An age old technique for garden success
Companion planting is an ancient gardening technique that can control pests and increase your harvest. Back in Roman times, citizens did not have the luxuries we have today, such as Garden Centers full of every conceivable spray, chemical or treatment for what ails our plants. They may have used methods described by Pliny the Elder in his many writings on natural histories, herbals and books for physicians. Or maybe they employed common folklore of the time to keep their gardens free from disease, pests and problems. Modern gardeners who employ companion planting will be using methods based on historical and contemporary folklore from various different cultures. Many plants have evolved and adapted to their particular pest problems and environments, and can be used as allies (or enemies) in your garden.
Why does it work?
One of the reasons companion planting works so well is that it creates diversity in your garden. The problem with diversity though, is that many people run out of room in their gardens. Or they don’t have a very large space to begin with, and devote all that space to the ‘food’ bearing plants. My rule is, always leave room for flowers, as this is one of the easiest ways to add diversity to any growing space. Or, use large clay pots and plant your companions in those, so they can be moved around if needed. If you’ve never tried companion planting before, a good way to start is by learning about what affects your favorite types of plants. Perhaps you love tomatoes most of all, so it would be most important to you that they thrive in your garden. Start small, and increase your companion planting as your comfort level rises. Effective companion planting, even if it is your first time, includes observation, some research and a bit of planning. These are the first three important things to know.
The Eight Things to Know:
Observe, Research and Plan
1.Observe: This is where keeping garden journals will help tremendously. Inspect your plants (I do this at least weekly) and if you notice bugs, don’t just head for the sprays, take note of what they are doing. Are they eating the plant? Burrowing into the stems? Laying eggs? Are there wilted leaves, black spots or distorted growth? Take notes or even bug and leaf samples in a ziplock bag.
2.Research: Now that you have a problem, research your plant online or in books from your library. There are many sites like (Whatsthatbug) that can help you learn if it’s a pest infestation, or are they beneficial insects that you want to stick around? Do they attack certain plants or many types? Do they only come around in the spring, or late summer? If you are stumped after your research, any samples you’ve taken can be shown to a garden professional for their advice.
3.Plan: Once you know what the problem is, you can deal with it effectively. Make sure you take notes about what steps you take, because you may refer back to them next year at planting time. Now, down to the specifics of how to affect change in your garden using plant helpers.
Repel, Decoy, Nurse, Attract and Complement
- Garlic can deter Bean Beetles and Potato Bugs, and Onions can keep pests from attacking Strawberries or Tomatoes.
- Lemon Balm, Mint and Thyme create aromatic compounds that deter many pests. These herbs are great for planting in small pots and scattering around the garden, or create borders of them along the edges of you garden as a barrier.
- Marigolds are widely known by their power to repel all kinds of invaders. Plant these amazing flowers everywhere!
5.Decoy plants can lure pests from your edible crops. One pests have been lured by your trap, you can then remove them off the decoy plant, destroy the plant, or treat it with some other type of natural or organic control treatment.
- Nasturtium is a great example of a decoy plant, as they attract Aphids and Flea Beetles, and also liven up the area with beautiful colors!
- Many, many pests are attracted to yellowish colors. Whiteflies, Aphids, Cucumber Beetles, Fungus Gnats and many types of flies can be fooled by planting yellow flowers near the plants they have taken up residence in.
- Mustard plants will attract Cabbageworms and Harlequin Bugs away from cabbage plants.
6.Nursery Plants are needed for those wonderful beneficial insects that should have homes in your garden. Many of those bugs you see out there might actually be helpful. Do your research first before you start killing them off, as they may be your allies!
- Any plant with small, tightly packed flowers (like yarrow or thyme) will likely attract beneficial insects.
- Dill can attract spiders, lacewings and parasitic wasps, which help control caterpillers, beetles and aphids.
- Plants from the Daisy family (cosmos, coreopsis, marigolds, sunflowers, asters, coneflowers, or dahlias) attract all kinds of beneficials, like ladybugs, assassin bugs, lacewings, hover flies and parasitic wasps. They are also an excellent source of pollen for bees!
7. Speaking of bees, attract them for better pollination across your entire garden. A few small to medium sized Bee Balm perennials, spread around in pots (because it will take over like mint!) will cause visiting bees to travel all over your garden for pollen. The first year I planted Bee Balm I noticed substantially more harvested Tomatoes and Peppers than any previous years had produced. Of course ANY flowers will do to attract them, but Bee Balm seems like candy to them!
- Important: Never, ever spray bee-attracting plants with any type of pesticide. A little light spritz with the water hose in the early morning gives them something to drink while they are spending all their energy pollinating. They get thirsty!
8.Complementary Crops are plants that help each other by shading, supporting and most importantly, don’t compete with each other for light, room or soil nutrients. This is a very efficient space-saving method for getting the most out of your garden.
- Tall crops like Corn, trellised Beans and Sunflowers can provide some shade for Lettuces, Spinach and Cucumbers, which can sometimes struggle in full sun. Plant tall crops on the south sides of beds or garden areas.
- Plant lifecycles are important to know, as you can plant quick growing annuals like Lettuce, Cilantro, Spinach, Arugula, and Radishes in the same area as slower plants like Melons or Brussel Sprouts. The faster growing ones will flower, attracting bees and beneficials, while shading the slower growers. Once the slow ones have caught up, your faster plants will have already been harvested.
- Plant bushy Broccoli with shorter Beets. Cabbage and Thyme also play quite well together. Carrots or Spinach under trellised peas makes a great use of space, too!
The list below will give you some basic tips on what works, and what does not in companion planting. I encourage you to learn more about companion planting:
Best of luck as you learn to harmonize your garden!