At Chickahominy Falls, not only do gardens grow but so does our knowledge! If you have ever volunteered at Woodside Farms you probably already know that plants contain within their cell walls a certain type of magic! But did you know that their magic reaches beyond their beautiful leaves and prolific flowers? They actually work better together in symbiotic relationships with other plants and provide mutually beneficial perks to other plants as well as the soil, pollinators, and all who interact with them. By planting well-known plant companions, you are able to increase the efficiency of your garden by several-fold. This garden wisdom comes from many years of observational and anecdotal evidence and recently has gained a stamp of approval from the more science-minded farmers and gardeners.
What is Companion Planting Exactly?
Companion planting is the practice of sowing different plant species within close proximity in an effort to utilize different beneficial features of each plant. In some cases, this is a one-sided beneficial relationship with one plant acting as an almost sacrificial plant, as is the case with a trap crop. But in most cases, this is a mutually beneficial relationship, providing improvements in crop flavor, nutrients to the soil, and a natural approach to pest management.
One of the most famous pairings in the companion planting world is the Three Sisters pairing. The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash. The corn supports the upward growth of the beans, while the beans pull nitrogen that has been sequestered deep underground up to the corn’s shallow roots for use in quick and hearty growth. The squash then grows low along the ground, enjoying the dappled shade of the corn, and helps keep the ground cool to conserve soil dampness for the corn and beans to continue thriving.
What grows together goes together! Basil and tomatoes go and grow so well together! Not only in sauces and salads but in the ground too! It’s thought that basil helps improve the flavor of tomatoes while also repelling flies, mosquitoes, and aphids. The tomatoes, in turn, help shade the basil and keep high afternoon temperatures a bit cooler so the basil doesn’t bolt or fry.
Keep height in mind: Cucumbers and nasturtium are great companions as cucumbers grow high to reach the sun and nasturtium grows low along the cooler soil. Cucumbers keep nasturtium cooler so they don’t wilt and nasturtium repels aphids and beetles while also attracting important pollinators to keep the cucumbers producing properly.
Also working the height angle, onions and carrots. While carrots grow deep into the ground with a little greenery on top, onions grow just on top of the soil with a small portion growing an inch or so underground – most of their plant matter is actually growing a foot or so up off the ground. While these plants work well together in small spaces, they also are perfect companions because onions repel a pest known as the carrot fly as well as aphids.
In most situations, herbs can be the perfect companion plant to whatever you’re growing in your garden. But it’s important to consult companion planting charts before you sow any seeds. There are cases where certain herbs behave more like frenemies than companions, due to their chemical makeup. The Farmers’ Almanac is always a great place to start. And if you’d like to see more companion planting in action, join us in the fields at Woodside Farms in Chickahominy Falls through our Farm Blocks program or visit us on Earth Day when our farmers will be giving tours of the fields!