I’d like to share an early gardening memory with you. My grandfather loved homegrown tomatoes, and every summer he had some growing in the backyard of their house in Ohio. I remember standing there, late one May, as he planted a row of marigolds along the edges of his tomato garden. “Keeps the rabbits out,” he said. I was confused- beyond not understanding why rabbits were bad (I would learn that much later when I had my own house and garden), I didn’t understand how a flower could deter any animals or insects.
We’ve all grown up with the folklore of companion planting, and some of us still plant things together without really knowing why. Tomatoes and basil go in a giant pot on my back patio every May- but did you know basil supposedly makes tomatoes taste better and helps repel mosquitoes and flies? I didn’t. I just like the two of them together, and we’ve always planted them that way. I considered companion planting two seasons ago, as I was planning my summer garden. I researched which plants could help each other, but as I did my research, I quickly learned that while some plants help each other, others can harm each other. For example, if you plant tomatoes and peppers next to each other (and I did, for years), both attract tomato hornworm, so you’ve basically set up a buffet for those nasty little worms- and they are very tough to get rid of.
As I did my research, I found that it can be very easy to incorporate companion planting into your gardening, and I was going about it the wrong way. One thing to try is mixing your plants together. It certainly isn’t what we see in so many of today’s planned landscapes, but take a stroll through a metro park, or drive past a country meadow, and you see that nature does companion planting the best way- naturally. Instead of planting your lettuce in neat rows, basically inviting pests to chow on through, interplant the lettuce with other veggies in order to deter the pests, or at least slow their progress. You can also plant herbs and flowers that lure pests away- something tastier for the pests to eat as a distraction, such as nasturtiums. A quick internet search will help you find a list of what plants go well together, and which ones do not. Companion planting alone is not going to solve the pest issues of your garden. As always, a healthy garden relies on good soil, mulching, weeding, and paying careful attention to your plants as they grow and watching for any signs of pest damage. Let us know if you have a particular companion planting that works in your yard, or one that was an experiment gone wrong- we’d love to read your stories!