Picture a vegetable garden full of bright flowers and variable foliage. Instead of a giant garden with straight rows of vegetables, you have many smaller beds, each a jumble of vegetables, herbs and flowers. A waste of space? Not at all! It turns out that vegetable gardens that exult in variety are inclined to be the most productive. Companion planting, folks – that’s the name of the game.
A classic book in the lexicon of gardeners is Carrots Love Tomatoes. Since this book came out, however, many others have joined the bookshelf, and one of my favorites is Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham. This book has almost become my garden bible because it is not only chocked full of great gardening advice, but it is immensely readable!
The key to a successful garden really is variety. You want to avoid the monoculture. When you plant expanses of just one type of plant (be it trees, flowers, or vegetables), you increase the odds that some disease or insect pest will find it and destroy it. If, on the other hand, you mix things up, garden survival rates soar!
But you don’t just want to chuck plants/seeds haphazardly into your garden; you need to follow a plan, you need to mix and match appropriately. For example, carrots and onions/chives are great companions. Carrots can be susceptible to carrot rust flies and onions/chives deter them. Onions are great for companions for many plants, actually, because of their pest-repellent qualities. Carrots also like caraway/coriander, calendulas and chamomile.
Beans and potatoes – these are a classic combo because the beans will help deter Colorado potato beetles. Here’s my two cents worth on this: bush beans yes, pole beans no. Make sure you use the right beans! Beets and onions are another good pair – alternate these root vegetables in your garden plots (I’ll discuss garden plots vs garden rows in another post). Your cabbage family plants (like broccoli) do well with aster family plants (like zinnias, dill and marigolds). Growing corn? Then you might want to try the traditional corn-beans-squash trio that many of our native people used (and still use). Plant your greens among your garlic, or under your cucumbers, or under broccoli and cauliflower, where the leaves will shade the tender greens from the harsh summer sun. Tomatoes do well with basil and peppers – all your pizza ingredients in one bed!
Nasturtiums, cosmos, calendulas and marigolds all feature prominantly in my veg garden – they provide wonderful spots of color, but also attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. Buckwheat is another great attractant for pollinators, and it’s also a great green manure when turned into the soil.
So break away from the boring vegetable garden. Turn it instead into a riot of color and textures. Mix and match your herbs and flowers and vegetables, and then see if your produce doesn’t do better for the effort.