Do you remember the nursery rhyme about a certain garden-planting Mary? Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells, And pretty maids all in a row. If you’re like most amateur gardeners, you probably haven’t put much thought into how to plant your garden to maximize its fruitfulness. More than likely, you’ve picked out the plants you want, stuck them all into the soil and hoped for the best, but did you know there is a better way to choose your plants and organize your garden? Our companion planting guide is here to help.
Perhaps silver bells and cockle shells worked well for little miss Mary, but the real secret to a successful plot is companion planting.
What is Companion Planting?
Companion planting is when you grow two or more plants together because they are mutually beneficial. Gardening wisdom says that when certain plants are grown together, they improve each other’s health and yields.
For example, some plants attract insects that provide benefits to their companion plant. On the contrary, some act as repellents to bugs that could harm its neighbor.
Companion planting also dictates which plants would not work well together. If two plants require many of the same nutrients, when placed next to each other in your garden they will compete for those nutrients, leaving them both malnourished and lackluster.
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Most of the knowledge we have about companion planting has come from hundreds of years of trial and error. That being said, the area you live in will also change what your plants need, so it is best if you reach out to a local gardener in your area to find out what has worked for them.
The Three Sisters Garden
This is perhaps one of the oldest examples of companion planting in North America. In fact, by the time European settlers arrived in North America, the Iroquois people had already been planting in this way for over three hundred years.
The three sisters are corn, beans, and squash. Iroquois legend says that these three plants were a gift from the Gods, and therefore had to be grown, eaten, and celebrated together. Each of the three crops benefited the garden in some way, and when eaten together they provided a balanced diet . Here’s how it works:
- The corn acts as a stalk or pole on which the beans can grow.
- The beans help pull nitrogen from the soil, which is needed by all three plants. As they wind their way up the corn stalks, the beans also hold all three plants together.
- The squash’s large leaves provide shade at the bottom, which keeps the soil cool and moist and prevents weeds from growing. The prickly squash leaves also protect the whole garden from pests like raccoons and rabbits, who do not like to step on them .
Like a trio of inseparable sisters, each plant has a role in keeping the whole garden healthy.
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The Three Basic Principles of Companion Planting
The three sisters grouping is an example of the basic principles upon which companion planting operates: Some plants need shade or structural support, some require specific nutrients, and all plants need protection from pests and insects.
Another example of a trio that works well together is bush beans, radishes and spinach. The beans contain a bacteria called Rhizobia, which takes nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form that is usable by the plant. The Rhizobia bacteria live in nodules on the plant’s roots, which means it does not require fertilizer since the plant looks after its own nitrogen needs.
These nitrogen-fixing beans are complemented by mycorrhizal radish. Mycorrhizal refers to the role of the fungus found in the radish’s root system. Mycorrhizae increase nutrient absorption by plants so that they can grow better. In other words, the beans help bring more nitrogen into the soil, and the radish helps the plants to absorb it better.
Together, the beans and the radishes help the delicate spinach to grow, by providing shade, enhancing nutrient availability, and preventing insects and pests from eating the spinach leaves by allowing them to eat their leaves instead.
Benefits of Companion Planting
If you’re still not convinced that you should follow the companion planting guidelines for your garden this spring, perhaps this summary of the benefits your garden will see will get you onboard:
- It lowers risk. If you put only one type of plant in your garden and it fails because of harsh weather, pests, or disease, you will lose your entire yield. If, however, you have multiple mutually-beneficial plants growing together, you can limit the spread and have a greater overall yield. Large monocultures, like planting all your tomatoes in one section, should be avoided in favor of polycultures that mimic nature.
- It protects your crops. Certain plants (like the spinach mentioned earlier) are much more delicate and require shelter from harsh weather conditions. Putting these plants next to ones that are bigger, stronger, and heartier can protect them from high winds, heavy rain, or exposure to too much sunlight.
- Pest management. If you are strategic about your planting, you can avoid having to use any kind of pesticides or herbicides on your garden. Some plants are more susceptible to pests and insects, so surrounding them with plants that invaders don’t like will help to keep them safe and allow them to grow.
- It attracts the good guys. Some insects are actually beneficial to your garden- these are the ones you want to attract. There are certain flowers and other plants that produce large amounts of pollen and nectar which attract these helpful bugs, and placing them next to your fruits and veggies will increase their population.
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