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A Companion Planting Guide And Introduction

by Lyndi Perry

companion plantingIt may be possible for growers to maximize their profits, increase the output of their land, and lower their cost of inputs by using the simple principles of companion planting. Companion planting is an excellent way to introduce and integrate specialty crops into lands that are already being used for production, increasing a field’s yield with little extra input. This article is an introduction to common companion plants that are easy to grow and integrate on small- and medium-scale farms.

Companion planting is the art and science of matching and growing plants that can help each other in some way. The idea is to mimic a natural ecosystem in which many different organisms work together to benefit and sustain the plants long-term populations. Some ways that plants can help each other (and the farmer) include enriching the soil, repelling pests, and enhancing the growth, production, and flavor of the plants they are near.

Soil Enrichment

Perhaps the best known and most useful companion plants are legumes.

Legumes like beans, peas, and lentils add nitrogen to soil. They can help reduce the amount of manure and chemical fertilizers that must be added for plants that are demanding on soil, like corn and sunflowers.

Pole beans will even climb the stalks of their tall companions and thrive in the partially-shady conditions, increasing the amount of produce grown on the same amount of land. Though pole beans planted in this way must be hand-picked, they can be sold as a specialty food items at farmers markets and fruit stands, offering a nice return on the labor. The beans are picked before the corn and sunflowers ripen and do not interfere with mechanical harvest.

Pest Repellents

Lettuce, plants in the cabbage family, and fruit crops like strawberries are particularly susceptible to insect damage. As companions, consider using plants in the allium family like garlic and onions. These pungent plants are very good at repelling general insects like ants, aphids, and slugs. They are easy to harvest and sell. Marigolds are also excellent at deterring many kinds pests and are one of the few plants that repel nematodes; however, they may be more difficult to sell on the market. Other pungent herbs can also help in the never ending battle against harmful insects. For example, mint can drive away ants, is extremely easy to grow and harvest, and is also desirable in the market place as a culinary herb. Using any of these plants in combination with field crops or as field borders can help cut down on costs and labor time associated with spraying insecticides.

For growers who struggle to keep deer out of their fields, seeding the perimeters of small plots with yarrow or lavender can help move deer traffic away from a crop. Lavender is a highly marketable herb. Though yarrow is less marketable, it is easy on soil and will readily self-seed in most areas of the United States, reappearing on its own every year and requiring almost no maintenance.

Growth, Production, and Flavor Enhancement

Some plants require bees and other pollinators to visit them in order to achieve high yields of produce. Squash, tomatoes, and other fruiting vines in particular will benefit from having many pollinators in the area. Unfortunately, these plants are not always great at drawing pollinating insects to them, especially when they require pesticide applications. However, growing other, more visible and attractive flowers can aid in drawing pollinators to the area. For example, borage is considered an herb and is a favorite of honey bees and other pollinating insects. When planted with tomatoes, it has the added benefit of deterring tomato hornworms, and is said to improve the growth and flavor of the tomatoes (though this last point has not been scientifically proven). The young greens and flowers of the borage plant are edible, but it may be difficult to find a market for this plant. Consider selling it as a specialty item at local markets. In general, using bee balm and other insect-drawing flowers as border crops can create a beautiful and useful landscape and and that can also potentially be sold as fresh cut flowers at local markets.

Since the ultimate goal is to improve the farmer’s bottom line, it should be noted that companion planting is not cost-effective in all situations and should be used on a case-by-case basis. Growers are strongly advised to thoroughly research their options and start the process of integration slowly, only increasing production once they are sure that their methods are working and they have a marketplace for their produce.

However, it doesn’t have to be difficult for growers to integrate new crops. Companion plants do not necessarily need to be within inches of each other. For row crops, simply alternating between the companions can have a very positive effect, and some crops are extremely effective when planted as borders. By increasing the diversity of crops on their land, farmers can provide themselves with some insurance that at least part of their harvest will pay off in a bad growing year. Increased diversity also helps prevent some of the common side effects of monocropping by deterring fungal and bacterial diseases, preventing perennial pest infestations that target specific crops, and maintaining soil structure and fertility.

The bottom line is that companion planting can be effectively used in many ways. Farmers who wish to take advantage of the scientifically-proven benefits of companion planting should not be afraid to try something new. They may find that taking a small risk will pay off greatly.

About The Author

Lyndi Perry

Lyndi Perry works for Utah State University's Agriculture in the Classroom program. Here, she coordinates media resources and writes educational content for the state-wide outreach programs that her organization supports. She has a degree in English and has spent years educating herself on broad topics of interest in plant and animal agriculture.