Edible Landscaping - Companion and Interplanting

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By Charlie Nardozzi

Interplanting is a way to grow more vegetables in a small space, using the plants natural growth pattern to match crops together and maximize the space in the garden. Farmers have used interplanting systems for years to increase production and decrease erosion.

Plants, like people, have certain likes and dislikes when it comes to companions. Companion planting is a long-held idea that certain plants benefit each other when grown in close proximity. While this technique has been used for centuries in many traditional agricultural communities, companion planting has mixed results when scientifically tested. But certain aspects of companion planting are well understood. 

For example, legumes such as beans and peas fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. This works to the advantage of crops growing nearby. The traditional Three Sisters Garden of corn, beans, and squash works well because the beans add nitrogen to the soil that the corn and squash use to grow.

It's also known that some plants exude chemicals to repel insects or inhibit the growth of other plants. Walnut trees give off juglone from their roots that inhibits the growth of certain plants, such as tomatoes, growing nearby. African marigolds emit the chemical thiopene from their roots, which has been proven to repel nematodes. Companion plants can also be used as trap crops. The concept involves growing one plant that is especially desirable to an insect pest in order to lure insects away from another crop you are trying to protect. The bugs congregate on the trap crop and are easier to control. For example, Blue Hubbard winter squash has been used to draw cucumber beetles away from summer squash.

Maximize your planting space by growing vining crops, such as cucumbers, around climbing crops, such as pole beans.

However, beyond these examples, many companion planting techniques are based on personal gardening experiences rather than scientific studies. While it may not be clear why a crop grows better in close proximity to one plant than another, there are many combinations that have been discovered over the years that seem to have some benefit. One of the most famous proponents of companion planting was Louise Riotte. In her famous books, Carrots Love Tomatoes and Roses Love Garlic, (Storey Books), written in the 1970s and still in print, she describes many of the companion planting combinations that work best. These not only include plants that grow well together, but also ones that should be separated because they are antagonistic.

Below is a chart from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service summarizing some of the common companion planting combinations that gardeners might use. Give some of these combinations a try and let me know what happens in your garden.

AsparagusTomato, Parsley, Basil--
BeansMost Vegetables & Herbs--
Beans, BushIrish Potato, Cucumber, Corn, Strawberry, Celery, Summer SavoryOnion
Beans, PoleCorn, Summer Savory, RadishOnion, Beets, Kohlrabi, Sunflower
Cabbage FamilyAromatic Herbs, Celery, Beets, Onion Family, Chamomile, Spinach, ChardDill, Strawberries, Pole Beans, Tomato
CarrotsEnglish Pea, Lettuce, Rosemary, Onion Family, Sage, TomatoDill
CeleryOnion & Cabbage Families, Tomato, Bush Beans, Nasturtium--
CornIrish Potato, Beans, English Pea, Pumpkin, Cucumber, SquashTomato
CucumberBeans, Corn, English Pea, Sunflowers, RadishIrish Potato, Aromatic Herbs
EggplantBeans, Marigold--
LettuceCarrot, Radish, Strawberry, Cucumber--
Onion FamilyBeets, Carrot, Lettuce, Cabbage Family, Summer SavoryBeans, English Peas
ParsleyTomato, Asparagus--
Pea, EnglishCarrots, Radish, Turnip, Cucumber, Corn, BeansOnion Family, Gladiolus, Irish Potato
Potato, IrishBeans, Corn, Cabbage Family, Marigolds, HorseradishPumpkin, Squash, Tomato, Cucumber, Sunflower
PumpkinsCorn, MarigoldIrish Potato
RadishEnglish Pea, Nasturtium, Lettuce, CucumberHyssop
SpinachStrawberry, Fava Bean--
SquashNasturtium, Corn, MarigoldIrish Potato
TomatoOnion Family, Nasturtium, Marigold, Asparagus, Carrot, Parsley, CucumberIrish Potato, Fennel, Cabbage Family
TurnipEnglish PeaIrish Potato

Another way to grow plants together for their mutual benefit is a better understood technique called interplanting. Interplanting uses the plants natural growth pattern to match crops together and maximize the space in the garden. Farmers have used interplanting systems for years to increase production and decrease erosion. For example, corn and soybeans are often grown either in strips or even together to increase yields. Interplanting also can be used to attract beneficial insects to the garden to help ward off harmful insects. In general, the more diversity of plants in your garden, the fewer problems you'll have with pests.

In the home garden, you can use interplanting, not so much to maximize yields, but to save space and plant more vegetables. Often it's a matter of matching a slow growing, large vegetable plant with a faster growing, smaller crop. The slow growing, large crop requires wide spacing between plants to accommodate its eventual size. Small, fast growing crops can be grown in the spaces between individual large plants, maturing before the larger plants shade them out. Some examples of slow and fast maturing vegetables are listed below.

Kale is a fast maturing, cool season vegetable that grows well intercropped with pole beans or tomatoes.

Larger, Slow Growing Vegetables: Peas, onions, parsnip, corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, cabbage, broccoli, pole beans, and Brussels sprouts.

Smaller, Fast Maturing Vegetables: Lettuce, mesclun, spinach, beets, kale, Swiss chard, radish.

Some examples of combinations that you might try include:

  • Radish and Carrots: Plant radishes in with carrot seed. The radishes will germinate first, helping break the ground for the later germinating carrots and will mature sooner. As you harvest the radishes you're naturally thinning the carrot stand, making more space for them to grow.
  • Spinach and Tomatoes: Spinach is a cool season crop, while tomatoes love the heat. Plant spinach in between tomato plants and it will mature before the tomatoes get large enough to shade it. This same concept works for any type of greens, such as lettuce, Swiss chard, and mesclun, interplanted with cabbage-family crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, or tomato-family crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
  • Onions and Cabbage: Onion sets can be grown in between cabbage plants. By starting with sets, your onions will grow faster and mature before the large-headed cabbages crowd them out. As the cabbage gets larger it will shade the onion bulbs, keeping the soil cool and moist. The leaves may also deter onion maggots from finding your onion crop.

More great information on companion and interplanting

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About Charlie Nardozzi
Thumb of 2020-06-04/Trish/0723fdCharlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He's the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.
Victory Seed Company Logo Trustworthiness, quality, care and love are some of the values you want to see in the people you buy your seeds from. For 25 years, Victory Seed Company has provided the highest quality vegetable, herb and flower seeds to families across the country. Family-owned and operated, we are passionate about providing you the best seeds available. We know that you work hard for your gardens, and that you've invested time, space, money and energy into preparing your next vegetable garden. By starting with Victory Seeds, you can rest easy that you'll get good germination, robust plants, and the harvest you expect. With a catalog of over 2,000 varieties, we have just about everything you want, and our prices are the kinds that we'd want to pay. We have hundreds of preserved heirloom vegetables, as well as today's award winning hybrid selections. Get to know us by visiting our website and browsing through our online vegetable seed catalog.
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