Episode 006: Why You Should Try Companion Planting This Summer

podcast cover with image of woman and episode text: 006: Why You Should Try Companion Planting This Summer

episode highlights

  • Learn how companion planting can improve soil health, control pests and diseases, and boost yields in your organic garden
  • Discover the importance of selecting plant combinations with the same water, sun, and soil requirements
  • Get the details about the famous Three Sisters trio of corn, beans, and squash plus other combinations to try
  • Find out how companion planting can increase efficiency and save space in your garden

Companion planting for the win

Discover the secret to a thriving organic garden with companion planting. Today, we’ll dig into how you can create a beautiful, productive garden by selecting the right plants to grow together. This practice can help improve soil health, control pests and diseases, and even boost your yields.

I’ll share some of my favorite planting combinations, like green beans with lettuce or sweet peas with alyssum, and tips on how to get started with this technique in your own garden this summer.

What is companion planting?

Companion planting is a technique that has been around for a long time and has proven its benefits in various garden setups. Some of the advantages include improving soil health, controlling pests and diseases, increasing yields, and creating a beautiful garden. For example, green beans can add nitrogen to the soil, which is good for leafy crops like lettuce or spinach. Sweet peas can be planted next to alyssum or lettuce to keep the soil cool and help them thrive. Companion planting is a great way to create a beautiful, productive garden.

Companion planting tips

When choosing plants to grow together, it’s essential to ensure that they have the same water, sun, and soil requirements. For example, think of pairing plants that both need full sun or regular water instead of pairing one plant that thrives in full sun and one that prefers light shade.

Some successful combinations include:

  • marigolds, basil, and tomatoes
  • sunflowers and cucumbers, and
  • nasturtiums, chives, and kale
  • the historic “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash

To get the most out of companion planting, it’s essential to create a plan of action, use the right tools for the job, and maximize your time in the garden. By carefully selecting plants that complement each other’s needs, you can create a lush, healthy garden that yields bountiful harvests.

Episode Transcript

Hello, hello, and welcome back to Organic Gardening For Beginners. I’m your host, Jessica, from the blog Homegrown Food and Flowers, and this is the show that helps new and beginning gardeners just like you turn your backyard and outdoor space into a beautiful and productive area. Whether you are starting with a collection of pots, raised beds, or an in-ground garden. I am here to share tips and my 20-plus years of experience to help you build your own thriving garden that produces fresh food and beautiful flowers for you and your family. 

Today’s episode is all about companion planting, which, if you’ve listened to any of my previous episodes, you know that I love and adore as a gardening technique. It is awesome for improving soil health, for helping to control pests and diseases, increasing yields, and just making your garden look beautiful,  no matter if you’re growing veggies, herbs, flowers, or any combination of those.

So we are going to dive in today to the benefits of companion planting, some of which I just mentioned, how to get started, and I also have a few common planting combinations for you to try in your garden this summer so that you can get started right away. 

So let’s jump in. 

Okay, so, as you can tell from the intro, I love companion planting. But if this is a new term to you and you’re not sure exactly what it means, then here’s the snippet definition: Companion planting is a method of planting certain crops together in the same space or the same garden bed or even the same container, in order to benefit each other. 

So, for example, in my garden, it is kind of a chaotic mess sometimes because I plant everything together. I don’t stick to tidy rows, even when I set out, with the best of intentions at the beginning of the season, where, if I have a raised bed, you will see a tomato or two growing up the trellis. At the base of those tomatoes, you’ll see some lettuce or maybe some green onions growing. There’s probably a dwarf sunflower or calendula scattered somewhere in the bed, and then throughout all of that is more often than not a nasturtium plant that is just kind of trailing its way through everything, because nasturtiums grow like weeds in my garden. 

And the reason I do this is for some of those benefits that I just mentioned. It helps with your soil health. It helps with pest prevention. It looks just pretty. I can never get over how beautiful a garden can look when it’s this big mishmash of veggies and herbs and flowers, even though I do admit the straight, clean rows of lettuce next to the row of onions, next to the row of spinach. They look pretty too. They have their own appeal. But I never managed to stick to something so tidy. 

And companion planting has been around for a really long time I’ll give an example in a minute, but historically, it’s been a beneficial method to use in the garden that some people still use today in those traditional combinations. 

So for the benefits, first, we’ll talk about the soil health and the plant health itself. So for the soil you may not be familiar, but plants can add certain nutrients to the soil at the same time that they are taking certain nutrients. 

So all plants need, in general, some combination of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus in order to grow ideally, and there are a ton of micronutrients that they need to. But those are the three big ones, the macronutrients. Just like us humans, we need carbs, fat and protein in order to have good health. Well, plants need nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and certain plants will perform better next to each other because they have this symbiotic relationship where, for example, green beans or peas, which are legumes, they will add nitrogen to the soil through their roots. And what you can plant next to them is a plant that needs more nitrogen in order to thrive, such as a leafy crop like a lettuce or a spinach or arugula, and so those two plants will have a beneficial relationship with each other, because the beans are adding nitrogen to the soil for the lettuce and the lettuce is growing at the base of those green beans, shading the soil, preventing weed growth. They just piggyback on each other to grow nice and strong for the season. 

Another example of how the plants can benefit each other, specifically with the soil is, as I had mentioned with the lettuce. It can shade the soil and prevent weeds, but it can also shade the soil just to keep it cool. So, for example, sweet peas are a cool season crop. They start in the springtime and then they start blooming as spring is at its peak, summer is about to start, and then, by the heat of summer, they tend to die back. But while sweet peas need some sunshine in order to bloom, they still prefer to have cool soil. So you can set up a companion planting combo between sweet peas and, again, lettuce would work or nasturtiums, because they trail along the ground Pretty much any plant that’s low growing. Alyssum would be a really nice combination with sweet peas, so that the thicker, denser planting of that alyssum, the lettuce, whatever it is that you choose, will help keep the soil cool at the feet of the sweet peas, which will grow up nice and tall over those low growing plants and eventually even provide some shade, especially for lettuce, which doesn’t appreciate too much full sun once the season really kicks off, for pest control and disease prevention. 

This one is highly anecdotal for me, just what I have observed in my garden. So I will say there is a book that came out, I think, a few years ago, called Plant Partners, and it digs into the scientific papers and studies that have been done showing the benefit of companion planting with certain combinations. It’s a great book. I’ll make sure to link it in the show notes so you can check it out yourself.

 So one thing I have noticed in my own garden is that the more I use companion planting, the more birds I see in my garden, which is kind of weird because you don’t typically associate more flowers, more birds. You think more flowers, more bees, and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s because the birds are going after the seed heads once the flowers are dead, if the color draws them in for the nectar drinkers, although they’re not eating bugs. So I don’t know. All I know is that the more flowers I put in the garden, the more birds I see, and the birds, especially down here in Southern California. The Orioles are amazing bug eaters. 

My very first year down here in California I planted tomatoes and the crop got decimated by armyworms which I had never experienced before. They’re these little caterpillars. They’re kind of the same size as a cabbage, a cabbage moth larva or caterpillar, the little green ones that you see. They, these ones armyworms. They’re brown, but in any case, they just destroyed my tomato plants. And so I was handpicking them that first season, with tweezers, taking them off the plant and trying to still keep the plant alive long enough to produce. And so the next season, because, like I’ve said, all of us gardeners say well, there’s always next year. So next season, when I planted my tomatoes because it was my second year in that garden and I was a little more settled in, I planted a ton of flowers as well as other companion planting combinations. 

In that year, the Orioles figured out that my garden was an awesome place to come because, just like the year before the Oriole or, excuse me, the armyworm, showed up on my tomato plants. And I tell you, within a week, the Orioles had taken care of every single armyworm, and they were not a problem for the rest of the season. And the Orioles stuck around to try to pick up any that tried to come back to reproduce. 

They went after some of the other caterpillars that showed up in the garden, so they were amazingly beneficial And they would always hang out on the stems of taller flowers like black-eyed susans and echinacea and just scout the garden looking for bugs to eat. And now, of course, with companion planting and more flowers in your garden specifically, you will also have a higher chance of having beneficial insects such as ladybugs, predator wasps, assassin bugs I love that name and bugs like that that will help take care of those harmful pests They’re not called predator wasps, they’re called parasitic wasps, sorry. And that can work wonders for taking care of any bad bug issues in your garden, to where you don’t even have to go out and handpick because the bugs, the beneficial bugs, and the birds are just going to take care of it for you. 

And then, lastly, one of the ways that companion planting can help stop disease or even some pests, is by mixing up the different plants that are in the same row or the same garden bed. What that means is say you have, we’ll go back to cabbage moths again and those guys feed on, or they, the moths, lay their eggs on brassicas which are kale, cabbage, broccoli, things like that, as the caterpillar hatches and is moving over your plant, eating all the annoying little holes that it leaves after it gets done with that plant. 

If it tries to move over to the neighbor plant and the neighbor plant is another cabbage or a kale or broccoli, it’s going to make its way over there, start damaging those leaves and work its way through your row of plants. But if you have companion planted and that cabbage moth caterpillar moves from its broccoli plant over to the neighboring plant which is a nasturtium or a marigold or basil, that is not an ideal host plant for these caterpillars.

And so they will not get a chance to travel throughout your garden, where they will then mature into moths and lay eggs and continue the whole cycle. So it can help stop that reproductive cycle when you have a combination of plants in your garden bed. 

Now, please keep in mind in no way am I saying that this is the saving grace of all gardens And just because you have one nasturtium plant in your garden bed that you’ll never have a problem with pests? definitely not the case. I still have issues. 

For example, hornworms came in and tried to kill off all my tomatoes this summer. Well, this past summer, despite the fact that I had flowers growing everywhere, i had herbs growing everywhere, there were butterflies and birds and ladybugs in my garden every single day. Hornworms are vicious caterpillars and we had to hand-pick off all of them. It was quite the task, so it won’t…it is not a fail-proof method, but it can help. So so much with keeping your garden healthy. All right, I’ll get off that soapbox. 

One of the other benefits, if you need more, is that it can help save space in your garden. So this is particularly beneficial if you have a smaller garden, and the way this works is if you strategically combine growth habits of your plants, then you can pack in more plants in the same amount of space. 

To give you another example and this is the historical example of companion planting that you can often read about the Native Americans here in the US would often use a method called the three sisters, and if you haven’t heard of this, what it is is planting a combination of squash, corn and pole beans together in the same area, with the idea that the corn stock would grow up nice and tall. The pole bean would climb up the corn stock, kind of like its trellis, and then the squash would spread out at the foot of both of those plants, shading the soil through the heat of the summer and preventing weed growth and also saving moisture through the shading of the soil at the same time. 

So there were several benefits from this combination that saved space as well as providing benefit to all three crops. I have heard that you can also use sunflowers instead of corn as the taller plant, and you can use nasturtiums instead of squash as the kind of ground cover plant and still use green beans as the vegetable that’s going to climb up those sunflowers. So instead of planting all three of those crops separately, you pack them all in. 

Get more bang for your buck out of your garden space, which is one of the reasons I use it, because as we move from location to location, i don’t always have the most space for my garden, and so the more plants I can fit into one bed the better. I’m all about it. 

So after all that, hopefully I have convinced you to give companion planting a try this year, and so I want to leave you with a few tips for companion planting and then a few suggestions for partners that I use pretty much every year, no matter where I live, no matter what time of year I’m starting my garden. So make sure that whatever you choose to plant together has the same water requirements, the same sunlight requirements and the same soil requirements. So they’re relatively self-explanatory, but I want to make sure that you’ve got what you need. 

So some plants prefer to have very regular water. They want to be watered a couple times a week, have nice moist soil and not really have to dig for their own irrigation. Sunflowers are a great example of this And I believe I mentioned it in one of the very first episodes of this show where sunflowers need regular water so that they can send deep roots down into the ground to anchor the plant in the soil to make it less prone to toppling over. 

Now, another plant that enjoys regular water like that are greens, like lettuce, cucumbers, because they are a water-filled plant. Even other flowers, like nasturtiums, because they have a semi-succulent leaf that holds a lot of water, so they make great companions. Same goes for sun exposure, full sun plants or warm season plants like a tomato or zucchini or zinnias. Plant those with other full sun partners, so a columbine or a fox glove that appreciates a little bit of shade. 

For crops that prefer a little more shade, such as a fox glove or a columbine, you could try companions such as lettuce or beets, or even cilantro, which doesn’t really tolerate super warm weather. Any of those would make great companions. 

And then, finally, pay attention to your soil. Cosmos are great at growing in poor soil that is either dry or a bit nutrient deficient and with not too much regular water. So you definitely would not want to plant something like zucchini that needs very regular water, that needs rich soil in order to produce its best fruit. You’d be better off planting it with something like an okra that can also tolerate those drier, hotter conditions. So you’ve already gotten a couple examples just from that last little bit of talking about how to combine the plants. 

But some of my favorites are marigolds, basil and tomatoes all together in one bed. The basil is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes. That one I don’t know if it’s true or not, but considering that I like to cook with both of those together, i’m totally fine with planting them in the same bed. But there are actually studies that show that marigolds can have a protective element when planted with tomatoes to keep them healthier and prevent any sort of root disease as well as certain pests. Another great combination are sunflowers and cucumbers, which I actually mentioned just a minute ago, because they both like full sun. The cucumbers can be trained to climb up the taller sunflower stalks and they both love regular water. 

Throughout the summer In my garden you will almost always find nasturtiums and chives interplanted with honestly just about everything, but in particular kale is one of my favorites as, like a trio of companion planting, the nasturtiums shade the soil at the base of the kale plants, keeping the weeds down and preserving moisture, and they also help keep the aphids off of the kale, which is more valuable to me as an edible crop as opposed to the nasturtiums, which are pretty and I do eat the occasional flower off of them, but I’m not harvesting them regularly. And then chives can also help with keeping pests down and they just look pretty and they have a different growing habit than the nasturtiums, which spread out over the soil and the kale that grows tall. So that way I’m planting something as a tall plant, a medium sized plant, and then a low growing plant, and then, finally, the last example that you could try is the one I had already mentioned, those three sisters of corn, beans and squash. Or you can even change it up and do sunflowers beans and stick with the squash, trying nasturtiums. You can kind of mix and match with those ones. 

So now that I’ve talked your ear off, try companion planting. You will love it, i promise. It makes your garden look so alive, so diverse. It just makes it such a joy to go out there and see your flowers mixed in with your herbs, mixed in with your veggies, and it makes it super easy to harvest everything, especially as you’re kind of going through and selectively picking what you want to cook for dinner that night or lunch, whatever, and you will probably see some benefits in your soil health and attracting pollinators, beneficial insects and potentially even with just the general health of your plants through the soil health and diversity. So give it a try And if this episode was awesome, even though it was a little bit long, please do subscribe or follow, depending on your podcast player. 

Apple always says follow, because this will not be the last time that you hear me talk about companion planting or reporting on how it’s performed for me this growing season and the new combinations that I’m trying. So thank you for joining me this week. Next week, we are talking about some ways to save time and be efficient in your garden, which is awesome for us busy folks who love to get in the garden but have a never ending to do list. So I will talk to you next week. Bye. 

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