Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Gardening is a mind game when it comes to success. I so admire anyone with a healthy, pest-free and high-yielding garden because I know it takes a lot to get it there. There are so many variables such as rain, temperature, pests, diseases, weeds and nutrients involved and so many combinations of these that finding the right mix is a lot of trial and error. Then, just when you think that you get it right, the next growing season poses a whole new set of circumstances.

It’s never too late to learn new tricks in any field and that is especially true in gardening. Companion gardening is one aspect that I didn’t pay much attention to until this past season. I am learning that this is one aspect that can make a huge difference in a garden’s productivity and also an aspect that the gardener has total control over.

Companion gardening is basically having a harmonious garden by allowing nature to share her strengths. It is a gardening method that makes use of synergistic properties found in nature which boils down to cooperation between plants to achieve optimum health and viability. The only difference between plants and people is that plants are stuck in one spot and we are not. However, just like us, certain plants support each other while others just don’t get along.

Some plants grow rapidly, crowding others out and taking more than their fair share of nutrients, sun and water. Some give off toxins. Others are good citizens by adding nutrients to the soil and drawing beneficial insects to the garden. It’s all in knowing what plants to plant together and which ones to keep away from one another. Once you got this, it stays the same year after year.

Many folks confuse companion planting with crop rotation which is a whole new ball game. Crop rotation is successively planting vegetables from different plant families in the same garden year after year, only in different areas of the garden. This helps minimize insect and disease problems and it also gives the soil a chance to build nutrients back up.

The rule of the green thumb here is to note which family different vegetables come from and to plant vegetables from complimentary families together. For example, the cabbage family does well alongside the beet family and green, leafy families. Certain herbs planted with these vegetables will deter pests. However, it does not have to be just cabbage. Kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts and all other members of this family will also perform the same.

Of course, it works vice versa too. For years, I planted peppers near the tomatoes. I thought this was a smart move since I could harvest them together when making spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce and salsa. As it turns out, they compliment each other in salsa and other dishes, but in the garden they don’t really like sharing each other’s space. No wonder my peppers did not do well for years!

Proper spacing also plays a large part in a garden’s success, although there are two different theories on this. If you plant all one variety in long rows or large patches it can be an invitation to a large dinner table for pests. Insects will find all the host plants they need in one large area to feed and multiply. However, by dividing up the same plants throughout the garden, it will be much harder to maintain the proper soil nutrients for each variety because you will have multiple places to fertilize with the correct mixture of nutrients instead of fewer larger areas.

Perhaps the best example of companion planting is the Native American “Three Sister Planting” which involves growing corn, beans and squash (sometimes pumpkin) in the same area. As the corn grows, beans find support on the corn stalks and beans, like all legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil which feeds the corn. Squash grow rapidly and have large leaves which provide shade and a natural weed block. It’s a win/win for all.

Mixing flowers and herbs amongst vegetables is one of the easiest ways to get the best quality and yield out of all plants. This strategy makes it more difficult for pests to find the vegetables while the scents of some flowers and herbs confuses some pests. On the flip side, they can attract the beneficial ones like honey bees while flowers will change up your garden in color and give it a “pop.”

Many long-time gardeners swear that growing certain plants together actually improves the flavor. One such case is growing mint with anything in the cabbage family.

Many old-fashioned vegetable gardens regularly mixed vegetables, herbs and flowers and were known as “kitchen gardens” because they had just about everything you needed for the kitchen. Besides adding color and beauty to the garden, having this combination harnesses the power of nature to create an organic garden that naturally repels pests.

The pungent smell of marigolds repels many insects. Especially around tomato plants, they deter the ugly green hornworms that can devour an entire tomato plant in one night. Plant marigolds around the perimeter of the garden to add color and to keep insect predators away.

Herbs add flavor to foods and also discourage harmful insects from camping out in the garden. Nasturtium and rosemary deter beetles that attack beans while thyme repels cabbage worms. Aphids don’t like chives and garlic while oregano will help protect most all plants. Planting herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary and chives amid tomato and pepper plants will help keep your plants healthy and you can harvest all your ingredients to make salsa.

Companion planting may not fix all your garden problems, but it is an excellent way to cut down on the amount of pesticides you need to use while being able to add to your harvest. Sometimes it can literally make or break a garden by what you choose to plant together. A carefully laid-out garden offers gardeners a chance to harvest the power of nature for higher yields and natural organic pest control. Yep, plants have buddies too!

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