“Teamwork makes the dream work.” The phrase that birthed a thousand motivational posters seems to have originated in “Let’s Go,” the theme song of the 1986 New York Mets championship baseball team.
But that doesn’t mean the concept is new, nor does it apply solely to humans. People around the world have also known that some plants, when grown together, perform better than when on their own. They can grow faster and bigger, taste better, and require less care and fewer external inputs.
That’s not how the vast majority of crops are grown these days. Large-scale commercial agriculture relies on a method called monocropping, in which huge fields contain a single species year after year.
It makes sense from an industrial perspective. By having only one crop, everything can be standardized, from sowing to watering to weeding to applying biocides to harvesting. Theoretically, monocropping provides bigger yields with fewer costs.
In practice, it turns out that monocropping is something of an environmental disaster. Its downsides include increased global food insecurity, more reliance on potentially carcinogenic biocides, and harmful climate impacts.
While replacing monocropping as an agricultural system will take time and require large-scale changes in attitudes and knowledge, you can contribute to a more earth-friendly and effective form of growing crops if you have access to a garden of just about any size.
And like the ’86 Mets, your garden crops can exceed expectations and come out of the ground as champions if you allow them to support each other. A simple way to begin is known as companion planting.
In this article, we’ll explore which plants grow well together, and why. You’ll see how plants with very different qualities and requirements can do some of the work usually performed by the gardener — including weeding and chasing away predators. And you’ll discover some natural ways to deter pests without depending on toxic pesticides.
So let’s find out how companion planting works, what the benefits are, and which edible plants work well together for a flourishing and nourishing harvest. Whether you’re a novice gardener with a few potted plants or someone looking to create a vibrant backyard vegetable garden, companion planting has something to offer.
A Brief History of Companion Planting
Growing crops together for their — and our — mutual benefit is not a new idea. Although many gardeners and small-scale farmers are just now discovering the benefits, for thousands of years, companion planting has been integral to the well-being of many Indigenous peoples.
The benefits have been material, in terms of more abundant and nutritious harvests, and spiritual, in terms of a philosophy of life that nurtures community. In one of the best-known examples of companion planting, many Indigenous groups in North and Central America sow corn, beans, and squash together.
The Haudenosaunee Confederation (you might know them as the Iroquois) of upstate New York and the Cherokee of the Southeastern US call them the three sisters, noting that like family members, the three crops share their unique gifts in ways that support each other.
While modern life often emphasizes individualism, Indigenous wisdom shows us that planting a diversity of crops together ensures a diversity of life — and nutrients. Diversity really is one of the cornerstones of healthy life. Having a variety of crops growing in a single bed or field acts as a safety net against diseases or pests that could decimate any single crop.
What Is Companion Planting?
Now that we’ve explored the philosophy of companion planting, it’s time to get practical.
Companion planting is the practice of growing two (or more) crops/plants near each other so that one or both benefit from a synergy. These can include fruits, vegetables, herbs, and even flowers. Some companion planting occurs simultaneously, such as the three sisters. Sometimes one crop is sown near the end of another crop’s growing season (a more advanced form of companion planting known as intercropping).
An example of intercropping is when peas are sown into existing spinach beds in the very early spring. The peas get a head start without ripping out the spinach, and as legumes, they add nitrogen to the soil. By midsummer, the bolted spinach stems support the growing pea vines. These types of efficiencies are frequently used in organic farming methods as they improve pest resistance and increase yield.
Companion planting isn’t just a Native American innovation; examples can be found all around the globe. Traditional European cultures also developed modes of companion planting whose use goes back to medieval times, if not earlier.
For example, French and English farmers still grow “potager” gardens consisting of fruits and vegetables sown in an ornamental layout and protected by surrounding rows of herbs and flowers. These potager beds were so named because they contained everything needed for “potage,” a healthy soup eaten at the start of the daily meal.
Benefits of Companion Planting
So what exactly are the benefits of companion planting? Why might you want different crops to share space in your garden? Here are a few of the biggest ones.
Since synthetic pesticides are such an integral part of modern agriculture, it’s easy to forget that they’ve only been in widespread use since the end of World War II. Before that, farmers had to rely on companion planting, among other natural methods, to control pests.
Plants use a variety of strategies to protect themselves from predators. One is to produce compounds that the critters who might munch on them find yucky tasting or toxic. And different plants produce scents and tastes to deter specific pests. So combining multiple crops in a small area can create “broad-spectrum” deterrence that benefits all of them.
You can “hide” certain crops next to other ones that have powerful scents. Herbs like rosemary and flowers such as marigold can perfume the air and camouflage crops such as white cabbage that might otherwise end up as a tasty treat for some very hungry caterpillars.
You can also engineer the process in reverse, planting crops that attract beneficial insects that eat the bugs that would otherwise love to eat your crops. Some of these good predators pull double duty as plant pollinators, which can increase the yields of some fruits and vegetables.
It’s not just teeny critters that can be deterred by companion plants. If you’ve ever grown corn in an area that’s home to raccoons and you don’t have military-grade fencing, you’ve probably experienced some vandalism. (Maybe you’ve even woken up to entire beds of stalks lying broken on the ground, the almost-ripe ears nibbled and left to rot — a situation that can try the compassion of the most committed vegan!) In a three sisters’ bed, the prickly squash leaves deter the raccoons from climbing and destroying the corn stalks.
Essentially, more plant diversity in an area equals less pest damage.
Companion plants can offer structural support to each other. Taller plants serve as living trellises, offering support for climbing plants that need something to climb. In the three sisters, corn serves as a trellis for the beans. But also, beans can provide stability for the corn, which has very shallow roots. (It reminds me of a Mitch Hedberg standup routine: “My belt holds my pants up, but the belt loops hold my belt up. I don’t really know what’s happening down there. Who is the real hero?”)
There are many other structural pairings that can work. Okra can hold up cucumbers and cherry tomato bushes, and sunflowers can provide scaffolding for baby pumpkins and small summer squashes.
Planting taller and shorter crops together can extend the growing season of the smaller plants by giving them some shade and relief from the heat of late summer. This can keep them from bolting or wilting.
Soil Health and Nutrition
All living things require nutrients, which get cycled from soil to plants to animals and back to soil in a continuous loop. When you grow different plants near each other, you can accelerate and expand that nutrient cycling.
For example, some deep-rooted plants like comfrey and dandelion pull nutrients from lower layers of soil — nutrients that are out of reach of short-rooted crops like lettuce. Other nutrient accumulators include chives, parsley, and daikon radish.
Comfrey is especially useful as a “mulch crop,” meaning you can just cut off its thick green leaves and lay them down over the soil, where they not only discourage weeds and maintain soil moisture but deliver their nutrients to the topsoil as they decompose.
Another classic companion planting benefit involves nitrogen. This element is a bit of a paradox when it comes to gardening: Even though the air is about 80% nitrogen, it can be in short supply in the soil. And nitrogen is not a gardening negotiable; plants require it in order to photosynthesize and grow.
Fortunately for the plants (and for all life on earth that depends on them — no nitrogen, no protein), some species of plants have developed the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use, a trick known as nitrogen fixation.
The vast majority of nitrogen-fixers are legumes, which include peas and beans, greens like alfalfa and clover, and peanuts. And technically, to give credit where credit is due, the legumes themselves don’t turn the nitrogen you breathe into the nitrogen plants use to grow; they partner with certain types of bacteria that grow on their root nodules who have the knack.
Including nitrogen fixers in your garden can benefit neighboring crops that require high nitrogen levels. This can reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers that can damage the environment and make your soil less fertile and more dependent on chemicals over time.
Another way companion planting can improve soil health is by combining deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants in the same bed, a strategy that can enhance soil structure. If your soil is compacted or has lumps of clay, for example, plant roots can muscle through and aerate the soil. And when those plants die, their roots decompose and add nourishing organic matter to improve soil tilth and fertility.
Also, having a diversity of plants in a single bed fosters a highly diverse soil microbiome. Each plant attracts its own unique microbes. And those microbes promote nutrient cycling, breaking down organic matter into nutrients the plants can absorb and use. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, helping the plants gather nutrients from a greater surface area and convert those nutrients into a usable form in exchange for carbohydrates.
And planting crops close together can protect the surface of the soil from erosion caused by wind and water.
If you’ve ever hung around someone who talked in a very distinctive way or had a catchphrase they repeated a lot, you may have found yourself mimicking them without meaning to. Plants are the same way — their flavors can affect each other.
Scientists have recently discovered that plants talk to each other, sharing intel on resources and potential threats so that they can make informed decisions on where to put their energy. One of the main channels of such communications is the exudates (compounds secreted by the roots) that can impact the growth and flavor of neighboring plants.
For example, when aromatic herbs are planted near certain vegetables, they can infuse their neighbors with a hint of their distinctive flavors. Basil improves the taste of tomatoes. Dill goes with potatoes not just in salad, but in the garden as well. And marjoram is a good friend to eggplant.
Sometimes the influence is one-way, but some plant combinations have a synergistic effect on each other’s biochemical processes, leading to enhanced flavor profiles all around.
I remember when I realized for the first time that nobody weeds the forest, and yet it’s not covered with weeds. That’s because every inch (or centimeter, in my country of birth, Canada) of ground is already covered with something.
The reason the beds of annual gardens are such weed magnets is that they’re very unnatural. The act of tilling renders the soil unprotected from the many seeds that can blow in on the wind, drop out of the backsides of birds, or lay dormant in the ground until that gap opens up and oxygen floods in.
When companion planting involves cover crops or green mulch, it can prevent those seeds from taking root or from receiving enough sunlight to start growing. Cover crops can compete directly with weeds, both while they’re growing and after they’ve finished producing.
And when companion plants allow for denser planting, there are fewer nutrients and less sunlight available for the unwanted plants we call weeds. And some companion plants secrete chemicals that inhibit the germination of weed seeds, but not the seeds of the companion.
Common Fruits and Vegetables and the Companion Plants That Benefit Them
Things to Keep in Mind Before Trying Companion Planting
Start with flowers as companions. Growing flowers near your crops can help attract the insects that will pollinate fruit and veggie plants. They can also repel bugs and other critters that would love nothing more than the opportunity to eat your harvest before you do.
Marigolds, nasturtiums, and sunflowers are common flowers included in vegetable gardens because they work well with a variety of plants. And nasturtium leaves and flowers are edible (sweet and redolent of black pepper, if you ask me), as are sunflower seeds.
In terms of spacing, plant the companions as close together as possible without interfering with the growth of either plant. Think about how much root space they require, and whether they’ll start competing for sunlight. With some combos, you may need to split the difference between their spacings in order to optimize the benefit to both plants.
Always go for variety. A diversity of plant species will attract pollinators and beneficial insects as well as prevent disease and fungus from wiping out crops of the same family. A 2018 study of urban rice fields in Shanghai found that adding border plantings and companions to the rice reduced the need for pesticides while increasing both yields and profits.
Finally, think like a matchmaker and look for signs of compatibility when assigning plants to beds. Choose companion plants that are compatible in terms of growth habits, water and sunlight requirements, and overall nutrient and soil needs.
It’s not always a jungle out there, but while some plants thrive together, others will compete for resources.
And for extra credit, plan your garden layout to include plants with staggered planting and harvesting times. This ensures a continuous supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season, as well as minimizing empty spaces that pests or weeds might exploit, or that might be prone to soil erosion.
Recipes Using Companion Plants
Get ready to have some tasty and nourishing fun with your companion planting harvest. While the culinary options are endless, we created a few delicious recipes to help those creative juices flow when it comes to figuring out what to do with the fruits and vegetables that grow best together. What makes these recipes (and companion planting itself) even more special is that each plant companion enhances the flavor of the other — making each dish even more appealing and delicious!
Have you found that when you grow alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, chives) they just keep coming? Well, if you have a surplus of these aromatic plants, a great way to use them is with our Veggie Scrap Bouillon. This easy-to-make recipe requires just a handful of ingredients and a food processor to transform vegetable scraps into a whole-food veggie paste. Plus, this recipe is companion-planting friendly, so feel free to swap out some of the ingredients for any other veggies you’d like to use in a wholesome vegetable broth!
We love few things more together than the sweet and earthy pairing of spinach and strawberries in a fresh garden salad. Vibrant and fresh green leafy spinach and bright and juicy red strawberries are the perfect way to show off your garden harvest. When you toss them together with crunchy pecans and umami red onion, it makes a wholesome plant-pals dish!
Cucumber and radish are a hydrating, calming, and nourishing duo that is a delight to plant together. Not only do they make great growing partners, but they become tasty best friends in this recipe, too! This dish is vibrant, refreshing, and nourishing and is perfect to serve as a flavorful appetizer or light side after a fun day of gardening!
Summer Squash, Lima Bean, and Corn Medley is an outstanding vibrant, fresh, and colorful dish to enjoy the flavors of summer. What makes this dish so special is the balance of flavors and sweetness thanks, in part, to these three crops. Beans, corn, and squash are a natural pairing, which is why they also make wonderful planting companions in your garden.
Eggplant, tomatoes, and parsley make a tasty trio in this mouthwatering Grilled Mediterranean Eggplant “Steaks” recipe. Not only are they stellar in this recipe, they are best buds in the garden, too! Eggplant, tomatoes, parsley, and a few other crops grow well together, so if you are curious about the benefits of companion planting, give these wholesome plants a try!
Plants Need Companions, Too!
By choosing plants that naturally support one another, you not only cultivate a beautiful garden but also nurture an ecosystem of mutual benefit among plants. From deterring pests and enhancing flavors to nurturing soil health and creating mutual support, you can create a gardening world full of connections.
From ancient traditions to modern organic farms, this practice has woven itself into the fabric of sustainable gardening, offering a natural approach to cultivating the vibrant, harmonious garden of your dreams. Let us take inspiration from proven Indigenous practices like companion planting, and emulate the natural harmony that exists in the natural world in our own gardens.
Tell us in the comments:
Have you tried companion planting in a garden?
Which species did you pair?
What companion crops are you inspired to try together in your next garden?
Featured Image: iStock.com/andreswd
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