Planting Edible Partners
By Christie Green
Symbiosis. Mutual and multiple benefits. How can each of our actions and choices be beneficial in as many ways as possible? These questions inform and shape my approach to any garden, landscape, ecological conundrum and challenge. Yes, beauty, but also benefit. And so with growing edibles, there is the ultimate goal of delicious fare for the dinner table; but how can the actual growing and cultivation techniques be optimized to provide the healthiest food and most harmonious growing conditions that give back to the ground, returning valuable nutrients to the soil as well as maximizing our crops’ ability to grow into their most voluptuous, vibrant, nutritious selves?
Imagine that your garden layout and plan is not based on random whimsy and aesthetic enjoyment alone, but on creating the conditions for plants to thrive. Let’s take some of our favorite edibles—vegetables, fruits and herbs—and place them with their favorite friends in the garden: a sort of hand-in-hand approach to planning and planting. Tomatoes, beans, corn, squash, lettuce, carrots, berries and herbs, along with annual and perennial flowers collaborate in offering bounty for seasonal suppers. Timing, multi-dimensionality, givers and takers, attractors and repellants are all factors in deciding what to plant where.
Here in northern New Mexico, we’re able to plant many crops before the official last frost date of May 15. In fact, we can resuscitate our trowels, hoes and rakes as early as March, when the ground is soft enough to implant those precious pea seeds, able to germinate at temperatures as low as 42 degrees. Cold frames are wonderful in any garden to extend the growing season: earlier in the spring and later into the fall. Other cool season crops that may be planted during the cooler months include broccoli, spinach, kale, chard, onions, potatoes, beets, rhubarb, asparagus and strawberries. I always like to include perennials, herbs and cutting flowers in every annual bed and, with the principles of companion planting, decide how to plant these lovelies based on who they like best as neighbors. Peas, in the legume family, are nitrogen fixers which feed the soil. They tend to grow best with their below-ground friends, the carrot and radish. A ground level companion would be lettuce or spinach to complement the above-below duo as well as the fragrant, prolific and useful chive with its sprightly purple puff seed head. In order to incorporate a perennial crop into the mix, try sprawling strawberries, which enjoy the company of spinach and lettuce as well. Strawberries are wondrous soil stabilizers with their runners spreading in all directions rooting and flowering, producing luscious, plump delectables while holding soil in place. You may prolong the harvest of fresh lettuce by sowing successively every four weeks throughout the growing season.
Potatoes tend to be somewhat off-putting to a number of vegetables, but those in the cabbage family fare well with their cool-season solanaceae sister. Broccoli, cabbage and kale are heavy feeders like potatoes and are best rotated into an area that has previously been planted with nitrogen-fixers like peas or beans. Beets and onions are natural below-ground neighbors to these brassicas, and plunge their roots deeply to help penetrate and loosen the soil. Beets, carrots and brassicas may be sown again in early August for a second harvest come fall, especially when cold frames are available to extend their growing time. Rosemary and culinary sage are wonderful perennial crops for the garden that help cabbages and carrots and offer interesting leaf texture, color and scent. The annual nasturtium may be incorporated around and amongst the brassicas as temperatures warm, fending off aphids and squash bugs that flock come late spring and early summer.
As your cool season crops are settling into the soil, germinating and growing into the coming warmth, you may prepare your warm season crops for their post-frost appearance. After hardening off tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, herbs and cutting flowers, incorporate them with the same care into the grand planting scheme alongside compatible companions. Remember that late spring and early summer are peak times for many garden pests. Row covers help keep flying insects from your tender edibles as they emerge and face the challenges of hot, dry, windy weather. Companion planting helps plants’ resilience and, coupled with row cover protection, your crops stand a better chance at optimal growth. Since you’ve got your perennial asparagus planted (don’t harvest for at least three years after planting!), you can position the heavy feeder we’re so fond of close by: the tomato. Tomatoes are also best planted in a space that has previously grown a giver such as beans or peas. Basil, a natural accompaniment in Italian dishes, likes close proximity to tomatoes and vice versa. Parsley which tends to over-winter well here and provide vibrant, frilly green to any garden, likes to rub shoulders with tomatoes. Bee balm, a striking perennial, provides medicinal and aesthetic benefit, attracts beneficial insects and aids the growth of tomatoes. Plant abundantly, as it is a must in cut flowers to grace the dinner table. Be sure to add color and visual interest, as well as deter those pesky pests by planting marigolds of all shapes and sizes—not too close to melons or cucumbers which may take on a particular “marigold-y” flavor.
Corn, another summer must, loves open space and lots of loamy, rich soil; it feeds heavily and is helped along by pole beans of any sort. The corn, in turn, provides an elegant, effective support up which leguminous tendrils twist and twirl their way to blooming bounty. The sprawl of winter and summer squashes offers a voluminous mulch over the feet of corn and beans and, with a broad border of medicinal and beautiful calendula and yarrow, beneficials will swoon in droves.
Permanent crops such as fruit trees, grapes and raspberries are wonderful to incorporate into a grand garden plan. Consider a perennial and annual orchard understory cover crop with daikon radishes, parsley, purslane, borage, yarrow and vetch to lure beneficial pollinators to the edible landscape. Raspberries, with their suckering canes and dense root system hold loose, sloped soil in place while providing dainty nectar-filled blossoms for bees and a formidable boundary backdrop to any garden. Perennial species such as lavender and hyssop also provide valuable medicinals, scent and beauty while deterring pests and attracting beneficials; try them planted in an interesting geometric pattern or as an orderly row to define garden and landscape vignettes around your property. Be sure they’re easily accessible, as you’ll want to brush up against them and cut a sprig or two on your daily harvest rounds.
Experimentation, observation and active participation are the key to a successful garden. If not taken too seriously, companion planting, sowing, cultivating and harvesting are true joys, with wondrous abundance springing forth from your efforts. And from the many subtle mysteries of how plants grow together…plant, learn and enjoy!
Christie Green is the proprietress of Down to Earth, LLC. Visit her website at www.getdowntoearthlandscapes.com, or call 505-983-5743
The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman The Organic Gardener’s Home Reference: A Plant-by-Plant Guide to Growing Fresh, Healthy Food by Tanya Denckla Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.