Companion planting is an ecologically sound way to benefit your plants, writes Justin Newcombe.
Companion planting is a practical way to plan and manage your garden and with the inevitable increases in diversity, you'll reduce maintenance, improve yields and create a more interesting and colourful garden to spend time in this summer.
When I talk about the garden I usually mean the vegetable garden, but a better name for it these days would be the vegetable and flower garden. In early summer my modest patch of urban Auckland is fizzing with insects, bees, birds, butterflies, gorgeous flowers and tasty vegetables, all working together to create a single, small but vibrant, edible ecosystem.
The idea that some plants can be mutually beneficial is not new. All cultures have some sort of companion planting history which is frequently tied into a broader agriculture system including moon phases, celestial configurations and seasonal or regional weather events like monsoon.
Companion planting is proactive gardening - you're sowing nasturtiums to thwart infestations of white fly, or planting cucumbers under water-hungry sunflowers to provide soil shade and reduce evaporation.
One of the more interesting ideas I found is introducing flowers among vegetables. A highly regarded example is the marigold. Marigolds are the colourful, usually orange or yellow flowers which are excellent at repelling white fly and add an amusing component to any landscape. So successful are marigolds in most situations, companion planting guides will often carry the war cry "Marigolds with everything". Plant marigolds and nasturtiums among potatoes to reduce white fly and soil pests. Many insects prefer nasturtiums over cabbage so by growing nasturtiums as a decoy, insects and caterpillars will leave your pampered cabbages for your table.
Other good flowers include foxgloves which improve potatoes and beans by reducing fungal infections. Phacelia attracts pollinators, as do sweet peas, while buckwheat attracts hover flies which kill aphids.
Borage attracts pollinators too and planted next to strawberries always ensures a bumper berry crop. Strawberries also enjoy the company of lettuce, spinach and sage but perform badly alongside cauliflower and that brings me to the flip side of the companion planting coin. Bad company.
Planting potatoes and tomatoes together produces poor results for both crops. In fact potatoes could be seen as a bit antisocial, with their other aversions including pumpkin, sunflowers, rosemary , apples and raspberries. Raspberries and blackberries don't mix while parsley and mint should be kept at separate corners of the herb garden. I wouldn't be without garlic in the garden but beans, peas and cabbage can't go anywhere near it.
In a small garden it can be tricky fitting everything together, especially when you factor crop rotation into the equation. Quite often this gardening style can end up looking a little like crazy paving, a bit random. Companion planting or "crazy gardening" as we'll call it, brings a whole lot more into play besides what you are going to eat. So give it a go. It's crazy good.