Last time we learned about permaculture guilds. Today’s post deals with a similar topic – companion planting.
The two are somewhat related to each other, although there are important differences.
The differences between companion planting and permaculture guilds
I’ve said a thing or two about this in the permaculture guilds post, but it won’t hurt if I elaborate a bit more.
Groups of plants that are often seen growing together in nature are called guilds. Following nature’s example – which is essentially what permaculture is all about – permaculture guilds are groups of plants that are purposely grown together by a (permaculture) gardener. They are chosen wisely, so as to benefit her as much as possible.
This technique is primarily used in permaculture, hence it’s name – permaculture guilds. On the other hand, companion planting is not used exclusively in permaculture. Actually it’s often used in traditional gardening.
The plants that are usually used in companion planting are not seen in nature because … well they don’t grow there. They are mostly annual vegetables, the ones that your grandma used to grow. In her time there weren’t any supermarkets so if they wanted to eat vegetables, they had to plant them. The idea is that certain plants can benefit others when they are grown together.
The benefit can be many things: improved flavour, pest control, higher yield etc.
Why companion planting is better than monoculture
Just for kicks, let’s draw some comparisons between modern industrial agriculture and companion planting. I’ll let you decide which you like best.
Number of crops
Industrial agriculture: One
Thousands and thousands of acres of corn. You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, everybody’s seen it. If it’s not corn, it’s wheat. If it’s not wheat it’s … whatever. As long as it’s the biggest, baddest monoculture field, it’s OK.
Companion planting: As many as necessary
There’s no fixed number here. It’s definitely more than one. Most common is 2-5.
Industrial agriculture: Herbicides
Sure, nobody wants to have grasses in their wheat. When you have thousands of acres of it, it’s probably the easiest to drive around in your big-ass tractor and spray herbicides.
Companion planting: Mulch
Whether it’s living mulch or ordinary mulch (straw, bark, …), it’s the way to go.
Industrial agriculture: Insecticides and fungicides
Same as above. Because you have such vast areas of a single crop, it’s very susceptible to pests and diseases. The solution: synthetic pesticides.
Companion planting: Trap crops
Some crops are planted to attract pests and distract them from the main crop. A well-know example of this is Tagetes.
Industrial agriculture: Synthetic fertilizers
Some old-school farmers may use good old manure for this. But if you want the real deal, you’ll definitely go for the synthetic mineral fertilizers. They’re so much easier to apply.
Companion planting: Nitrogen fixation
There are plants, mainly from the Legume family, that take the nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil. This process is known as nitrogen fixation. It makes sense to plant them next to the “hungry” plants, like corn.
Industrial agriculture: High
If you’re going for the highest possible yield, you’re going to have to water heavily. Water usage is even higher when growing certain crops in unsuitable regions (e.g. rice on arid land).
Companion planting: Low to none
Since we’re using mulch, the evaporation is much lower. The soil stays damp a lot longer, resulting possibly in no watering. Of course if there’s extreme drought, there’s no way around it.
Industrial agriculture: Low
If a disease or weather conditions reduce or destroy a crop’s yield that’s it. There’s no safety net. It’s the only crop you have.
Companion planting: High
Even if one of the crops for some reason or the other performs poorly, there are others that pick up the slack.
Industrial agriculture: None
Remember, the monoculture fields are a dead land. There’s no life in them. The crops grow only because of synthetic fertilizers. There’s no worms in the ground, even birds don’t come to feast on the freshly ploughed fields. That’s because after a few years there isn’t anything to feast on.
Companion planting: High
If you took a closer look at a mixed bed, you’d find all sorts of critters, worms, beetles, ladybirds and what-have-you. It’s these symbiotic relationships that can greatly contribute to higher yields and healthier plants.
What about you
Okay as this post is already getting kind of long, I’m going to call it a night here. Oh, there’s one more thing.
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But that’s not the end of companion planting. In the next post about companion planting I take an empty bed and plant it with companion planting technique called three sisters. Stay tuned! Click here to subscribe to Permablogger and get all the future updates delivered to you.