Vegetables Like to Be with Friends Too
For those in the know, companion planting elicits thoughts of power and passion, mystery and magic. After all, the fact that simply choosing the right plants to grow together should make such a huge difference, is awesome, if mind-boggling.
It’s not a new concept. Gardeners have been consciously growing plants that help each other in natural ways alongside each other for centuries. It’s just that the growth of the organic plant movement in the 1970s highlighted and popularized the idea for ordinary, domestic gardeners.
What is Companion Planting?
By definition, companion planting, quite simply, involves planting flowers and vegetables that like each other together. Essentially, when grown in the right combinations, certain plants will help other plants grow and protect them as well.
As Allison Kosto, Montana State University extension agent states, “Undoubtedly, plants influence each other. Sometimes this is positive and sometimes negative. Companion planting is the art of growing plants near each other, because of their ability to enhance or complement each other. Even though there is little research and science, there is a long history starting back in ancient times behind companion planting with supporting anecdotal evidence.”
But, as she says, it’s not that simple. There is no doubt that the idea of companion planting works, but it is also important to have a broad knowledge of plant associations and intercropping. We will explore these ideas in a later article, but for now, let’s look at how this all started.
The History of Companion Planting
Researchers have found that people have known about the benefits of companion planting for centuries.
The 3 Sisters
Probably the oldest example of companion planting goes back 8,000-10,000 years. Using a technique now commonly known as the 3 Sisters, native Americans grew beans, corn, and squash together because they did well together.
In essence, squashes provide the ground cover that stifles weeds and conserves moisture. The sweetcorn supports the beans as they grow, and the beans provide nitrogen that enriches the soil once they have finished growing. Who knows whether the native Americans had any idea of why the so-called 3 Sisters grew so well together, but the concept has been passed down to their descendants.
Writings of Marcus Terentius Varro
We know more about the Greeks and Romans and their ideas about companion planting from Marcus Terentius Varro. He wrote a book on agriculture in the 2nd century BCE that provides invaluable information. It makes fascinating, though rather tedious reading, and covers a huge range of topics including the seasons, benefits and disadvantages of animals on the land (think manure), and companion planting.
This short excerpt relates to companion planting:
❛The manner in which your neighbor keeps the land on the boundary planted is also of importance to your profits. For instance, if he has an oak grove near the boundary, you cannot well plant olives along such a forest; for it is so hostile in its nature that your trees will not only be less productive, but will actually bend so far away as to lean inward toward the ground, as the vine is wont to do when planted near the cabbage. As the oak, so large numbers of large walnut trees close by render the border of the farm sterile.❜
So, don’t plant cabbages near your grape vines and avoid planting walnut trees anywhere near other plants!
A Chinese Tip
More than 1,000 years ago, Chinese farmers started to use mosquito ferns as a companion plant for rice crops. The ferns do what beans do to add nitrogen to the soil. They also block sunlight from other plants which would negatively impact the rice.
And it continues from here…
Companion Planting & Organic Gardening
The move to organic gardening started in the 20th century, largely as a protest against all the chemicals that were being used in large-scale agriculture. The rediscovery of companion planting is just one of the results.
If you log into Amazon, you’ll find dozens of books about companion planting. My two favorites are Carrots Love Tomatoes and Margaret Roberts’ Companion Planting.
Louise Riotte, who wrote Carrots Love Tomatoes as well as Roses Love Garlic, is an institution in the world of American gardeners. She wrote more than a dozen books and based much of her work on American folk wisdom.
Margaret Roberts was one of Southern Africa’s first organic farmers and a leader in the industry. She wrote more than 40 books and everything she wrote about came from personal experience. Happily, her daughter, Sandy, has continued to maintain the Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre.
Explore their books to learn more about the secrets of companion planting in your veggie garden.