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Thursday, May 22, 2008

So Happy Together – A Look at Companion Planting

From the 1894 book “Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, etc.,” by Edward Lear. Image is in the public domain, courtesy of www.zorger.com.

Artists and authors have long ascribed human characteristics to plants. Flowers have faces. Roots are feet, stems can branch out like arms. Limbs and trunks belong to trees and people alike.

Thanks to Walt Disney and other illustrators of the same ilk, we’ve all seen an image of a plant with a perfectly human personality. Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland, in particular, presented giggling pansies, regal roses and hoity-toity irises.

So maybe it is with this whimsical mindset that I strolled through my yard the other day and saw not just peas next to a growing sunflower, but a budding relationship.

Look closely (click on photos to enlarge) and maybe you too will notice what tickled me a bit. The pea plant is starting to wrap its tendrils (fingers, anyone?) around the stem of the sunflower. Surrounded as I am by little children all day, I couldn’t help but liken this sight to a wobbly youngster grabbing for support.

The whole reason I happened to see this was because I was about to yank the sunflower right out; its seed, a castoff from some bird's meal last fall, hadn't yet sprouted when I planted the peas.

Now I’ll definitely leave the flower right were it is, thank you very much. Both plants will grow. The sunflower will give the peas a piggy-back ride up to the sunny sky as it becomes a trellis.

All this brings to mind the concept of companion planting. This is the practice of grouping certain plants to increase each other’s effectiveness. Ah yes, garden synergy. It can be as easy and casual as planting flowers near your vegetables to lure pollinating insects, or as ambitious as combining plants based on which specific soil nutrients each uses or imparts.

Think of it as being a host and thoughtfully making a seating chart for a fancy dinner. Let’s see. Alyssa was so quiet last time. I’ll put her next to Susan, who’s such a good conversationalist. Hmm, Brock’s a big guy and will definitely need the end spot. Uh-oh. Election year. We’ll hear nothing but politics if Poppy and Violet are too close.

This pea-sunflower pairing of mine was a happy accident, but I want to purposely foster more garden affection. Check out this site


for great information as you also keep planting. I especially like its descriptions of plants as “friend, foe, ally, etc.” to one another. Such interpersonal terms!

As you’ll see, companion planting takes many forms. Some plants produce substances that ward off certain pests; these plants become protectors when grouped with more susceptible plants. Marigolds, for instance, repel tomato-hungry worms.

Companion planting also involves the creation of hospitable habitats, as in shading lettuce beneath squash in the heat of the summer.

Sadly, but really not a surprise, there’s such a thing as strange garden bedfellows, too. Personalities clash among humans, they can clash among plants.

All in all, companion planting is about creating harmony. It’s a natural way to complement plants’ strengths or compensate for vulnerabilities by making them work for each other as you encourage diversity in your backyard farm.

Give companion planting a try and share your success stories with us!



mike said...

Great article. We are planting some upside down tomatoes with basil growing out of the top to see how this type of companion planting works.

LJAandB said...

marisa--use whatever pictures you want. great blog--it's really unique and interesting.


Hilary said...

I love this idea! I tried planting borage with one section with tomatoes this year. I will be interested if it does make a difference in taste and perhaps with those darn hornworms that devastated my tomatoes last year. I can't wait to see how my pepper/tomato pairing also goes. This was a great article- thanks so much!

marisa said...

Hillary, Keep us updated on your companionships! It would be fun to do an experiment and see if companionships actually affect taste. Maybe plant one tomato plant next to basil which is said to enhance the flavor of tomatoes and plant one tomato plant without basil and see if there is a noticeable difference.