Current research-based evidence supports the historic gardening practice of companion planting. It was practiced in North America by the Five Nations Native People in a system called the “Three Sisters.” Corn, beans and winter squash were planted together. The corn provides support for the beans which in turn provides nitrogen for the corn. The winter squash shaded the ground to retain moisture and suppress weeds. There are many groups of plants that interact symbiotically.
There are companion plantings that benefit ornamental flowers and shrubbery, but this article will focus on the vegetable garden.
One of the nicest things about companion planting in the vegetable garden is that it introduces flowers and herbs that might not otherwise be used. In this way, the vegetable garden is transformed from straight, rows of beans, tomatoes, etc. to an interesting, joyful plot of varied colors, texture and smells.
There are many benefits of companion planting. Peas and beans provide nutrients for other plants. These legumes have nodules on their roots that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria that provide sustenance to other plants. Corn and green, leafy vegetables require higher concentrations of nitrogen than many other plants.
Vegetables are classified as flowering plants and flowering plants require pollination to produce fruit and seeds. Some flowering plants are much better at attracting pollinating insects than others. If we plant these pollinator attractors next to plants that are not good at attracting pollinators, they will naturally benefit from increased pollination. Many of the herbs like borage and all of the umbelliferous herbs (dill, parsley, fennel, etc.) are powerful attractors and planting them near beans, peas, tomatoes and peppers will enhance pollination that translates to greater yield.
Another benefit of companion planting is pest control: First, some plants repel certain insects that damage vegetables. For example, aphids are repelled by any member of the onion family, especially garlic. Second, some plants attract insects that lure the bugs away from vegetable plants. Third, some plants attract “good bugs” , that eat the “bad bugs” that eat vegetables.
Tall plants like sweet corn and sunflowers can function as a living trellis for vining and climbing plants. Two plants that can be seeded together for this purpose are cucumbers and sunflowers.
When spring warms into summer it is possible to extend the growing season for some cool weather crops by planting them in the shade of more heat tolerant plants such as zucchini or green beans. This creates a microclimate where lettuce and spinach can survive. Companion planting builds a system of biodiversity in your garden. It becomes its own ecosystem that can survive adverse conditions comparable to larger diverse and self-sustaining ecosystems.
Here are several beneficial companion plantings:
First, tomato plants surrounded by basil and marigolds are better tasting and less likely to be eaten by bugs or ravaged by disease. Aphids like all kinds of garden vegetables but they HATE garlic. Scattering garlic plantings around your garden is beneficial to the whole garden.
Second, radishes used as row markers for slow germinating crops like carrots and parsnips. These fast-growing roots mark the row where the slow carrots or parsnips are planted and help loosen the soil around the carrots and parsnips.
Third, spinach and lettuce planted in your garlic patch benefit from the aversion that aphids have for garlic. They also make efficient use of the space and help control weeds by blocking sunlight from reaching the soil to germinate weed seeds.
A few more pairings: beets, cabbage, and lettuce with onions; nasturtiums, zucchini, and winter squash; spinach along the bottom of a trellis of peas will benefit from some shade and the nitrogen fixing by the peas; bush beans supply nitrogen for potatoes and cilantro is great for pest control.
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