Companion Planting: Growing better together

Gardening season is just about over in my corner of the world, and it’s almost time to start planning next year’s garden. It’s a great time to start thinking about companion planting!

Every plant in your garden changes the environment in close proximity to it, from available nutrients in the soil, to the likelihood of pests to—yes, really—soil temperature. So if you have the right combination of plants together, they help each other out in some cool ways.

Knowing some of these basic combos and no-nos can improve your chances of gardening success.

What is companion planting?

Remember back in high school, when you got assigned lab partners in science class?

It was either the best or worst thing ever. If you were both moderately studious, and enjoyed a respectful exchange of ideas, it was great. But if one of you was a straight-A control-freak (hi, fellow nerds!) and one of you was an attention-craving jackwagon, chances are that partnership didn’t go so well.

Plants are totally the same way.

Some plants do extra-well when planted next to certain companions, and do poorly when situated near others.

For example, it’s well-established that North American Indians historically planted corn, beans and squash together. They called this combination “Three Sisters.” It worked really, really well for several reasons:

  • Beans (or legumes) are nitrogen fixers. As they break down at the end of the growing cycle or they’re tilled under, they pump nitrogen into the soil. Corn is a nitrogen hog and takes up as much as it can get.
  • Corn grows in tall stalks that the beans can use as support for climbing vines.
  • Squash has broad, thick leaves that provide shade from the sun, keeping the soil cooler and making it slower to dry out. This keeps corn’s shallow root system happy.

What seems like garden-variety voodoo (sorry, not sorry) starts to seem pretty dang logical when you break it down like that.

What are some easy companion planting combinations?

Not ready for a bean/corn/squash trifecta? That’s cool. Corn is a lot of work, trust me.

Here’s a few 2-plant combos for common, easy to grow veggies:

Cucumbers + Flowers/Flowering Herbs

Cucurbits—cucumber, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, etc.—usually need to be pollinated in order to fruit. By planting some flowers or flowering herbs nearby, you have a better chance of attracting pollinators like bees and other beneficial winged insects. I like borage for this purpose. It’s pretty and you can use the leaves in salads—they actually taste like cucumber! Plus it grows bushy, helping to shade the soil beneath. Just know it will reseed like crazy.


Tomatoes + Basil

This combo isn’t just for caprese salad, friends. Some gardeners say you get better flavor from your tomatoes when you grow them next to basil. I’ve honestly never done an empirical taste-test to see if it’s true, but I DO know that the strong scent basil gives off  confuses pests—my tomatoes made it an entire season without a single hornworm!

Squash + Nasturtiums

The first year I grew winter squash, my harvest was miserable. Only one of my plants ended up producing, and all of the fruit ended up with pickleworms—tiny little worms that bore their way through the rind of the squash and gorge themselves on the flesh inside.

After that, I started growing my squash vertically and planing nasturtiums all around. nasturtium repels a ton of veggie predators and it’s very pretty. Plus, it attracts pollinators to your squash blossoms. I should note, though, that it does like to sprawl—up to 10 feet. This can be good because it serves as a ground cover for tall or climbing plants and keeps the soil moist. But keep an eye on it so it doesn’t stage a coup and take over your neighboring carrot bed. Although, that might be beneficial…rabbits hate the smell of nasturtium, too!

Try these out and see if any of them work for you!

Have more companion planting combinations that spelled success in your garden? Tell me about them!


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