If you look closely at the natural landscape, you'll never see a large area populated by a single species. Why then would it make sense to plant a single crop in a field or in a section of your garden? It doesn't. Companion planting makes a lot of sense.
Single crops may be easier to harvest, especially for commercial purposes, but the plants and the land both suffer for it. Farmers have learned that rotating their crops and allowing fields to "rest" with plants that can be turned back into the soil can lessen their dependence on fertilizers. That is only part of the solution to a healthy ecosystem and successful crop production.
In nature plants constantly seek out symbiotic relationships with other plants and animals around them. We are only beginning to understand the workings of these relationships. Companion planting attempts to provide a more natural environment that will help your plants thrive.
Native Americans throughout the western hemisphere were practicing companion planting when the Europeans landed. Maize (corn), squash and beans were referred to as "The Three Sisters" among many of the eastern nations when the first colonists arrived. In this situation the corn provides support for the beans and the squash suppresses weeds and keeps the soil cool and moist by virtue of it's large leaves. This was the elementary school explanation and probably the first and last time most people gave companion planting much thought.
Besides shade and structure companion planting provides much more remarkable benefits. My experience has found companion planting to be an effective means of organic pest control as well. Combining vegetables with herbs and flowers in the same growing vicinity accomplishes a few things, which I can attest to with relative certainty.
By always having something in bloom in your garden you have a better chance of attracting beneficial insects into your garden. Herbs, flowers and even some weeds can deter some pests or act as trap plants to give pest insects something else to eat besides your vegetables. In some cases, companion plants are even thought to improve the flavor of their neighbors.
Some companion plants that we have had good luck with in our gardens
Radishes: Whether or not you like the taste of radishes they make good companions for many vegetables. They are a deterrent to most pest insects. We have had particular luck growing radishes with beans, cucumbers and members of the squash family. They seem to deter the various beetles that can decimate these crops. Radishes do not do well with members of the cabbage family.
Onions: Members of the onion family also tend to benefit a variety plants. Carrots, beets, members of the cabbage family, lettuce and tomatoes all do well with onions. Peas and beans however are not so compatible with onions.
Annual Herbs: Dill and basil seem to help our tomatoes. Basil is said to repel white fly and aphids. Dill seems to be one of many herbs and flowers to attract parasitic wasps. Parasitic wasps help control tomato hornworms by laying their eggs in the hornworms. The wasp larvae feed on the hornworms and kill them before they can do much damage.
In general the more diversity in your garden, the more successful your efforts will be. By creating a garden in harmony with the natural environment you will benefit all the inhabitants living nearby, including yourself and your family. Try companion planting this season and watch your garden grow.
Chip Phelan, a contributing editor for Organic Gardening Review, is an
organic gardener living in Rhode Island. Organic Gardening Review is a resource
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