Better Bed Fellows: Companion Planting Tips

When it comes to gardening, choosing the right companion plants can reduce pests and diseases, increase the growing season, and magnify the bounty of your harvest.

| February/March 2001

Companion planting is based on the observation that some plant seem to have synergistic relationships with certain other plants One or both of them grow better, yield more, and sometimes even taste better when they grow near one another. I have found, however, that there's a lot more to companion planting than simply pairing up plants that benefit from one another's company. My wife Sylvia and I have spent years trying different combinations, and our garden now looks quite a bit different from the garden we had in our first companion planting years. In fact, every year's garden is an experiment. I can't take you on the whole companion journey, because we're still en route ourselves. But I can show you how we started while sharing some of things we learned along the way.

Eliminate the Negative

Companion planting begins with the liberating notion that we can sow different plants in the same garden space. It's important to remember, however, that while certain plants will help others thrive, some plants inhibit their neighbor's growth. The first step, then, in planning a companion garden is to eliminate the combinations that don't work. This is especially important if you plant in beds rather than in rows.

In a traditional garden, the root systems of plants in adjacent rows are kept apart by a wide band of compacted soil that roots cannot penetrate. In beds, on the other hand, plants may be only inches apart, so roots can spread and intermingle. Thus, it is particularly important to avoid antagonistic relationships — those in which the growth of either or both plants is inhibited. Antagonists should have at least six feet between them in a bed. Better yet, put them in separate beds.

You can avoid many problems by keeping a few entire plant families away from each other. For example, members of the cabbage and onion families don't get along with members of the tomato and pea families.

Sometimes, plants within families don't grow well together. They may be afflicted by the same pests or compete for the same nutrients. Close cousins carrots and parsnips don't get along; neither do potatoes and tomatoes. A cabbage planted among broccoli will attract cabbage moths as though it was among other cabbages.

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