Companion Gardening Expands Options for Small-Space Vegetable Gardens

companion plantingThere are just some things in life that make ideal combinations.

It’s peanut butter and jelly for lunch; cookies and milk for dessert.

When it comes to the garden, there’s tomatoes and basil; radishes and spinach.

These combinations of vegetables and herbs make perfect partners when grown together in the garden, especially if you’re gardening in a small space.

Basil makes the tomatoes tastier and radishes attract destructive leafminers away from the spinach. These botanical buddies are two examples of how plants team together to help each other.

Companion planting is the art and science of arranging combinations of two or more plants to benefit one another. Planting certain crops together saves garden space, controls pests and encourages healthy gardens.

Native Americans practiced companion planting for centuries by growing corn, beans and squash together. These vegetables are called the Three Sisters because they complement each other when planted in the same hill.

The corn provides tall stalks for the pole beans to climb. The beans help replenish the soil with important nutrients. The large squash leaves serve as a living mulch to maintain soil moisture and choke out weeds.

Since the early 1900s researchers have tested the idea of symbiotic plant relationships and found that some plants have a positive influence on their neighboring plants. You can follow nature’s lead and plant a variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers to create a beautiful and beneficial ecosystem in your garden.

The saying “opposites attract” explains the basic approach to matching companion plants. Deep-rooted plants grow with shallow-rooted plants, scented plants mingle with unscented plants, and leafy plants mix with root crops.

Short, shade-tolerant plants benefit from protection provided by tall, sun-loving plants. Lettuce likes the shade it receives when planted with a tall flower like Nicotiana (flowering tobacco). The one requirement is that each plant’s soil, nutrient and water needs are similar.

Organic gardeners use companion plantings to prevent insect pest problems and to reduce the need for chemical pesticides. Some plants act as natural pesticides by emitting insect-repelling chemicals through their leaves or roots. Anyone familiar with the distinctive odor of marigolds understands why pests choose to stay away from that pungent flower.

Marigolds also help control nematodes, a microscopic soil pest, by secreting a substance through their roots. Plants that are susceptible to nematode damage, like tomatoes, benefit when marigolds are sown close by.

Insect pests that locate their food by smell can be confounded when gardeners also cultivate strong-smelling plants. Garlic, onions, chives and other heady herbs provide a good disguise to protect tender greens. Leeks and carrots also become good friends in the garden. Planting these two vegetables together means the plants can join forces to repel each other’s pests.

While some plants produce odors or substances to drive pests away, other plants provide nectar or pollen for attracting beneficial pollinators into the garden. Bees will be invited to linger longer if bee balm is in close proximity to the garden, especially near the tomato patch.

Companion plants also provide essential nutrients to help each other thrive. Peas, beans and clover are well-known for their ability to produce usable nitrogen which helps feed their neighbors.

Decoy plants are another example of garden allies. Nasturtiums attract aphids and keep the pests from attacking roses if planted a distance away from the rose beds. Nasturtiums also provide a comfortable habitat for beneficial insects like spiders and ground beetles.

While some plants do better when grown together, other plant combinations don’t work as well. The following table lists some common vegetable crops with their companion pairings and their incompatible plantings.


Crop Companions Incompatible
Asparagus Tomato, parsley, basil
Basil Tomato
Bush beans Broccoli, kale, cabbage, beets, cucumber, sunflowers   Onion, garlic
Pole beans Corn, radish, eggplant, lettuce   Onion, beets, kohlrabi
Cabbage family (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi) Bush beans, beets, celery, onions, tomato, potato, sage, thyme, onions   Strawberry
Carrot Peas, lettuce, onions, leeks, tomato, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, leaf lettuce, radish, chives   Dill
Celery Bush bean, cauliflower, leek, tomato cabbage
Corn Beans, cucumber, melons, peas, squash, potatoes   Tomatoes
Cucumber Beans, corn, peas, radish, sunflower   Potato
Eggplant Beans, marigold, spinach
Leeks Carrots, celery, onions
Lettuce Beans, carrots, cucumbers, onion, radish
Onion, garlic Beets, carrot, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts   Bush and pole beans, peas
Melons Corn, pumpkin, radish, squash
Peas Beans, carrots, cucumbers, corn, radishes, turnips   Onions, garlic
Potato Bush bean, cabbage, corn, eggplant, peas   Cucumber, squash, tomato
Tomato Cabbage, carrots, celery, onion, mint, bee balm   Corn, fennel



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