Companion planting: The act of placing plants together that can benefit each other in different ways.
In the spring I like to think that little plant communities are being built when we plant our vegetable gardens. Just as human beings need shelter, food, water, and friends in our communities, plants need the same in their communities. They compete for resources, just like we compete for resources. When gardens are planted using the companion planting concept, plants that benefit each other are purposely planted close together, and plants that compete for resources or harm each other are kept separate. A perfect example of companion planting is what the Native Americans call the Three Sisters, which is planting a mixture of corn, beans and squash together.
According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac:
By the time European settlers arrived in America in the early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing the “three sisters” for over three centuries. The vegetable trio sustained the Native Americans both physically and spiritually. In legend, the plants were a gift from the gods, always to be grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together.
Each of the sisters contributes something to the planting. Together, the sisters provide a balanced diet from a single planting.
- As older sisters often do, the corn offers the beans needed support.
- The beans, the giving sister, pull nitrogen from the air and bring it to the soil for the benefit of all three.
- As the beans grow through the tangle of squash vines and wind their way up the cornstalks into the sunlight, they hold the sisters close together.
- The large leaves of the sprawling squash protect the threesome by creating living mulch that shades the soil, keeping it cool and moist and preventing weeds.
- The prickly squash leaves also keep away raccoons, which don’t like to step on them.
Together, the three sisters provide both sustainable soil fertility as well as a healthy diet. Perfection!
As you can see, companion planting can benefit plants by: keeping pests away, providing support to neighboring plants, sharing or providing resources, promoting polyculture, and attracting beneficial insects. Just as the Three Sisters uses the corn stalks to allow the beans to climb to the sun and the large squash leaves to keep the soil moist, the gardener needs to keep the sun and water requirements in mind when planting different crops close together. For instance, corn should not be planted to the south of a row of potatoes do to the amount of shade the corn would give the potato plants. Or, bush beans may need more water than the squash plants because the large squash leave shade the soil so nicely with their large leaves. Below is a helpful companion planting guide. Click on the picture to download a free copy!
Last, but not least, here are some flowers that are great companions for your vegetable gardens:
Catnip – Keeps aphids, asparagus beetles, and squash bugs away, but attracts pollinators and parasitic wasps.
Clover – Many people have this wild flower growing naturally in the yard, which is great for gardens! Clover attracts many beneficial insects, aids in fighting cabbage worms, and increases the number of predatory ground beetles. A favorite food of honey bees!
Cosmos – An annual that provides provides food and habitat to many different predatory insects.
Dahlias – Aids in repelling nematodes. Dahlias have a large, beautiful flower head that will attract pollinators and lend beauty to your vegetable garden.
Echinacea or Cone Flower – Attract hoverflies and parasitoid wasps, so plant close to the vegetable garden to control pests.
Gaillardia – Blooms for a very long period over the summer. Plant this perennial along with other long-bloomers to provide a constant meal for your favorite pollinators!
Lavender – A perennial in some zones, and an annual in others, lavender is an excellent general pest repellent flower that repels fleas, moths, and white flies. A wonderful smelling flower for your garden.
Licorice Plant – Plant on the outside of the garden to lure cabbage moths away from broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and turnips. Bees are attracted to licorice plant, but keep this plant away from radishes.
Marigold – Marigolds produce chemicals that repel many different insects, along with rabbits and deer, but they attract hoverflies and helpful wasps. Do not plant them near beans.
Monarda or Bee Balm – This perennial is a favorite among bees, wasps, and hummingbirds.
Yarrow – Attracts hoverflies, lady beetles, and wasps that prey on grubs, but repels aphids.