A Guide to Companion Planting

Article written by Saturday6TM blogger Dave Townsend from Growing the Home Garden


When you think of vegetable gardening, the first thing that probably comes to mind is that juicy tomato picked fresh from the garden. Maybe it isn't the tomato at all that comes to mind, but rather the fresh garden greens like lettuce, spinach or chard. No matter which vegetable comes to mind, there are always challenges that present themselves in the garden each year. Pests, perhaps, are one of the most irritating aspects of vegetable gardening. It's a constant competition between Mother Nature and the gardener. Sometimes the gardener feels helpless and resorts to the chemical shelves of home improvement stores to deal with the insects, but there is a better way. There is a safer method to control pests and prevent them from eating your garden and it's called companion planting.


Companion planting is a simple technique that utilizes the beneficial aspects of herbs, flowers and other plantings to thwart pests that do damage to garden crops. Companion plants can also improve the flavor and yields of various vegetables in the garden. How does this work? It all depends on the companion plant and its properties. Some companion plants work by attracting beneficial insects that like to eat the pest insects. Fragrant plants mask the scent of the vegetables to prevent the pests from finding them and still other plants release natural chemicals that protect plants from damaging pests.


Let's examine a few awesome combinations for companion planting!


Tomatoes are my favorite vegetable from the garden and probably are the number one vegetable that gardeners grow. Yes, it really is a fruit, but that isn't important for our purposes today. Whiteflies and aphids like to suck on the leaves, hornworns can mow down a tomato plant in a few short days and soil pests like nematodes can cause devastating damage to roots. What companion plants can help? Basil and marigolds are two very good options. Basil's scent masks tomatoes from flies and other creatures and its flowers attract beneficial pollinators. Since I began using basil planting as a companion to my tomatoes, I haven't seen a tomato hornworm. Marigolds protect plants by repelling microscopic worms called nematodes that damage roots. You can plant marigolds near your tomato plants or use them as a border to effectively prevent nematode damage. The marigold scent is also a good deterrent for garden pests for everything from insects to rabbits!


Nasturtiums are another flower that helps with tomatoes, but are also good at helping squash and cucurbits. Aphids, squash bugs and whiteflies can all be repelled with nasturtiums. Nasturtiums can work very nicely in the garden as a groundcover planted around just about anything!


Chives and onions are good to plant as a general pest repellent around lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and other plants, but shouldn't be planted near legumes (beans and peas) as it can stunt their growth. If you have trouble with rabbits and deer, planting onions in with your vegetables may help reduce damage. Nothing is foolproof where these animals are concerned, but you can reduce their impact to some extent!


Planting flowers in and around your vegetables garden helps to encourage bees and pollinators to visit the garden. This is especially important for squash, zucchini, cucumber and cucurbits as they require insect pollination. Adding flowers like zinnias, sunflowers or others also makes your garden look pretty good!


If you plant dill, parsley, fennel, yarrow or other small flowering plants near your garden you will attract neat insects like the brachonid wasp. This parasitic wasp lays its eggs on unsuspecting hornworms which eventually hatch into larvae that burrow through the hornworm. If you have ever seen a big green hornworm covered in white oval shaped protrusions that look like rice, you've seen the larvae in action! Leave the caterpillar alone at this point to allow more beneficial insects to grow and attack future hornworms that may be coming for your tomato plants!


While I've mentioned some of the pest-repelling benefits of companion planting, there is another aspect just as cool. Companion plants can help each other to grow! Have you heard of the "Three Sisters" gardening method? In Three Sisters gardening, the cornstalk serves as a trellis or pole for the beans to climb and the squash is used as a groundcover. The beans will eventually return nitrogen to the soil as they decay, which is important because the corn used up a lot of nitrogen from the soil during its growth cycle. The squash groundcover will keep moisture in the soil and keep the soil temperature down in the summer which helps both the beans and corn.


As you can see, there's a good alternative to pesticides that is healthier and safer to use. Companion planting is a preemptive step that will reduce your pest problems before they begin. Remember that when you do use pesticides in the garden they kill the good bugs, as well as the bad. So instead, let's use nature's gifts while we are Growing The Home Garden!