Companion Planting: It's Good to Have Friends

Even garden plants have BFFs that — when grown in proximity to one another — benefit the other's health and wellbeing. Learn about these blossom buddies and then invite them to spend time together in your garden for the potential betterment of all.

Even some garden plants have BFFs that when grown in proximity to one another benefit the other's health and wellbeing. Isn't that what friends are for?


Tomato Basil Plant; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Evidence ShmevidenceThrough trial and error and just plain luck gardeners discovered various edible and ornamental species, that when grown together, benefit one another. We pair certain plants for the physical, chemical or biological modifications they provide that may improve the survival of our "money crops." At the very least, one does the heavy lifting while the other basks in its partner's beneficence. These co-dependent plant associations are referred to as "companion plants." While hard and fast scientific data to prove the efficacy of these pairings may be scant, anecdotal evidence by gardeners points to some sort of benefit.


Everything Old is New Again

Remember learning about the Three Sisters ingrade school? Early Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash together. The corn grew tall providing support for the beans; the bean vines stabilized the corn stalks in the wind; and because beans are legumes, their roots set nitrogen in the soil, which helped feed the corn. Finally, the big floppy leaves of the squash plants covered and shaded the soil thus retaining moisture and inhibiting growth of weeds and grasses that would otherwise compete for water and nutrients. A big win-win-win. While this kind of vegetative collaboration isn't practical in large commercial farming operations, it is easily employed in a home garden opens in a new tab setting particularly when space is limited. (Tip: Start the corn first and let it get four to six inches tall before planting the beans and the squash.)


Marigolds; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Say "Hello" to My Little FriendsAromatic vegetables and culinary herbs, when interplanted among bug-magnet crops, confuse plant-munchers. How? Many destructive crop insects locate produce prey by smell. Deliciously stinky plants put up a kind of force field that shields target crops from detection. Vegetables including garlic, leeks, onions and chives, as well as fragrant culinary herbs like basil, dill, rue, tansy and thyme planted nearby potential host plants confound the predator insect's ability to sniff them out. In the ornamental department marigolds are gold. Their roots contain a substance deadly to soil nematodes that attack the roots of your food crops; they also keep some beetles away from your veggies by being more alluring than your edibles. And that's something to consider, too: plant species willing to take one for the team. Nasturtiums attract aphids, which have been known to devastate tomato crops, for example. They're not nearly as sensitive to those little soft-bodied sap suckers as are your precious pomme d'amour opens in a new tab.


Watch out for Frenemies

A common saying when pairing flavors is: What grows together goes together. That's not entirely true. Some vegetables and herbs whose comingled flavors keep you coming back for more do not play well together in the garden. They may actually cause their neighbors more harm than good, making it as important to know who to keep apart as who to place together opens in a new tab. When you plan your next "herb and vegetable garden party" make sure to pay special attention to the seating chart.


Have you given companion planting a try, or is it every crop for itself in your garden? Let me know in the comments section below.


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