Companion planting put simply is growing plants together that have a beneficial relationship with one another. And why is it awesome? Because we are working with mother nature rather than spraying chemicals all over her. 

When we work collaboratively for the mutual benefit of all the outcomes are always bigger, better and far more productive than we could have ever achieved alone. The same principles apply in the garden. When we work collaboratively with our environment we can see many benefits that go beyond what we see. 

A handful of benefits of working with the environment through compassion planting are

  • Attracting pollinators
  • Attracting pest predators
  • Deterring pests
  • Masking scent of primary plants to put off potential pests
  • Attracting pests away from the primary plant
  • Adding nutrients into the soil
  • Retaining moisture
  • Aerating soil
  • Providing windbreaks
  • Shade

In permaculture and organic gardens, companion planting is one of the biggest ways to manage pests and disease. 

‘Formal’ style growing systems which have rows or blocks of the same plant growing together can make for a really hard time backyard gardener. When you first think about it, it might make sense to grow all the same thing together. You can maintain them in the same space and harvest them together. However, this method has many drawbacks. 

Growing same with same is like putting a sign up and announcing to the pest world – come and get it! Also the same plants all use the same nutrients, require the same amount of sun or shade and same levels of moisture. They are all competing with each other for the same things. 

When you interplant your vegetable garden with several different types of plants that all work together you are allowing mother nature to do what she does best. 

I want to go through some examples to explain what I am talking about. 

 

Attracting pollinators 

Planting plants that attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, flies, bats and birds are a great way to ensure crops that rely on insect pollination have the best chance of being pollinated. Planting borage, rosemary and sunflowers near your gourd crops (mellons, squash, pumpkin, zucchini) will help attract more bees that will visit male and female flowers helping pollination. 

 

Attracting pest predators

Planting coriander, dill or parsley will help attract ladybugs into your garden. Lady bugs love to feast on aphids, scale and mites. Plant these herbs with your bean crops. 

 

Deterring pests

Marigolds are well known to deter whitefly from tomatoes. I have observed that more is best with marigolds and tomatoes. Plant at least 2 marigolds per tomato plant and it’s best to have them as close to the tomato as possible while still allowing enough not to crowd it. 

 

Masking scent of primary plants

Planting mint, sage and onions with or around the perimeter of carrots can be very effective against carrot root fly. Female flies can smell bruised carrots and leaves from many kms away. So activities like thinning out and weeding can give away their location. By planting plants that mask this odour, it can confuse the fly and she may not make it into the patch to lay her eggs. 

 

Attracting pests away from the primary plant

Nasturtium is a great plant to act as a sacrificial offering to aphids. It attracts aphids away from your main food plants and also attracts ladybugs which love a good aphid feast. Plant nasturtiums all through the garden, they grow well with anything and will attract bees and butterflies too. 

 

Adding nutrients

If you’ve been gardening for a little while you may already know that legumes are nitrogen fixing plants. This means they convert the nitrogen in the atmosphere into usable nitrogen in the soil that their neighbouring plants can take up and use. Planting legumes with nitrogen hungry plants is a great way to go. Plant climbing beans with corn, dwarf beans with brassicas like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Beetroots will also benefit from dwarf beans too, but avoid climbing beans as they may shade out the sun loving beets.

Retaining moisture

Living mulch which are ground cover plants grown amongst your vegetables will significantly reduce moisture loss through covering bare soil. Nasturtiums, thyme, oregano and creeping saltbush are great choices. Another way to help your garden retain moisture is to plant deep-rooted plants that will help to bring moisture from deeper soil to the shallows. Plants like pigeon pea are great because they are also a legume. Comfrey, dandelion and borage are all brilliant garden partners.

Aerating soil

The more organic matter in your soil the higher the change of the soil having aeration. When you have bare patches this can lead to compaction, especially if you get people or animal traffic over the area. Your plants need air pockets within the soil to allow moisture, worms, roots and microbes to pass through. The more roots moving through your soil the less compaction is likely. 

Providing windbreaks

Some plants can take a battering from wind and others are more sensitive. Designing your garden with the wind in mind will keep your more susceptible plants protected. Know the direction of where your prevailing wind comes from and plan ahead. Use hardy hedging such as Lilly pilly, feijoa, blueberries and rosemary can help slow winds down for tomatoes or tender leafy greens.

Shade

Not all vegetables love full sun all day, especially in the warmer summer months. Using sun lovers to provide some shade for the more tender plants is a great way to protect them. Plant corn on the south-west* side of lettuce to provide protection from the harsh afternoon sun. (for the southern hemisphere*).

Companion planting won’t ever be 100% effective and you wouldn’t want it to be. We need all the things we term ‘bad bugs’ in our garden. They are all part of the ecosystem and there is a balance that needs to be maintained. Observe your garden and see what looks good and what is having a bit of a hard time. Notice the insects and bugs and become aware of how you could use companion planting to help your garden thrive. 

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