Companion Planting & Intercropping

“Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.”

Permaculture Principle #8

 

Companion Planting: What is it?

Companion planting is the practice of planting mutually beneficial plants in close proximity to one another. By practicing companion planting, you can increase the biodiversity in a garden while employing valuable, low input methods of pest and weed control.

 

Companion Planting: Why do it?

While it may seem simpler to plant a bunch of one type of plant in a given area/plot, the benefits of companion planting outweigh the potential inconvenience it may cause. Some of these benefits include:

  • Increased biodiversity
  • Pest control
  • Weed reduction
  • Maximization of space
  • Pollination

Each of these benefits will be covered in greater depth below.

 

Companion Planting & Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture and companion planting often go hand in hand. With less pesticides and herbicides at their disposal, it makes sense that proponents of organic agriculture would turn to companion planting to help solve their pest and weed problems.

Many large-scale conventional farms plant vast areas of land with only one or two crops – monocultures—which present widespread pest and disease problems. If a pest is mainly attracted to cucumbers, for example, and a farmer plants nothing but cucumbers for acres and acres, that crop is an easy target for the pests that love it. Conventional farmers can apply pesticides, but organic farmers have to attempt to find other solutions first. First step? Creating diversity. While it may be easier to maintain a single crop, adding multiple other crops to the mix can greatly decrease the instances of pest and disease problems.

 

General Examples of Companion Planting:

  • The three sisters: pole beans, corn and squash. The beans climb up the corn stalks as they grow, ie. using the stalks as a trellis. As the squash grows at the base of the corn plant, it sprawls out, providing ground cover that shades out weeds. As an added benefit, if you till the beans back into the soil at the end of the season, you’llthree sisters be adding nitrogen back into your soil for next season’s crop.
  • Mix flowers and herbs in with your vegetable crops to attract beneficial insects and pollinators and deter harmful pests.
  • Legumes! – Planting legumes in between beds or as a cover crop between seasons is an excellent way to return nitrogen to the soil for later use.

 

 

Companion Planting for Increased Biodiversity: By companion planting, you’re adding a variety of plants to your garden, thereby increasing the biodiversity, which is both aesthetically pleasing and beneficial from a pest and disease perspective.

While companion planting won’t solve all of growers’ pest problems, it’s an integral part of minimizing the impact of pest damage. At the very least, with mixed plantings you have other “insurance” crops if your desired crop is lost to pest or disease problems. In other words, you’re not dependent on one sole crop.

seedlings

 

Companion Planting for Pest Control: Several plants are known to attract beneficial insects, while other plants are known to deter harmful pests. By utilizing the knowledge of which plants serve which purpose, we can inter-plant our desired crop with the beneficial plant, resulting in less pests, and therefore less need for pesticides.

  • Repelling pests with smells: Some pests are attracted to certain crops because of their scent, so covering up the scent of that crop could be an effective way of deterring pests. We can try masking smells by planting crops with strong odors nearby, such as garlic or onions (14).
    • Garlic is recommended as a companion plant for roses, tomatoes, and cabbage for its pest-repelling powers (26).
    • The aromas “given off by volatile essential oils in mints, thyme, lemon balm, and lemon geranium often make pests flee” (26). Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening suggests moving a potted plant of lemon balm around your garden as needed for pest control — ideal for small growers.

Lemon balm

  • Repelling pests with colors: Some pests are attracted to certain colors, and so one possible method of controlling pests would be to plant an off-color variety of the crop you want (24).
    • For example, certain common pests (“whiteflies, aphids, cucumber beetles, fungus gnats, onion flies, carrot rust flies, cabbage root flies, and imported cabbageworms”) are attracted to a yellow color in plants, so if certain alternative cultivars exist with different colorings, you can plant those to deter the pest. Try a purple cabbage instead of the conventional green.

cabbage

  • Using plants as decoys: Certain plants are known to be the favorites of pests, such as Nasturtiums for aphids, and can be used as “attractant plants” – ie. Plants that attract negative pests towards them, and thus away from your cash crop.
    • Using plants as decoys, ie. Trap crops, can be an effective way to manage a pest, but it is labor intensive and requires close observation. Timing is important, and so it’s necessary to understand the life cycle of the insect you’re dealing with. You want to keep your trap crops close to the other crop which the insects are feeding on, and carefully observe for signs of the pest. Once the trap crop is infested, you’ll want to remove the plant and the pests from the garden, either killing the pest or taking it far away from the garden. Because of this, the process can be somewhat wasteful, as you’ll be growing a crop that you won’t be able to harvest or add back to the soil.

nasturtium

  • : While many insects are considered pests because of the harm they do to plants, other insects are considered beneficial, because they actually help with pest control by eating harmful insects. We can attract these beneficial insects by planting their favorite plants, like growing dill to “attract pest-eating spiders, lacewings, and parasitic wasps” (15)
    • Some good plants for beneficials include yarrow, fennel, and goldenrod because they produce a lot of pollen (17).
    • Look for different plants you can add to your garden year round to make sure that something is bloom for the bees and other beneficial insects. You’ll want to mix these plants in with your vegetable crops so that the beneficial predator insects can have easy access to pests when they attack your crops(28). Be sure to find a list  of plants suitable to your region and climate!

goldenrod

 

Plant Families Beneficial Insects They Attract
Daisy Family (Compositae) Parasitic wasps, hover flies, green lacewings, assasin bugs, lady beetles
Mint Family (Labiatae) Bees, hoverflies, others
Carrot Family (Umbelliferae) Lady beetles, hover flies, parasitic wasps, spiders
Miscellaneous flowers A large variety of beneficials, especially pollinators

 

  • Constructing physical barriers: It’s a good idea to construct a physical barrier out of plant material, such as a border around your garden of sunflowers in the summer when pest problems are at their peak. You can also plant deciduous bushes as a border around your garden, or evergreen shrubs (26-27).

 

Companion Planting in Action: Where to begin?

So you’ve decided to try companion planting to minimize pest and disease problems, but where to start? Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening’s edition on companion planting offers the following questions to ask yourself in attempting to identify the problem (23):

  • Which plants are not growing well?
  • Are they bothered by pests or some disease or deficiency?
  • Are there holes in the leaves? (You could be dealing with chewing pests like beetles, slugs, snails, or caterpillars).
  • Finding tunnels in stems? (Chances are good it’s borer attack)
  • Do any plants have distorted growth? (If so, it’s probably evidence of sucking sects like aphids, thrips, and leafhoppers)

In general, companion planting is more effective when the pest that you have a problem with is attracted to one specific plant or plant family. Some pests are less picky, and will feed on a variety of crops; these are harder to effectively exterminate from the garden.

As far as pest control goes, companion planting is only one facet of a larger solution, and often needs to be employed alongside other strategies, like physical controls (using screens/fabric coverings to prevent pests’ access), cultural controls (disrupting insect reproduction at key times to prevent outbreaks from future generations of pests), and occasional chemical controls (pesticides, both conventional and organic).

 

Companion Planting for Weed Reduction: We can use companion planting to help with weed reduction by considering planting the aisles between our beds, or around trees in orchards, with low-lying plants known to help suppress weed growth. By doing so, we would also be providing ground cover which would help to combat erosion and preserve the soil structure

Example: You could plant white clover as ground cover underneath apple trees or underneath other trees/bushes in an orchard. By acting as a ground cover, the white clover would prevent weed growth, and it would also attract ground beetles, which are predatory insects that help control harmful insect populations.

 

white cloverSONY DSC

 

Companion Planting for Maximization of Space: Companion planting can be valuable in ensuring maximum utilization of space. Areas in a garden that would normally be neglected, such as around the border or in the aisles, can be planted with low-maintenance plants that provide benefits to the garden/farm as a whole.

 

Companion Planting for Pollination: We can intercrop our desired cultivars with other plants that attract pollinators, which would in turn benefit the entire garden.

  • Example: Consider planting Asters in your garden in the early fall to keep the beneficials around into the cool season. Asters not only attract bees, but also hover flies and lacewings. If you have unused/extra space in your garden, these make an attractive companion plant.
  • UGA has a partial list of plants that attract bees, along with their corresponding blooming season. If you live in the southeast United States, it’s a good place to start: http://www.ent.uga.edu/bees/pollination/plants-year-round-forage.html

bees

 

 

Allelopathy

Some plants prevent other plants from growing around them by releasing chemicals into the ground and the air around them. These chemicals inhibit plant growth – a mechanism to prevent competitors. (20). It’s important to understand which plants are allelopathic, because they can damage other nearby crops. Here’s a chart of some common crops and the plants that they prevent from growing in the vicinity (information taken from Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening Companion Planting).

 

Crop Plant it Prevents
Bear’s-breech Cucumbers, oats, radishes, cabbage
Broccoli & Cabbage Widely allelopathic
Corn Allelopathic when young
Fennel Variety of vegetables and herbs
Milkweed Sorghum
Sunflower Widely allelopathic

 

Despite the dangers of allelopathy, if used correctly, growers can also use allelopathy to their advantage, as a way to prevent weed growth. For example, as annual rye decomposes, it prevents weeds like redroot pigweed, common ragweed, and green foxtail from growing. Rodale’s suggests: “Grow it as a cover crop, and turn it under while potent and young to clean out weedy soil” (21).

 

Intercropping: What is it?

Intercropping involves planting two different plants in the same space at the same time. It’s similar to companion planting in that it emphasizes utilizing beneficial relationships between plants, but it’s a bit difference in that it emphasizes planting different plants in the same space as opposed to space close in proximity.

companion planting

 

How to Effectively Utilize Intercropping

  • Consider life cycles: some plants mature in one season/year (annuals), while others have long-term life cycles (perennials). It’s important to understand the life cycles of the plants you wish to grow, so that plants mature at the desired time, and so that you’re not disturbing perennials when you harvest your annuals.
  • Growth habits: Plants have vastly different growth habits: sprawling, growing upright, remaining relatively compact, etc. It’s important to avoid planting two plants with the same growth habit in the same place, as they’ll compete for space and resources.
  • Light & shade tolerance: Likewise, it’s important to consider plants’ sun requirements. While it might make sense to plant corn with bush beans, since the former grows tall and the latter remains close to the ground, in actuality, the bush beans require abundant sunlight, and would not thrive in the shade of the corn plants.
    • Most vegetable plants require full sun, but a few are somewhat shade tolerant (48-49)
    • Partial shade: alyssum, arugula, basil, bee balm, beets, broccoli, chard, cabbage, carrots, chervil, cucumbers, endive, kohlrabi, lettuce, lovage, mint, peas, parsley, pansies, parsnips, radishes, rhubarb, and spinach
    • Tolerant of full shade: browallia, hostas, impatiens, lemon balm, lovage, mint, periwinkles, pachysandra, sweet woodruff, and tuberous begonias
  • Rooting patterns: Different plants occupy different root zones, so for successful interplanting, you’ll want to combine deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants for maximization of resources.
    • Very shallow rooters (to 18 inches deep): celery, lettuce onion, radish
    • Shallow rooters (to 2 feet deep): broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chinese cabbage, cucumber, muskmelon, pepper, spinach, and tomato
    • Intermediate rooters (to 4 feet): bean (snap), beet, carrot, eggplant, pea, pepper, rutabaga, and summer squash
    • Deep rooters (to 6 feet): asparagus, beans (lima), parsnip, pumpkin, tomato, watermelon, and winter squash (45).
  • Nutrient needs: Combine light feeders with heavy feeders. You wouldn’t want to plant two heavy feeders in the same space, as they’ll compete for nitrogen and other nutrients and both will be negatively impacted.
    • Heavy feeders: asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, melons, okra, parsley, parsnips, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, rhubarb, spinach, squash (summer and winter), sunflowers, tomatoes, and watermelons
    • Light to moderate feeders: basil, beets, carrots, cilantro (coriander), dill, fennel, garlic, leeks, onions, radishes, rutabagas, sage salsify, shallots, sweet potatoes, thyme, and turnips
    • Soil improvers: alfalfa, broad beans, clovers, lima beans, lupines, peanuts, peas, shell beans, snap beans, soybeans, sweetclovers, and vetches (47).

 

Examples of Intercropping:

The following are examples of successful intercroppings based on plant growth habits (43).

  • Cool Season:
    • Broccoli with beets
    • Cabbage with thyme
    • Carrots with trellised peas
    • Spinach with trellised peas
  • Warm Season:
    • Bush beans with summer savory
    • Corn with squash
    • Melons with sunflowers
    • Tomatoes with basil
    • Trellised cucumbers with lettuce

 

Alley Cropping

Alley cropping involves planting strips of vegetables between narrow rows of trees or shrubs. It’s a good way to include both annuals and perennials into your garden, which has many benefits, including:

  • Preventing erosion
  • Blocking strong winds
  • Sheltering beneficial insects
  • Providing shade for sun-sensitive crops
From Rodale's Successful Organic Gardening: Companion Planting
From Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Companion Planting

 

All information unless otherwise noted is gathered from:

McClure, Susan, and Sally Roth. Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Companion Planting.

New York: Distributed in the Book Trade by St. Martin’s, 1994. Print.

 

 

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In fact, according to the World Food Programme, a branch of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one third of all food produced is never consumed.  Furthermore, according to research from 2013 conducted by the USDA Economic Research Service, 49.1 million people in the U.S. live in food insecure households. So why are 49.1 million people in the U.S. considered food insecure if we have all this extra food that’s going to waste? The food exists, but the pathways for the food to reach hungry people don’t, at least not in adequate supply.

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Food Labels: the Fact and the Fiction

Packaging & Marketing

As the demand for healthy, organic food rises, more and more companies bring products to the shelves that make claims like “all natural” or “sustainable”. While the increased access to healthy foods is certainly a positive advancement, companies often utilize unregulated buzzwords in an attempt to sell more of their product. So although you might feel better purchasing products labeled “all natural” or “sustainable” or “cage free”, in reality, those terms might not mean what you think they mean.

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A Brief Overview of Organic Agriculture

What is Organic Agriculture?

Organic agriculture is a form of agriculture that emphasizes biodiversity, and aims to improve the quality of the soil over time by implementing practices such as crop rotation, composting, and cultural methods of weed control. Here’s a break-down of common organic practices:

  • Crop rotation – rotating plots so that crops from the same family are not continuously planted in the same area (this helps reduce pest & disease build-up in the soil, and helps slow the depletion of nutrients in the soil)
  • Cover crops – allowing a field to “take a break” every few crop rotations by planting a crop that provides nutrients (specifically nitrogen) back to the soil (this prevents nutrient degradation over time, and improves soil structure)
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  • Mechanical weed control – maintaining weeds by non-chemical methods, such as by hand-weeding, using hand-tools like hoes, using larger tools like tillers, or employing methods such as soil solarization (using plastic on soil surface to prevent weed growth)
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The 12 Principles of Permaculture

This link leads to a site wrapped around David Holmgren’s 12 principles of permaculture, complete with existing examples of how these principles can be uniquely implemented. Don’t miss checking out the free downloads section of the site as well, which provides useful visual diagrams of the principles!

Sustainability Project Outline

I’ve made a project outline to try and inspire myself to research as thoroughly as possible (what can I say, I’m a planner). Below is a rough starting point for my research.


 

Sustainability 

  • Project: Design a sustainable living community that is as close to self-sustaining as possible (this includes food, water, buildings, and energy). Focus on making the smallest environmental impact possible, and include a list of tentative but realistic costs for each part of the community (land, building structures, farming equipment, etc.). Also, be sure to include a general timeline for the process of starting up the community (gathering experience, finding land, building structures), as well as a list of necessary/ helpful skills that would aid in creating a sustainable living community.
  • Possible Research Topics: Organic gardening, livestock, climate zones, maximizing crop production (green houses, crop rotation, perennials), garden design, existing sustainable communities, best locations for such a community (climate, larger community, art culture), building own structures (natural building techniques, yurts, etc.), alternative energy
  • Components to Include: (1) Three viable, potential locations for such a  community and extensive list of why they would make good locations (2) Breakdown of potential costs [land, growing supplies, farming equipment, solar panels/alternative energy, food stores, yurt, greenhouse, etc.] and start up money needed versus ongoing costs (3) Blueprint of community to scale (4) How much food would need to be produced to support community versus how much food would need to be produced to sell locally) (5) General timeline (6) List of skills and how to attain them prior to starting community (learning natural building techniques hands-on, working on other organic farms, etc.) (7) How to recycle and reuse nature’s gifts — ie. rain water collection, composting, etc. (8) Acreage necessary for such an endeavor
  • Suggestions: Start small — maybe six person community at first. You can always expand later. –> Create and outline that starts with bigger, more general topics and then further narrows –> Create a priority list to research, otherwise the vast wealth of information out there may seem daunting — what are the most important things to learn concerning making this sustainable living community a reality? Start with those things first. –> Provide figures and information on a spectrum — ie. six person community versus ten person community; just supporting community versus trying to grow/gain income.

About Returning to our Roots

I have created this blog as both a way to document and organize my own ongoing research related to the broad topic of sustainable living, as well as a way to connect to other people interested in living in a sustainable way. My hope is to one day start a small sustainable living community based around organic farming, in which every member of the community participates in building their own homes, growing their own food, and becoming familiar with the natural cycles and processes of the earth. I am just beginning my journey in learning to live my life with minimal impact to the earth, and I do not profess to know much about agriculture, natural building techniques, or alternative sources of energy. Instead, I hope this blog will record my growth, and help lead me towards more hands-on ways of gaining skills and experiences. This is but the first step on what I suspect will be a long and fruitful journey.