Companion planting just might be the best-kept secret in the gardening world. Most people hear the word garden and think of neat rows of vegetables lined up next to each other with recently worked-up soil in between each row. Usually, there’s room enough to get a rototiller between the rows to help minimize the weeding time. While that works great for some people and was the traditional style of gardening for farmers in times past, there is another way.
Last month, we dug into the concept of gardening by the moon and discovered how the lunar and earth’s gravitational pulls directly affect the water in the ground and the plant’s development through the phases of the moon. By matching the plant or crop with the ideal phase, we can maximize the plant’s growth and production.
Similar to the relationships from the plant to natural forces, there is a relationship between the plants themselves. Sometimes the relationship is direct and other times it is indirect. But the plants work together in community in amazing ways. We can harness the power of the plants when we use companion planting strategies. More nutrients become available, more water becomes accessible, greater growth is observed and pests and diseases are resisted.
Some plants make nutrients more available. One way the plant does this is known as nitrogen-fixing. Usually, your legume-type plants (think beans and peas) do this well and this just means that they leave the ground more nitrogen-rich than when they were planted. They fix nitrogen in the soil so it feeds the plants growing next to it or the next crop planted.
Certain plants make water more accessible to the other plants around them. Typically plants with taproots, single roots that go deep into the earth (think carrot), act in this way. One function of plant roots is to take up moisture but they can only use the moisture in the soil around them. The ground can be saturated below the roots, but the plant can’t access that moisture. A plant with a deep taproot can access the water deeper in the ground and whisk some of that water up to the plants with more shallow roots around them.
Other plants help the plants around them grow and thrive. Well-matched plants can enhance the flavor of the vegetable. Flowers can attract pollinators which increases yield. A common example of this is the Native American three sisters’ method of planting beans, squash, and corn. The corn provided something to support the bean, the bean fed the corn because it fixes nitrogen in the soil, and the squash acted as a ground cover which acted as weed control.
Still other plants serve the plants around them by helping fend off pests. Some plants feed beneficial bugs that prey on the harmful ones. With the different types of plants planted together, the harmful bugs can be confused or choose not to lay their eggs if they don’t like one of the plants. Pests are repelled or attracted by the scent of other plants. You can plant those plants close to repel pests or far away to draw the harmful bugs away, depending on how the plant functions as pest control.
In order to effectively use companion planting in the garden, you must group plants together that help each other.
- All the plants around the taproot will benefit from greater moisture.
- The plants around one that fixes nitrogen will have greater growth and greener leaves.
- Adding plants that repel pests and diseases will provide protection when grouped with plants that need the protection that plant offers.
- Choosing plants that are mutually beneficial will make for healthy plants that produce well.
It takes some detective work to make a plan and figure out which plants make good neighbors. What works for your neighbor might not work for you. But it will be well worth your effort. You won’t have a typical garden but you won’t have a typical harvest or workload either!
Companion planting means mixing up the beds. It means putting 2-5 different plants in the same area so they all benefit each other. It means trying something different and new. But it also means happier, healthier plants that will reward you with bumper crops. If you’ve been struggling with nutrient deficiencies, pest infestations, or keeping the garden watered, companion planting could be a piece of the solution.
Let’s keep the conversation growing… tell me in the comments below your experience with companion planting!