Written by Cathy Schmidt
Nature works in fascinating ways that we as humans are only beginning to comprehend. I can read about gardening techniques, experiment, observe and adjust my garden from year to year to get closer to nature’s perfection, but it is an unreachable goal. I am always the student and always will be the student, but each year is a new opportunity to be schooled and I am a willing and inquisitive pupil. When a plant doesn’t thrive in my garden, I am always left with more questions than answers. Did it get too much water or too little? Did I plant it too early or too late in the season? Was it happy where I planted it? Did it have the nutrients it needed to flourish? Did diseases or pests play role?
Many times, the problem is out of my control. Early last spring, we had a tremendous amount of rain that caused many of my spring garden seeds to rot. I could not control the rain, but I could re-seed. But could I reseed in time for these colder crops to produce in the cool temperatures they prefer? Just as we have optimal temperatures and water needs – so do plants. We as humans also need companionship, and guess what – plants do, too. In the human world, some companions are better than others, some make no difference in our lives but some friends help us be successful in life. Nature mirrors this need for mutually beneficial relationships.
None could be a better example of a symbiotic garden relationship than the three sisters planting design the Native Americans developed. This planting method consists of three plants: beans corn and squash. By planting this combination each plant supports the other in a way that makes each plant reach its potential. Beans work with bacteria in the soil. The bacteria take in nitrogen from the air and feed the nitrogen to the beans. In return, the bean plant provides carbohydrates to the bacteria. Corn provides support for the bean vines and squash covers the ground, which helps maintain moisture while at the same time deterring hungry animals with its prickly stems. A fourth sister of sunflower, bee balm or amaranth can be added to attract bees.
I have planted this style garden in circular patches throughout my larger garden for the last several years. These four-foot circles of wisdom dispersed within my vegetable plantings are mental anchors for me. I look at these plots of cohesive symbolism and asked myself what other complimentary combinations are there? Turns out there are many more! I read three amazing books in 2020 on companion planting, made many notes and then reimagined my garden for 2021. (See list below)
In the early spring of 2021, while walking my vegetable garden area, I saw several very large Black-Eyed Susans that had wildly dispersed themselves throughout this space. This was not uncommon on my property as Black Eyed Susans grow wild pretty much everywhere I let them. Many of these small sprouts would normally get tilled under in the spring, but 2021 was different. Due to the unusually warm spring, the sprouts had become quite large, prospering plants and I could not bear to till them under. It was serendipity I concluded and instead opted to let them stay and plant my vegetables around them. Flowers attract bees after all, so why not use them as beacons to attract as many bees as I could?
And so began my companion garden, the most interesting garden I have ever had the pleasure to tend to. Using okra canes from the year before and organic twine, I fashioned a rudimentary natural ladder. Beneath it, I planted Armenian yard cucumbers and Armenian striped cucumbers with marigolds and radishes at the base (See picture). I had never grown this type of cucumber before, but it turned out to be the best tasting cucumber I have ever had. It was happy where I planted it and thrived. Did the radish and marigold companions help? I don’t honestly know, but I liked the results and plan to do the same thing in 2022.
I alternated tomato plants with basil plants and planted eggplants and purple basil side by side. My tomato plants did about as well as they normally do, but my basil grew like small bushes and were so fragrant. Some basil varieties I planted were Genovese, cardinal, purple, holy basil, cinnamon, Cuban, newton, and Greek. All prospered. My two eggplants are a mystery; they grew happily alongside the purple basil, and each produced six black shiny healthy-looking babies. One day when the babies were about the size of a baseball, the plants started to wither and within a few days they were completely dead. I have never seen an eggplant go from vibrant to dead so quickly. Why is a mystery. My gut tells me it wasn’t the basil, as they are recommended to be planted together. Maybe it was disease, I don’t honestly know, but I plan to give it another try this coming year.
Another combination I tried was squash, nasturtiums and dill planted on the same hill. The squash yields were similar to years’ past, but I did not get the parade of squash beetles I usually get, only a small crowd showed up. Any extension of life before the squash beetles take over is a win-win. My peppers had no friends except their neighboring Black Eyed Susans, and their fruit were prolific. Peppers are their own natural deterrent for hungry bugs because of capsaicin, the chemical that makes a pepper spicy. However, the extra pollination was appreciated.
In the fall, I always have trouble with pests eating my cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. I added some dill with my plantings and there was a significantly smaller hungry insect party on these vegetables.
Not only are there companions for plants but also plant companions for insects and animals. I have taken to planting parsley, fennel and dill throughout my gardens as this is a preferred food of caterpillars destined to be butterflies. They love these herbs, and when they are through eating there is nothing left but green sticks. My hummingbirds that visit every year love bee balm (as do the bees) and also my native honeysuckle (it’s red). Sunflowers are friends to so many insects – and squirrels, too. The bees and birds are attracted to sunflower pollen and seeds so make sure you purchase a variety that has pollen.
Other worthy experiments to mention are my row of basil, vinca and marigolds I planted along the perimeter of my garden. I discovered a few years ago this really does keep the rabbits out, but unfortunately not the squirrels, which enjoyed eating one cantaloupe each night for weeks. They were too smart for my traps. But this fall a wild tabby cat has appeared in a hedgerow not far from my property – with any luck this may be the best deterrent yet. While cats and squirrels are not companions, the strained relationship should be to my benefit.
All in all, there were some wins, some neutral events, and some losses in my companion garden, but that pretty much describes any year in any garden. However, this new garden journey, this idea of plants helping plants was very interesting to me. Beyond the experiment there was an aesthetic appeal to the look of the companion garden. The groupings looked natural and almost unintentional, giving the garden a different feel, a community feel. I reflect upon the broader implications of this new companion experience. Plants in nature don’t naturally pop up in perfect rows. At first glance nature is scattered and unpredictable, and “messy” if you will; and when we try to tame it into strict rows, it loses some of its effortless brilliance.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Resources on Companion Gardening
Walliser, Jessica. Plant partners, Science Based Companion Planting Strategies for the Vegetable Garden. Storey Publishing, 2020.
Cunningham, Sally Jean. Great Garden Companions: A Companion System for a Beautiful, Chemical Free Vegetable Garden. Rodale Press, 1998.
Ziegler, Lisa Mason. Vegetables Love Flowers, Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty. Cool Springs Press, 2018.
Pleasant, Barbara. Top Plants for Companion Planting. Mother Earth News, April/May 2018 pg. 20-24.