This year several of our participants tried companion plantings and I wanted to find out how they worked for them. Companion planting can maximize space in the garden, attract pollinators and other beneficial bugs, repel the undesirables, and somehow make plants happier—everyone likes a friendly community.
I tried planting the famous three sisters in my garden this year and the results are mixed. The three sisters are pole beans, corn, and squash. On the plus side, I will harvest more squash this year than the last 3 years combined. The Mexican bean beetles and Japanese beetles were much less of a problem in that planting than they were in my rows of bush beans. Furthermore, the beans fix nitrogen in soil while vigorously growing corn depletes it.
On the minus side, it was a jungle in there! If you can imagine three actual sisters sharing a small room during their teen years, you can get an idea of what this part of my garden is like. It’s hard to find things in there; not just for the bean beetles, but for me too. Also, I didn’t quite get the timing right.
I planted the squash and the corn at the same time. Because of our short season, I didn’t want to wait to put the winter squash in, but I should have been more patient. The Hubbard squash leaves shot up fast and big—shading the young corn. The beans climbed up the squash leaves because they were the tallest thing in town before realizing that the elevator didn’t go to the top floor. The corn finally caught up and I could reroute the beans, but I think the corn’s ear size suffered their deprived beginnings.
Another thing I didn’t like about this method was that, because of the corn, I couldn’t use row covers to protect squash from borers and beetles. I could spray Spinosad, but that was inconvenient because you should only do it when honeybees aren’t foraging—after the sun goes down and before it comes up. Also, I’d just rather not spray, to be honest.
Next year, I think I will do just two sisters, corn and beans, and give squash a room of her own.
One of my favorite companionships this year was at the Greenbrier Birthing Center. The women there wanted sunflowers, lots of sunflowers. I wanted to grow lots and lots of vegetables, so we planted sunflowers in with cucumbers and pole beans. It was beautiful and worked great! The cukes and beans climbed right up.
We had to show some tough love mid-season and thin out several of the sunflowers as they were throwing down too much shade. We had also planted them with the sweet potatoes too, but in the end those had to go—they were a little too aggressive in that sweet potato patch. I think this worked well because we had such a rainy season; otherwise I worry that the giant sunflowers would rob cucumbers of too much water. The combination of sunflowers and scarlet runner beans is stunning. Also nice are sunflowers and black turtle beans!
In several gardens this year, including mine, I have seen tomatoes interplanted with basil. I think this should always be so. I can’t imagine better friends in the garden or on the plate, with their buddies mozzarella and olive oil.
Some other notable pairings around town:
• One gardener has her second planting of lettuce shaded from the early September heat by some tall parsnip tops.
• I saw a bed of onions and dill getting along famously earlier this year.
• A lush moat bright light chard stylishly saved the arugula from flea beetles.
• A tribe of beets seemed cool and happy in their tee-pee of peas.
It’s fun to play matchmaker in the garden and you don’t get in as much trouble with your friends if a vegetable turns out to be a self-centered jerk.