Container Culture: Companion Planting


For a name like Trinidad Scorpion Chili, and for having the reputation for being one of the hottest peppers out there, the plant itself was a dumb little weakling. First came the aphids, then came the white beetle-looking bugs, then came the caterpillars, and then again came the aphids, and then again came the aphids, and again came the aphids. I had bought an organic pesticide, but the directions said to spray more infrequently than I needed, so I took to plucking off the aphids and other pests by hand. The plant looked pitiful: leaves distorted from the aphid feasts were also cut into by caterpillar teeth. I was ready to uproot the plant and be done with it when I tried one more thing: I moved it by some flowers. The beneficial insects attracted to the flowers were enough to ward off the offending pests, and the pepper plant hasn't had a problem since.

Companion planting is a great way to help plants thrive, but it seems both commonsense and counter intuitive at the same time. Commonsense because who wouldn't want to help their garden grow by the simple addition of plants, but counter intuitive because, to my mind, the ideal image of a garden conjures up a monoculture-type landscape. Peppers upon rows of peppers, squash seedlings sprouting in tidy neat rows, tomatoes staked perfectly, one right next to the other. But certain flowers and other plants can help ward off pests by either deterring them by attracting predatory bugs, or by being offered in sacrifice to the pests who prefer munching the leaves of one plant over the other. Sally Jean Cunningham's book Great Garden Companions is an excellent primer for looking at the big picture of your garden and seeing what plants will like growing together. Much of her wisdom is distilled here. My favorite beneficial flower, hands down, is borage because ... just look at it. Advisory: sometimes plants and flowers that traditionally have been used to ward off pests might yield disappointing results. Such is the case of the marigold. Marigolds are cited in many sources at being a terrific deterrent for pests, however many marigolds at your local nursery have had the smell, the magic ingredient that keeps the bugs away, bred out of them.

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Companion planting isn't just about keeping away pests. Different types of plants help give shade, or help maximize space depending on their root systems. My favorite example of companion planting though, is planting radishes with carrots.

I have an unacceptable level of excitement talking about planting radishes with carrots. And I don't even like eating radishes! At least I used to not -- now I've got like 5 pickling recipes opened in tabs in my browser just WAITING to be used. Radishes and carrots are terrific together because radishes mature quicker than carrots, so you're doing double duty with a small space such as in a container. For impatient people such as myself, it's gratifying to see SOMETHING growing in just a few days as opposed to carrots which take around 10 days to germinate. Here's the part I love the best, though: radishes help break up the soil so when carrots begin to mature, their growing is that much easier! This is important for carrots because if soil is particularly rocky, they won't grow. Although this isn't really an issue with container garden soil which we purchase at nurseries, it's nice to know the soil is being improved for your carrots with something as simple as the seed of a humble radish. Carrots at first blush don't seem like something one would be able to grow in a container garden, but smaller varieties such as the Parisienne carrot are stubby, so they don't need as much space. Compared to traditional carrot varieties, which can be challenging to grow, the Parisienne carrot is more of a beginner's carrot. An everyman's carrot, if you will.

At the risk of sounding corny, there's something about the fact that many plants do better when they have friends around that I find comforting. I don't know why, but it makes me happy.

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