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Learning to Grow: Companion planting – A beneficial practice used by farmers, home gardeners

Published: Friday, June 7, 2013 5:49 p.m. CST

It is nearly indisputable that some things just work better together. 

Fred and Ginger, Sonny and Cher, Piglet and Pooh, peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and chocolate, peanut butter and crunchy apples, (well, peanut butter may play the field a bit). There’s no doubt that when it comes to food, music, movies and literature we’ve benefited from some pretty fortuitous pairings. But you may be surprised to learn that there are a number of classic combinations of the garden variety as well.

Companion planting has been a practice used by farmers and home gardeners alike for hundreds of years to boost beneficial insect populations, decrease pests, and increase plant yields. Whether it is simply a taller plant offering shade to its neighbor, or a trailing plant like nasturtium that covers the ground while its companion grows upright, gardens are generally healthier, and arguably more attractive, when arranged to maximize diversity.

In addition to these spatial interactions, there are some specific associations that have historically proved useful.

Tomato and basil: That’s right! Not only do these two get on famously at the dinner table, they prefer each other’s company in the garden as well.

Basil plants repel whiteflies and aphids, attract bees for pollination, and planting them close by is even thought to improve tomato flavor, health, and yield. The plants have similar growing requirements and to top it all off, harvest time will be a cinch.

French marigolds and melons: In addition to adding a cheerful pop of color along the borders of your veggie patch, French marigolds have a root system that can ward off nematodes.  Planting near melons, whose roots are susceptible to nematode infestation can be advantageous.

In fact, some research has even shown the strategic placement of certain marigolds can be as effective as chemical treatment, which is great news for anyone who likes their cantaloupe pesticide free.

Cucumbers and nasturtiums: Whether you choose to grow the trailing, the mounding, or the climbing variety, nasturtiums are right at home in the vegetable garden.

They are easy to grow, both the leaves and blooms are edible, and they act as a deterrent to cucumber beetles, (as well as squash bugs, aphids, and whiteflies).

Corn, beans, and squash: Known as the Three Sisters, this venerable grouping has its roots in the Iroquois legend that each of these three will only thrive when planted together.

The corn stalk acts as a support for the climbing bean vines, the beans fix nitrogen in their roots improving the fertility of the soil, and the low-growing squash shades out weeds and conserves soil moisture.

And they are nutritionally compatible as well – the corn provides carbohydrates, the beans supply protein, and the squash is rich in vitamins.

So, when you take up the hoe and set about planting your rows this season, keep some of these dynamic duos in mind. Companion planting is a simple and inexpensive small scale gardening practice, yet the beneficial relationships among plants can be a key factor in creating a flourishing backyard community.

And really who among us would rather go it alone, when we could have a friend by our side?
• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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