For those of us that suffer from a lack of gardening space you are always looking for ways to best use what space you have. This can lead to growing space-saving varieties of plants like the Spacemaster Bush Cucumber, or growing plants that can be trellised like beans and small squashes. You can also use a technique called companion planting which allows you to plant different types of crops within close proximity to each other that will actually help each other grow better.
One of the first well know examples of companion planting is the use of the mosquito fern in the rice farms or ancient China. They planted the ferns to fix nitrogen and shade out plants that might compete with their staple rice crop. An example a little closer to home can be found in the Native American agricultural traditions. They had a technique called the Three Sisters in which they planted corn, pole beans and some sort of squash plants together to form an effective polyculture that fixed nitrogen, provided support and shaded out competition of all the plants.
Two Types of Companion Planting
There are two basic type of companion planting you can use in your garden. There is the fairly well know use of vegetable crops planted together like the Three Sisters or you can use a non edible companion crops like clover which fixes nitrogen and suppress weed growth in the understory of the crop. If you use vegetable crops you are in luck there is lots of literature and guides on what can be planted with what. Now how you plant your garden and what you plant is completely up to you and lets face it your location. Now the list I have here is by no means exhaustive and complete but it gives you some ideas where you can start with your companion planting experiments. What I will also do for you is go through the very popular and effective Three Sisters planting method, this will hopefully give you some ideas on how to start in your own garden.
The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters are a common intensive raised mound planting method used by the Native Americans and early Europeans and is something that every beginning gardener should try. The first step is to build up a mound of dirt roughly four inches high and eighteen inches in diameter. Once you have the mound you plant four corn seeds about six inches apart and about three inches deep. Once the corn has reached four-five inches in height you plant four pole bean seeds around halfway down the side of the mound and allow/encourage them to entwine around the corn plants. The same time as you plant the beans you build some raised mound by the base of your original mound and plant up to four squash seed per mound. As the squash grows you may have to direct it where you want it to provide the soil coverage you are looking for. The diagram below is just one example of how you could arrange the plantings. If space is at a premium consider reducing the amount of squash plants and placing them between the beans in the same mound. If you have extensive space and you want to grow a lot you can alternate mounds of beans/corn and squash to form overlapping protection and excellent growth. Three Sisters Planting DiagramCredit: personal
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Companion Planting With Non Edible/Soil Building Crops
If you decide that trying to grow edible crops in close proximity to each other is too much of a hassle or simply doesn't work for you you can always substitute something else into the mix instead. One the classic favorites to be used as a understory crop is member of the clover species. One of the most popular types of clover used is Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). It is a highly adaptable species that grows well in most soils across the country. It helps create a loamy topsoil, add nitrogen to the soil, and suppress weed and helps improve soil moisture. It is a crop that can easily be underseeded into a existing corn, tomato, pepper or other tall crop that leaves the soil bare and uncovered. It can however be difficult to kill and sometimes it will become more of a issue than what you are trying to treat with it.
While there are many different types of companion crops many of them are to tall to be easily placed as a successful understory crop. A exception to this would be cold tolerant cover crops that are planted as the summer corn or tomatoes are ending their season. The cover crops would then take over keeping the soil covered and enhancing the soil right up until they are frost killed.
Whether you want to plant all edible companion crops in your garden or you like the idea of a clover understory there is so much potential in using intercropping and companion planting to best use the available space in your garden. The techniques used to successful companion plant will add square footage to your garden space and when done correctly will dramatically reduce the work involved in growing a highly productive garden.