Even if you’ve never heard of intercropping, there’s a good chance you already practice it to some extent. Have you ever tucked slim, shallow-rooted leeks among your carrot rows? What about tucking a quick arugula crop between slower-growing squashes and cucumbers?
If you’ve played around with companion planting in close quarters, you’ve entered the lush world of intercropping.
All About Intercropping
Let’s get some basic definitions out of the way. Intercropping is the technical term for the practice of planting two or more crops in close proximity. Doing this successfully requires a bit of additional focus on companion planting. This is to ensure your plants aren’t hoarding resources, or attracting all the wrong insects.
With that definition, it’s easy to see why this is an attractive option for gardeners with limited space. Instead of devoting a whole bed to cucumbers, you can fill in gaps with carrots or potatoes. In fact, if done well, intercropping can double your garden’s efficiency. Basically, you can grow two or more crops in the same space!
This is an exciting concept, even if you have acres of land to work with.
Why Haven’t I Heard of This?
If this is you’re first exposure to the term intercropping, you’re not alone. Most gardeners never hear about it unless they start looking into permaculture methods. The world of permaculture can feel like a new frontier, and the terms that pop up as you navigate it are often intimidating.
But don’t worry. You don’t have to dive into permaculture to practice this type of multi-purpose gardening. You don’t even have to understand the term in order to grow plants in a shared space. Permaculture’s vocabulary can be helpful, but ultimately not necessary to grow food successfully. You’ve got this!
If you’ve been on the outside of permaculture jargon, come on in. I’ll help you feel confident as you learn.
Intercropping with Intention
Alright, so with basic definitions out of the way, lets take a closer look at intercropping. A great initial introduction to the concept is the traditional Three Sisters method.
Meet The Three Sisters
This is an old native American method of growing three crops together. The “three sisters” are squash, corn, and beans. They’re planted together, and they grow up together as sisters in the same patch of earth. The plants serve one another as they grow, in a friendly symbiotic relationship. Tall corn provides a sturdy structure for beans to climb, and squash planted along the outside offers a ground cover to reduce weeds.
The three sisters support and nurture one another, and none of the plants take nutrients from the other. Each compliments the other’s needs. Sustainable gardeners have been growing the three sisters together for hundreds of years. It’s a time-tested way of stepping into intercropping in a gentle way.
The three sisters aren’t the only way to step into this gardening method. You can mingle two or three different plants just as successfully. Let’s take a look at some companion plants that will work together in close quarters.
Cucumbers and carrots pair well, and thyme and tomatoes would be a wonder couple. Zucchini, beets, and nasturtiums would also be lovely grown in close proximity, and asparagus and strawberries are good neighbors.
Styles of Intercropping
There are four basic methods of intercropping. While all of them involve growing two or more plants together in a harmonious bed, each method is a bit different.
In this form, at least one of the components is planted in rows. Often, the components are planted in rows one right beside the other. Row intercropping is one of the most common forms of this growing technique in the modern world. It feeds our love of order and neatness, while maximizing yields.
Industrialized row intercropping is often call strip form. The plants grow in rows (or strips) wide enough to be harvested by machinery. It’s likely you won’t be bothering with this kind of strip growing, but many large-scale farms find it beneficial.
The Three Sisters are often planted as mixed intercropping. These plants are bunched together in natural, purposeful ways, and allowed to grow in unison with very little man-made structuring. This growing aesthetic might feel a little messy to the modern type-A gardener, but the cottage-gardener will love it.
This is a carefully timed method that allows you to grow and harvest your plants in a cyclical pattern. Some crops will be in their flowering stage when others are planted. Others will be harvested as others are in bloom. Relay intercropping can be practiced alongside row or mixed intercropping.
What This Method is NOT
Intercropping is an intentional practice. You can’t just jumble a careless collection of plants together and call it a day. There are a few practices that sound similar to this one, but violate the spirit of the practice by promoting carelessness or a lack of sustainability.
This method requires careful crop rotation to avoid depleting the soil. After a summer harvest from your Three Sisters, plant rye and vetch in a mixed intercropping to renew the soil for the next growing season.
Intercropping also require attentive companion planting. Don’t overload your bed with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. Plants that require the same nutrients and attract the same pests should share close quarters.
Basically, it’s just a form of companion planting. Combining plants without following companion wisdom will lead to a messy, unproductive garden, not intercropping.
Benefits & Drawbacks
Like all gardening techniques, there are both pros and cons to intercropping. Of course, if you listen to enthusiastic permaculturists, you’ll hear that there aren’t any drawbacks at all. But don’t be fooled. As much as there is to love about this method, it’s not without problems.
Let’s look at the benefits first.
Intercropping is full of benefits. It’s a beautiful, sustainable way to grow a garden with a rich tradition in the history of gardening.
Intercropped gardens have fewer weeds, because successive planting suppresses weeds. The more intentional and close knit your intercropping arrangements are, the fewer opportunities weeds will have to invade.
Intercropped gardens make use of every inch of soil. There’s no wasted space, since every bit of soil is shared by two or more productive plants. For small-space gardeners, this literally opens up hundreds of growing options.
Insurance Against Loss
Nature can be cruel at times. Pest problems and wild weather might destroy a crop that you were depending on. With intercropping, there’s always an opportunity to save the season with a secondary crop. If torrential rains drown your radishes, well, maybe the cucumbers will still survive. Intercropping gives you the chance to cover your losses.
No system is perfect, and this method has some serious flaws that you should be aware of before jumping in.
That’s right: intercropped vegetables often don’t produce as much as vegetables grown conventionally. You may have room for more plants, but this technique can overload the soil or crowd plants. For gardeners hoping to add variety, low yields aren’t a big problem. If you’re hoping to earn an income from your garden, however, it can be a big drawback.
Intercropping can be complicated. You have to companion plant with care, and you have to focus on spacing more than the average gardening. Additionally, harvesting can be a huge challenge as you try to harvest one variety without damaging another. As simple as it might sound in print, intercropping can be a complex gardening dance—and one mistake can be devastating.
There are a lot of little needs that add up while gardening with this method. You don’t have as much weeding to do, but planning and supporting the plants as they grow takes time. Few machines are able to work among inter-crops, so you have to do everything by hand. Successful intercropping takes a lot of research and upkeep, especially in the first year.
- Did you get all that? If not, don’t worry, I’ll condense it a bit for you:
- This is a permaculture gardening method in which you plant two or more complimentary plants close together.
- You can create an intentional, intercropped garden in four different ways: row, strip, mixed, and relay. Each method has its benefits, and occasionally, you can combine these methods.
- Remember that careful companion planting is essential to successful intercropping. Don’t just throw a few plants together and hope for the best. If you’re careful and focused, it can be a great system. But there are a few drawbacks—primarily lower yields of individual crops.
- If you want to try intercropping, start small. it can feel overwhelming to make a big chance in your garden. Intercrop two or three plants in just one bed. Try the three sisters method of mixed intercropping as your first experiment.
Consider it Carefully
Intercropping might be the gardening method for you if you have the time and focus to make it succeed. But it might be more trouble than it’s worth if you’re not a confident companion planter, or if you don’t have the time to invest in the process.
Think it through, and spend some time planning the method that works best with your gardening style!