Companion planting: what I love and why I gave up

companion planting versus permaculture

Could you memorize this?

After many years of trying to learn companion planting, all I could remember was that pole beans (and kin) are timid snobs, and onions (and kin) are brutish and rude.  The former is very likely to faint in the company of anybody opinionated, and the latter are likely to offend quite a few of the other plants.

No matter how much amazing research comes out to prove the wisdom of ‘mixing it up’ in the garden, companion planting fails for me on one key front: I hate to memorize lists.

The periodic table, all the state capitols, the 27 Amendments to the US Constitution… it doesn’t matter how high the “need to know” factor, if I get information in list form (and charts full of words are just lists), it just bounces off the frontal lobes and rolls right back outta my head.

I gave up.

Companion Planting:0, Permaculture: 1

Instead of learning lists, I picture little gatherings in the garden. For the same reason I flounder with companion planting, I love permaculture.  Permaculture clusters information, ties things together in little guilds, little after school clubs various plants belong to.

In other years, my “gatherings” have followed the basic vegetable garden crop rotation motif: leaves, fruits, roots, rebuild.  Now I’m trying to intermingle the families to have not “just” the garden but the individual beds themselves follow the 10-20-30 rule for biodiversity.  Here’s how I’m progressing thus far:

Tatsoi and carrots ring pole beans, which shade spinach.

I picture beans growing up a trellis, carrots and tatsoi ringing the beans, and spinach growing underneath.  I could picture a “perennial” bed of strawberries involved, too.  (Perennial is in quotes because strawberries require some extra efforts if they are not to peter out the ways tulips do; all the more reason to insert a variety of annuals in their midst.)

(For plant families, that’s a cabbage, a carrot, a beet, and a legume.  And a rose.)

A bed of flowers is turns out to be dill, radish, lovage, corn, yarrow, Echinacea, bee balm, Black-eyed Susan’s, Lamb’s quarters, and parsley.  Around the edge, more carrots, and a few cauliflower tucked in along the sunniest border, along with low-growing thyme(s).  (That’s three carrots, two cabbages [radish!], a grain, three asters, two mints, a goosefoot, and a buckwheat.)

While tomatoes climb their lines, a lone carpet rose cuddles the garden bench, and peppers, oregano (or marjoram), basil, marigolds, dahlias, geraniums, and petunias create a showy centerpiece.  (That’s three nightshades [petunia!], a rose, two mints, and two daisies.)

A rival for color is the bed with beets and chard, nasturiums, cucumbers, broccoli, catnip, and borage.  (Two beets, a cucurbit, two cabbages, a mint, and a… well, a borage.)

This is a diagram, not an illustration. These things are never in bloom / ripe at the same time.

Around the (entirely fictitious as of yet) fruit trees, a ring of daffodils fills a doughnut-esque band along the drip line, and comfrey, celery, eggplants, cosmos, chives, tansy, and tarragon fill the center.  The sunniest side includes yarrow, daisies, and snapdragons.

(For now, consider fruit trees to be either roses or citrus. Surrounding the trees are an amaryllis family member, a borage, a carrot, a nightshade, three asters, and an onion.  On the sunny side, two more asters and a figwort.)

This still leaves me with unplaced plants (potatoes, onions, squash, melons…), and many herbs (chamomile, lemon balm, rosemary, sage…) but I’m still working.  (Those were a nightshade, an onion, two cucurbits, an aster, and three mints.)

Gardening is like painting in slow motion. I’m not going to learn it all this year. At least one something is going to fail spectacularly, and it’ll probably do it during the week my mother comes to visit. At least one something is going to have a bonanza crop this year and I’ll never be able to replicate it.  It’s okay. Nature has a quirky sense of humor. I’m still learning, thank goodness for that.

PS- don’t worry.  I’ll come back with the families sorted more clearly ASAP.


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2 responses to “Companion planting: what I love and why I gave up

  1. I’m with you. All these lists are too hard. Rather, I’m having to learn what works in my climate because I have a lot of fog here during the summer. Looks like it’s a lot of greens for me!

    • You’re in San Francisco, right? That is the capital of microclimates, so it’ll matter a lot which neighborhood you are in. I lived in the Inner Richmond one summer, and yes, that was pure fog. But we’d bike over to the Mission and there’d be sun, and the same at work down by the Embarcadero. From what I can tell, the San Francisco general growing season for fruiting vegetables is actually the best in the fall, when the fog is a cleared off a bit and the temperatures are the most likely to go over 75 F. Cucumbers likely don’t care about that line, but tomatoes most certainly do- they won’t ripe until it’s hot enough. When my brother lived in Maine, he’d push his tomatoes along with those water-wall things so that he’d have as many big fat green tomatoes as possible just sitting there waiting for the short period of hot weather when they’d finally tip over the line to red. Instead of starting your tomato seeds in February for a July/ August crop, try starting them in April for a Sept/Oct crop. You may have to play with microclimate in your yard a bit too. Perhaps find two old windows and lean them against each other to make an A-frame. (Don’t do this where you grow lettuce or other leaf crops if you suspect there may be lead in the old paint.)

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