We all have those people in our life. The ones who makes the day better when they are in it. When they are around the jokes are funnier, the work goes faster, and everything is a little bit brighter. Transversely, we all have that OTHER type of person to deal with as well. The one who makes every second drag out, who makes the small tasks seem difficult, and who leaves everyone around them feeling drained.
Plants are no different. Toiling all day out there in the sun, they each have companions they prefer. They have the ones who make them perk up, face the sun, and work hard on production all day. They also have the ones who make them sick, tired, and too worn out to work. Knowing who your plants prefer to spend their day with (and who they don’t) can not only increase your garden productivity, it can reduce pests and disease as well. The overall process is called “Companion Planting”.
There are a few ways companion planting can work for you.
One reason is for nutrition. Just like people, some plants are high drama. They require a lot from the soil and can leave it drained. Plants such as corn, squash, and tomato fall into this category. Other plants, such as beans, are givers, they actually put nutrients back into the soil they are in. While other plants, such as root crops, are neutral, they don’t ask for much, but they don’t put a whole lot back in. Because of this, certain plants will produce better when inter-planted with a different type of plant because of the nutrients one puts into the soil that the other needs for better growth. A good example would be beans and corn. Beans put nitrogen into the soil, and corn loves nitrogen. You could even add a small root vegetable in such as radish to maximize your harvest.
Another reason is for structure, or using plants as part of your physical garden layout. For example, carrots grow extremely slow, and it is sometimes hard to spot your seedlings. To see your planting row clearly, plant radishes in with your carrots. They spout quickly and will mark the rows for you. They also finish quickly so they will not cramp your growing carrots. Pole beans and corn work well too. The corn gives the beans something to climb, and as the beans wind around the corn, they strengthen the stalk. If you plant shade loving plants such as cucumber and lettuce on the South side of the garden, and taller sun loving plants like corn or sunflower on the North side, the sun loving plant will get the full sun they need while providing shade for the other.
Finally there is pest control and pollination. Some plants repel the pests that attack other plants while attracting beneficial insects such as bees. By planting the right plants in your garden, you control pests naturally and simplify organic gardening. Some examples are: borage which repels cabbage worm, garlic which repels Japanese beetles, horseradish which repels potato bugs, marigold which repels harmful nematodes and tomato worm, mint for cabbage moth, nasturtium for aphids and squash bugs, and rosemary for cabbage moth and carrot fly.
By combining the elements of two or three different plants, you can build a garden full of plants that are working hard to provide nutrition, shelter, and protection for each other. And who wouldn’t want to spend the day in company like that?
For a list of who your plants would rather spend the day with, download this companion planting spreadsheet I put together.