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Use companion gardening as a way to try out organic pest control.

We’ve been talking about organic gardening lately; have you been inspired to start your own little garden? Last week, we talked about keeping your garden organic and pest-free with all- natural insecticides and pest repellents. Maybe you don’t want to spend time spraying for bugs? I don’t blame you; I don’t either. That’s why I’m looking forward to this week’s topic, one of the oldest and simplest organic pest control options: companion gardening.

garden pests

What is Companion Planting, and Why Should I Try It?

Basically, companion planting is when you place two completely different plants in your garden for a desirable effect. Companion planting can help your garden by:

-Increasing diversity

-Adding nutrients to the soil

-Repelling pests

-Attracting “good” bugs like predatory insects or pollinators

Adding new and varied plants to your garden will increase its diversity. This is a good thing for preventing pest damage, because garden pests thrive in monocultures (areas with little diversity). In addition, some plants have botanical super powers. They can repel insects, attract predators, or enhance your crops. Introducing the right plants to your vegetable garden can achieve amazing results without fertilizers or insecticides.

Drawbacks of Companion Planting?

Dust off the scientific method; it’s time to experiment! Companion planting may take a bit of trial and error to get right. Every garden’s microclimate and ecology is unique. What works in one person’s garden may not work in yours. Until you’ve experimented a bit, you may have some poor results, or you may get lucky

How to Get Started

As I first started to learn about companion planting, I felt both overwhelmed and giddy, all at the same time. Adding basil to my tomato patch will produce better-tasting tomatoes?! Yes, but so can several other plants. How do you know where to begin? Here are some quick tips to help you get started:

  1. What is your goal? Want to avoid a repeat performance of last year’s bugs? Enhance your crops? Attract beneficial insects?

  2. Focus: Finding the right combination of plants to benefit your crop isn’t always easy. Finding the right combination for three different crops at once is almost impossible, because a companion that benefits one crop may be harmful to another. Focus your experiments on one crop at a time.

  3. Document everything: Embrace your inner scientist, and document your companion planting experiment. Take notes on what you planted, where you placed it, when you added it, and what results you saw. Confession: I’m bad about this, putting too much faith in my memory. If you, too, are a rebel or don’t have time to keep good records, snapping a quick picture may help you recall details later.

  4. Keep it simple: Already have a suitable companion plant in a different part of your garden? Keep it simple and move that plant to your vegetable garden; use what you have. Don’t have anything you can use? Start with a plant that is easy to grow in your conditions.

Botanical Super Powers

How do you want to improve your garden? Here are a few of the plants that have been proven effective companions. [Disclaimer: this list shows some of the more popular options. It is, by no means, a complete list of all your options. Please share any other expertise you may have to offer in the comments!]

Pest Repellent Plants

Attractant/Trap Plants

Enhancing Plants

Catnip

Calendula (foliage)

Dill

Garlic

Geranium

Marigold

Mint

Onion

Parsley

Sage

Thyme

Calendula (blossoms)

Cosmos

Dill

Eggplant

Nasturtiums

Parsley

Spiny Amaranth

White Mustard

Zinnias

Basil

Beans

Chives

Dill

Parsley

Pea

Sage

Summer Savory

Thyme

garden pests 2

Hold on!

Before you start shopping for new plants, remember that some of these plants may react negatively with certain crops. Companion planting is crop-specific. Let’s go into a little more detail and explore companion options for a few of the summer’s more popular crops.

Crop

To Enhance Growth/Flavor

To Repel/Attract

Avoid

Beans

Tomatoes, Corn

Marigolds – reduce beetle population

Winter/Summer Savory & Rosemary – reduce bean beetles

Onions, garlic, chives

French marigolds planted around the border.

Corn

Beans

Sunflowers

Sunflowers – reduce fall armyworms

Quackgrass (weed), wheat or straw mulch

Cucumber

Beans, cabbage, corn, peas, radishes

Radishes – repel root maggots

Onions – repel root maggots

Broccoli – repel cucumber beetles

Corn – repel cucumber beetles

Spiny Amaranth – attract/trap black cutworms

Potatoes, herbs

Peppers

Basil, carrots, marjoram, onions, oregano

Marigolds – repel nematodes, aphids

Catnip & Onions – repel aphids

Kohlrabi, fennel, beans

Tomatoes

Asparagus, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, onions, parsley, sage

Borage & Dill – repel tomato hornworms

Marigolds – repel nematodes

Black Walnut tree roots, fennel, potatoes

Don’t plant within two years of eggplant or potatoes

A special note about beans…
Image: Parasitoid Wasp on Achillea, © Steve Masley

garden pests 3

All plants consume nutrients from the soil, but beans plants are special. They add in more nutrients than they consume. When you plant beans, you are also adding an extra boost of nitrogen into your soil. This extra nitrogen boost is loved by nitrogen-suckers like corn. Plant some beans with any nitrogen-depleting plants to boost the growth of your crop.

“Good” Bugs: Predatory Insects

Some plants do not repel insects and may lure more to your garden. How can you tell the “good” insects from the “bad”? Here are a few of the insects you shouldn’t mind having around:

Parasitic Wasps –  This special group of wasps can be as small as a gnat or up to 2” long. Adult wasps inject eggs into or on the host. When the larva hatch, they consume the host. Wasps need nectar and pollen for energy plus a nice supply of host insects. Plant dill, fennel, cilantro, and plants with tiny, cluster-style flowers to attract parasitic wasps. Good news: most parasitic wasps are unable to sting humans, thankfully.

Hunting Wasps – Stinging insects like yellow jackets, hornets, and paper wasps may be annoying to humans, but they are vicious pest predators and helpful in your garden. They will hunt and remove harmful pests from your plants. Unless they are becoming a nuisance to you (or if someone in your household has an allergy), leave yellowjacket and wasp nests alone.

Ladybugs – adults and larvae will feed on aphids and other insects. They’re attracted to flower nectar and pollen. You can totally cheat and buy ladybugs at a garden supply store.

For more information about beneficial insects, check out this article at Organic Gardening’s site.

Beneficial Insect Reservoir Bed: BIRB

Want an easy way to incorporate attractant plants in your established garden? Add some Beneficial Reservoir Beds (BIRBs). These strategically placed areas provide beneficial insects with pollen, nectar, and shelter, welcoming them into your garden to eat the pests and pollinate your crops. Place a larger BIRB along one edge of your vegetable garden, a smaller one at the other end, and some mini BIRB islands inbetween. This will encourage good bugs to fly through your garden and work their magic. With BIRBs, spacing is almost more important than content. You want to get good bugs moving through your garden, otherwise they won’t do much for your crops.

What should you plant in a BIRB?

Flowering plants with clusters of tiny flowers, for attracting parasitic wasps

Plants with lacy foliage, like cosmos, dill, and fennel, to attract ladybugs

Herbs, for honeybees and other pollinators

Other flowering native plants, for bumblebees and native bees

Bunch grasses, for ground beetles

Perspective

Whether you have a pest problem or not, companion gardening and BIRBs are a simple way to enhance your garden. I may look into the proper companion plants for my crops next year, but since my garden is already growing, I’m just going to add some BIRBs. They may help with pests and pollinators, but if not, at least I’ll get some pretty flowers and herbs out of it.

Have you tried companion planting? What are your thoughts? Is it worth the effort? Did you see any noticeable results?

Next week…

I’ll be researching organic cotton. How does it differ from regular cotton fabric? Does it have any benefits? Is it worth the higher price? After shopping around for some new bedsheets, I was curious to learn more and make sure I’m spending my money where it matters.

This is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.