Intercropping: Companion Planting that Really Works

| 3/18/2015 10:40:00 AM

Tags: companion planting, intercropping, Virginia, Pam Dawling,

Snap peas interplanted in a spinach bed

Many claims of benefits from companion planting (growing two crops together) are no more than wishful thinking. Tangible benefits, however, come from intercropping (also known as relay planting, interplanting or undersowing), which is when one crop (or cover crop) is sown or transplanted in the spaces between the standing crop before it is finished. Don’t worry about whether the two crops benefit each other, just look at how the gardener benefits! Growers who like to get maximum productivity from their land or the length of their growing season are drawn to intercropping. It is a way to maximize the diversity of insects and other beneficial organisms as well as increasing the productivity of the land. There may be other benefits such as sharing row cover, or irrigation.

Sometimes a small or quick-growing crop is planted between slower growing crops to use the space not yet needed by the slower crop. Sometimes a tall crop and a sprawling crop are planted together. Sometimes a later, slower, crop is given a chance to get started before the first crop is cleared. The first crop may act as a “nurse crop” in providing some shade, or some soil-holding roots. It is important that the intercrop not be allowed to outcompete the main crop, and that no weeds get any chance to compete with either crop. High soil fertility is needed to make this work.

Some intercropping gardening tips include planting spinach with peas, chard with lettuce or scallions, okra with cabbage, peanuts with lettuce. Using relay planting enables a cover crop to get established in a timely way that would not be possible if we waited for the food crop to be finished first.

Here I’ll write about relay plantings in the early spring vegetable garden. In the future I’ll cover late spring intercropping and late summer and fall undersowing of cover crops.

Interplanting peas in spinach beds saves time and space and makes good use of resources. Being a legume, peas do not need high levels of nitrogen in the soil, so interplanting in a standing crop without adding any more compost will work fine in soils with good fertility.

dairy goat


Aug. 5-6, 2017
Albany, Ore.

Discover a dazzling array of workshops and lectures designed to get you further down the path to independence and self-reliance.