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Companion planting is the most natural way to grow healthy, sustainable gardens. Before the monoculture of vegetables and fruit trees took hold, farmers used to grow different crops together. Although their fields appeared to be unplanned and disorganized, a closer look would reveal certain underlying principles they diligently followed. There were specific combinations of plants always grown together. A typical example is the “Three Sisters” of the Native American Indians who always planted corn, squash and beans together in the same patch.
The corn stalks offered support to the climber beans and light shade to the squash. The beans fixed atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to the corn. The squash trailed along the ground, suppressing weeds around the other two and warding off intruders.
Similarly, in parts of Asia, Tapioca plants were traditionally interplanted with runner beans and ginger. The runner beans twined around the tall tapioca plants, providing shade to the ginger and fixing nitrogen. The spicy rhizomes of ginger would discourage rodents from approaching the starchy tapioca roots.
While the plant companions looked out for one another, these traditional practices handed down from generation to generation ensured maximum food production from limited agricultural land. Organic gardeners around the world are rediscovering the wisdom behind companion planting and finding out new combinations through trial and error.
Here are some very good reasons to try companion planting in your garden:
1. Physical support at no extra cost
Climbers obviously need support, but if other crops can offer the required physical support and derive some mutual benefit, nothing like it. You save on time, effort and resources too. Taller plants like corn, sunflower and okra can offer support to cucumbers and peas.
2. Improve the flavor and yield of vegetables/fruits
Some plant companions do much better when they are grown together, than individually. One reason could be that they complement one another in terms of growing conditions and nutritional intake. Different plants have different nutritional requirements. When one plant absorbs certain substances from the soil, it may change the soil biochemistry in favor of its companions.
For example, planting nasturtiums near radishes improves the flavor of the root crop. Lettuce as a companion makes radishes more tender in summer. Tarragon and dill are great for promoting the growth of cabbage family vegetables and improving their flavor. Sweet marjoram is often planted with beans, eggplants, pumpkin and cucumbers because it increases their yield.
3. Repel pests and parasites
Many fragrant herbs act as insect repellants and protect their companions. Mint is a deterrent to ants and cabbage moth. Lavender can repel ticks. Marigold repels aphids and beetles, keeping them away from tomatoes and roses when planted together. Planting daffodils around beds of root vegetables create a protective barrier to moles and other rodents.
4. Lure pests away from their target plants
Some plants protect their companions from pests by attracting them. Other do the same by attracting predators that help keep pest populations under control. Zinnias are planted with cauliflower because they attract ladybugs, which in turn control cabbage flies and other pests that would otherwise trouble cauliflowers.
5. Regulates shade
Some large plants provide shade to smaller plants growing next to them. Not only shade-loving plants, but young seedlings also appreciate some shade, especially during the hottest part of the day. Radishes and spinach planted in alternate rows thrive well together, the fast-growing radish with its large leaves protecting the spinach when young.
6. Aid pollination
Plants that attract bees and butterflies, when planted in the vegetable and fruit gardens, bring in more pollinators. This ensures better fruit set and good yield. Asters, bee balm, zinnia and yarrow are good companions in the vegetable garden.
7. Better utilization of space
Some plants grow thin and tall, while others have a bushy habit or trail on the ground. They can all live together in a given area without hindering one another’s development.
Companion plants for optimum utilization of available space should be chosen with their cultural requirements as well as their harvest times in mind. Care should be taken to avoid plants that compete at the root zone for nutrients.
8. Improves soil health
Leguminous plants like beans and peas have root nodules inhabited by nitrogen-fixing bacteria. They improve soil health by increasing nitrogen availability. Plants with high nitrogen requirement benefit from having bean family plants as companions.
Some plants are accumulators of specific nutrients, while others with their deep tap root system help bring up nutrients from deeper soil. They enrich the topsoil and help their neighbors grow well.
9. Hide unattractive areas
Companion planting in ornamental gardens can help mask many sore spots. A typical example is planting marigold around roses. It serves dual purpose: marigold plants hide the leggy base of the roses and add extra interest with their flowers. They also repel pests that can trouble the roses.
10. Suppress weeds
The spreading growth of many creepers helps control weed growth near other plants. For example, Sweet potato vines and pumpkins are often planted in between bush beans. They can spread over a large area, not giving even a fighting chance to weeds. This helps the beans to grow well without having to compete with weeds for nutrients.
11. Visual appeal and biological diversity
Plants with delicate, finely divided leaves never look better than when grown against bolder foliage in the background. The lush growth of many leafy vegetables serves as a fitting backdrop for pretty flowers. Plant diversity increases animal diversity in the garden, contributing to the overall health of the garden ecosystem. It naturally reduces diseases and pests and the need for chemical controls.
12. Perennial interest
When companion planting is done with plants that develop and complete their life cycle at different times, you will not have bare spots in the garden. The late flowering shrubs serve as good foil for early flowering bulbs. You can plant a mix of perennials and annuals as well as a good selection of ornamental plants and veggies together. This generates year long interest in the garden.