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Do It Yourself Companion Planting

April 1, 2018

Our bodies respond to what we put in them. Drink a frozen beverage too quickly? Brain freeze! Consume lactose or sugar? Get ready for potentially gassy conditions and energy spikes. The same holds true in the garden: plants respond to inputs including temperatures, sunlight, soil composition, and adjacent plants. Entire books are written on each of these topics. This article strives to provide some general context and simple advice to help beginning do-it-yourself gardeners make good choices for their landscape.

When growing vegetables, take note of the temperature of the soil. I personally do not bother with a thermometer. Instead, the poking up of the earliest perennials of my landscape – asparagus, rhubarb, plus the cheerful springtime greeting by crocuses, hyacinth and daffodils – signal that the soil has started warming up. I know it’s time to get going with my cool season crops that thrive in cooler soil temperatures, such as beets, Brussels sprouts, kale, onions, and peas. Then it will be time to grow warmer season crops that thrive with higher daytime temperatures such as snap beans, corn, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and squash. If it’s an extra hot summer, the eggplant, melons, sweet potatoes and tomatoes will do especially well.

TIP: When planting tomatoes starts, WAIT for the soil to warm up before you transplant them in the ground. Just be patient. They really don’t like “cold toes” and will significantly slow down if you hurry to get them in the ground. In addition, if you can place your tomatoes near a heat sink – think of a big boulder, or southern-facing wall – do so. They’ll love the heat source throughout the season.

Related to soil temperature but worth calling out on its own, the amount of sunlight a space gets clearly impacts growth cycles. Spots in your yard that get partial sun or partial shade (defined as 3 to 6 hours of direct sunlight) will be a better fit for certain plants such as arugula, beets, and spinach. The areas of your landscape that get full sun (defined as at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun each day) will benefit tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, and beans. Thankfully, nature is forgiving and usually finds a way to grow regardless of the light conditions.

TIP: For raised beds, if you have to choose an eastern versus western exposure go with the spot with eastern exposure. The morning sun will dry off the evening dew, which reduces leaf rot, and your raised bed won’t get zapped in the glare of the afternoon sun.

Soil Composition
If you support your soil, it will support you and help your plants overcome any sensitivities or weaknesses they may have. In general, you want dark, rich, fluffy soil with good tilth and some organic content. Nearly all soils benefit from regular topdressings of compost, a layer of mulch, cover crops, and pathways.

TIP: Give your garden the gift of a 1-2” layer of mulch. It will have the immediate benefit of making the space look great. It will have the ongoing benefit of reducing weeds, slowly adding nutrients to the soil, and helping maintain steady temperatures.

Companion Planting
This is where we get to the elaborate dance of the veggie garden. I liken companion planting to figuring out a seating chart with in-laws that do and don’t get along with each other. For example, tomatoes and basil do well together. Bibb lettuce and spinach are friends. So are lettuce, carrots, and radishes. And, to continue the dining metaphor, that’s just the first seating; subsequent seatings, (typically referred to as crop rotations or successive plantings) take into account “heavy feeders,” “heavy givers,” and “light feeders.” For example, veggies such as tomatoes, squash and lettuce are considered heavy feeders and take lots of nutrients, especially nitrogen, from the soil. So to return nitrogen to the soil, one ideally subsequently grows heavy givers such as peas, beans, alfalfa, and fava beans. Then, one ideally plants a light feeder such as root crops. And then back to heavy feeders.

For the first few years of having my own garden, I set out with the best intentions and carefully mapped out where everything would go in the garden. I had diagrams and spreadsheets cross-referenced with my biodynamic calendar. Then the season would hit and I would get the big items in (peas, squash, tomatoes, and a few sections of beets, greens and carrots), and then squeeze everything else in the ground wherever it could fit and roughly made sense. I now accept that as my gardening style. The garden always meets me wherever I’m at and whatever I do. I learn something new each year – both what works for the garden and works for me. I’m not condoning this method; rather I share this as a license to not get too paralyzed about which plants can go next to each other in space and time, and just do what works for you, your taste buds, your time and your space.

TIP: With that context, here’s a list of common garden vegetables and their companions and antagonists (Organic Gardening and Farming, February 1972, p. 54).

Companions Antagonists
Beans Potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, cabbage, most other vegetables and herbs Onions, garlic, cladiolus, chives
Beets Onions, kohlrabi Pole beans
Cabbage family (cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli) Aromatic plants, potatoes, celery, dill, chamomile, sage, peppermint, rosemary, beets, onions Strawberries, tomatoes, pole beans
Carrots Peas, leaf lettuce, chives, onions, leeks, rosemary, sage, tomatoes Dill
Corn Potatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash
Cucumbers Beans, corn, peas, radishes, sunflowers, lettuce Potatoes, aromatic herbs
Lettuce Carrots, radishes, strawberries, cucumbers, onions
Onions (and garlic) Beets, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, leeks, chamomile (sparsely) Peas, beans
Peas Carrots, turnips, radishes, cucumbers, corn, beans, most vegetables and herbs Onions, garlic, gladiolus, potatoes, chives
Spinach Strawberries
Squash Nasturtiums, corn Potatoes
Tomatoes Chives, onions, parsley, asparagus, marigolds, nasturtiums, carrots Kohlrabi, potatoes, fennel, cabbage

Now get out there and have yourself a garden party with the right temperature, lighting, soil composition, and attendees.

Meredith Sorensen is the Director of Communication for Harvest, a company that fuels a more sustainable world where organic resources are harvested, not wasted. Harvest New England ( | 860-674-8855 x101) provides top quality soils, mulches and custom blends in Connecticut at our Fairfield, Farmington, Ellington, and Wallingford locations, and via delivery.

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