The Benefits of Companion Planting in Your Garden
Learn about companion planting, including the benefits of companion planting in your garden and a list of some favorite companion plants. Companion plants can be both beautiful and practical in your vegetable garden, so don’t delay and add these lovely plants as soon as you can.
I’ve grown a lot in my gardening knowledge over the years. I once used to boldly exclaim that I would never have ‘silly flowers’ in my vegetable garden because it would only be a practical garden.
However, through the years, I’ve learned so much about the value of flowers and herbs in my vegetable garden (including: they can be good for encouraging pollinators & insects, includes edible flowers, and more that I talk about below).
I’ve really learned that a garden can (and should) be beautiful as well as practical. I’ve learn tons about how certain flowers and herbs are actually GOOD for my vegetable garden. They are, in fact, some of the best companion plants you can grow for your vegetables’ optimal health.
What is Companion Planting?
Companion planting is the idea that certain plants, when grown next to each other, improve each other’s health and yields. Companion plants do a variety of things for one another, including: boosting nutrient uptake, helping with pest management, enhancing pollination, and producing higher harvest yields.
Planting helpful plants together in your garden is a great practice for organic gardening. Instead of working against nature with chemicals, you’re figuring out how to let the plants take care of themselves.
Companion planting is also about learning what plants do NOT do well together. It can be tempting to find the whole thing overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. I like to use companion planting as more of a guideline than a set of rules.
Companion planting has been used as a natural gardening method for thousands of years. You might have heard of a Native American companion planting method called the Three Sisters Garden. This gardening method revolved around planting beans, corn, and various squashes together. Pole beans would climb up the corn stalks and the squash plants made excellent ground cover. The roots of these three plants also provided nutrient boosts for each other (you can learn more about the Three Sisters Garden in this article).
The Benefits of Companion Planting
There are quite a few reasons why companion planting is important and super helpful for your vegetable garden. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of companion planting in an organic garden (not all of these benefits are possible with each companion-plant-relationship. Scroll farther down for some specific examples of good companion plants).
1. Preventing Pests
There are a few different ways that companion plants can prevent pests in your garden. This includes plants that act as pest repellents; plants that help invite good predatory insects; and companion plants that sacrifice themselves as trap crops.
Some of the most popular companion plants that act like pest repellents are strongly scented aromatic herbs. The scent of aromatic herbs can interfere with the pests that are trying to find their preferred host plants. For example, herbs like dill, basil, and cilantro can help repel aphids.
Some plants also act as pest repellents due to other biological and chemical aspects of the unique plants. For example, French marigolds (a classic in most traditional gardens), is an amazing companion plant partly due to their roots containing a natural chemical that kills nematodes. Nematodes are a microscopic pest that feeds on the root systems of plants, which reduces their health and yields.
So it’s a great idea to plant French marigolds by plants that are especially vulnerable to nematodes, including tomatoes, melons, and squashes.
Some plants are helpful companions because they attract beneficial predatory insects. Herbs like dill, fennel, cilantro, and yarrow attract amazing insects like ladybugs, hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and lacewings. These beneficial insects can really help keep your pests (like aphids) under control.
Finally, another way companion plants help with natural pest prevention is by being trap crops for pests. These plants basically lure the pests away from your vulnerable vegetables. Nasturtiums are a well-known trap crop companion plant.
Not only do nasturtiums look beautiful in the garden, with their lily pad-type leaves and pretty orang-red flowers, they attract both aphids and cabbage worms. Those pests are attracted to the nasturtiums, and, if you’re dealing with a heavily infestation of those particular pests, you can just rip out that particular plant and remove the problem from your garden.
Even if you don’t have a bad pest year with aphids or cabbage worms, nasturtiums are also edible, so they are really a wonderful companion plant for your garden.
2. Encouraging Pollinators
One of the best things you can do for your vegetable garden is grow flowers in there, too. Flowers like zinnias, cosmos, nasturtiums, calendula, marigolds, and borage are wonderful companion plants because they attract pollinators to your vegetable patch.
Many vegetables depend on pollinators to produce their fruit (including squashes, cucumbers, and melons). On top of that, pollinators need all the support they can get these days. So help attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects to your garden by adding some flowering companion plants.
3. Natural Weed Control
Some companion plants are excellent for being used as natural weed control (check out my other natural weed controlling tips here). The key with weed control is preventing bare soil where the weeds can take root. Some companion plants cover the bare ground to naturally suppress weeds.
One example of a great weed-controlling companion plant is buckwheat. Buckwheat is a summer cover crop (learn more about cover crops here). It grows quickly and not only covers the bare spots in your garden, it also has flowers that attract beneficial insects to your garden (and it’s edible!). Learn more about buckwheat in this article.
4. Improving the Health of Other Plants
There are few ways that companion plants can improve the health of your garden. Some companion plants have deep tap roots that help bring nutrients closer to the soil surface, which makes the nutrients more easily available to other plants. Comfrey is a great example of this as their long taproots bring nutrients closer to the soil surface for the benefit of other plants around it. Another bonus with comfrey is that bees LOVE comfrey flowers, so it also attracts pollinators to your garden.
Other companion plants naturally enrich the soil by adding nutrients to the soil through their roots. The legume family, for example, helps make nitrogen available in your soil, making it a wonderful companion for nitrogen-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers.
5. Improving the Taste of Other Plants
It has been said by gardeners through the ages that some companion plants actually help improve the taste of the produce from your garden. A popular one that is often mentioned for this is basil. Gardeners claim that if you plant basil by your tomatoes, it actually improves the taste of your tomatoes.
6. Supporting Your Plants
Companion plants can also be great for supporting your other plants, either by acting as a natural trellis or by providing protection from the elements (sun, wind, etc.). In the Three Sisters Garden technique, for example, corn is used as a natural trellis for pole beans. You can also try to use sunflowers as support for vining plants.
You can also think about using companion plants as natural protection from the elements. Use tall plants in your vegetable garden for shade and relief from direct sunlight for your more sun-sensitive plants. You can also use hearty plants as wind protection for your more fragile plants.
Why You Shouldn’t Stress About Companion Planting
From the list of companion plant benefits mentioned above, you can see that there are a lot of ways to define companion plants and it can be a bit mind-boggling to think about. My advice is: don’t stress out about companion planting.
There are tons of super detailed charts online about garden ‘friends and foes’ and it can be overwhelming, especially for beginner gardeners. It’s important to understand that companion planting “rules” are more like suggestions.
If you can work it in to your garden plans to include specific companion plants by specific vegetables, that’s great! But if making lists of what to plant by each other (and also what not to plant by each other) is stressing you out, just put it aside and go outside and just get gardening.
Please use these tips on companion planting as some great suggestions to input if you can and don’t beat yourself up over it if you don’t implement it all. Never ever let garden “rules” steal your gardening joy.
The Basics of Companion Planting
There are many types of companion plants and it’s WAY too much to include in one blog post. To keep it simple, I’m posting my favorite Top 10 companion plants, which are mainly flowers or herbs that belong in your garden (if you have the space).
My Top 10 Companion Plants:
Basil is a strongly scented aromatic herb that can help repel aphids, asparagus beetles, tomato hornworms, and white flies from your garden. Many gardeners claim that basil can improve the flavor of tomatoes. And since tomatoes and basil make an amazing flavor combo in a lot of recipes, it’s handy to plant them next to each other anyway.
Obviously, basil is a delicious herb for your culinary adventures in the kitchen. My favorite way to eat basil is by making homemade pesto.
Borage is a cucumber-scented (and tasting) herb with beautiful edible blue flowers and fuzzy leaves. It is known for attracting bees and other pollinators (borage honey is a specialized honey you can get from some beekeepers). It also repels hornworms and cabbage moths and supposedly improves the flavor of squashes and tomatoes if you plant it near them.
I love making borage tea (both iced tea and hot tea) with my home-grown borage in order to relieve stress on my busy days. It’s really tasty and refreshing (especially as iced tea on a hot summer day).
Calendula is a beautiful yellow flower for your garden. It attracts pollinators to their flowers and also functions as a “trap crop,” by attracting aphids, thrips, and whiteflies to it.
It is also edible and has skin-soothing benefits. I often use calendula to make herb-infused oils for making homemade beauty and skincare products. Here in South Carolina, calendula often acts like a biennial, and grows flowers two years in a row for me.
Chives are another strongly scented aromatic herb that helps repel bad pests. The scent repels aphids, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, and more. The beautiful chive blossoms also attract bees and other pollinators.
I am a huge fan of chives (they are so good on potatoes!) and I’ve got plenty of them in my garden. I add them to my salads, and I’m hoping to make my first batch of chive vinegar this upcoming spring.
Dill’s strong scent repels many pests, especially aphids. The best thing about dill, though, is that a lot of beneficial insects are attracted to it, including ladybugs, butterflies, bees, wasps, and hoverflies.
However, dill doesn’t get along with all the plants. You should keep it away from carrots, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. To keep things simple, I plant dill by my pickling cucumbers. Not only do they get along perfectly, but it makes it easier to harvest dill and cucumbers at the same time for when it’s time to make pickles.
I love growing garlic. Not only is it super easy to grow, but it is a great companion plant. The pungent aroma of garlic helps repel pests like Japanese beetles, aphids, spider mites, and more.
If you can, try to avoid growing garlic by your asparagus, beans, and peas. But you can plant garlic by anything else for a great companion plant. Learn how to grow garlic in this post. It’s a super easy crop to grow!
French Marigolds are a classic flower in most traditional gardens. It’s not just because they are easy to grow and have bright, pretty flowers. Marigolds are also amazing companion plants for pretty much your whole garden. Their flowers attract pollinators. Their roots help fight nematodes in the soil. They also have a scent that repels many types of beetles and even rabbits.
Nasturtiums are beautiful companion plants for your garden. I love their bright red-orange flowers (and so do the pollinators) and their pretty leaves. Both the flowers and leaves are edible, so it’s a great dual-purpose plant. They repel pests like blackflies, whiteflies, cucumber beetles, and slugs. Plus their flowers attract hoverflies, which are beneficial insects that eat aphids.
The strong aromatic scent of onions repels tons of different pests. They are especially good planted near your cabbages, because onions help repel cabbage loopers, cabbage worms, and cabbage maggots. They also repel Japanese beetles and aphids and rabbits, so they can be a great barrier plant on the edges of your garden.
Just like garlic, however, try to avoid planting onions by your asparagus, beans, and peas.
I love growing sunflowers in my garden. They attract pollinators and repel pests like whiteflies and aphids. They can also be used as a natural trellis for vining plants like pole beans. An additional bonus is that they are tall and can provide some shade over my salad greens, which helps prevent the greens from bolting for a bit longer into the season.
They do take up a lot of room in my garden, however, so I only grow sunflowers every few years, or, I’ll throw some sunflower seeds into my flower beds or next to my bird feeder, so that the birds can eat the sunflower seeds right from the plants.
My Best Companion Planting Tips
By planting my top 10 favorite companion plants in my garden, I am able to encourage a diverse life of plants and animals that help me keep an organic garden. Companion planting does not have to be overwhelming in any way.
Here are my final tips about companion planting that you should try to keep in mind:
- Avoid monotony in your garden: don’t plant the same one or two crops over and over in the same spots. This will eventually strip your soil of nutrients and invite many pests, who will hatch their eggs in your soil for the next year and the pest invasions can get worse over time. Learn more about crop rotation here.
- Instead, plant a diverse group of plants and move them around (using crop rotation guidelines can help, but really, just remember to move the plants around in your garden every year).
- Add flowers and herbs to your vegetable garden: as you can tell from my top 10 companion plant list, both flowers and herbs have a lot of benefits for your garden for repelling pests and encouraging pollinators. An additional bonus? It makes your garden look really pretty, too.
- Avoid planting these two pairings together: I’m not big on rules, but, if you can avoid it, try to keep (1) your onions and garlic away from your asparagus, beans, and peas; and (2) your tomatoes and potatoes planted away from each other. Those are the two big groups that can produce lower harvest yields or create vulnerable conditions for pests or disease.
So tell me….how do YOU plan on incorporating companion plants in your vegetable garden this year? Please let me know in the comments below what you hope to grow! I love reading about your own garden adventures and rooting for you in your own gardening journey.
More Gardening Tips:
- How to Make Soil Blocks for Seed Starting
- How to Keep Deer Out of Your Garden
- Clever Ways to Extend Your Gardening Season
- The Benefits of Gardening: A Gardener’s Reflection