The benefits of companion planting
Once the realm of hippy, trippy home gardeners, companion planting has gained acceptance right across the range, from backyard gardeners through to commercial agricultural ventures.
So, what exactly is companion planting? Essentially it is the clever placement of plants, especially vegetables and herbs that help each other reach their optimum growth and vitality by deterring pests, attracting beneficial bugs, bees and birds, fixing nitrogen and enhancing flavours. Thoughtful planting minimises ‘chemical warfare’ in your garden by encouraging nature to do what it does best.
Sometimes physical reasons can make all the difference to a plant’s health, or its untimely death. For example, tall plants can provide shelter from the elements for their more fragile neighbours. Small spaces can be maximised by training climbing plants over taller plants and other plants work well together because their roots grow to different depths so they don’t have to compete for water and nutrients.
Masking, repelling and decoy plants
Step away from the pesticides and other chemicals, as Mother Nature, in her wisdom, has designed a range of pest controlling plants that can attract beneficial insects that will in turn eat those annoying critters who are happily chomping through your prize garden. Examples include dill, fennel and elder whose flowers and foliage are a delicacy for the kind of insects you want to attract.
On the flip side, plants with a strong scent, such as basil, sage and oregano will repel or confuse unwanted insects. Masking plants like scented geranium, lavender and thyme produce strong oils and a scent that effectively ‘hides’ the plants insects might be looking to munch on.
Repellent plants like tansy, wormwood or cotton lavender produce a scent or taste that is so bitter or distasteful that insects will avoid it. Then there’s the heroes of the garden, the decoy ‘sacrificial’ plants that are prepared to suffer or die to protect their companions. An example is nasturtium, which is beloved by insects and will draw them away from other plants nearby.
Scatter and confuse pests
Another handy tip to naturally deplete pesky pests from your garden is to plant in scattered groupings rather than neat, straight lines. This confuses the nasties and stops them from simply chewing through the whole lot.
The birds and the bees
Once you have the companion planting under control, you can enlist some of nature’s other helpers, i.e. the birds and the bees.
The best way to attract them into your garden is to refrain from using chemicals to control insects – which is fine now you have the companion planting sorted. Besides, birds love to dine on insects, so they can do your work for you.
Another trick is to plant native species, especially those endemic to the area you live in, rather than exotics from other lands. (Ask your local council if it has a list of native plants.) And a bird bath is a charming addition to any garden that will be appreciated by the local bird population.
Bees are well-known for their importance to ecology as they are the main pollinators of the natural world. Bee populations worldwide are in alarming decline, so you can do your bit by boosting your local bee population.
Not all flowers are created equally
Did you know that not all flowers are equally liked by bees? They prefer yellow, blue and purple blossoms, so start planting some flowers among your vegies. Bees also require a source of fresh water, so your bird bath will also help attract bees. Just add some floating material or pebbles that they can stand on to rest.
Bees love sage, thyme, borage, lavender, sunflower, marjoram, forget-me-not and oregano, so plant some of these and watch the bees start congregating in your garden.
Keen to find out more? Then head over here for a handy list of companion plants from the Permaculture Research Institute, check out the ingenious Flow hive, then watch this video for some tips on what and where to plant.