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Benefits of Using Companion Planting in Your Garden

Eugenia Merkoulov

Are you gardening this year? Try companion planting!

Modern large-scale farming practices have painted a very particular picture:  single rows of the same plant neatly growing in perfect linearity as far as the eye can see. However, this approach to agriculture, known as monoculture, is a relatively new practice in human history. Prior to the widespread embrace of monoculture, which relies heavily on pesticides in order to sustain itself, small scale and large scale farmers worldwide looked to the organic patterns of growth, as demonstrated by nature, to create their gardens.

Nature thrives in systems, small and large. These are contained within and overlap with one another, truly representing the many layers of micro and macro. This is all contained within the greater system of the Earth itself. For thousands of years agricultural success depended on mimicking these natural systems and harnessing their organic potential. Companion planting was one way in which this was implemented. Farmers would observe which plants grew best in proximity to one another and which ones hindered each other's growth. They observed which weeds seemed to improve the soil around certain crops and which herbs repelled pests. By observing such interactions between specific species, they formed a thorough understanding of compatible plant groups and were able to maximize their yield and overall garden efficiency as a result. 

With the current re-emergence of original farming practices as part of a greater cultural and conscious awakening toward holistic living, the success that comes with applying the companion planting principle is a common topic of discussion. There are many reasons to utilize the companion planting approach. Here are three of particular significance:

COMPANION PLANTING AND PEST CONTROL

Planting certain herbs around vegetables acts as powerful pest control. Many herbs have strong odors that are unappealing to common garden pests. In rarer cases, certain herbs are highly attractive to specific insects, keeping the rest of your crop unaffected. An example of the latter is nasturtium, which attracts spider mites. Another approach is utilizing herbs and plants to create favorable environments for beneficial insects that make a meal out of the pests. An example of this would be ladybug larvae, which happily consume aphids.  For a thorough list of herb/insect relationships consult reputable sources online or, even better, support a local organic gardening author who specializes in the particular environment of the area in which you live.

COMPANION PLANTInG AND SPACE AND RESOURCE EFFICIENCY

Companion planting makes efficient use of space, both above ground and below ground. Grouping compatible vegetables and herbs in consideration of their height and general behavior above ground creates partial shade for plants that do not desire too much sun and provides pest protection for the stalks of the taller plants. When planting for space efficiency, consider stories: root vegetables, ground covers, shrubs, etc. A direct example of how plants work together is the classic Native American "three sisters" relationship between corn, beans, and squash. The corn grows tall and sturdy and allows the beans to climb it as they grow. The squash stays low to the ground and acts as a nitrogen fixer. [A nitrogen fixing plant works with bacteria in the soil to convert gaseous nitrogen into usable nitrogen that is stored in the roots and released into the soil upon the plants decomposition, thereby becoming available as food for next year's planting.] When researching this topic further, search terms such as "companion planting guide",  "planting using guilds" and "food forest stories".

Companion Planting and Improved Flavor

Though there is little scientific study surrounding this, farmers who have been practicing and experimenting with companion planting for years will swear by the enhanced flavor that comes from grouping plants. A common example is the Mediterranean group: tomatoes, peppers, and basil. The basil acts as a pest repellant for the tomatoes and peppers. This combination also offers space efficiency, with tomatoes acting as the highest story, the peppers coming in as a close second, and the basil being the lower-growing herb which, at times, prefers a little shade. The flavor enhancement resulting of all three combined can be traced back to traditional farming practices in the Italian countryside and has been tested, time and time again, by many a happy pallet. Get familiar with this benefit of companion planting by applying the method to your garden and testing the flavors yourself. Other variables may affect the final outcome, so be your own backyard scientist. Above all, remember to have fun with it! Gardening is art, and there are many benefits to companion planting!