Last time we looked at why companion planting is better than monoculture. This time I’m going down and dirty and explain exactly how to plant a vegetable bed in this fashion.
Bear in mind that the following is not the guarantee for success. Think of it as a basis for experimentation. Experimentation is really the essence of successful gardening. You have to learn what works and what doesn’t on your own.
What works for me, might not work for you. However, it’s the ideas, the principles, that are universal. OK, with that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
The three types of neighbours
Every time you plant a vegetable bed, there are going to be crops that grow next to other crops. Neighbours. Some prefer to divide their beds into equal, square spaces and grow one crop in each of them. Here’s lettuce, next to it are tomatoes, then there are carrots, followed by cabbage and so on.
In other words, they transform their patch of land into a parking lot (with wooden or stone paths between parking spaces) with different coloured cars parked there. And they park they cars into the same spaces every time.
Not good, right? Well, it may be good as far as cars are concerned, but if you’re looking to get as much as possible from your garden, it’s certainly not the best you can do.
Plants generally have one of three opinions of their neighbours. They either:
- really like them,
- really hate them, or
- don’t care about them.
The trick with companion planting is to choose the best possible neighbours for your crops. A good neighbour, for example, enhances the growth and quality of nearby crops or provides maximum ground cover or improves the soil. Or any combination of the three.
With some generalization, best companions often include plants with contrasting properties. Some possible combinations are:
- Fast-growing and slow-growing
Example: Cabbage, like all brassicas, is a chunky plant. But it starts small and takes time to grow chunky. It’s common sense to grow some speedy crops, like radish or lettuce or spinach between them. By the time the cabbage grows big, they will be long … well, eaten.
- Tall and short
Example: Corn and squash make for great companions. Corn goes out of squash way by growing upwards, while squash covers the ground, preventing it to dry too quickly. Add in some beans, and you get The three sisters, which brings us to…
- Heavy feeders and soil improvers
Example: Corn and squash are heavy eaters. They need a lot of nutrients. Legumes (such as beans) are known as soil improvers, because they work in conjunction with special nitrogen fixing bacteria, called Rhizobium. The Rhizobia live in nodules in the plant’s roots. They improve the soil not only for the host, but also for the neighbouring plants.
- Heavy feeders and light feeders
Example: Plants don’t like to fight for their food. You can keep them in check by planting heavy feeders (like brassica, corn, tomatoes, squash, …) together with light feeders. Light feeders are the root crops: carrots, radishes, beets, …
- Sun-loving and shade-loving
Example: Lettuce doesn’t mind a little protection from the sun, making it a great companion to taller plants, like beans and corn.
- Aromatic and non-aromatic
Example: Basil and tomato make for a great salad. Well, it turns out they are also great garden companions. Not only does basil add taste to the salad, it improves the taste of tomato if you grow them together.
- Mutual beneficiaries
Example: Onions and carrots are a must-have combination. It’s said that each repels the other’s worst pest. Carrots repel onion fly and onions take care of carrot fly. Pretty good, huh?
- Deep-rooted and shallow-rooted
Other beneficial plants
There are other plants that you can (and should!) use in your garden. Although they don’t produce and crop for harvest, their other properties make up for it.
- Pest repellents
Example: The best example are marigolds. They have a certain smell, distinctive even to our noses. Many don’t like it. But here’s the thing. Marigolds excrete thiophene, which repels nematodes. They have a number of other attributes, while also adding flowers to your garden. Use marigolds in abundance!
- Trap crops
- Insect attractors
Example: Any flowers or herbs are desirable in the vegetable garden. Not only they add beauty to it, but their nectar-rich flowers also bring pollinators, other beneficial insects and birds, leaving no room for unwanted insects.
Don’t forget to experiment
OK, in this post I’ve given you a whole bunch of possible combinations. Of course you’re not going to use them all. Just remember the general guidelines and experiment, experiment, experiment. Whenever you forget the general guidelines, you can always come back to this post and refresh your memory.
For your convenience I’m preparing a useful spreadsheet of best gardening companions that you can take with you when planting your vegetable bed. If you don’t want to miss it, click here to subscribe to Permablogger.
Do you think I missed something? Would you like me to expand on something? Say it in the comments!
Photo by Roger Smith