Tag Archives: pollinators

7 Benefits of Companion Planting

By Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Ira Wallace

At first companion planting may seem like an odd idea. However if you consider how plants grow in nature, there’s never sections of just one species. There’s always a mix of species with different niches and ecological functions. While scientists have really just skimmed the surface studying the interactions between plants we do know that many plants have beneficial relationships and that applies to garden plants too! That’s why when we plant monoculture sections of crops we’re setting ourselves up for less healthy and productive gardens.

Companion planting is one of the easiest ways to mimic a natural ecosystem more closely. There are many benefits you’ll see in your garden if you use companion planting this year.

The list below contains some of those benefits and easy ways to achieve them in your home garden.

Companion planting saves space.

It’s perfect for people trying to make the most of their small gardens. A common way to use companion planting to save space is by planting a vining plant under a taller one. It uses space that would otherwise stay empty or fill up with weeds. Another method is to plant quick growing crops in between rows of slower growing crops. My favorite two plants to tuck in around our garden are radishes and green onions. They can be stuck in just about anywhere and harvested before the other crops start to fill up that space.

It keeps soil moist and helps prevent erosion.

Not having large spaces of open soil not only allows you to grow more plants but helps hold the soil and keep it moist. Vining plants like squash and cucumbers are especially useful for shading the soil. In a time where droughts have become a real problem in much of the United States this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of companion planting.

It keeps weeds out.

The same way that having soil covered in plants hold water it also blocks weed growth. In the well known Native American method, the three sisters garden, vining squash is grown beneath corn and beans to shade the soil and prevent weeds from growing.

Companion planting can decrease pest issues.

When you ditch the conventional monoculture garden layout it will be harder for pests to destroy your crops. They won’t find a solid patch of their favorite food. Some plants even deter certain pests. For example, wormwood can be planted among cabbage and other brassicas to help deter cabbage moths and marigold can be planted with beans to deter Mexican bean beetles.

Companion planting can help with disease issues.

Just like with dense gatherings of people disease is spread more quickly through your garden when plants of the same type are all in one big group. Adding different species to a planting can help break up your garden and slow the spread of disease. As previously mentioned plant interactions aren’t fully understood but certain plants have been shown to make other plants healthier therefore lowering their susceptibility to disease. Good examples of this are beans in the three sisters garden method providing nitrogen for the corn and squash and growing basil with tomatoes which many people believe makes for healthier tomatoes plants.

Companion planting can be used to attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

Beneficial insects of all sort will be more likely to spend time in and travel throughout your garden if there’s plenty of habitat and food available. Throughout our garden we include patches of of flowers and flowering cover crops like clover, vetch, and buckwheat. It’s good to choose varieties that have extended bloom periods.

Companion planting can eliminate the need for trellises.

The most common living trellis is probably the corn which pole beans grow up in a three sisters garden. However there’s many other tall plants that are suitable for lightweight climbing plants including sunflowers, sorghum, Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth, and fruit and nut trees.

Companion Planting Examples

Asparagus, Parsley, & Tomatoes: plant together for better harvests.

Beans & Marigold: the marigold deters Mexican bean beetles.

Cabbage & Buckwheat: the buckwheat attracts parasitic wasps that will kill cabbage worms.

Carrots & Rosemary: the rosemary deter carrot flies.

Lettuce & Chives: the chives can help deter aphids.

Melon & Radishes: You’ll get two crops out of one bed as the radishes can be harvested before the melon plant spreads.

Tomatoes & Basil: intercropping basil makes for healthier tomato plants.

Radishes & Spinach: radishes attract leaf miners which don’t harm the radish bulbs but will destroy a spinach crop.

Beets & Garlic: intercropping garlic improves the health of the beets.

Peas & Fruit Trees: Peas can use the tree as a trellis and are so early they’ll be done before the tree shades them fully.

Squash & Borage: the borage deters harmful worms and improves the squash plant’s health.

Nasturtiums and Cucumbers: nasturtiums add another edible to the same space and attracts beneficial insects.

Corn, Pole Beans, & Squash: the corn provides a trellis for the beans which provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. The squash shades the ground beneath the beans and corn keeping soil moist, blocking weeds, and utilizing space. Check out the Three Sisters Garden Package!

Using these examples and other plant relationships to your advantage can help you to achieve a productive and beautiful garden without resorting to conventional agricultural methods. Companion planting is one of the easiest ways to deter pests and present plant diseases organically. It’s abundance of benefits make it great choice for anyone looking to make the most of a small and/or sustainably focused garden.

Have you tried companion planting? Comment and let us know!

VABF Conference Wrap

VABF John Boyd
John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association

Last weekend I got to attend my first Virginia Biological Farming Conference, not just as a participant, but as part of the team making it happen, the Tradeshow Coordinator. If you have any interest in organic farming/gardening, I highly recommend going next year. There were fascinating talks on a wide range of topics, great exhibits from a variety of vendors and organizations, and the food was unbelievable.

Some highlights:

  • Southern Exposure teamed up with Seed Savers Exchange for an all day special seed saving pre-conference workshop. I had to duck in and out while setting up for the exhibits, but I still learned so much!
  • Nazirakh Amen of Purple Mountain Organics gave a talk about his rice farming project on University of DC land. In addition to being a farmer and tool vendor, Nazirakh is a Chinese medical practitioner with extraordinary insights to impart.
  • Rodger Lenhardt of Norm’s Farms brought his fabulous elderberry products. He traded us some syrup (great against coughs and as an immune-booster) and jam, and I now have three little elderberry sticks on my windowsill happily sprouting roots.

    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
  • Debbie Roos of the NC Cooperative Extension got me all fired up about pollinators and what we can do to attract and protect them. Look for pollinator blog posts soon!
  • Did I mention the food? The food alone was worth going to this conference for. There were contributions from local farms at every meal, but best of all was the giant pot luck lunch. Let’s just say I regretted that I was wearing a corset.

    So much yummy food!
    So much yummy food!

Sustainable Agriculture Research Stations

Continuing our summer road trip adventures! Besides seed growers, we also visited with many vegetable breeders and researchers on our trip.  Here we’ll profile four organic and sustainable agriculture research stations.

North Carolina State University’s Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, NC (near Asheville) is up in the hills, and cooler and wetter than most of NC – a great place for tomato disease trials! Here, Luping Qu, Reuben Travis, and Jeanine Davis discuss how to measure the effects of diseases for their trial notes.

There’s a lot going at the Mountain Research Station. Besides tomato trials, we got to see melon and squash trials, stevia trials, hops trials, organic broccoli variety trials, and much more – here’s an overview of this year’s research projects. And that’s just the Alternative Crops and Organics part of the farm – elsewhere on the farm, there’s a big broccoli varieties trial that’s part of a multi-state project that aims, among other things, to find broccoli varieties that hold up well in the heat of the Southeast.

A great practice at the Mountain Research Station farm (and at many other farms we visited) is to plant strips of flowers and herbs — usually on the edges of fields, but sometimes in the middle as well. These flowers and herbs help attract pollinators and bug predators.

Jeanine is the co-author of Growing and Marketing Ginseng, Goldenseal and Other Woodland Medicinals. Her blog about the work at the Mountain Research Station is a great read. She’s a dedicated outreach person, and besides giving talks at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, she regularly speaks at many conferences, including this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, September 11-12.

A quick stop was the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center in Knoxville. We were already visiting three different Tennessee farms that day, but there it was, only a couple miles away from Jonathan Buchanan’s Crooked Road Farm, so we dropped in for a quick look. Much of the farm’s work is giving young beginning farmers experience growing market crops, but we also got to see pepper trials, stevia trials, and – a great new vocabulary word – ratooning trials for kale and other crops in the brassica family. Ratooning is the practice of severely cutting back plants to stimulate new growth for later production. Okra growers in the Deep South often do it, so as to keep okra plants from getting 10 feet tall or more! Here’s a ratooned kale crop at the East TN Research and Education Center.


Next was the USDA’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, with Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC) nearby. Mark Farnham and Richard Fery with the USVL, and Brian Ward (at left below) with the CREC, showed us around. Here Mark talks about his work with breeding summer broccoli that holds up in July heat. Vegetable breeding is patient work – it can take planting out big fields of dozens of different breeding lines to find the best traits. This was July, swelteringly hot in Charleston, but there was some great looking broccoli out there – Mark’s hoping to release some of the breeding lines in the next few years!

Mark (at right below) is a brassicas guy; another recent project of his and Pat Wechter’s, Carolina Broadleaf mustard, is a leafy green bred for resistance to a bacterial leaf blight that’s become a problem in the Deep South. The USVL makes small amounts of breeding stock available to seed producers, so we’re hoping to line up some of our own seed growers for this one and have it in the SESE catalog in the next few years.

Richard Fery is emeritus plant geneticist at the USVL. He’s worked on many different seed crops over the years, mostly peppers and southern peas. He and his colleagues bred the nematode-resistant Carolina Wonder sweet pepper, Charleston Hot hot pepper, and many others, and he’s shared seedstock with us of southern peas releases that we’re hoping to be able to offer in the next few years.  He’s in the picture below at right, with colleague Floyd P. Maguire at left.

Across the street, Brian Ward gave us a fast tour of the organics section of Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Interesting projects included watermelon seedlings grafted onto gourd rootstock for greater disease resistance and vigor, a study of alternative pollinators for watermelons, rice trials, and seed increases for heirloom varieties of peanuts, southern peas, and corn. Alas, so much to see, but so little time!

Our final stop in the research portion of this trip was the Cherry Farm facility in Goldsboro, NC, for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), a collaboration between several NC ag departments. With 2,245 acres available, CEFS has a huge area to do all kinds of big studies, with long term studies of soil nutrition, tree alley crops, forest succession, animal husbandry, and many others. Research Operations Manager Andy Meier generously took time on a Sunday afternoon to show us around. CEFS helps provide the space and support for many NC ag folks and groups to do trials.  Their variety trials this year include wheat, barley, soybeans, and this southern peas trial with four repetitions. Again, so much to see, and so little time!

Next week we’ll spotlight two individuals who we visited who breed exciting new varieties.