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Companion Planting: Growing a Diverse and Dynamic Ecosystem

When gardening in our P-Patches or backyards, we want to grow all our favorite crops and give each one enough room to grow, but sometimes space can feel limited. With the help of some thoughtful design and a little companion planting, we can grow it all, while supporting a diverse and thriving ecosystem.

You may have heard the story of the Three Sisters: Corn, Beans and Squash who, when planted together, help each other grow. Corn offers a physical support structure, Beans give much needed nitrogen to the system, and Squash covers the soil to prevent evaporation and weed competition. These crops, grown together traditionally by the Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous peoples of the Americas are a great example of cooperation in the garden. Each sister plant offers something to the group, while depending on the others for success.

Corn can be a challenge to grow in our climate, so not everyone in this area is successful with a Three Sisters planting. However, we can use their example to think of combinations that may work well in our gardens. Growing cucumbers up a trellis to provide shade for summertime lettuces, for instance.

Or we could trellis and prune up our tomatoes so that there is space to grow basil or other herbs below. The pruning and trellising help the tomatoes stay healthy, too, by keeping the leaves off the ground and opening up ventilation to prevent fungal diseases.

And don’t forget, flowers make great garden companions. They look lovely in the garden and on our kitchen tables. But many flowers have the added benefit of supplying food for beneficial insects like pollinators and predators. Zinnias, for instance, attract lady beetles, parasitoid wasps, and other tiny insects that will eat aphids in the garden, along with bees and hoverflies.

Herbs in the mint family like sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender will attract and support pollinators when they are blooming. In fact, many flowering herbs are great garden helpers. Carrot family herbs like dill, fennel and cilantro are bonanzas for attracting beneficials to your garden when in bloom. If your cilantro bolts in the heat, let it flower and see who comes to visit!

Feel free to try out different ideas and combinations of your own. Companion planting has been part of how humans have grown food for thousands of years. But every garden is different, and you may discover a brand-new plant combination that is both beautiful and functional.