My husband and I are brand new homesteaders, having just moved to our acreage last fall. One of the first things that we did, even before finishing our home, was to start up our garden.
Gardening, for us, is a year round chore. What started out last fall as eight raised beds has expanded to include eleven long, wide berms in which we grow food for ourselves, a small local grocery store, and the local Farmer’s Market.
We live in Oklahoma — where we battle heavy wind, extreme and sudden changes in weather, and pests galore. For two gardeners who feel strongly about allowing nature to do her own thing in her own way, most insecticides, even organic ones, are not really a good option. But companion planting is, and we work very hard to use this strategy in our garden plan.
Companion planting is the very simple, yet age old, technique of grouping together plants that benefit one another, in a setting that echoes what we see in our natural surroundings. Nature doesn’t plant in rows, but rather groups different species together all in the same place.
Conventionally cultivated crops where one crop is sown along one row tend to be a magnet for pests and disease. By bringing nature’s pattern into our gardens, we can create a system that is much healthier for us and our surroundings.
Why Companion Planting is Beneficial
It repels unwanted insects. Many companion plants such as onions and aromatic herbs give off a scent that repels unfriendly insects from laying eggs or feeding on the crops. Offended by the smell, they will go elsewhere. In other cases, the companion plant will mask the smell of the crop confusing unwanted guests.
It can attract beneficial insects such as bees. Every gardener needs bees! Bee magnets such as coriander (cilantro) in bloom, hyssop, lemon balm, and monarda (also called bee balm), just to name a few, can be planted in and around your garden to invite these garden friends. But bees aren’t the only beneficials we like to see in the garden. Dill, for example, can attract spiders, lacewings, and parasitic wasps that will prey upon unwanted pests.
It can provide protection for more delicate plants. In some situations, taller plants can protect more delicate ones by providing shade or a windbreak. Sunflowers planted with leafy crops such as lettuce and kale will provide some shade in an exposed area. Sturdy okra planted to the windward side of peppers will help provide a buffer from the wind.
Certain plants can actually help improve the flavor of others. Summer savory, when planted with pole beans, will help improve their flavor. Chives will help along the flavor of carrots, and chervil will help produce tasty radishes.
How to Implement Companion Planting
Apart from learning which plants work well together, and which combinations should be avoided, there really is no method to it other than:
1. Choose your plants. If you know your vegetable families, this info will come in handy as the same families do well with the same companions.
2. Set the plants in your garden beds. Allow the plant buddies to mingle freely, aiming for a free form natural effect as opposed to rows. If you prefer rows (and I have to admit that I still do) alternate your plants or alternate your rows.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
While some plants do well together, others can work against each other. Peas and garlic reportedly work against each other reducing yields in the garden bed. Basil and rue are not friendly toward one another either.
Some things take time. Growing marigolds is an excellent way of controlling nematodes, but they will need a full season, perhaps more, to do their thing.
And while we’re on the subject of marigolds, these beautiful, easy to grow annuals are a favorite companion plant for many crops: especially tomatoes. Do keep in mind however, that while they control nematodes, they can attract spider mites which can be very difficult to control.
Mint can be invasive! Mint is another favorite companion of many because it is so aromatic. Be careful planting it directly in your garden bed, though, as it will very quickly take over. It is better to use mint in a pot. If you want the look of having the mint growing in the ground with everything else, bury the pot in the garden bed.
Don’t be afraid to break a few rules. Every garden is different; every climate is different. Be willing to experiment and try what works for you in your situation. As mentioned, peas reportedly do not like onions and garlic, but I (ahem) forgot last fall when I planted both, and set them in the same bed. Both are doing fine.
A Few Challenges I’ve Encountered
Sometimes it is hard to think outside the box. Even as a gardener who strives for a natural garden setting, as I mentioned above, I still gravitate toward rows. I like things to look neat and tidy. So far, I’ve had success with alternating rows of friendly plants.
Companion plants don’t always grow at the same rate. I planted some dill seeds alongside my very young cabbages this spring. The cabbages have now matured, but the dill has just started to sprout. Next time I plan to give the dill a head start indoors and set it out as a seedling along with the cabbages.
Some companion plants such as herbs are perennials, whereas many of my vegetables are not. This makes crop rotation (if you wish to practice it) a bit of a challenge. I’m still experimenting in this area. I’m considering annual herbs to rotate along with annual vegetable crops, but also investigating some perennial vegetables that can stay put with their perennial buddies.
Companion plants repel insects, but don’t always eliminate them entirely. I still get some damage. In the case of my basil growing with my tomatoes, something has ignored the tomatoes while devouring the basil. I have lovely tomato plants, but my basil is looking pretty ragged. Next year, we’ll plant extra to compensate for loss.
Favorite Garden Vegetables, Suggested Companion Plans, and Some Combinations to Avoid
While there is some scientific evidence as to what works best with what and why, much of this is information that has been handed down through the generations from gardener to gardener as opposed to hard and fast, proven scientific rules.
View these as recommendations and feel free to experiment in your own garden.
- Beans love: carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, marigolds, and cabbages. Summer savory will help improve the flavor both when planted and cooked with beans. Avoid: garlic, shallots, chives.
- Beets love: cabbage, onions. If your family enjoys kohlrabi, alternate with beets in the garden bed. They enjoy similar requirements and work well next to each other as the beet grows underground while the kohlrabi grows on top. Avoid: pole beans.
- Cabbages love: celery, dill, sage, peppermint, rosemary, onions, and potatoes. Avoid: strawberries, tomatoes, and pole beans.
- Carrots love: onions, leeks, rosemary, sage, lettuce, and tomatoes. Radishes planted with carrots will break through a crusty soil, paving the way for the seedlings to emerge. Avoid: dill and anise.
- Cucumbers love: beans, peas, radishes, and sunflowers. Avoid: potatoes, aromatic herbs.
- Lettuce loves: strawberries, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, and onions. Avoid: Lettuce is popular in the garden bed. She has no known plant enemies.
- Peas love: carrots, turnips, radishes, cucumbers, beans, potatoes, and aromatic herbs. Avoid: onions and garlic.
- Potatoes love: beans, cabbage, corn, horseradish. Avoid: pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and sunflowers.
- Tomatoes love: chives, onion, parsley, marigolds, basil and carrots. Borage is reported to repel the tomato hornworm. Avoid: potatoes and cabbage.
- Squash loves: corn, beans, sunflowers. Radishes planted with the squash will help prevent squash bugs, as will nasturtiums. Avoid: potatoes.
For more information on this subject I highly recommend reading Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte.
Do you practice companion planting in your garden? What combinations have you found to be most helpful?