Many of our readers would have heard of the organic gardening technique ‘companion planting’. Some of you may be confidently planting according to this method; others may be hard and fast sceptics. I imagine there are also some readers who have never even heard of the concept.
This final article in the Stoep Harvest series will explain the ideas behind companion planting and give a list of examples for you to try in your garden.
To begin with, let me remind you of two aspects of organic gardening that I mentioned in the first article in this series. Firstly, organic gardening is not a fixed science, but rather a gradual process of learning what works in your specific garden environment. The companion planting examples that I will share are well-known, however, in some gardens they seem to be less effective.
Secondly, because organic gardening is about a process and an ongoing interaction, organic solutions take time to achieve their full effect. Organic gardening is a long-term endeavour; it is artificial chemical-based farming that consists of quick-fixes (with long-term detriments). With organic companion planting, the companions need time to mature in order to have their full effect.
With these two points in mind, let us now turn to the technique of companion planting. I like to compare companion planting to human companionships. We all know that there are some people that we absolutely love being around. We are good friends, companions. Our relationship makes us want to be better people and makes us feel better about ourselves. This is a positive companionship and is the essence of companion planting in the garden – selecting compatible plants to grow next to each other for mutual benefit.
The negative effect
By the same token, there are certain people that we may avoid. We do not look forward to seeing them and when we are together it is uncomfortable and definitely does not encourage growth! Again, this is the same in the garden. Certain plants have a negative effect on each other when they are planted close together.
As humans, we are drawn to others through love, joy, affirmation and so forth. We avoid others for fear, pain and maybe just bad breath! So how does it work in the garden?
Companion planting works in a number of ways. One of the main ways is the smell of the plants – the pheromones that the leaves, fruit or even roots produce. Plants (and pests) are sensitive to the smells around them, much as we as to the strong smell of alliums (the onion family).
Another way that companionships work is through the physical presence of neighbouring plants. Taller plants may be useful to provide shade in summer or act as a wind break. They can even serve as a trellis for climbing plants. A negative companionship will exist in winter when taller plants cause too much shade for other plants.
Happiness breeds flavour
Did you know that companionships can improve the flavour of the plants? Planting herbs such as thyme and chives beneath fruit trees can give the fruit a stronger flavour. I find this fascinating! Another aspect of companion planting that I love is something called ‘trap cropping’. Certain plants are like magnets for pests and can be planted at the edge of the vegetable garden to intentionally attract pests away from the veggies. In this way, a bed of nasturtiums is a good companion – attracting snails away from the vegetables.
Companions are also useful to attract beneficial insects to the garden. I always plant flowers somewhere in my vegetable garden as the bright fragrant petals attract beneficial bugs such as bees and ladybirds. Good examples are sunflower, goldenrod, and hyssop.
Possibly the main reason for companion planting is to repel pests from within the vegetable garden. Pungent herbs planted selectively among your vegetables will keep out all kinds of insects, from ants to aphids. Around the house, these companions are also useful – to keep out mosquitoes, flies and even ticks and fleas from around the kennel.
Often it is the plants that taste good together that are also companions in the garden. Think of tomato and basil (see below), potato and mint, peas and carrots. All of these should be grown and then cooked deliciously together!
In my gardens I always plant a ‘perimeter of smell’ around the vegetables. I plant strong-smelling vegetables and herbs as a barrier to pests – marigolds, lavender, rosemary, scented geraniums, and alliums. These are generic companions that protect the whole garden. Lavender and rosemary are also good windbreaks, useful to plant in the southeast of any Cape garden.
Finally, here is a table of companionships that I commonly use. I recommend Margaret Roberts’ book Companion Planting for a comprehensive guide.
We have covered planning the garden, preparing the soil, composting, planting, mulching, watering, pest control, rotating and now companion planting. All the articles will remain on the site and my contact details are below for further correspondence.
I wish you all the best with your gardens; may they be abundant; may they be a place of joy and peace for you; may they encourage a green revolution in Africa!
July Planting Table (from seed):
- Western and Southern Cape: beetroot, cabbage, carrot, lettuce, parsley, pea, radish, tomato, turnip.
- Inland: cabbage, pea.
- Coastal KZN: bush and pole bean, beetroot, cabbage, carrot, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, parsley, pepper, potato, radish, squash, sweet corn, swiss chard, tomato.
By Sam Adams
Sam runs Living Green, an organic food gardening company in Cape Town.