Professor Communication and Media
Denise is a devoted organic gardener who challenges herself to live as sustainably as possible in her home in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media at West Chester University with a Ph.D. from Kent State University. Her teaching and research areas consist of sustainability, close interpersonal relationships, integrating work and family, and conflict resolution.
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April 3, 2022
In the Garden of Deeden: Companion planting
The indigenous people of the America, North and South, knew well the benefits of what’s referred to as companion planting. This method involves growing plants that assist each other to grow, repel certain insects, and even repel other plants. Perhaps most famous are what is referred to as the “Three Sisters.”
This involves growing corn, beans, and winter squash together. Cornstalks act as trellises for the pole beans. The common bacteria Rhizobium which infects legumes like beans takes nitrogen from the air and converts it into a soil bound form through a process called nitrogen fixation (Rhoades 2021). This soil bound nitrogen is especially useful to corn. The squash plants grow low and wide around the corn and beans, suppressing weeds and water evaporation. Some people add a fourth planting of sunflowers. In this scenario, they are planted at the same time – except the beans, which are planted 2-3 weeks after the corn has established a large enough support stalk. These companion crops were extremely important to the Lenape of Delaware, New Jersey and Delaware as well as the Iroquois Nation in New York. The Three Sisters were revered as gifts from the Great Spirit.
There are many other great examples of companion planting. One involves carrots. An enemy of carrots is the carrot fly, but if a gardener plants leeks (which can be bothered by leek moths) and carrots together, they repel both insects.
A well-respected book on companion planting is called Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte. The book was first published in 1975 but is widely available in updated versions. She alphabetically lists veggies and informs about which herbs and plants do well together. She also informs which plants hinder one another, something else very useful to any gardener. For example, potatoes do not like to grow with sunflowers.
Rotating crops is another important part of gardening, especially organic gardening. Planting the same crops each year in the same place invites disease and pests. It also creates a situation where the same nutrients are depleted each season without replenishment, lessening the quality of the soil. Therefore, growing a series of different types of crops in the same area across a sequence of growing seasons makes sense. Typically crops should be rotated on a three to four year cycle; however, this can include a cover crop (crop not meant for eating but meant for nourishing the soil).
Obviously, it is important to know what crops provide certain nutrients and what crops deplete certain nutrients. For example, beans and peas are excellent sources of nitrogen. The nutrients NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) are found in different quantities in plants as well as other micronutrients such as calcium and magnesium. By choosing the right plants to rotate you can amend the soil and avoid excess depletion of soil nutrients.
The question, then, is knowing which crops to follow in a sequence. Perhaps one of the easiest best practices would be not to rotate closely related crops directly after one another. For example, a gardener would want to avoid following one brassica/cole crop after another. These include veggies like broccoli, cabbage, collards, or cauliflower. One easy way to identify which plants belong in the same family is – if you grow plants from seed – they would have seeds that look identical.
One easy way to identify which plants belong in the same family is – if you grow plants from seed – they would have seeds that look identical. Photo Credit: Seeds Now
As much as having my hands and toes in the soil centers me, sometimes it is nice just to sit and look around and enjoy the garden. Both crop rotation and companion planting are ways to improve the quality of your garden and reduce your labor. They provide a true win-win situation.
Rhoades, H. 2021. Gardening Know How: Nitrogen Nodules And Nitrogen Fixing Plants https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/nitrogen-nodules-and-nitrogen-fixing-plants.htm
“How to Plant a Three Sisters Garden.” Almanac, 12 November 2021, https://www.almanac.com/content/three-sisters-corn-bean-and-squash