Introduction to Companion Vegetable Gardens:
Gardeners since the beginning of time have observed the behavior and relationships that plants have with one another. It has been observed that plants grow and interact with their surroundings differently, depending on what type of plants they are growing next to. Planting companion gardens is the practice of combining plants and veggies that grow well together, and offer benefits to one another.
While there doesn't appear to be a great deal of science behind the practice, companion planting can absolutely have a significant impact on the results your garden experiences. Countless gardeners use this method of planting their own crops. In a particular micro-environment, some plants may reject certain nutrients, while selecting others. If paired with another plant that prefers the opposite, they form a mutually beneficial relationship. This concept can be applied to companion vegetable gardens.
Mother Nature practices companion planting as well, all you need to do is take a look at any forest or meadow, desert or swamp. Many plants grow best in a specific environment, and it is not always just about climate. Plants with shallow root systems would have to compete for food and nutrients if planted next to other shallow root plants. However if those same plants were paired with deep rooted plants, they are not competing as much for nutrients and can get them at different levels. This is the theory behind companion planting.
Starting Companion Vegetable Gardens:
When starting your own companion vegetable gardens, most gardeners tend to squeeze as many veggies into a particular space as they can, hoping to maximize the amount of food they can grow. You should not discount however, the benefits that other plants could have in the overall performance of your veggie garden.
Not only do flowering plants add beauty to your companion gardens, but they will also influence the kind of wildlife that you find in your garden. Some types of flowers will attract predator animals, that will help keep pests out of your garden. Different types of herbs, and some weeds, will actually give off fragrances and aromas that can distract various pests and insects, and keep them away from your vegetables that you are spending so much time growing.
Another method that is commonly used in companion vegetable gardens is called intercropping. You may have heard of this by another name, such as double crop, relay cropping, or polyculture, but all it means in its simplest term is planting more than one type of crop in a given garden, but doing so in a way that you are not really giving the 2nd crop its own space.
Timing Companion Vegetable Gardens:
For example, say you are growing a larger plant that starts off very small, and takes some time to reach maturity; a good example would be cabbage of broccoli. You've given the plants more than enough room to reach full maturity, but while you are waiting for that to happen, you have a lot of barren soil that's waiting to be grown into.
This is where intercropping can be a vital tool in vegetable gardens. While you are waiting for that cabbage or broccoli to get big, plant some fast growing crops like radishes or lettuce in that empty space around the cabbages. By the time the cabbage needs that space to expand into, you will already be eating the radishes at your next meals.
Native American Companion Vegetable Gardens:
The Native Americans actually used intercropping with great success, and it could be said that they were true pioneers of growing companion vegetable gardens. They used what has been termed as the Three Sisters approach. They would grow maize as a primary crop, and use its tall stalks to support their bean plants. Meanwhile, in the space between the rows, they would plant squashes that could take full advantage of the shady location. The squash plants would spread out and actually form a living mulch that not only controlled weeds, but the prickly vines worked great at deterring various pests that might raid the maize and beans. This is a classic example of companion gardens.
There are many other examples of companion planting such as these, and we will explore them in more detail in another article in this category. For now we are just hoping to familiarize you with the basic concept of companion planting, and how this method could benefit you.
Remember, the idea behind a vegetable garden is to produce useable food, so you are not looking to stuff your garden so tight that the health of the plants themselves becomes a concern. There is always a possibility of over-doing it. The best teacher at the end of the day is experience. You can read all the articles you like, but you have to be the one to implement the ideas.
Planning Your Companion Vegetable Gardens:
The best approach is to take it slow. Start off your garden with the primary crop you want to grow, and then work in something simple like radishes, lettuce, or other fast growing salad foods. This will get you valuable experience the first season. Once you see how the process works, and how your garden responds, you can take it even further the next time by maybe adding a third crop.
Don't get so committed to a single ideal that you lose site of the bigger picture. If you see adding additional plants is causing poor performance among your primary crop, then just remove the offenders and start over. There is nothing wrong with backing up and punting if things aren't working out.
If you take your time to learn how companion planting works, and experiment with different combinations of plants and flowers, you will quickly get the hang of it. Before you know it your companion vegetable gardens will be turning out fresh fruit that you can enjoy all season long!
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