Each year, more and more people are discovering the benefits of having a home vegetable garden. There were over 104 million gardeners in the U.S. in the spring of 2008; by the spring of 2017, that number had grown to over 117 million, according to Statista.
A home vegetable garden can help you save money on groceries and insulate you from rising food prices. According to TIME, even a small garden can save you $600 or more on groceries. Working in the garden is great exercise, and canning home-grown vegetables is one of the least expensive ways to build a long-term food pantry and prepare for emergencies.
If you’re planning to start a garden this year, you want to make sure your plants thrive and you get as much food for your efforts as possible. One of the best ways to do this is with companion planting. Let’s take a look at what companion planting is, and how you can use this technique to increase your garden yields and avoid buying chemical pesticides and fertilizer.
What Is Companion Planting?
Companion planting is the practice of planting flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables near others in order to reap the benefits that certain combinations provide to the garden as a whole.
Think of your garden as a community. Some species get along great together and grow better with certain companions nearby, while other plants just don’t get along. These “antagonistic” pairings can actually hinder growth and development and increase the number of pests in your garden.
Companion plants help each other grow in a variety of different ways. First, they can help control pests. Some plants lure certain pests away from more delicate plants. Other plants attract insects like wasps or spiders that prey on common garden pests such as aphids or cabbage maggots.
Some combination plants add nutrients back into the soil that other plants need. This can help you avoid the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers so you can grow an organic garden. Some plants will even help improve the flavor and texture of their companions.
Best Companion Plants in the Garden
I gardened for years before I learned about the benefits of companion planting. It was one of those home gardening tips that led to a “Eureka!” moment. But companion planting is nothing new. It’s a technique as old as gardening itself, a combination of science, ancient wisdom, and folklore that can really make a difference in the health of your plants.
Even if you don’t want to plant a full garden, you can still use some of these combinations as edible landscaping to enhance your yard.
Corn With Beans and Squash
Iroquois legend says that corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters that will only thrive if they’re planted together – and the legend is right.
First, the bean plants will climb the corn as it grows, which means you don’t have to spend time and money building (or buying) a trellis. The beans also help support the corn, which makes the corn less likely to be blown over in summer storms.
The beans attract beneficial insects that prey on the leafhoppers and leaf beetles that commonly eat corn. And beans add nitrogen to the soil, which helps feed the corn.
The squash also provides important benefits. Squash is a low-growing plant and its leaves will provide mulch, discourage weeds, and provide shade that helps prevent moisture loss for the other two plants. The squash’s spiny vines also help discourage predators from entering the garden.
Planting Tip: If you don’t want to grow corn in your garden, try sunflowers instead. The sunflowers will add a cheery burst of color, give birds some valuable seeds to eat, and still provide a strong structure for your beans to climb.
Radishes With Spinach
Radishes and spinach make a great combination because the radishes attract leafminers, a pest that preys on spinach. The leafminers will leave the spinach alone in favor of the radishes, but since radish is a hardier plant and grows underground, you’ll still reap a decent harvest.
Cabbage With Dill
Cabbage is highly prone to pests simply because it’s a long-season crop; it sits out so long that many pests have ample time to find it and dine at their leisure. This makes companion planting especially important for cabbage.
Dill is a great plant to pair with any vegetable in the cabbage family, which also includes broccoli and Brussels sprouts. The cabbage provides some support for the dill, which has a weak structure, while the dill attracts wasps that prey on cabbage worms.
Several other herbs pair well with cabbage. Hyssop, catnip, rosemary, and sage deter the cabbage moth. Mint helps deter the cabbage moth as well as ants, and thyme helps deter cabbage worms. Strongly scented plants such as garlic and onions will also help keep pests away from your cabbage.
Carrots With Tomatoes
Author Louise Riotte chose the title for her classic 1975 book “Carrots Love Tomatoes” for a good reason. These two vegetables are soulmates in the garden.
Tomatoes provide great shade for carrots, which are sensitive to summer’s heat. They also emit the chemical solanine, which kills insects that would otherwise prey on the carrots. Carrots repay the tomatoes in kind with their thick roots, which break up the soil and make it easier for the tomatoes to build a strong root structure.
Planting Tip: You can also pair tomatoes with basil. Basil’s strong scent is thought to repel the flying insects that often attack tomato plants. Tomato and basil are also a perfect match in the kitchen, and some gardeners swear that basil improves the flavor of the tomatoes. Other herbs that make great companions for tomatoes include borage (which can repel tomato worms), chives, dill, mint, and garlic (which repels spider mites).
Carrots With Leeks
Carrots and leeks make another great pair because they help repel each others’ pests. Carrots often fall prey to carrot flies, while leeks are often at risk from onion flies. However, the strong scent of their leaves, when paired together, keeps both plants safe. And since they’re both root crops, they both work to break up the soil, meaning this pairing can lead to larger, healthier roots for each plant.
Nasturtium With Cucumber or Cabbage
Nasturtium is a lovely, edible flower that will brighten up your garden and help repel pests for several different plants. It pairs well with any member of the cabbage family or with cucumbers because it deters the striped pumpkin beetle that preys on these plants. Nasturtiums also lure aphids away from more valuable vegetables.
Sweet Alyssum With Any Lettuce Plant
Sweet Alyssum is a pretty and fragrant annual flower that works great as a companion to Swiss Chard because it attracts hoverflies. Hoverflies look like wasps, but they don’t sting; instead, they prey on aphids, a major pest of lettuce crops.
Sweet Alyssum also provides nectar for the hoverflies. After drinking this rich nectar, the hoverflies lay eggs near the aphid colonies. When even more hoverflies hatch, they’ll prey on the rest of the aphids in your garden. Young hoverflies can eat up to 150 aphids per day, and adults even more, so they can quickly eliminate a colony of aphids.
Planting Tip: Aphids don’t like the strong scent of chives and garlic, so these two plants also work well with lettuce crops.
Calendula With Broccoli
Calendula is a great addition to your herb garden as it’s been used for centuries to heal burns and wounds and support the immune system.
This flower is also a great companion plant because of the resin that’s excreted at the base of the flower head. In addition to its healing properties, this resin also helps trap aphids and whiteflies, who find it so irresistible they leave other crops alone. The resin also attracts beneficial insects, like ladybugs and hoverflies, to your garden.
While calendula pairs well with broccoli, you can also plant it near chard, tomatoes, and carrots.
Squash and Melons With Flowering Herbs
Melons and squash require pollinators to produce vegetables. So if you don’t lure bees and butterflies into your garden, you’ll find these plants don’t yield any edible food during the growing season.
This is why it’s a good idea to plant flowering herbs like dill and parsley near squash and melons. These herbs will lure pollinators close to these plants so you get the vegetables you’re looking for. Planting borage, lavender, bee balm, or milkweed on the edge of your garden will also attract pollinators.
Strawberries With Borage
Borage is best known as a culinary herb used in salads for its cucumber-flavored leaves. It also produces a beautiful blue star-shaped flower that’s highly attractive to pollinators like bees and butterflies. This flower is a great companion plant because it deters many of the pests that afflict strawberries.
Another benefit of pairing borage with strawberries is that the borage plant attracts many predatory insects, especially praying mantises and wasps, that prey on other pests. Borage is also said to improve the flavor of the strawberries themselves and increase the yield.
Cucumbers With Peas or Beans
Cucumbers are a great “first vegetable” for the beginning gardener because they’re one of the easiest to grow. They’re delicious, prolific, and not as delicate as some other plants. You can increase the yields of your cucumber plants if you plant them alongside beans or peas.
Beans and peas are legumes, and legumes help increase nitrogen in the soil. Cucumbers feed heavily on nitrogen, so it makes sense that these two should be paired together.
Planting Tip: Peas and beans will also help other nitrogen-hungry plants such as tomatoes, squash, lettuce, and cabbage.
Beets With Lettuce
Beets and lettuce work well together because they pull nutrients from different parts of the soil. Lettuce has a very shallow root system, so it doesn’t interfere with the beets, which burrow and grow much deeper underground. The lettuce also provides cover, slowing moisture loss and helping repel weeds.
Planting Tip: Beets also pair well with any member of the cabbage family. Beets add essential minerals back into the soil, which cabbage (and cabbage family members) need to thrive. Beet greens (the leaves on top of the root) are high in magnesium, so they can raise the nutrient profile of your compost pile.
Kale With Herbs
Kale is a relatively hardy, cool-weather crop that has a devoted following by many veggie lovers. Kale is considered a “superfood” by many because of its high levels of calcium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and K. But kale can fall prey to a number of insects who are happy to eat this vegetable without a saute pan in sight.
The good news is that there are plenty of herbs that will help deter these pests, which include aphids, the diamondback moth, flea beetles, and the cabbage looper moth. To improve the longevity of your kale crop, plant herbs such as basil, catnip, and nasturtium nearby. You can also plant kale near radishes, which will help deter the flea beetle.
Combinations to Avoid
Just as there are plants that work great together, there are also plant combinations that should be avoided. These combinations will decrease your vegetable yields and might even cause some of your plants to die.
Tomatoes and Potatoes
Tomatoes and potatoes are both members of the nightshade family. Because the plants are so similar, it might seem like they would work well together in the garden.
However, this is a pairing that should be avoided because they can both host fungi that cause Verticillium or Fusarium wilt. Each of these infections will kill the plants quickly. If one of these crops gets the disease, there’s a strong chance the other will too, and this is especially true when they’re planted close together.
Strawberries and Cabbage
Strawberries should not be planted near any member of the cabbage family. Cabbage family crops attract a high number of pests that will also devour strawberry plants.
Tomatoes and Corn
Tomatoes and corn are incompatible for two reasons. First, both of these plants are heavy feeders, meaning they pull many of the same nutrients from the soil. If they’re planted too close together, neither of them will thrive.
Second, they both attract the tomato fruitworm, also known as the corn earworm. This pest will find your corn plant and then make its way down to your tomato plant, devouring them both.
Potatoes and Cucumbers
Potatoes and cucumbers both compete heavily for nitrogen. When they’re planted close together, the soil simply can’t support them both. Even adding nitrogen-rich additives like blood meal might not be enough to allow both plants to produce abundant vegetables.
Gardening can be an incredibly rewarding endeavor. It can help you save hundreds of dollars in groceries each month and provide healthy and organic produce for your family.
Every gardener wants to see a return on the time and money they put into their garden each year. Companion planting is one technique that can help maximize your investment by increasing yields, reducing pests, and maintaining a higher soil quality. You can also improve the health of your garden with urban beekeeping. The more bees that come into your garden, the more fruit and vegetables you’ll get.
I’m already using some of these pairings in my own garden, particularly with my cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes. Pairing these vegetables with beans helps ensure they don’t succumb to nitrogen deficiency, and I don’t have to buy expensive fertilizer.
Have you ever used companion planting in your own garden? What combinations worked best for you?