Thank You for Being A Friend

by Dave on June 25, 2009

First appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, May 28, 2009:

by Andy Meddick

This column is dedicated to my own companion, 15-years of partnership this year…

Driving through Nassau Vineyards in Lewes, this week, I was struck by the beautiful red roses blooming at the end of each grapevine. How curious. I opened a bottle of red and sat down to research.

Turns out, Roses planted with Grapes are an example of, “Companion Planting.” A companion can be considered as any organism that co-exists with another, each bringing qualities to the partnership that makes the other stronger than they would be alone.

Before I get all misty-eyed on you and veer into a Valentine’s column, let’s return to the plant world! The theory of companion planting is that 2 different plant varieties are planted together. These plants could be closely-related (in the same family – suddenly not such a good metaphor!), or unrelated (a legal metaphor, at least!).

Here are some examples of why gardeners and farmers companion plant.

Balanced Soils: one plant draws a certain nutrient out of the soil; the other returns it naturally. Thus building the soil in a sustainable way, without the use of synthetic fertilizers. Think legumes (peas), fixing nitrogen in the soil, inter-planted with tomatoes later in the season. It is the same theory for companion planting for acid-alkaline mix, to naturally restore soil pH balance.

Pest Control: I’m talking of the 4-legged variety (deer, dogs, and cats) and the 6 and 8-legged varieties also (creepy-crawly, flying things). One plant type attracts certain bugs that in turn eat the bug types that feast on the other plant variety, or simply provide a secure home. Conversely, planting row upon row of the same plant next to each other will only attract the same insects to feast. Potatoes and eggplant are in the same plant family, implying they make good companions. However, my experience shows that they are both susceptible to Colorado Potato Beetle. The beetle, and especially the larvae of said beetles will snack on the plant leaves, killing the plant, or reducing yields. Once they were done with my potatoes, the beetles moved out, going next door to the eggplant salad bar. Sometimes relatives do not make such good neighbors. Lesson – don’t offer your spare room to that distant cousin. Instead welcome in a new family. I’ve had good success with Carrots, Lettuce, or Arugula planted next to eggplant. We’ve all heard of Marigolds deterring deer (yes it works). The same goes for strongly aromatic herbs, especially the citrus-scented varieties. Try a strong citrus-basil planted in your flowerbed.

Border Control: The Pest Control idea, but planted as a diversion away from your main growing area. Put a row or 2 of certain plant varieties together in an area close, but not adjacent to your main garden. This draws bugs away from your main growing area. For example, Harlequin Bugs, pretty as they are, love to suck on greens such as Bok-choy, Arugula, Swiss Chard, Mustard, or Kale. They pull the sap out of the leaves making it impossible to harvest attractive greens. Try planting a combo-row of these plants away from your main growing area as a buffer, or bug border. This works best if you have a large enough area to set aside a diversion. Else, get very friendly with your neighbor! For example, if cats are a problem, try persuading your neighbor to plant catnip and send those felines next door!

Ease Of Harvesting: think Basil planted next to tomatoes. One culinary use goes naturally with the other. Saves you running from place to place all over the garden picking for a Caprese salad!

Crop Rotation: not strictly a companion planting topic, but relevant in that pre-planning your garden layout means better record keeping which in turn means you don’t make some garden social faux-pas with seating arrangements. Onions, for example, are particularly difficult garden guests to seat. Not many other plants like to grow where onions have been previously planted, so choose your companions well and plan ahead.

Back to the roses of Nassau Vineyards. As seen in many of the wine regions of Napa and France, roses are planted along the edge of grapevines to serve as an, ‘early-warning’ system, of sorts. Roses and grapevines are both susceptible to a fungus called powdery mildew, roses more so than the grape. If the rose starts to look a little out of sorts, the viticulturalist knows it is time to give the grape some T.L.C. The rosebushes are
also home to many beneficial insects.

There are many plant-based, non-synthetic sprays that are approved for use in organic agriculture that scale down to the home garden. Some have their basis in folklore (using tomato leaves to make a spray for Rose leaf Blackspot, for example). Organic pest control is a topic for an entire column. For now, here are some good sources of help for pest control and companion planting:

* The USDA National Organic Program website where you may find a list of substances approved for organic farming.
* OMRI – the Organic Materials Review Institute website. If you’re looking for a commercial non-chemical spray, you need to see a USDA certified organic logo, or the phrase, “OMRI Approved” on the packaging.
* The excellent New Farm website – a service of the renowned Rodale Institute in Emmaus, PA. On this site you will find much discussion about companion planting.
* Books that have helped me: Four Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower, both by Eliot Coleman. Also, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith.

Thank your companion. Consider how you support each other. They make the world a better place for you, and consequently for us all. The success of relationships in the human world, just like in the plant/animal/insect worlds, is in the balance of give and take. Let’s not have one tip the other, or we’re all in trouble!

Until next time, don’t let the bugs beat the green out of you!

Whoop-di-doo, Andy.

Andy is the owner of Good4U Natural Market. Email him at goodforu@comcast.net.

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