Make Your Garden Happy with Companion Plantings
By Axis Fuksman-Kumpa • July 21, 2022
We all do better with a little help from our friends, and our plants are no exception! The art of companion planting strategically grows different types of plants next to each other to help both grow healthier and happier than they would on their own. They can assist each other in all sorts of ways, from pest management to supplementing the soil. Keep reading our complete companion planting guide to find out how you can help beautiful relationships flourish in your garden!
Benefits of Companion Planting
Companion planting is hardly a new concept. The classic example of companion planting is that of the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash. Many Native American tribes have been growing these three plants together for at least 500 years (and likely much longer).
Climbing beans flourish growing up tall maize, winter squash shades the soil with its big leaves to prevent water loss, and the beans act as a nitrogen fixer, supplementing the soil for the other plants. Best of all for gardeners, the trio tastes delicious when cooked together!
There are plenty of wive’s tales and anecdotal stories about what plants do well together, but companion planting is more than folklore. There are many evidence-backed ways to make companion planting work to the advantage of you and your plants, whether you have vegetable gardens or ornamental garden beds. Here are some of the major documented benefits of pairing up your plants:
If your garden beds are plagued by voracious beetles or even stubborn deer, there are plants to fix your woes. Many plants work as natural pest repellents, particularly many spicy and fragrant species. Chives can deter some insects and even hungry deer. Garlic’s powerful scent might draw us into the kitchen, but it keeps a whole host of bug species away from your garden.
Moreover, variety in planting can help to slow or stop the spread of pests. For example, if you have a bed full of densely packed lettuce, there’s little to stop a horde of aphids from going straight down your neatly planted rows and damaging all your plants. If your lettuce is interspersed with other plants that aren’t quite as tempting to the aphid palate, they’ll be less likely to keep spreading—giving you time to discover and address your pest problem.
- Garlic is a pest-deterrent powerhouse! Aphids hate it, and Japanese beetles, onion flies, and ermine moths aren’t fans either.
- Basil repels thrips and is notable for its ability to confuse stubborn tomato hornworm moths. It also attracts bees that will aid in pollination. Basil makes a perfect tomato and pepper companion plant, both for its pest repellent properties and the wonderful flavor combos they make together.
- Nasturtiums do things a little differently. Instead of repelling pests, they’re actually so tasty that hungry caterpillars and other pests will entirely ignore your prized brassicas to chow down on nearby nasturtiums instead. It might be counter-intuitive, but this method of trap cropping can work to your advantage! As an added bonus, nasturtiums produce colorful, edible flowers.
Attracting Beneficial Insects
There are some bugs that you’ll want to welcome to your garden, including pollinators and predatory insects that will treat your aphid infestation like an all-you-can-eat buffet. It can sometimes be difficult to attract those insects to your garden, and even more difficult to convince them to stay! The key to attracting a full company of helpful insects is to have a wide variety of plants all season long. These are a few of the plants that will help to seal the deal:
- Tansy is a beautiful perennial flower that has a powerful appeal to ladybugs and predatory wasps. Even better, it works as a repellent to cutworm and other common pests all on its own. Tansy is a perfect companion plant for tomatoes that have fallen victim to a cutworm infestation.
- Parsley attracts pollinators and predatory insects alike. It’s another excellent tomato companion plant and will be at home in any vegetable garden.
- Dill is another favorite of ladybugs, who’ll make quick work of aphids and spider mites. It’s especially helpful for zucchini and cucumbers—and a good flavor note in a fresh cucumber salad.
Blocking Out Weeds
There’s nothing as appealing to garden weeds as wide open space, so you should keep bare soil covered if you don’t want your weekend plans to be dominated by weeding. Instead of covering everything in conventional mulch, you can fill the spaces between large and tall plants with a cover crop that acts like a living mulch and will provide you with other benefits as well.
- Sweet potatoes cover large areas of the ground with their sprawling vines, making it a great filler crop between tall plants.
- Low-growing herbs like rosemary, thyme, mint, and lavender all make excellent ground cover. These wonderfully aromatic herbs have the added bonus of creating ideal habitats for ground beetles that will keep your plants pest free.
- Zucchini produces bountiful veggies, but also has lush vines with large leaves and blossoms to cover any empty soil.
If you’re looking to grow delicate, sun-sensitive crops in your wide-open garden beds that get full sun all day long, you are going to need some shade for them. Thankfully, there’s a whole range of tall plants with broad leaves that can help prevent your more delicate plants from frying in the sun.
- Corn makes an excellent shade crop and creates more shadows the more densely packed it is. Plants at the base of the tall stalks will enjoy dappled sun as the corn sways in the breeze.
- Sunflowers, much like corn, offer a shady respite to the plants by their roots.
- Trees are an obvious choice if you’re looking to shelter your plants from the sun! Many trees will offer generous shade for plants of all sizes, but make sure to research your tree of choice first. The black walnut is notorious for producing highly toxic juglonethroughout the plant and especially in its roots, making it a risky partner for many common garden plants.
Creating Natural Trellises
Many plants want something to grow up! Everything from pole beans to vining gourds appreciates a sturdy frame to climb, and you can provide that with plants—you can forget that trip to the hardware store for a dozen metal trellises that you have nowhere to store this winter. Using a plant as a growth support is one of the oldest and most irrefutably effective methods of companion planting.
- Sunflowers offer excellent support for vining plants with their tall, sturdy stems which always reach for the sun! They make perfect pole bean or cucumber companion plants.
- Corn works just like sunflowers to create strong support for sprawling gourds and climbing beans. Corn also benefits substantially from the nitrogen-fixing abilities of beans, making them an ideal pair.
- We also love the idea of growing an annual flower along with your sunflower, corn or other vegetable structure to enhance the trellis and add some blooms!
Some plants can naturally improve your soil by adding nutrients and removing impurities. While no plant can replace all the benefits of a good dose of organic fertilizer, they can go a long way toward continuously supporting your soil health, allowing your plants to thrive and you to do less work.
- Beans are excellent nitrogen-fixers, making them an ideal companion plant for strawberries and any other plant in need of extra nitrogen. Peas and other legumes are similarly specialized at increasing the availability of nitrogen in the soil.
- Burdock and other plants with long taproots can actually pull nutrients hidden deep in the ground up to the top soil, making them accessible to plants with shallower root systems. This can be the key to adding more consistent nutrition to a garden bed with poor soil.
- Corn makes the top picks list in yet another category as an excellent candidate for phytoremediation—the process of using plants to absorb harmful chemicals from agriculture, industrial waste, and even sewage. Other ideal phytoremediation plants include alfalfa, native grasses, sunflowers, mustard, and willow and poplar trees.
It’s hard not to see the appeal of companion planting! If you keep a companion planting chart handy the next time you’re mapping out a garden bed, you can look forward to bountiful harvests, fewer pests, and happier plants come the end of the season. Explore and find the plant combos that work for you—then come back and let us know so we can test them in our gardens.
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