Companion planting is the art of combining plants in a growing space that can mutually benefit one another. Its roots lie in fact and folklore and many of the methods come from ancient practice. Husbandry itself has developed many useful planting combinations that create benefits and save energy.
We try to utilise as many natural biological processes to aid in the maintenance of our garden and land in order to reduce impact made by us and make the most of what nature can already provide without the use of chemicals and intensive practices which can only deplete the all-important natural resilience of the soil.
Here are some examples of companion planting techniques which we like and have successfully adopted.
This practice comes from the indigenous American Indians or first nations people.
The plot grows sweetcorn with climbing beans and squash or pumpkin between. All of these plants provided them with their staple food groups and created a self-supporting and self-sustaining method.
The sweetcorn grows very tall and strong, thus creating a climbing post for the beans, which provide food that can be eaten raw or dried and saved as well as contributing to the nitrogen levels in the soil with their rhizomatous bacteria found only in the root nodules of leguminous plants. Finally the squash again provide a food source but are low growing so provide ground cover and help to repress weeds as well as protect the soil from over exposure, therefore protecting moisture and temperature levels in the soil and helping to maintain a healthy balance. This entire system requires minimum input and provides maximum output as useful production. It can be easily installed in any size area and is a fantastic use of space and resources.
Flowers in the mix
Flowers are hugely important features in any garden, plot, or indeed any natural habitat. The more flowers and variety in your garden the more creatures attracted. This aids pollination of numerous food crops including tomatoes, beans and cucumbers as well as providing a food source for those animals. It may be bees which eventually can also provide you with honey or it may be lady birds which can help keep away aphids from your plants. They are also necessary to create a beautiful place that breeds biodiversity, the key to a healthy ecosystem whatever the size or area of your garden.
Flowers that produce high energy nectar and are easy for the insect to find play a vital role in the health of your garden. Many hybrid flowers are sterile and do not produce the essential food required by many animals. These can still be added for aesthetic reasons but make sure you have a good mix.
Choosing plant combinations
Edges – Flowers at borders are useful because they are the first thing to be spotted by interested animals and they provide colour for all to see. Low growing flowers will help to maintain a boundary between your soil plot and the surrounding area, perhaps a path that may have weeds in it.
Interplanting – Combining any flowers with vegetables or fruit plants can not only look very appealing but create a bio diverse habitat for useful creatures. Hiding places and food sources can be mixed. It is important to know the growing habits of your plants so you can best utilise their features. For example if you are growing lettuces that enjoy shade why not plant taller flowers such as many in the Asteraceae family that will create shade and do their bit for the insects too. Or, if you don’t have many trees in your garden plant giant sunflowers at corners which will attract insects from miles away. They will also provide seeds for birds and a safe landing post. Birds in your garden are great for keeping down slugs and other slimy invaders. Infact, placing tall plants anywhere that create a safe landing height is a good idea to attract birds. We put sticks up as growing points for climbing plants and this inadvertently provided a spot for birds, much to everyone’s delight. Of course, not all birds are so happily invited but that is just how it is when you share your space with nature. If you are gaining unwelcome visitors at least providing them with easily foraged foods can help to keep them off your desired plants or protecting such plants with netting can easily keep them off.
Poached egg plant – Small yellow and white flowers abundant on this low growing, hardy annual. Beans grow upwards so leave much ground exposed to the elements and prone to either drying out, water logging or weed infestation. Plant these flowers around bean tepees for ground cover and to attract pollinators, as well as look pretty.
Calendula – Simple bright and edible flowers can be planted at edges of salad beds or indeed any vegetable plot. They attract an array of flying bugs that aid pollination and are an easy target for even the clumsiest bee! This hardy annual will self seed easily and if you regularly dead head you will have a bright, albeit gradually smaller, floral display well into winter. As well as providing a use for the animals you share your garden with Calendula has many medicinal properties and can be used in a vast array of home made cosmetics and food stuffs. Our favourites include gardeners hand scrub with calendula providing a soothing skin remedy for weary hands or our calendula sugar, great for adding delicate flavour and colour to sweets and biscuits. These flowers also fare well both indoors and out so create a beautiful greenhouse or polytunnel with these.
Marigold – According to much folklore many marigold varieties carry a strong scent that confuses insects such as whitefly and blackfly and so can help to keep them away from plants they are planted near.
Basil – Another strong scent which deters insects ready to feast or lay eggs on your plants. Planted at the edge of tomatoes keeps many low flying nasties away whilst still allowing high flying pollinators to get to tomato flowers for pollinating. Also, reminds us that tomatoes and basil are a from similar places and enjoy similar growing conditions as well as tasting great when they end up on a plate next to one another.
Nasturtiums – Apart from attracting many hungry beneficial insects they provide edible leaves and flowers. Planting around edges means they don’t interfere with space but create a pretty boundary and because they are ground cover they help repress weeds. They self seed easily or you can harvest the seed yourself and pickle for a home made version of capers. Delicious!
Viola – These come in a huge variety of colours and sizes and happily grow amongst all sorts of things. You can interplant or place them at edges. Edible flowers can be added to food and the colour can be added both indoors and out from these hardy annuals.
Peruvian bluebell/Shoo-fly plant – Nicandra physalodes – Very useful and attractive plant. Purple flowers eventually turn into dainty dried lanterns. When in bloom it is reputed to keep away blackfly from nearby plants. Plant at entrances to greenhouses or polytunnels to use this unique ability. Can be grown in a pot for easy mobility. Will not over winter so seed save if you can for following year. Happily grows in poor soils also.
Tansy – A total hero in the organic gardening world. Tansy has been used for centuries to repel bothersome insects. Coffins were packed to ward off beasties and even meat was wrapped in the leaves to keep it safe from larvae producing insects. It has been proven to reduce colorado potato beetle, but that is not a problem in the UK. Repels flies, so have it on a windowsill or entrance to greenhouse and also can repel ants if that is a problem. The plant can be planted next to plants to be protected and leaves can be regularly picked and put wherever they might be useful Try mixing them with a mulch at the base of plants that are at risk. Not only does tansy repel unwanted insects but it actually encourages beneficial ones.