Vegetable companion planting is the practice of purposely growing edible plants near each other to help create a symbiotic relationship. Imagine if you could choose your neighbors. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to choose to live next to a handyman? Or maybe your favorite relative, your babysitter or a cheap mechanic? Well, you may not get to ever choose whom you live near, but you can help your plants have good neighbors that they will enjoy and benefit from as well!
Planting your garden symbiotically is not a new idea by any means. As you may remember from grade school, the Native Americans used to plant “The 3 Sisters”: pole beans, squash and corn. The pole beans climb up the corn, while the squash sprawls out over the ground, helping to shade out most weeds below. (A word of advice from my own experience: get the corn started first. Otherwise, the bean and squash plants will shade it out if it isn’t tall enough yet.)
There are many different reasons for choosing to grow companion plants in your garden. I try to plant herbs that function well symbiotically with different plants in my garden, but are also useful when prepping meals. Basil, borage, and rosemary, for example, are ideal dual-purpose herbs for both garden and kitchen. Bee balm, echinacea, and lemon balm are invaluable homestead medicine allies for making healing salves and tinctures.
As an added bonus, controlling garden pests with beautiful plants beats out spraying chemicals on your edibles!
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Many aromatic herbs help to deter pests away from your crops, such as our good friend, garlic. According to a study done by researchers in Brazil, garlic has proven effective in reducing spider mites when planted amongst strawberries. I like to plant elephant garlic in my own garden to deter pesky cabbage moths from my tomatoes and kale. I’m careful not to plant near autumn peas or beans, however, as it slows their growth. (The sheer size of an elephant garlic bulb is a big delicious bonus, though any variety of garlic works!)
There are many other fragrant herbs that work this way, like mint, lemon balm, onion, marigold, lavender and rosemary. They all have scents that specific garden pests dislike, which will them off elsewhere to find a snack. I will send out these words of warning to any gardeners using mint as a deterrent: be cautious when planting any members of the mint family in your garden. Most will spread like crazy if given the chance!
Personally, I think there are far worse “weeds” to pull out than mint. I like its scent, and it helps to deter those darn mosquitoes that find me delicious while I’m sweating away in my garden. So, maybe you’ll want to plant your mints in pots to stop them from spreading throughout your vegetable beds. (This also makes it easier to place them where they are needed!)
Attract Pollinators and Other Beneficial Insects
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Most plants flower at some point in their leafy lives, but certain flowers and herbs attract much-needed pollinator friends! For example, I plant calendula and borage to help attract springtime honeybees. I eventually harvest the calendula to make healing salves and soaps, and borage is delicious in salads! Bee balm and echinacea help attract bees, and can be used in herbal medicines. In addition, the beautiful flowers in my zinnia patch are perfect for drawing the busy little bees that are harvesting in autumn.
Other herbs such as yarrow and dill attract beneficial insects, such as parasitic wasps. These lay eggs in living caterpillars that like to eat up your garden! Though the thought is gruesome to most, I feel these wasps provide a much more natural way to fight tobacco hornworms. They’ve munched away on far too many of my tomatoes over the years! (Though my chickens always like the free lunch they get when I remove hornworms by hand. They stand at the garden’s edge, ready to spring on the next caterpillar I toss their way!)
Add Nutrients and Minerals into Your Soil
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Some types of deep-rooted plants bring nutrients from far below the soil, like comfrey. The minerals (N, P, K and Ca) that are absorbed by comfrey’s tap roots are eventually found in the leaves they drop in autumn. This becomes a nutrient-rich mulch at the base of my fruit trees. Another deep taproot plant that does this is burdock. I warn you that these deep tap-rooted plants will be a royal nuisance if you decide you no longer want them. This is why I plant comfrey: it’s useful in healing salves as well as being a beautiful addition to my orchard.
Some plants are nitrogen fixers all by themselves, meaning that they add N back into your soil. Plants in the legume family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) are famous for this. Garden beans, peas, alfalfa, and clovers can be planted to replenish the soil after a heavy feeder has been there. The best way for your garden to receive this N is to “till under” these plants BEFORE they go to seed. That way, all that good N is still available as they break down in the earth. I like planting clover for this, as their flowers help to attract pollinators as well!
Create Shade or a Natural Support for Climbers
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I like growing a few taller plants, such as sunflowers or Jerusalem artichokes, to help give some much-needed summer shade to my smaller plants at their feet. They can even become a living pole for a climber plant like morning glories, or even passionflower. Sunflowers will hinder potato and bean growth though, so I plant a few sparingly throughout the garden. Birds and gravity help to replant the next season’s sunflowers for me! On the other hand, having a patch of J chokes at the edge of your garden creates shade, and as a bonus, the tops can be pruned and used for mulch!
A Living Weed Suppressor
As I mentioned before, squash and other vine-type plants are excellent for hindering weed growth. Planting sweet potatoes will do the same, spreading out along the ground and stopping the majority of “would-be weeds”. Sweet potato leaves can be eaten raw or cooked just like any other type of green. For some reason, this isn’t commonly known to a lot of U.S. gardeners.
I have several Mulberry bushes planted as a “trap crop” near my garden to help keep birds off of my blueberry bushes and fig trees. Birds prefer the easier-to-eat mulberries, and I’m happy to offer them as an alternative tasty treat! I also plant a few tobacco plants at the edge of my garden, as hornworms will munch on them instead of my tomatoes.
Using a combination of the reasons above will help you to have a happy and productive garden full of plant friends! But, like any neighborhood, you must always watch out for…
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For every happy friend you plant between your rows to help your crops, an antagonist will show up. These try to ruin everyone’s fun, slowing everything down or even stopping growth completely. Fennel is a great example of a plant that is a wonderful herb, but a really bad neighbor to most annual garden crops. I found this out the hard way.
I had a very healthy 2nd-year fennel plants that I decided to transplant near some tomatoes by one year. Long story short, the tomatoes never took off and I learned that fennel is disliked by most annuals. So, plant fennel on the outside edge of your garden, or even amongst other fragrant herbs. Just not near your vegetables.
The following list is a small selection of vegetable companion planting options for the most common garden crops:
|Friends With||Not Friends With|
|Asparagus||Tomato, Parsley, Basil|
|Basil||Tomato, Sweet Peppers|
|Beans||Beets, Carrots, Cauliflower, Corn, Cucumber, Marigolds, Potatoes, Strawberry||Onion, Garlic, Fennel|
|Beets||Onion, Bush Beans, Lettuce, Broccoli, Kale, Cabbage, Collards||Pole Beans, Mustards|
|Broccoli||Potatoes, Dill, Beets, Onion, Sage, Peppermint, Oregano, Rosemary||Strawberry, Tomato, Bush and Pole Beans, Mustards|
|Cabbage||(same as Broccoli)||(same as Broccoli)|
|Carrots||Lettuce, Peas, Onions, Rosemary, Sage, Tomato||Dill|
|Chard||Lettuce, Radish, Mint|
|Cilantro||Carrots, Radish, Chard||Fennel|
|Corn||Beans, Cucumbers, Potatoes, Peas, Pumpkin, Squash, Marigold, Sunflowers, Jerusalem Artichokes|
|Cucumbers||Beans, Corn, Peas, Radish, Okra, Sunflower||Potato, Mint, Lemon Balm, Lavender|
|Fruit Trees||Comfrey, Garlic, Borage, Strawberries, Plantain|
|Lavender||Broccoli, Kale, Collards|
|Lettuce||Carrots, Radish, Strawberry, Cucumber||Cabbage, Parsley|
|Okra||Cucumbers, Sweet Peppers, Eggplant|
|Onion||Beets, Strawberry, Tomato||Beans, Peas|
|Peas||Carrots, Radish, Lemon Balm, Mint, Cucumbers, Corn, Beans, Potatoes||Onion, Garlic|
|Pumpkin||Corn, Pole Beans||Potato|
|Radish||Peas, Lettuce, Cucumbers, Beets, Spinach, Carrots, Tomatoes, Beans||Potato|
|Garden Sage||Rosemary, Oregano, Cabbage, Carrots||Cucumbers|
|Spinach||Strawberries, Collards, Mustards|
|Squash||Corn, Red Clover|
|Strawberries||Beans, Borage, Lettuce, Spinach||Cabbage|
|Tomato||Asparagus, Onion, Bee Balm, Parsley, Calendula, Carrot, Garlic||Potato, Corn, Cabbage|
If you are an adventurous gardener and are looking for even more information on plants not listed here, I would highly recommend checking out this great poster chart, and this guide and chart. I would also suggest reading one of my favorite books on vegetable companion planting: Carrots Love Tomatoes.