Ann Wright: In good company — companion planting
The word “companion” may typically be thought of in terms of someone keeping company with another; to accompany.
In the garden world, companion planting is a concept that complements our gardens and serves some beneficial purposes as well.
The UCANR California Master Gardener Handbook (Dennis Pittinger, Editor) defines companion planting as “an orderly mixing of crop plants (intercropping); a cultural practice aimed at diversifying host plant populations.” There is limited scientific data to quantify the symbiotic relationship between plants and the value of companion planting. Most understanding is gained from gardeners’ observation and years of experience.
Many gardeners appreciate variety and diversity in their gardens. Dot Zanotti Ingels, a Master Gardener in Marin County writes in a 2016 newsletter The Leaflet, that combining different plants in a space offers gardeners security through diversity — that mixing up plants avoids monoculture, where pests can easily spread from plant to plant. The mixing of plants breaks the pest’s cycle. Companion planting also provides many different habitats for beneficial insects, as well as helping repel weeds, nematodes and pathogenic fungi. Sometimes the companion plant serves as a decoy to draw pests away from a prized vegetable plant.
Additionally, it has been found that certain plants are beneficial to the soil. Legumes (peas and beans for example) have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil via a symbiotic relationship between the plant roots and a species of bacteria (Rhizobia). The presence of the Rhizobia is associated with converting nitrogen from the atmosphere (N2) to ammonium ions (NH4) which is a form of nitrogen plants can absorb.
Companion plants also provide a means for protection for each other. For example, taller plants can provide shade for shorter plants. The taller plants may also provide structural support and wind- barriers. Taller plants also help maintain soil moisture in the garden bed. For example, tall pole beans can help shade tender lettuce, thus extending lettuce season. Likewise, corn can serve as a trellis for beans, peas or cucumber.
Tomatoes do well with basil, nasturtiums, marigold, asparagus, carrot and parsley. Quicker maturing plants like radish and lettuce can be sown between melons and squash — as the radish and lettuce is harvested, room remains for the vines from the longer maturing plants.
To learn more about some garden companions, join Master Gardeners today for the workshop, “Pollinators: Natives vs. Honeybees,” from 10 a.m. to noon at the Grass Valley Elks Lodge, 109 S. School St.
The workshop will provide insight into the introduction of pollinators that are native to our area, the differences between native bees and honey bees, the threats to the pollinators and what we can do to help these important garden companions.
For more information about Nevada County Master Gardener’s activities, or to ask a question check the website. Master Gardeners are also available at the “Hotline” office at the Vets Hall, 255 S. Auburn St. in Grass Valley.
Hours are 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Hotline number is 530-273-0919.
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.
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