The basics of companion gardening
Between pests, weeds, fertilizers and fungus, organic gardening can be a challenge. Once you’ve tried it, you soon realize why it can be so expensive in the grocery store.
However, some people swear by companion gardening, and all it takes is a little planning to have the organic garden of your dreams.
Companion gardening is a method of gardening in which you plant certain plants together in an effort to ward off pests, enrich the soil and keep plants together that thrive in similar conditions. While not everyone thinks it works, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. If it does work, it can mean no need for fertilizers or pesticides (even if they are considered organic). The process overall could save you money and lead to a lush garden. Here are a few basic tips to get you started.
Prepare your soil
Healthy, enriched soil is the most important element of a healthy garden. Compost and mulch will help build nutrients in the soil that will fertilize your plants without the use of chemical fertilizer products. Soil should be allowed to rest every few years, and crops should be rotated every season, if possible. This helps eliminate diseases that can thrive in the soil. Different plants also add different nutrients to the soil, so rotating your crops ensures the most enriched soil. Any soil that is exposed or not being used should be covered with mulch or a cover crop.
Plant similar plants together
There are a few different ways to combine plants in companion gardening, depending on your goals. Here are the most common combinations:
Plants can be combined that are similar, such as root vegetables like carrots, beets and onions, or peppers, eggplant and tomatoes. Plants in the same family often have the same problems with pests and disease; if you keep them together it can help prevent the problems from spreading throughout the garden.
Plants can also be combined based on their needs. For example, celery, corn and squash are heavy feeders, meaning they require very fertile soil, while garlic, radishes and potatoes are light feeders.
The other method is to combine plants based on their need for sunlight. Plants that prefer shade or partial shade can be planted at the base of taller or bushier plants. If you plant a vegetable that grows on a vine, like cucumbers or grapes, create a teepee like structure and then plant lettuce and other veggies that require shade underneath it.
Finally, you can plant certain plants near each other that deter pests from other crops. Radishes, for example, are said to deter cucumber and squash beetles. Some people even opt to plant a few sacrificial plants, like an extra tomato plant that attracts the pests but allows the rest of the tomato plants to thrive.
Learn how to create a pest-free garden >>
Plant flowers and produce together
Many people have a garden dedicated solely to their fruits and vegetables and an entirely separate area for flowers. Besides adding a little color to your garden, flowers attract beneficial insects and help enrich the soil. The flowers also cover soil, making it less likely that you’ll have weed problems. Some of the best flowers for your vegetable garden include:
- Black-eyed susan
- Golden aster
- Bee balm
- Cone flower
- Common zinnia
Learn about the best perennials for your garden >>
Crowd your plants
When most people envision a garden, they think of neat rows of plants, with each row containing the same variety of plant. In companion gardening, plants are mixed and planted close together. This can help reduce disease, eliminate pests and may even mean fewer weeds and less watering. Many plants don’t need a ton of space to grow, so planting them in neat rows with space between them just leaves the soil exposed and can cause it to dry out. In addition, plants are ready to harvest at different times, so if you plant certain crops that need to be harvested in late spring or early summer with plants that need to be harvested in late summer or fall, you’ll have fresh produce all year. Sweet peas, for example, can't tolerate heat so they need to be planted early and need a trellis for support. Cucumbers are generally harvested later and can also be trained to grow on a trellis so those plants make good companions.
Plant cover crops
Cover crops are essentially living mulch. They help cover the soil, hold in moisture, and attract beneficial insects. Alfalfa, buckwheat, clover, and winter rye all make great cover crops. They can be planted under tall vegetables, in empty beds or along pathways. Alfalfa specifically can help build the nitrogen in the soil, which the other plants thrive on.