The concept of companion planting is based on the idea that some plants grow better when planted alongside specific other plants. It’s something that’s largely existed in the realm of gardening folklore, and there is not much scientifically-verified research on the topic. However, generations of gardeners and farmers have had success with companion planting, and it would be naive to disregard the lessons we can learn from their experience.
With that being said, how can growing compatible plants help produce a more bountiful garden?
Some crops grow well in concert with one another because their height or shape complement one another. Other companion plantings are designed with nutrient synergy in mind (the consumption habits of the plants are different enough that they won’t compete for the same resources). Additionally, some plants will help to defend their neighbors, warding off pests with their natural chemicals.
Here are my favorite combinations for the garden or farm.
Leafy lettuce greens are notoriously sensitive to heat and blistering sun, so situating the plants beneath the shade of a towering wall of corn, cucumbers or pole beans will help to keep the plants cool and prevent bolting. Additionally, radish and lettuce are known to play well together.
Brassicas and Stinky Plants
Members of the cabbage family are notoriously susceptible to predation by caterpillars like the cabbage looper. Partnering these crops with aromatic crops like chamomile, calendula onions or marigolds will create an odoriferous environment that wards off cabbage loving bugs. I love resina calendula — it is the go-to variety for herbalists and anyone looking for a more potent variety.
One famous plant alliance is between tomatoes and basil. Not only do they complement each other in the kitchen, they also make excellent companions in the garden — a partnership said to result in better-tasting tomatoes. Since flavor is largely subjective, you’ll have to test this theory for yourself.
Radishes and Carrots
Carrots are a notoriously slow-growing crop. The small seeds are often sowed in thick bands and later thinned out to a few inches apart. This means your carrot row plods along slowly and requires extra effort for thinning. Alternating carrot and radish seeds in a row will eliminate your need to thin, and it will allow you to harvest from your carrot bed early. Be aware that carefully alternating between carrot and radish seeds in the same row can mean that the initial seeding may move slower, but the space and labor saved in the long run is well worth it. Choose a thin, quick growing radish like french breakfast, or Du 18 Jours to interplant with your carrot seeds.
Bring on the bugs!
Some plants can help play matchmaker between beneficial bugs and plants that need them. Interplant bee-loving varieties like monarda, chives and gaillardia throughout your veggie patch, especially near fruit trees and other crops which benefit from bee pollination. Learn more about planting to entice beneficial insects in our beneficial insects article here.
Three Sisters Garden
The practice of companion planting has been around for ages, and arguably the most famous companion planting trio is an old Native American planting tradition called the Three Sisters Garden. This is a trio of corn, beans and squash which is detailed in a legend of three sisters. Corn acts as a living trellis for the beans to grow up, and beans enrich the soil, making it more rich for other heavy-feeding crops like corn and squash to use. The large, frond-like leaves of squash make a quick ground cover, discouraging weeds and retaining soil moisture for the other crops to use. Squash foliage is also spiny, helping to keep predators away from the bean and corn plants.
Whether you're growing a small garden or a large farm, companion planting can play a role in your design with benefits to plants. Regenerative agriculture is a system of growing that aims to emulate the natural design and rhythm of nature, so companion planting is a natural fit for this style of growing. You can read more about regenerative agriculture here and stay tuned for future posts about the different components of regenerative agriculture and heirloom growing.
Got questions about companion planting we didn't answer here? Have you tried companion planting in your own garden and want to share your story? We'd love to continue the conversation.