Spring is finally here, and with it, planting season. Before buying ineffective, expensive and harmful chemical pesticides or fertilizers, try some companion planting techniques and let nature run its course. Here’s a list of the top ten best buds for your garden.
10. Three Sisters (Corn Squash and Beans)
Native American agricultural tribes have been using this combination of corn, squash and beans for centuries because it works. A fish would be buried under a small mound for fertilizer and corn would be planted on top of the mound. Squash would cover the ground beneath the corn while the beans climbed up the corn and added nitrogen to the soil. Multiple mounds could be integrated into an edible landscape. Though this is only one combination of plants that work well together, it is simple, proven to work, and a great basis for understanding permaculture gardening strategies.
Yarrow is a beautiful wildflower that both repels insect pests and attracts beneficial insects to the garden such as predatory wasps, ladybugs, butterflies and bees. Yarrow is known for its beautiful, intricate leaves and bright flowers and can be effectively used to combat soil erosion. Besides benefitting the garden, this herb can be used as an anti-inflammatory agent, a tonic, astringent, or can be used in a variety of other medical uses. Flowers can be used to make bitters and has been historically used to flavor beer. Due to its hardy nature, yarrow thrives just about anywhere in the garden and comes in a variety of colors, making it excellent for aesthetic and practical purposes in any garden.
8. Stinging Nettles
Possibly the most unpleasant plant on this list, the stinging nettle is considered a weed by most. Chemical secretions within this plant cause it to burn when handled, so exhibit caution. Despite its drawbacks, stinging nettles are used in a variety of medicines and remedies including gastrointestinal aid, BPH, increasing testosterone in bodybuilding, or as a treatment for rheumatism. The leaves are eaten by many types of caterpillars and will increase the amount of beneficial insects in the garden. Stinging nettles are a natural repellent to aphids and the roots contain anti-fungal properties. Nettle leaves can be cooked as a healthy green or dried and used in herbal teas (soaking in water and cooking eliminate the sting). This weed is extremely beneficial, though care must be taken around the stinging leaves.
A strong, but pleasant smelling plant, wormwood is most famously used in absinthe, though can also be used to brew beer, wine, and in making bitters. This hardy bush contains chemicals that are the base of all standard malaria medications, but with wormwood no medication is necessary. It is a natural mosquito repellent, as well as a deterrent for moths, slugs, fleas, flies, and mice. Scattering wormwood around the perimeter of a garden acts as a natural fence to ward off unwanted visitors.
These perennial herbs are a great addition to nearly any garden. They are unobtrusive to other plants and will increase yields of beans, asparagus, chives, eggplants, pumpkin, squash or cucumbers amongst many others. As long as the light is not being blocked and there is plenty of room for root growth, most plants will thrive alongside both marjoram and oregano. An aromatic mixture of herbs such as mint, spearmint, oregano, lavender or lemon balm can fill any empty spaces in the garden, stifling weed growth.
Everyone needs an herb garden. Besides repelling moths, ants and mice, mint is a great addition to many drinks, desserts, or as a garnish. Keep mint with other similar herbs and they will quickly fill out the space. Cabbage and tomatoes reportedly increase yields in the presence of mint, but proceed with caution. Despite all of its benefits, left on its own mint will take over a garden. It grows back with a vengeance after being cut. That being said, there will be no reason to ever buy mint at a grocery store again.
4. Beans (Legumes)
Everyone loves beans, and for good reason. Part of the legume family, they don’t need much space, they’re healthy, and they will revitalize your garden soil. Unlike many plants that use up valuable nitrogen from the earth, beans actually put it back through special enzymes in their roots. Known as nitrogen fixing, legumes take atmospheric nitrogen (N2) and convert it to Ammonium (NH4) in the soil, making this macronutrient available to future and current plants in the vicinity. Aside from plants in the onion family, beans will thrive alongside most crops. For best results, plant legumes before, after, and amongst heavy feeders like tomatoes, squash or broccoli.
Great in soup and even better in the garden, chives are a hardy, low growing part of the onion family. Besides inhibiting mildew growth and repelling many harmful insects, the bright purple flowers are known to attract bees, which are needed to pollinate squash, tomatoes, cherries, or a plethora of other flowering plants. Chives are best grown under most types of trees, bushes and vines but should not be present alongside beans. Harvesting can be done throughout the season as this plant will constantly regrow its leaves. Chives and other members of the onion family are excellent additions to any garden.
Besides flavor, garlic has a multitude of benefits for many plants. Because this bulb thrives in shaded, nutrient rich soil, cover plants are recommended. Garlic has been known to deter ants, mosquitoes, aphids, cabbage butterflies, caterpillars, snails, tomato worms, weevils and vampires (can never be too careful). Despite all the apparent benefits, avoid planting garlic with any type of beans, cabbages, or sunflowers since they will compete with one another for valuable nutrients. Next time you have an extra clove of garlic, plant it under a fruit tree, amongst cucumbers, or interspersed with lavender. It will grow with minimal effort. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and garlic certainly is that friend.
1. Tomatoes and Basil
Probably the most well known example of companion plants. Besides improving each other’s flavor, tomatoes and basil really do work together. The tomato vines provide shade for the delicate basil, which delays flowering, lengthens the harvesting season, and overall increases the yield. Meanwhile, basil is a natural repellent for fruit flies, house flies, and aphids who want nothing more than to lay eggs in a plump, delicious tomato. Tomato roots run deep, while basil tends to stay closer to the surface, eliminating competition between the two plants. High yields and high flavor means true plant love.
This list is far from exhaustive, but these are some useful additions to the permaculture garden. Be sure to experiment with your own combinations to get the best yields year after year and remember; plants need friends too.