Contributed by Jenny Feniak
Wisdom from ancient practices has guided us well for millennia.
Feeding ourselves with the flora of the planet is one such endeavour, and gardening popularity is only growing.
As opposed to monoculture, the planting of a single species applied in most industrial agriculture operations, polyculture involves several species planted in a space mimicking nature’s organic diversity. Permaculture and intercropping are examples of polyculture, and companion planting — pairing two or more mutually beneficial crops together — is a commonsense methodology applied to these systems.
Combining specific crops offers countless boons: increased yields, physical support, weed control, aiding pollination, biochemical benefits, shade regulation, and defence against antagonistic plants and pests. Growing a variety of plants to create a mosaic of textures, colours and smells will often confuse and distract pests rather than offering them an easy, single-crop buffet of their favourite meal. And some companions can’t be explained at all, like stinging nettle increasing the vigor of almost any vegetable it shares a space with.
The oldest and most famous example of companion planting — the Three Sisters — exemplifies most of these benefits. Since squash was first domesticated in Mesoamerica 10,000 years ago, indigenous cultures from Central America to the Canadian Prairies have used the Three Sisters technique of planting beans and maize or corn with the squash to create a near-perfect three-part botanical harmony. Beans, and legumes of all sorts, fix nitrogen in the soil. Corn is a big feeder and benefits from these nutrients while providing strong stalks for the beans to climb. These two provide plenty of shade for sensitive squash leaves, which sprawl as ground cover helping retain soil moisture while keeping weeds at bay.
Part of domesticating crops has seen us cubbyhole plants categorically but Mother Nature doesn’t do this. Get some flowers and herbs in the mix as well as they make some of the best garden companions. Along with specific species, don’t forget to keep water and light needs in mind while planning your garden. Initially, this practice can seem like a bit of a challenging puzzle but, through observation and practice, you’ll begin to learn who gets along and the relationships will become a part of your gardening lexicon.
Mother Nature has this dialled down so, make it easy on yourself and follow her lead. We’ve offered some tips below to get you started. Happy planting!
peas and beans are nitrogen fixers and help heavy feeders like potatoes, corn and leafy greens such as chard, lettuce, kale and spinach.
alliums (onions, shallots, leeks, garlic) repel many pests from rabbits to cabbage worms, maggots and aphids and are narrow enough to fit snugly between brassica plants which suffer from these pests.
Quick-growing root crops like carrots and radish work well with slower growers such as eggplants and peppers which have smaller leaves that won’t shade out the little guys below.
cabbage and cauliflower together, despite being from the same family, they don’t like each other.
beets and pole beans stunt each other’s growth.
fennel inhibits the growth of many plants.
basil, rosemary, thyme and sage improve the flavour of tomatoes.
tansy discourages cutworms.
mint, catnip, hyssop, rosemary and sage deter cabbage moths while thyme fends off cabbage worms.
lavender combats codling moths, enemies of apple trees.
mint repels ants.
oregano and borage attract ladybugs which feed on detrimental aphids.
borage adds trace minerals to soil that help strawberries.
dill and basil attract beneficial insects.
nasturtiums, cosmos, calendula, corn flowers, poppies, hollyhocks and foxgloves all benefit a garden.
marigolds are as good as gold in the garden and get along with everyone; French marigolds in particular produce a pesticide chemical in their roots that lasts for years.
zinnias attract ladybugs which eat damaging insects.
flowering cover crops like buckwheat help suppress weeds.
pollinators prefer single-petal blossoms with lots of exposed pollen as opposed to multi-petal flowers; they may be pretty but make the pollen almost impossible to reach.
plant basil, chives, lavender, marigolds, rosemary, mint, and ageratum, which secretes cumerin
citronella and lemongrass can both be crushed and rubbed on the skin as a direct defense.