• Jon Mychal Heatherly

Find Great Pals for Your Garden

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Companion plant and encourage friendship between your crops. Deter pests, improve soil quality, and boost yields with polyculture.

Source: jmheatherly.medium.com

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay


Farmers and gardeners rely more on companion planting with each cycle of seasons. But what is it? First, let’s discuss modern, conventional agriculture for comparison.


Since the 1950s, conventional agriculture employs monoculture planting with large agrochemical inputs. On one hand, this post-war agricultural revolution reduces the need for human workers. But, it has enormous implications for our soils and ecosystems.


Planting large areas of one crop encourages explosive growth of that crop’s natural predators — requiring pest control. Also, sowing the same thing each year depletes the soil of nutrients and diminishes micro diversity.


Thus, you need chemical fertilizers for otherwise productive land. Conventional methods become a feedback loop requiring more inputs each season. There is another way.


Companion planting is a form of polyculture or planting beneficial species together. It aims to improve yield and soil quality. We will discuss the history, benefits, and some examples of this agricultural method.


Photo by James Baltz on Unsplash

History of Polyculture

Throughout millennia, early cultures built upon the idea of companion planting. The practice derives from cottage gardens, food forests, and early American agriculture. Take a look.


Cottage gardens rose to fame in England as an antithesis to the well-manicured estates. Instead of greenhouse annuals planted in rows, they have a quiet sense of grace and charm. The poor care more about meat than beauty, so cooking herbs rather than ornamentals were grown.


In Asia and South America, Indigenous cultures practice food forestry. Landscape management still takes place today, particularly in tropical areas. It provides a consistent food source in alignment with natural systems and some extra income from selling surplus.


Early Mesoamerican cultures developed companion planting practices over thousands of years. Through selective breeding, indigenous peoples cultivated maize, beans, and corn. The “Three Sisters” meet their nutritional needs and support each other in growth. More on that in a moment.


Photo by Tony Fitzpatrick on Unsplash


Benefits of Polyculture

We started by comparing to monoculture. Ergo its problems are the benefits of practicing polyculture. Improve soils and lessen inputs; repel pests and attract pollinators. These are but a few examples.


Though only an estimated 20% of today’s food is grown through this traditional method, it stands the test of time. As conventional agriculture diminishes the quality of soils, we will look again to this.


Traditional polyculture combines concepts of intercropping, crop rotation, cover cropping, mulching, and more. The new idea called “permaculture” gathering time-tested principles from countless first cultures worldwide. We must give credit where it’s due.


Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay


Examples

If you’re convinced companion planting is worth trying, check out these examples. First American peoples developed the “Three Sisters.” Maise (corn), squash, and beans satisfied all their nutritional needs. The combo contains all nine essential amino acids, carbohydrates, and fatty acids.


Plant the maise first, which provides a vertical structure for the rest. Next, plant beans to trellis the corn already growing. Legumes have special root bacteria which pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it into the soil, which nourishes the plants. Plant the winter squash last.


Gourds like squash creep across the ground and shade it with their prickly leaves. The leaves, in turn, deter crawling pests from the garden. The squash leaves also block out weeds, keep the ground cooler, and keep moisture in the ground — kind of like a natural mulch.


Feel free to add or substitute varieties to the “Three Sisters” mentioned above. Natives of the American Southwest, like the Tewa people, added a fourth sister like Cleome serrulata to attract bees. Substitute another gourd-like pumpkin instead of squash, if you like. Try sunflower instead of corn, which will attract pollinators, too.


Some species help the garden in general. For example, marigolds seem to deter aphids from nearby plants. Nasturtiums lure caterpillars and black flies away from your cabbages and fava beans. Check out the Old Farmer’s Almanac chart for a complete list of which varieties benefit or hinder one another.


Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash


Final Thoughts

Polyculture, or companion planting, sounds more complicated than it is. Indigenous peoples from time immemorial contribute to this body of knowledge in a living story. While modern farming practices were a boon, modern challenges call for more sustainability.


Agriculture as we know it only existed for the past few decades. Entire cultures managed the land for hundreds of years before European colonization. The land is not parcel of property to extract value. We live on the Earth, we keep our home well.


A garden or farm can thrive without needing much in the way of fertilizers or pesticides — if at all. Rather than sowing vast tracts of one crop, look into sustainable practices like companion planting. Larger scale operations can try intercropping and crop rotation to ensure the continued success of their farms.


The solution lies with you and me. Let’s rebuild soils, nurture nature, bring back the bees. You now have another tool in the arsenal of knowledge to live in a sustainable way. So go forth and plant together.


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