Give companion gardening a try

Photo Provided

Planting basil as companion plant to tomatoes may improve the flavor of the tomatoes and repel whiteflies as well.

Last week when I visited our Cleveland County Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens at the fairgrounds, I noticed marigolds planted in among the tomatoes in the vegetable garden. The caretaker, Linda Fielder, said the marigolds were planted with the tomatoes to repel nematodes.

Did you know that you can plant certain types of plants together that may be beneficial to each other? This is called companion gardening. Companion planting involves placing plants that can benefit from one another adjacent to each other the garden.

It also involves keeping some plants far away from one another, as they can be detrimental to one another's growth. While not all horticulturists agree with this concept, gardeners have practiced it for years. Will it work for you? You decide.

Pairing plants isn't new. Our Native American ancestors used the "three sisters" method of growing beans, corn and squash together. The corn provided support for the beans, the squash shaded the soil and kept the weeds down and the beans replenished the soil with nitrogen at the end of the season. The benefits in this example are easy to see, but some pairings aren't so obvious.

For instance, some gardeners believe that onions planted next to strawberries may repel damaging insects and help to prevent mold on the berries.

Many plants are natural insect repellents because of their scents; basil, catnip, garlic, marigolds and petunias may repel some damaging insects without harming beneficial ones. Try mixing fragrant herbs like basil, chives, oregano, rosemary and sage with your other plants.

Because the strong smelling herbs may mask the scents of desirable plants, damaging insects often will leave them alone. Scientists still debate this concept and results vary in gardens, but you may want to try these plants as companions to others in your garden. What do you have to lose?

Another way to pair plants is to use those that attract good bugs, which, in turn, prey on damaging insects or act as pollinators. Flowering plants such as alyssum, bachelor's button, bee balm and cosmos all lure helpful insects. You may want to include plants with bell-shaped flowers like foxglove, Canterbury bells and campanula, all of which lure good bugs like bees to your garden.

Plants in the dill family make good companions because they lure good bugs that will eat pests and also host swallowtail butterflies, an added benefit.

Using companion planting can also add nutrients to your soil. Plants like alfalfa, beans and clover take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form of nitrogen that plants easily absorb in the soil. Beets and kohlrabi also naturally add vital minerals to the soil.

Can companion planting help your vegetable garden? Many gardeners believe complimentary plants can boost growth and flavor of veggies because they secrete beneficial sustenance. For example, it is believed planting basil next to tomatoes will improve their flavor. Or try planting chamomile with your cabbage, cucumbers or onions to improve their flavor and make them grow faster.

Finally, there are many who plant herbs like basil, garlic, sage and thyme with their veggies, not only to repel damaging insects but to help reduce the incidence of disease.

A final and easy way to companion garden is to simply use tall plants. They can provide shade to sun-sensitive plants and also act as a windbreak. Planting sunflowers next to your vegetable garden, for example, can protect cucumbers and tomatoes from the searing afternoon sun.

Companion gardening is a concept that creates scientific debate and not all horticulturists agree with the practice. However, my personal experience has been positive; I find planting basil and Cuban oregano in containers with my flowers helps to keep squirrels from invading my pots and digging holes in them.

Remember that results vary from garden to garden, but you may want to give companion gardening a try. It can't hurt, and it may help. Besides, all plants can be beautiful in your garden, no matter where they are placed.

Judy Kautz is a Cleveland County Master Gardener.