Ann Wright: Companions in the garden
Things that are closely connected, or accompany those in similar categories describe the term “companion.” In the plant world, companion planting is a technique that utilizes attributes of one plant (such as an aromatic type plant) placed near another plant to bring a balance into the ecosystem of the garden. Companion plants are placed to help prevent pest problems by attracting beneficial insects or repelling insects from a particular crop. For example, marigolds may be planted to deter root nematodes; nasturtiums attract aphids away from edible plants. Companion planting can also help make the most of garden space – plant carrots, onions and lettuce together for instance. The concept has longevity although there are few scientific studies to support the technique. Companion planting is tied to organic gardening, and is documented anecdotally or according to gardener’s experience. In making plans for vegetable gardens, companion planting is a technique to consider.
Native Americans utilized companion planting concepts by intercropping corn, beans and squash. The legend is that corn, beans and squash are like three sisters – inseparable during the growing season. “Three sisters” planting has been documented in a number of North American tribes including the Anasazi, Iroquois and Zuni, among others.
The “companionship” of beans, which are legumes, is seen as beans supply nutrients for other plants by “fixing” nitrogen in the soil. (Nitrogen fixing is a process where the roots of the plant take nitrogen from the air and make it available to plants through the soil.) Since corn has tall stalks, it acts as a support structure for the beans to wrap around. The squash is a shady companion – the large leaves help deprive weeds of sunlight, while shading the soil helps retain moisture. Additionally, the three sisters are each from different crop families, which helps create more resistance to diseases and pests.
The three sisters can be planted by dedicating an area – or several areas, to growing the three types of vegetables. Pole beans are generally the type of bean to plant, rather than bush beans. There are a number of varieties of pole beans that will do well in our area. Examples are scarlet runner or Italian snap beans. These are climbing beans that will grow in companion to the taller corn stalks for support. Corn will add some tall structure to the areas. Native Americans preferred corn with shorter, thicker stalks which aided in support of the beans they grew. And third, the squash sister can be planted on the outer margins of the beans and corn. Of the squashes, summer squash or smaller winter squash are ideal – pumpkins are too heavy and vigorous to combine with the other two sisters. Additionally, sunflowers planted to surround the vegetables might be considered the “fourth sister”. Planting these will help attract pollinators to the garden.
To demonstrate companion gardening, the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County planted a three sisters garden at Martial Cottle Park in San Jose. They created a very nice short video about how they planned and planted the garden. To view the video, go to; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrGgCs7EqOY.
As Master Gardeners of Nevada County, we are also attuned to the concept of companionship. And, we are missing our companions- our community of gardeners! One of our main missions is to provide research-based education to home gardeners in our community. Although the past year has required that we do things differently, we are still committed to providing garden related education.
Currently, our Demonstration Garden at the NID Business complex is closed to the public. However, when we are able to open, it is a great way to observe different habitats, including Mediterranean native and meadow gardens.
We are currently offering workshops online, but we are really looking forward to the time we will be able to meet in person for workshops and events. This is usually the time we are gearing up for Home and Garden Show, our spring plant sale, the Soroptimist Garden tour and other wonderful events which are on hold for now. We are hopeful we will be able to meet at the fairgrounds this summer for the Nevada County Fair, but at this time we are not certain as to that plan. In the meantime, check our website (http://ncmg.ucanr.org/) for updates regarding events, and to join a virtual workshop via zoom. We are recording all the public workshops to enable viewing at a later time. These are also found on our website along the left navigation menu under “Workshop Recordings”. Simply click the workshop you’d like to view, and click on the link.
In addition, we are pleased to be able to broadcast a live radio program every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon on KNCO radio- 830 on the AM dial. The “Master Gardener and Friends” program allows listeners to call or text questions to the Master Gardener hosts of the program. It’s one way for us to connect with our companion gardeners in the community, so please tune in. We hope to reconnect in person with you very soon!
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.
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