Plants need good companions to thrive. Companion vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruits has been used in gardening by native cultures worldwide for centuries. The most common companion garden is the Native American Three Sisters Garden.
Many long time gardeners tell us that growing certain plants together improves flavor as well. Garden wisdom and experience supports these beneficial plant companions.
In gardens and flower beds, certain plants support each other while others, just don’t get along. Some vegetables, like tomatoes and carrots, complement each other’s growth habits. Tomatoes prefer summer warmth and plenty of sunshine, while carrots grow best in cooler soil. Plants compete for available resources.
Companion planting vegetables can also help with space management in your garden. Consider which plants can be planted together based on soil requirements, seasonal timing, root depth, lighting needs, watering needs and fertilizing needs.
Using companion planting in your vegetable garden can also help keep insect pests away. Pesty insects are attracted to your crops largely by the smell of the plant they like to feed on. If you mix the crops in your garden using the companion planting guidelines, the bugs, flies and insects have a harder time finding their target crop. Most of us like to plant our gardens in nice rows of the same crop.
However, this actually works against the companion planting theory. To be effective in controlling insects with companion planting, you need to intermingle the various vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.
The Three Sisters Garden. Is a method of gardening using an inter cropping system which grows corn, beans, and squash crops in the same growing area that is typically a rounded mound of soil, often called a hill. In a three sisters planting, the three crops benefit one another.
Corn provides support for beans. Beans, have bacteria living on their roots that help them absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that plants can use. Corn, which requires a lot of nitrogen to grow, benefits most. The large, prickly squash leaves shade for the soil, preventing weed growth, and deters animal pests.
It’s hardly surprising that these crops, considered by many to be special gifts from the creator, played such an important role in the agriculture and nutrition of most of the Native people of the Americas. Because of the sisters’ central role as “sustainers of life,” a host of stories, customs, celebrations, and ceremonies are associated with them.
- Corn is the oldest sister. She stands tall in the center. may be harvested while in it’s green corn stage, but traditionally it is left to ripen and is harvested in late summer or early fall. The cob is sun dried and stored for winter use. To harvest green corn observe the silky threads coming from the tops of the ears, when the silk is dry and a dark brown color the corn may be harvested. To remove an ear of corn, hold the stalk a few inches below the ear.
- Squash is the next sister. She grows over the mound, protecting her sisters from weeds and shades the soil from the sun with her leaves, keeping it cool and moist. Squash or pumpkins should be picked only after its skin has hardened thoroughly. Be careful to not damage or break off the stem of the squash as this can wound the squash and it will begin to rot. Cut the stem 3-4″ from the fruit with a sharp knife. Allow the squash to sit in the sun for a few days to cure and the stem to dry. Squash can last at least two months, depending on the variety.
- Beans are the third sister. She climbs through squash and then up the corn to bind all together as she reaches for the sun. Beans help keep the soil fertile by converting the sun’s energy into nitrogen. Beans may be eaten fresh or allowed to mature and dry on the vine. Fresh beans can be harvested when the pods are firm and crisp, but before the seeds within the pods have begun to swell. Pick beans in late morning after the night-dew has dried from the plants. This helps to prevent the spread of bacterias which can harm the plants. Pick the beans carefully to avoid bruising or snapping the growing vines. As beans grow they use the stored nitrogen as food.
The Three Sisters are the three main agricultural crops of various Native American groups in North America: squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans (typically tepary beans or common beans). As in most companion planting, the three crops are planted close together.
Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops. Each mound is about 12 in high and 20 in wide, and several corn seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound. In parts of the Atlantic Northeast, rotten fish or eels are buried in the mound with the maize seeds, to act as additional fertilizer where the soil is poor. When the maize is about 4 inches tall, beans and squash are planted around the corn, alternating between the two kinds of seeds.
The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants utilize, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent establishment of weeds.
The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch”, creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the human body needs to make proteins and niacin, but beans contain both and therefore maize and beans together provide a balanced diet.
Native Americans are known for growing variations of Three Sisters gardens. The Milpas of Mesoamerica are farms or gardens that employ companion planting on a larger scale. The Anasazi are known for adopting this garden design in a drier environment.
The Tewa and other Southwestern United States tribes often included a “fourth sister” known as “Rocky Mountain bee plant” which attracts bees to help pollinate the beans and squash.
Gardeners have planted corn as a companion for pole beans for generations. The beans grow up the corn stalks. The beans process nitrogen and help fertilize the corn. Additionally, the bean vines help brace the corn against wind damage. Native American Indians practiced companion planting with their gardening by adding squash or pumpkins into the mix.
More Tips for Your Vegetable Garden
- Some plants, like citronella and herbs, act as repellents, confusing insects with their strong odors that mask the scent of the intended host plants.
- Dill and basil planted among tomatoes protect the tomatoes from hornworms, and sage scattered about the cabbage patch reduces injury from cabbage moths.
- Marigolds can be grown with just about any garden plant, repelling beetles, nematodes, and even animal pests.
- Some companions act as trap plants to lure insects to them. Nasturtiums, for example, are favored by aphids that will flock to them instead of other plants.
- Carrots, dill, parsley, and parsnip attract good garden insects like praying mantises, ladybugs, and spiders. These insects help control other pests.
- Much of companion planting is common sense: Lettuce, radishes, and other quick-growing plants sown between hills of melons or winter squash will mature and be harvested long before these vines need more leg room.
- Leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard can be grown in the shadow of corn
- Carrots grow incredibly good when planted next to tomatoes.
- Here’s a great garden companion guide from The Old Farmers Almanac.
By using companion planting, many gardeners find that they can discourage harmful pests without losing the beneficial ones. Companion planting can combine beauty and purpose to give you an enjoyable, healthy environment. Have fun and let your imagination soar.
Companion plants also provide nutrients and in some cases natural shade and support to their garden neighbors. These are just some of the many ways you can use these plants in your garden and flower bed.
By Victoria Stone