I love watching the life in a garden. Small white butterflies float from blossom to blossom,
ignoring the impatient buzz of the bees. Toads hop between our plants as the occasional robin
swoops down to pluck up a worm. Come night time, the air is alive with the racket of crickets
and the whir of cicadas. It is easy to see how the different critters play in the garden, but less
observable is how the plants themselves interact, helping or hurting one another.
Companion planting is an easy way to make your garden work for you, employing your plants as
specialized laborers. Crops have different attributes that can aid, protect, and nourish other
plants. Some attract or repel bugs, others choke out weeds, and even more can add vital nutrients
to the soil. We may not see it, but plants have a vibrant community of their own. Now, I realize
it is a little late in the summer for a blog on how you should plant your garden so as to reap the
benefits of various companion crops, but maybe this information will help you to maximize your
space, time, and efficiency for next year’s garden.
Article XI, paragraph 4, sub-paragraph (d) of The Unwritten Law of Companion Planting states
that “no person shall take it upon him- or herself to discuss or write about companion planting
without mention of or reference to the coordinating efforts of corn, beans, and squash, commonly
called The Three Sisters.” The law demands I speak. The Native Americans’ practice of
planting corn, beans, and squash in the same mound is the classic, textbook example of
companion planting, but some may not be so familiar with the reason for grouping these
particular crops. In a brilliant example of three-way back-scratching the large squash leaves
choke out weeds, the cornstalk provides a trellis for the leguminous pole beans, which, in turn, fix atmospheric nitrogen to the soil for the corn and squash roots to absorb.
On account of
technological and agricultural advances over the past few centuries, the Three Sisters have fallen out of practice, but they can be a fun educational tool in a children’s garden or experimental plot.
Successful companion planting takes a lot of forethought and planning, but it helps to diversify
your garden and allow your plants to work for you. For example, not only are tomato and basil
highly marriageable flavors, they actually get along pretty well in the garden too. The scent of
basil repels common pests like thrips, flies, aphids, and hornworms while the plant acts as a
natural fungicide. Some folks also suggest that the close proximity of the tomato and basil
plants’ root systems enhances the flavor of the tomato fruit. We also planted our onions and
lettuce in alternating rows so the lettuce could attract subterranean worms away from the onion
root. Arguably the easiest companion planting technique involves nothing more than growing a
variety of flowers throughout your garden. Beyond the obvious benefit of attracting pollinators,
different flowers bring different strengths, like marigolds, which repel nematodes, and
nasturtium, which deters aphids and beetles.
Successful companion planting also requires knowing which plants do not play well with others. While it is important to determine which crops to group together when mapping and planning your garden, it is equally important to figure out which plants to keep separated. Consider planting alliums (garlic, leeks, onions, chives) in a different bed than your legumes (beans, peas)
because the former greatly inhibits the growth of the latter. Some crops are susceptible to the same diseases and pests, so it’s best to plant them far apart so a single blight doesn’t take out half of your garden. Some examples are corn and tomatoes, which are attacked by the same worm,
and potatoes and tomatoes, which fall prey to the same blight.
Above are listed just a few ideas for easy, common companion planting, but a quick Internet
search will provide even more information. Like splitting people into groups or making an
assigned seating chart for a second grade classroom, companion planting allows you to strategize
and mobilize your plants to help each other while avoiding risky pairings that you know just
won’t work out.
So, next time as you pull some weeds, harvest a zucchini, or just take a walk through your garden, I hope your eyes are opened to the thriving plant community around you.