisters technique. This method involves planting corn, beans, and squash together in the same area. Corn provides structure for the beans to climb and the beans fix the soil with nitrogen, which corn needs to grow. Meanwhile, squash spreads out and acts as a ground cover that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist. This aids in water retention and protects the soil from erosion. The Three Sisters technique comes from Native American tribes. It has been used for centuries to produce abundant harvests that protect soil rather than stripping it of nutrients.
Pest-repelling plants as a natural pesticide?
Other plants have pest-repellent properties and can be grown alongside fruits and veggies that seem to be every pest’s favorite snack. Referring back to the tomato and basil companion combo, adding marigold creates a trifecta of companion planting!
Basil has its own pest-repellent properties, but acting as a natural pest repellent is where marigolds truly shine. They protect tomatoes and basil from hungry bugs like aphids, whiteflies and hornworms, thanks to their strong, repellent scent. By planting marigolds throughout the garden, gardeners can help to reduce pest infestations without the use of harmful chemicals.
Companion planting can also be used to attract beneficial insects to the garden. For example, planting dill, fennel, and parsley can attract predatory wasps, which feed on caterpillars and other insect pests. Planting yarrow and other plants in the Asteraceae family can attract ladybugs, which feed on aphids and other small insects. By creating a habitat for these beneficial insects, gardeners can control pest populations naturally and promote pollination.
Growing requirements: consider plant preferences
When planning a companion planting scheme, it is important to consider the needs and preferences of each plant. Some plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, require full sun and well-drained soil, while others, such as lettuce and spinach, prefer partial shade and moist soil.
Plants with different growing requirements are incompatible. Mismatching incompatible plants will prove deadly. By grouping plants with similar requirements together, gardeners can ensure that each plant receives the nutrients and growing conditions it needs to thrive.
In addition, it is important to consider the timing of planting. Some plants, such as radishes and lettuce, have a short growing season and can be planted early in the spring, while others, such as tomatoes and peppers, require warmer temperatures and should be planted later in the season. By timing the planting of different crops correctly, gardeners can ensure that they have a steady supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season.
Plant arrangements: companion planting for aesthetic & functional design
Companion planting can also be used to create attractive and productive garden designs. For example, planting tall sunflowers behind a row of shorter plants can create a beautiful backdrop for the garden, while also providing shade and shelter for the smaller plants.
Planting combinations of herbs or greens together in a raised bed or large container can create a beautiful and functional arrangement with an array of eye-catching textures and shades of green. Companion planting is key to creating a garden that provides both food and beauty.
Crop rotation and soil amendments
In order to get the most out of companion planting, it is important to choose the right plants and plan your garden’s layout carefully. While you’re planning, consider what you planted in each area the year before. It’s important to rotate crops from year-to-year in order to avoid nutrient depletion in your soil.
Crop rotation involves planting different crops in different areas of the garden each year, so that the same crops are not planted in the same spot year after year. This prevents any one crop from stripping the soil in an area of specific nutrients.
Alternatively, you could choose to turn and amend your soil with nutrient-rich substrate like compost or organic fertilizers. Turning your soil doubles as a great method for preventing pest-infestations. Some stubborn pests are able to burrow in your soil to survive the long winter. Others leave their eggs to hatch come spring. But they didn’t plan on you turning them on their heads, literally.
Companion planting is a time-tested method of gardening that can help to create a healthy and productive garden. But there is a learning curve to this tried-and-true gardening secret. If you’re looking to brush up on trade secrets and best practices as spring settles in, check out this online course by Stacey Murphy, “The Garden Freedom Series Micro Course.”
This four-part series is a comprehensive dive into gardening with special emphasis on adapting your gardening to be compatible with your lifestyle, not the other way around. Click Here to Discover the Garden Freedom Series Micro Course. And if you’re looking for a resource to help you map out which plants in your vegetable garden are friends versus foes, check out the chart below!