COMPANION PLANTING - A Clever Concept
There is nothing like the prospect of a new garden to start me dreaming, especially when the purchase of a country block means the prospect of almost unlimited scope to indulge in the ornamental and edible.
In our case, apart from a few shelterbelts of trees, we were starting from scratch, but although we had plenty of scope, we knew the business end (glasshouse tomato growing) would limit gardening time.
On the plus side we were able to use the precious time between selling our city home and moving to our 21 acre property, to plot and plan. Advice from friends, along with the library, the Internet, and borrowed magazines provided valuable research material. Every night I took another garden book to bed and my pages of notes continued to grow.
With determination to keep the workload to a minimum, two words kept coming up - companion planting. We decided this would be our goal.
We would choose plants that could share the same environment - plants that enhanced the ones they shared a bed with and combinations with different growth habits that would protect each other in the different seasons.
Research indicates monocultures allow pests and diseases to spread more quickly, whereas a mixed bag means individual varieties are more resistant.
It is an old concept – what attracts friends to the garden and what repels undesirables. It has evolved from experience over the centuries as gardeners have noticed combinations of plants that thrive together or conversely look stressed when grown close to each other. It can make for some very interesting mixtures in the garden.
In fact, one of the first things I noticed in the area where we lived, were the roses planted at the end of each strip of vines on commercial grape growing properties. I found out the practice has been followed by vintners in Europe for centuries, based on the sound theory that roses are susceptible things and will be prone to any disease symptoms first, thus alerting the grower to watch out for their vines.
Armed with the knowledge that various plants grow in harmony in the wild, on the colder and windier southwest boundary where a group of Macrocarpa trees were well established, we grew angelica, Japanese anemones Anemone hupehensis and showy azaleas, under generous camellia and rhododendron bushes, which in turn were sheltered from the wind and heavy rain by the trees above them.
Although the angelica plants only lasted two to three years after flowering, they kept on self-seeding providing a continual display, while keeping aphids at bay. Similarly spring bulbs of mixed daffodils and paper whites thrived under a copse of silver birches.
A farm drive bordered by sasanqua camellias under-planted with clear yellow zantedeschia, provided a grand display of golden lilies in the lead up to Christmas.
In winter, when the corms were dormant, we enjoyed the pretty little flowers of the camellias. They were a perfect combination that came about through need. When we had to move the lilies this was the only prepared bed! Our innovation paid off.
Knowing herbs shine as companion garden plants, we mixed them with ornamentals, vegetables and fruit trees, using the whole garden to grow them, not just a select area. We grew both the upright and weeping rosemary and both flourished in dry areas. Thyme, sage, feverfew and borage grew next to roses, foxgloves, Queen Anne’s lace, columbine or aquilegias, salvia (the tall blue variety), chartreuse flowering euphorbias and other old fashioned delights.
Our focus was on two major herbaceous garden borders, each measuring about five metres by 1.2m. Here we concentrated on longer lasting perennials like penstemins, fragrant geraniums, chrysanthemum and several daisies and self seeding annuals like alyssum, violas – especially heartsease, pansies, forget-me-nots and poppies.
We included plenty of blue to attract bees – there was catmint Nepeta that flowered for many weeks, the pretty vanilla smelling violet heliotrope Heliatropium peruvianum, plus lavender - one of my favourites.
I have tried the newer pale green, deep purple and white lavender hybrids, but the plants are not as strong as the heavily flowering Lavandula dentata and French Lavandula stoechas varieties that always look beautiful and bring bees galore. They are also said to ward of evil spirits and we certainly didn’t want any of those!
Careful use of ground cover was a great way to keep weeds under control. Some of our choices were cultivars of the evergreen Ajuga reptans, verbena and several different yarrow Achillea, with flowers through from white to pink and apricot.
No country garden would be complete without roses and ours mingled in the big beds with a variety of suitable companion plants nearby. Small grey leaf plants worked well, as did pinks or Dianthus and delicate mignonette which self seeded every year.
We also included the pretty blue forget-me-not type flowering omphalodes cappadocica, love-in-the-mist Nigella, Cerinthe major or honeywort in its purple form, Lamb’s ear Stachys with its thick soft green grey leaves.
For height we had four or five deciduous Philadelphus and Deutzias, offering shelter to lower plants in summer and opening the garden up in winter when they lost their leaves.
A herb that is a good neighbour with roses is the pretty aromatic woolly thyme Thymus pseudolanuginosus, which forms a dainty carpet. Our other picks were parsley and dill (also go well with potatoes and tomatoes).
These anti-aphid plants are liked by ladybirds and helped the aphid prone roses. We left them to mature and self-seed and when spring came, I would try to leave the seedlings where they fell except for a bit of thinning.
Elsewhere on the property, we grew globe artichokes as a crop, but included the odd plant in the flowerbeds too. Their huge silver tinged frond like leaves set off darker greenery and when the head was left to finish flowering, instead of being picked to eat, the giant thistle made a magnificent display in the garden.
In our little specialist orchard, we paid attention to what various fruit trees preferred. The cider apple trees were expensive and we wanted them to thrive. We kept grass well away from their trunk base as it affects their roots and hampers growth and instead grew foxgloves beneath them to help resist disease.
To ensure a continuous supply of fresh vegetables, we had a dedicated plot in which we kept away from straight rows of individual vegetables and instead interspersed them with herbs and suitable flower plants. There were asters - pests find the leaves taste and smell bitter and marigolds – which I’m not mad on, but they lived up to their reputation to outshine many other plants with a natural ability to protect just anything from everything.
We found sage, mint, thyme, oregano and rosemary helped keep the white butterfly away from cabbages, which in turn helped our potatoes grow well, while carrots grew well with chives and onions, keeping each other free of carrot fly and onion fly.
Lettuce and radish enjoyed each other’s company when we planted them together, while clumps of borage brought bees to staked runner beans. We also put in some tansy to deter flies and mosquitoes.
However, basil, sweet in aroma and taste, and another favourite, has always defeated me. I have tried it in all sorts of garden environments and in a variety of pots. It is very annoying, as it not only is delicious with tomatoes, but also is a benefit when planted with them, attracting bees and repelling flies.
I had more luck with coriander, another bee favourite, except for transplanting seedlings, so just enjoyed them where they sprouted.
Each spring brought a start of fresh growth and a tapestry of colour. As winter conditions departed, and the first signs of warmth appeared, it was a time to enjoy the preparation put in towards the end of autumn and early winter: trimming, replanting, mulching.
We always kept an eye out for early spring frosts, but usually September to November was the time to establish our summer to autumn harvest and December to February was the time to sow for winter spring production.
Generally, we found, it’s a matter of trial and error with unexpected bonuses - like the scattered seeds from cape gooseberry Physalis Peruviana bushes that settled at the base of an old plum tree using the warm sheltered position for support and protection.
Deciding to grow naturally healthy is a challenge and not everything you try will be successful as particular weather or soil conditions can get in the way, but the satisfaction of finding combinations that thrive is intoxicating.
©2009 Linda Donald
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Appeared in New Zealand Lifestyle Farmer