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The Benefits of Companion Planting

Companion planting in a home garden Companion planting in a home garden

Companion Planting

The goal of all gardens is to be as productive as possible. One way to achieve this is through companion planting. At first glance, companion planting may seem confusing and difficult to achieve with all the different options available. With a little planning, though, it can be truly worth the effort as your garden blossoms and grows into a beautiful, healthy space.

What is Companion Planting?

Companion planting is the planting of specific plants in proximity of each other to increase the success of each one. This can include plants that benefit from sharing space, plants that can deter pests from other plants, plants that work together to attract beneficial insects, and plants that are good together at conserving water.

The most well known example of companion planting, called the Three Sisters, was done by Native Americans. Squash, corn, and beans, planted in hills together are the perfect complement. The tall corn stalks provide a structure for the pole beans to climb. The beans provide nitrogen and other vital nutrients to the soil. The large squash leaves create a canopy over the ground, preventing weeds from growing and maintaining soil moisture.

Why Companion Plant?

There are as many reasons to implement companion planting as there are variations of companion planting. It all depends on what you are seeking to do. Do you want to repel certain bugs? Attract other ones? Keep your weeds to a minimum? Conserve space in your garden? All these things can be done with some planning and careful arranging of your fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Repelling Pests

Keeping your garden safe from the myriad of bugs who would love to feast on all your hard work is a top priority. It is devastating to see vegetables growing steadily only to be attacked en force by a troupe of beetles until there is nothing left. Planting certain vegetables together can keep these pests at bay.

  • Tomatoes – plant basil with your tomatoes to prevent horn-worms
  • Potatoes – horseradish and cilantro can be planted to deter the Colorado potato beetle
  • Carrots – chives will repel carrot aphids, onions will keep away rust flies
  • Asparagus – parsley, basil and tomatoes will deter asparagus beetles
  • Cucumbers – nasturtiums and radishes repel cucumber beetles.
  • Squash – dill and peppermint will repel squash bugs
  • Cabbage – dill repels the cabbage looper, radishes deter the cabbage maggot, thyme deters the cabbage moth
  • Beans (bush & pole) – marigolds and potatoes help keep away the Mexican bean beetle, catnip deters flea beetles.

To repel flies and mosquitoes, plant basil, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm. To deter slugs and snails, plant fennel.

Another way to repel pests is to attract them using a method called trap-cropping. In this method, you plant a crop that the lures the pesky insects so they'll keep away from your real crop. This generally works best if you can plant the trap crop around the outside of your garden so the pests encounter it before they get to the one you care about.

Attracting Beneficial Insects

Pollen and nectar are what attract insects. Plants that are high in both of these will see your beneficial insect population grow. There are two types of beneficial insects: pollinators (butterflies and bees) and predators (ladybugs and wasps).

Flowers that attract beneficial insects are zinnias, asters, marigolds, and sunflowers. Herbs that attract beneficial insects are dill, anise, coriander, fennel, borage, chives, lavender, parsley, rosemary, lemon balm, mint.

Conserve Garden Space

Some plants are tall and some are short, some enjoy shade, and some want direct sunlight all the time. This can be used to your advantage when planning your garden, especially if you are tight on space.

Sunflowers and cucumbers are great for this. Cucumbers planted underneath the tall sunflowers enjoy the light shade and produce higher yields for it. The sunflowers benefit because the cucumber plants keep moisture in the soil.

Lettuce can also benefit from being planted beneath a tall plant, like tomatoes or peppers, as it likes to have some shade during the day.

Conserve Water

The broad leaves of squash plants keep the sun off the ground, creating a micro-climate that helps retain moisture. Other vegetables planted with the squash will also benefit from the richer, moister, soil.

Planting vegetables together that require a lot of water, like tomatoes, melons and corn, will cut down on how much water you will need. Instead of heavily watering three different sections of your garden, you can get them all in one and therefore use less.

Minimize weeding

No one likes to weed, so any way that can be minimized is beneficial. There are two main ways to cut back on weeds through companion planting.

Inter-cropping is planting two crops in the same space at the same time, usually using the space between the first plants to put the second set of ones. Sequential cropping is planting crops one after another so there is not ever any bare ground. Both these methods work wonders in keeping the weeds at bay.

Disease Prevention

Planting just one variety of crop, a mono-culture, is making your garden especially vulnerable to pests and disease. If there is only one crop and it gets sick, your whole crop will succumb. A variety of plants is the best way to ensure your garden is protected from complete devastation. With the variation companion planting provides, diseases aren't able establish themselves fully and bugs struggle to have a huge impact.

Companion planting has a myriad of benefits for your garden. It can keep the good bugs in and the bad bugs out. It can help you convert a small gardening spot into a larger yielding space. It can reduce weeds, diseases, and infestations. Planning a garden using companion planting methods takes more time in the beginning, however you will be thankful when you don't have aphids, carrot flies, horn-worms and other pests to deal with as you progress through the season. A little more effort in the beginning can make a huge difference in the success of your crops; it's worth it.

References:

Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Companion Planting

University of Massachusetts Extension, Center For Agriculture, Companion Planting