Great Companion Plants for the Veggie Garden

June 10, 2009

Some gardeners subscribe to the principles of companion planting where specific plants are grown alongside others to enhance their growth, performance or flavor.

The plants listed here aren’t intended as companion crops for particular plants found in the vegetable garden, but rather to benefit the garden as a whole. In some cases the incentives are as simple and obvious as attracting beneficial insects.

comfrey-plantIn other instances the benefits of companionship are not as clear and based on less objective reasoning. Whether you call it folklore, unproven science, mere speculation, or poppycock, don’t be so quick to dismiss the subtle relationships that take place between these plants and their neighbors.

•    Tansy – This bushy, ferny-leafed plant will grow to heights of over five feet before putting on a showy display of small yellow flowers the will just about cover the entire tops of the plants. The flowers attract and welcome a variety of bees, wasps, and other beneficial insects to the garden.

Tansy can be a bit unruly so place it in a corner or in an area outside of your veggie growing beds and be prepared to keep it staked and tied  as the season progresses to keep it growing in an orderly and upright fashion.

•    Comfrey – This herb is a great garden companion that has suffered through a bout of bad publicity related to health concerns and debates over whether or not it is safe to ingest this plant. In the garden it produces large leaves on an attractive plant and clusters of light purple blossoms. Comfrey is a perennial that can be cut down to ground level and it will regrow several times during the summer.

A long row of these plants can be grown along the garden’s border to form a dense barrier that will help prevent weeds from migrating from the lawn to the garden. Comfrey also makes a great addition to the compost pile and can be used to create a beneficial tea to spray on plants throughout the garden.

•    Stinging Nettles – I devoted a previous article to Stinging Nettles because I like this plant so much. Call me crazy if you want, but I don’t even mind being stung by this plant’s fine needles as I provoke it by running my fingers along its stem and leaves. The stings will definitely grab your attention but don’t cause me any lasting discomfort.

There’s also an air of mystery surrounding this plant and it has long been revered by some gardeners as a great companion that should be grown near the garden and also used in composting and to create homemade plant growth enhancement sprays. Just be sure to plant it in an area where this spreading plant can be easily contained.

•    Sunflowers – It seems that everyone loves sunflowers, and why not; they are attractive flowers that come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and varieties. They are great pollen producers and will attract bees and other beneficial insects to their huge blossoms.

The birds that frequent your garden will also be rewarded with a crop of delicious seeds as the flowers reach maturity. The larger sunflower varieties can even be used to form a screen along the edge of the garden, or as supports for climbing plants such as beans.

•    Garlic – I’ve yet to come across a bug that targets the garlic growing in my gardens so that makes garlic a good potential repellant to spread around throughout the garden. I often allow garlic bulbs that were missed during the previous year’s harvest to sprout and grow as volunteers in the garden.

I usually plant any small and unused cloves that begin sprouting in storage. These garlic plants may provide some level of pest deterrent when intermingled among other plants that are growing in the garden. They also provide a source of garlic greens and baby garlic for kitchen uses.

•    Mushrooms – Even Master Gardeners are at a loss when it comes to cultivating mushrooms as a crop in the home garden. That’s a shame because these neglected fungi contribute an unseen but essential component to the health of the soil, garden, and plants. Landscapers, vegetable producers, and orchard growers are all rediscovering the missing link between fungi and plant health.

Mycorrhizal soil, seed, and root inoculants are growing in popularity as plant growth enhancers. Another way to help restore levels of important mycorrhizal fungi is to set up an edible mushroom patch in the yard or use a spent mushroom kits to inoculate compost piles or to spread in between raised beds.

•    Insectary Mixes – This one is just what it sounds like, a mixture of plant varieties that are designed to attract and encourage insects to visit or live in the vicinity of your yard and garden. The catch is that the beneficial insect varieties (think bees, ladybugs, and lacewings) are the ones that we are trying to make comfortable here.

The insectary plant mixes offer shelter and a dependable source of pollen and food that the beneficials can count on throughout the season. One popular insectary mix combines an assortment of plants including: Fennel, Cress, Chervil, Chicories, Angelica, Amaranths, and rare Alexanders, but there are many flowers, herbs, and even weeds that can be used to create irresistible insectary mixes.

The list of synergistic partners could go on and on with the likes of Yarrow, Melissa, Borage, and a host of other excellent companion plants! Variety is always a good thing in the vegetable  plot and these garden companions will do well in attracting beneficial predatory and pollinating insects, diversify the plant life found in your garden, and even add some unseen or unidentified agents that will benefit the garden no matter what you are growing.

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