Every time we do a workshop the first activity we set each group on involves planting a blank canvas patch with a bunch of seasonal seeds and seedlings. The idea is to give it your best shot, using all available information at hand, whether that be the tags on the punnets or the smart phone in your pocket.
We know (and in fact hope) that mistakes will be made, because they will best reinforce knowledge. No one learns anything out of fluking an outcome, and only a bit when someone shows you. But we all learn from our mistakes. This is where we learn something interesting; that the arrangement of the plants is first determined by companion planting.
Companion planting is a principle that describes how some plants get along better when grown together and similarly, how some do not. Such as planting carrots and onions together, because onions help prevent the aphid attack that we’re told is imminent when grown alone. Or tomatoes and basil, because they are a match made in heaven and how do we explain true love? And how about that bad boy of the patch, fennel. Nearly all planting literature will tell you not to plant fennel with any other plant.
Ironically, the rise of (or return to) organic farming and companion planting in the 1970’s can be put down as a reaction to the habits of large commercial growing operations that sprung up in the the decades before. Large commercial production often relies on the practice of growing one crop over a vast plot of land, called monoculture growing, which in turn relies on seasonal pesticides and fungicides to control the inevitable outbreaks of pest and disease. However, organic farmers found that by interplanting crops with synergies - that is, companions - it negated the use of these harmful chemicals, benefitted the soil health, reduced the risk of food contamination, and increased productivity over time.
This movement gave rise to our modern concept of companion planting and from it emerged a catalogue of matchmaking data to rival any dating website. However in a small space garden things are different. We’re not growing acres of the one crop and so pest and disease doesn’t act in the same way. For example, in a small space we’ve found that even fennel - the pin up for bad-ass and unsociable growing - will get along with all its neighbours.
The key to small space gardening is diversity and thankfully as most of us want to experience a wide range of food this naturally happens. By interplanting herbs, salads, vegetables and flowers, we strike a natural balance of pests, predators and pollinators and your garden party will be a raging success. When we’re thinking of companion plants we’re not focusing on specific relationships, but rather on broader categories of plants. Particularly we think about flowers and herbs.
Flowers, of course, play a pivotal role in luring beneficial insects for pest control and pollination. By splashing some colour through the patch, not only do you add an interesting and vibrant food source, but to your insect friends it’s like putting a red flag in front of a bull. If you’re planting gourds in spring, having a hoard of insects about (in particular bees) will vastly improve the chances of natural pollination of the fruit. Herbs also play a similar role with their flowers and fragrances having a profound impact on the psyche of the garden as a whole. Things just seem to work better when they’re around.
What we have found through years of small space growing is that companion planting is much overhyped. We’re over embedded in the practice. Maybe it’s because we all love a symbiotic relationship or perhaps it’s the feeling of holding the ace of hearts; that this is finally the key to mastering edible gardening. But there’s far more important things than match making in the garden. Like spacing and ordering out plants correctly. Then encouraging diversity. Then watering. Then....a bunch of things, and then maybe companion planting.
We feel that no one should be ostracised out of the patch, not even fennel. But hey, all that said and done there are some companion plants that just seem to work well together (and some that do not), and so here is our essential list;
1. Basil and tomatoes
Can you explain love? I can’t, but when I see tomatoes and basil together in the veggie patch it is as close to the moment of understanding that I come. Tomatoes and basil go together like salt and pepper; they’re requisites of each other and without one the other is not the same. When we grow basil around the base of out tomato plants our fruit tastes sweeter and our basil grows taller and stronger, occasionally rivalling the tomato plant in statue.
2. Marigold and tomatoes
Marigolds attract ladybirds to feast on aphids and deter the silk worms that are responsible for root knot nematodes, both of which can take a liking to tomatoes. Plant them as a border around your tomatoes, fencing a no-go zone for anything that can compromise the patch’s most precious crop. Marigold flowers can also be eaten, so they add something to the table too.
3. Alliums and strawberries
We like our strawberries to be sweet and we prefer to eat them ourselves rather than the snails and slugs. The family of alliums, which includes onion, leek and garlic, improves the flavour profile of our strawberries and help to repel the mollusc pests.
4. Beans and Corn (and cucumbers)
This is the three-sisters companion planting relationship which all makes sense on paper and seems to work as well in the garden. This is why…the corn are big nitrogen feeders and grow strong and tall, while the beans are nitrogen fixers (that is, they pump this into the soil for others to use) and climb, requiring something to hang onto. While that alone is good match, cucumber that are free to sprawl along the ground create a pseudo mulch that insults the temperature and retains moisture.
One of the ultimate companion plants (and edible plants because its flowers, foliage and seed pods can all be eaten and are delicious) because of its colour that attracts predators and pollinators, while its prolific foliage helps to create canopies that lure snails and slugs into, that you then dispose of as you see fit. This plant gets top marks all round.
1. Mint (and anything with an extensive root system that sprawls over the garden)
In gardening circles it is bitterly referred to as the kikuyu of the edible world, and will quickly bully out your other plants when stood up in competition. For this reason it’s best to grow mints in their own private spaces - pots are recommended - so it can be contained.