Do you dream of living the country life in the city? Well, you can! The Urban Farmer: How to Create a Productive Garden in Any Space is a practical guide to producing fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs and honey in any suburban space! Check out this excerpt on Companion Planting and let us know how you go with your garden!
Companion planting is a very broad term that covers the benefits of growing certain plants in close proximity. It is another one of those concepts in any garden that can be complicated and can bring some folks to the brink of despair.
I have been down that path, and it really isn’t worth getting your knickers in a knot over. Yes, to really nail it you would need degrees in chemistry, physics, botany and soil mycology, as there are enzyme exchanges that occur between plants, but that is ‘next-level’ stuff. There are hundreds of books and charts available to follow, but use them as a guide only. They are the result of someone else’s system, and the combinations of variables that exist at your place have not been added into that equation. I opt for a simpler approach, which relies heavily on common sense, gut instinct and memory.
The basic principles I follow to gain benefits from companion planting are to select plants to grow together that don’t compete, that have similar growing needs, that can offer protection to one another and that attract pollinators or deter pests.
COMPANION PLANTS DON’T COMPETE
Nature is all about the strongest surviving. When plants that have to compete for air, light, water, root space or nutrients are placed next to one another, then it is likely one wins and the other loses. Plants that compete in this way do not make good companions in the garden.
COMPANION PLANTS ENJOY SIMILAR GROWING NEEDS
On the other side of the coin is the benefit of placing plants with similar requirements in the same garden beds. For example, lettuce and corn need a consistent level of moisture to remain in the soil at all times, whereas the herb rosemary may suffer from fungal issues or rot if its soil is too moist. Lettuce and corn are good companions, but neither would make a good companion for rosemary.
COMPANION PLANTS CAN OFFER BENEFITS TO THEIR NEIGHBOURS
Are neighbouring plants having a beneficial influence on those around them? This is a complicated question because of the variables. The size of each plant alters the microclimate around it, but only for a relatively short period of time in the case of annual vegetables. A tall, slow-maturing plant such as broccoli is in the soil for many months. While it is growing its large leaves throw a fair bit of shade, but at some stage it is going to die or be removed. When this occurs, there’s a dramatic change in the surrounding microclimates. From having a portion of shade for a particular amount of time during the day, the area is suddenly a full-sun environment. With planning, you can use this inevitability to your advantage rather than have it be a dilemma. In the ‘biz’ we call this ‘nursemaiding’. The large leaves of matured vegetables such as broccoli can offer protection to seeds sown or young seedlings planted under their canopy. The large leaves hide the vulnerable young plants from overhead predation and from heat. If timed correctly, the day that the broccoli comes out will be perfectly timed for the understorey seedling to have matured enough to be able to cope with the newly found sun and with some insect predation. As it grows, this new vegie can take up the baton and play the protective role for the next wave of youngsters. The tricky part is getting all the timing right each and every time. Play with it.
COMPANION PLANTS CAN HELP CONFUSE OR DETER PESTS FROM OTHER PLANTS
Insects navigate by scent and silhouette. Insects have an amazing sense of smell, but heir eyesight is not so great. It is possible to use mixed plantings to confuse insects and make it harder for them to locate their desired food source or egg-laying target. Incorporating scented plants such as herbs into vegie beds can minimise insect infestation. For example, insects rarely infest strongly scented herbs such as rosemary. If cucumbers smelt like rosemary (due to the presence of a bush nearby) then perhaps the cucumber could avoid some pests.
Planting all the same shaped vegies in rows is essentially creating a runway for insect invasions. Perfect silhouettes perfectly spaced, as occur in fields planted with one crop, are not natural and may be one reason why large-scale agriculture has become so dependent on pesticides. By mixing up crops, the silhouette becomes harder for an insect to detect. This can therefore help protect certain plants from certain pests.
COMPANION PLANTS ATTRACT PREDATORS
A diverse organic garden should attract predators all year round. Predators are insects and animals that prey on pests either for food or as a place to lay their eggs. Plenty of predators in a garden show the environment is diverse and natural. To ensure a balanced environment in regards to the number of pests and predators, it is important to provide habitat for all creatures. Provide water and sunning spots for frogs and lizards, and trees and shrubs for birds, wasps and spiders. Have something in seed, flower and fruit at all times to ensure there’s a diversity of creatures in your urban farm every day, not just visiting occasionally.
HERBS FOR COMPANION PLANTING
Herbs are an incredibly important part of an urban farm. They are generally very easy to grow and provide multiple benefits for entire farm system. Herbs are tasty additions to our culinary endeavours and have medicinal properties, but these uses play second and third fiddle to their most valuable function of system health. Herbs are the number one companion plant to grow in and around vegetables and provide a permanent defence against pest infestations.
They do not harm any insect but allow the system to find its own balances via natural insect predation. This approach is chemical free but nature rich. They are even effective when they are still small. Pruning their growing tips encourages vigorous new growth and also provides a valuable pest deterrent. Place the pruned sprigs in a spray bottle and cover them with hot water, effectively making a tea. When the tea cools, spray it on to vulnerable vegetables to alter their scent temporarily. This exercise can be repeated until the young vegie has grown enough to be undesirable to the pest.
Annual herbs such as parsley and coriander can also be an effective crop in soil protection. Being annual, these herbs produce an incredible number of seeds, which if left to disperse occupy any exposed soil. Flat-leaf parsley has a deep taproot, which helps to relieve soil compaction and negates the need to turn the soil over before replanting. The dense foliage of self-seeded herbs also protects the soil from moisture loss, which keeps the microbial food web alive. It would be a gift, not a disaster, if the dominant annual weeds in your garden were herbs. I encourage as many herbs as possible in all garden beds and simply remove what I need. The herbs that are removed give me many options. I can use them in the kitchen, propagate from them, make pest deterrents from them, feed them to the chickens or add them to my compost or worm farm.
Perennial herbs are ideal for keeping gardens looking full and maintaining a healthy garden system. Perennials scattered throughout gardens beds create microclimates, act as living mulch, suppress weeds and form low retaining walls to minimise erosion.
Whether annual or perennial, herbs are a bountiful source of flowers in the garden. Flowers are an essential source of food for many insects, not just bees. By having flowers blooming every day of the year, the biodiversity of the urban farm is greatly increased. Once the flowering has finished, let the herb finish its seed distribution. Free plants delivered directly to your garden should only be encouraged!
Posted on March 14, 2017 by