I’ve heard and read about companion planting for some time, though it always seems to be in the context of pest control, nutrient sharing, and disease control. While all of those things are excellent reasons, they aren’t my personal primary reason for companion planting.
Let me back up for a second and explain what companion planting is. I am not talking about gardening with your partner, companion, loved one, friend, dog, cat, or spouse, which are all wonderful things. What I am talking about is a method of organizing plants, which fits closer to how nature does things.
Oftentimes traditional American gardens and farms involve vegetables planted in nice even rows. While growing things in rows make for easier planting, watering, and harvesting, it is mainly of benefit if you are doing it via mechanical means, since tractors and machines work easier in straight lines. There is very little difference in labor if growing things through one’s own physical effort.
Companion planting breaks away from the idea of planting things in rows, and instead involves intermingling different plants together, such as flowers, herbs, and vegetables in a collage of plants co-existing with each other in a more natural way.
For me the idea of companion planting seems natural. As an edible landscaper I intuitively want to comingle edible flowers, herbs, berry plants, fruit trees, and vegetables in the same ways that ornamental plants are often grown.
Here is a current example:
To me, this looks beautiful. The only straight lines are the bamboo canes I have formed into a makeshift leaning trellis for my sugar snap peas to grow on, with the three garden towers adding variety. The peas are surrounded by chives in bloom, lavender, small ostrich ferns, and strawberries. To me, this looks much more pleasing to my eye, since it seems closer to a natural setting.
There is little wasted space as I follow intensive gardening practices, including the practices that reduce plant problems. Every year the perennials are still there, serving as companion plants to whatever vegetables or berries I choose to grow among them. My companion perennials serve as habitat for beneficial insects and deterrent to pests
Most importantly, my heart is gladdened and my stress lessened as I enjoy the beauty of my garden.
I think most people think of spices and cooking when thinking of chives, which are truly important things with this wonderful herb, though I’ve found it to also be a really attractive flower and plant in my landscaping.
This is a picture I took, just a couple of days ago.
In April and May, my chive plants blossom in a showy display of purple bulbous blossoms.
Later in the summer the flowers turn into a bulbous whitish grey cluster of seeds. I used to have just one chive plant in the location of the picture, but I’ve allowed my chives to seed new plants around it, forming clusters of plants.
For much of the rest of the year, my chives look kind of like tufts of decorative grass.
I use fresh diced chives all the time in my cooking as an onion substitute, for things like sandwiches, roasts, soups, mixed with steamed or fried vegetables, and so on. I’ve tried using the edible flowers in cooking, but found the flavor to be a little bit too strong of an onion flavor for my taste. If you like a stronger flavor of onion, there is a good chance you would like the flavor of the flowers.
I’ve read that chives lose very little of their flavor when frozen or dried, but I really haven’t had to worry about that since for about 10 months of the year I can get fresh chives right out of my yard.
Chives make for a great companion plant. Like onions, they repel a variety of unwanted pests, while still attracting bees. For this reason chives are now planted in amongst my front yard planting areas, my herb beds, and my garden beds.
As a medicinal herb, Wikipedia claims that:
“The medical properties of chives are similar to those of garlic, but weaker; the faint effects in comparison with garlic are probably the main reason for its limited use as a medicinal herb. Containing numerous organisulplide compounds such as allyl sulfides and alkyl sulfoxides, chives have a beneficial effect on the circulatory system, acting upon it by lowering the blood pressure. As chives are usually served in small amounts and never as the main dish, negative effects are rarely encountered, although digestive problems may occur following over-consumption.
Chives are also rich in vitamins A and C, and contain trace amounts of sulfur and iron.”
In much of my garden designs I tend towards a more Asian or Japanesque design, which includes curvy edges, varied plants intermingled among each other, and all held together in a sort of ordered chaos.
An example of this is in my herb beds.
When planting herb beds, you want them close to the house, within an easy distance of the kitchen. I really enjoy being able to walk outside in between stirring something on the stove and grab some chives, rosemary, savory, or other herb that I can include in the meal to zest things up. Fresh herbs are soooo much better than the dried ones often gotten in the store.
I kept my herb beds to a width that I could reach into all parts of it from one edge or another, so nothing more than 6 feet wide. I also wanted the edges to be organic in appearance with no straight edges, so rather than brick or wood, I used cut rock.
I dug out the herb beds to a depth of almost 2 feet and replaced the sandy, rocky, and sometimes clay soil with a special garden soil mixture of compost, sand, and loam. I dug the herb beds to this depth to optimize the growing capacity of the plants I would put there. I have not been disappointed. Everything I have later planted in these beds has done incredibly.
I planted a couple of fruit trees, a dwarf apple and a dwarf Asian pear, in the center of a couple of the garden beds in order to add even more variety.
The first year, my perennial herbs were still really small, so I planted vegetables much more heavily. Since then my herbs have filled out more and more, until I have had to start cutting them back.
There are a few things I did to minimize problems with weeds, which for me is the biggest maintenance problem to be worried about.
I dug out the paths and put in about 12 inches of wood chips in them. So, there would not be any close weeds to spread seeds into the beds. This had the added advantage of giving me an area between the house and the herb beds that I was able to purposefully raise some Elm Oyster mushrooms in the wood chips, which are very tasty gourmet mushroom.
Due to the beds being raised, it is harder for weed seeds to blow into them
By not walking on the raised beds, weed roots don't become compacted, so weeds are much easier to pull out
Here is a later picture with some of the bounty of my herb beds the second year.
The woodchips need to be added to every year in the paths, especially if you have mushrooms planted in them, like I do.
I have things like artichokes, chives, chamomile, edamame beans, runner beans, sage, lettuce, carrots, savory, rosemary, radishes, and more all interwoven together.
This year, I plan on adding another level of cut rock and cementing them in to place.